Reader's Encyclopedia

O'Casey, Sean (1884-1964)

Irish dramatist. Born and reared in a Dublin slum, O'Casey very early in life developed the two abiding concerns that were to characterize his life and work: a fierce, uncontrolled vitality of language and a rigid, uncompromising social conscience. The artistic fusion of these elements has resulted in two of the most powerful plays written in the 20th century, JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK and The Plough and the Stars (1926).

Hindered by bad eyesight, so that he was unable to read until the age of twelve, O'Casey compensated for his late start by developing a voracious appetite for books. At the same time, he became active in the revolutionary movement as an organizer of the transport strike of 1913 and a member of the Irish Citizens Army. He also joined the Gaelic League, learned the Irish language, and gained an entrée into the literary world.

The first of his plays to be produced was The Shadow of a Gunman, presented by the ABBEY THEATRE, with which O'Casey was to be associated for the next six years. In 1924 Abbey presented Juno and the Peacock. Regarded by many as O'Casey's masterpiece, it is a masterly blend of comedy and tragedy, set against the background of the Irish civil war. The production of The Plough and the Stars was greeted with rioting on the Dublin streets, as a result of the alleged anti-Irish sentiment of the play. In 1928 the Abbey Theatre rejected O'Casey's next play, The Silver Tassie, resulting in O'Casey's breaking his connections with the Abbey. The play, an expressionist drama dealing with World War I, was produced in London in 1929. Within the Gates, another play in the expressionist mode, appeared in 1933, revealing once again his strong sympathy with the lower classes. O'Casey sunsequent plays have been less successful, frequently hampered by the somewhat doctrinaire socialist message imposed upon them. Among these are Purple Dust (1940), The Star Turns Red (1940), and Red Roses for me (1947).

In 1939 O'Casey published I Knock at the Door the first book in a six-volume autobiography. I was followed by Pictures in the Hallway (1942), Drums under the Window (1945), Inishfallen Fare Thee Well (1949), Rose and Crown (1952), and Sunset and Evening Star (1954), highly lyrical, occasionally florid, always vivid accounts of his struggle to wrest some order and significance from the anarchic events of the first half of the century. See IRISH RENAISSANCE.