SEAN O'CASEY: A Life by Garry O'Connor


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Although acknowledged as a major figure in both modern irish literature and modern drama, O'Casey's fame rests primarily on three or four brilliant but flawed plays written during a brief period in his long life. Here, O'Connor (Ralph Richardson, 1982; The Pursuit of Perfection, 1979) gives us the first important biography of this complex artist. Born John Casey in Dublin in 1880, Sean O'Casey was largely the creation of his own imagination, adapting a variety of personae to suit the needs of the moment. Raised in a lower-middle-class Protestant family, he chose poverty over respectability; in his 20s and 30s, he worked intermittently as a casual laborer, often going without food. Despite a chronic eye disease, Casey spent hours reading by candelight, yet also frequented working-class clubs, where he gained popularity as a singer, comic actor, and raconteur. His experience of poverty led him to embrace socialism, regarding the moneyed class, not the British, as the real enemy of the Irish poor, and rejecting what he saw as the narrow goals of the republican rebel movement. O'Casey's first major play, Shadow of a Gunman, premiered at the Abbey Theatre in 1923. Juno and the Paycock and The Plough and the Stars soon followed; the former enjoyed great success, while the latter occasioned riots by a nationalistic audience who felt that it sullied the memory of the heroes of 1916. Embittered by the parochialism of Dublin and its audiences, O'Casey emigrated to England in 1927, when his antiwar play The Silver Tassie was rejected by Yeats, co-director of the Abbey, Although he married and made friends in England, O'Casey never managed to repeat his Dublin successes. Retiring to Devon, he spent his last 20 years in seclusion, issuing his highly fictional autobiography in periodic installments. O'Connor's well-researched, elegantly written, thickly populated biography charts O'Casey's friendships, quarrels, theatrical successes and failures with unbiased compassion. O'Casey comes across as vain, solitary, and selfish, but also as self-effacing, gregarious, and generous--a man of many talents who never quite achieved his full potential.

Pub Date: May 1st, 1988
Publisher: Atheneum