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Discuss Anti-Heroism In The Plays Of Sean O?Casey Essay, Research Paper

In O?Casey?s Dublin Trilogy, the playwright attacks

the weight of dead heroes which manacled contemporary Ireland to a violent past

and self-destructive dream. The space between pretension and failing, rhetoric

and reality, abstraction and suffering is carefully exposed as O?Casey departs

from the stereotypes of the Irish stage to evolve a fresh realist idiom of

tenement drama. His characters indulge in their own detached fantasies ? create

sanctuaries of inaction around themselves ? and O?Casey strips away the fiction

to reveal a earthy, vulnerable, often farcical hollowness inside. In doing so,

he also strips the dream of Romantic Ireland away from the brutality and

oppressed poverty that accompanied the birth of the Irish Free State. This

dialectic is part of a larger critique in which the rhetoric of heroism is

shown up to be a fa?ade for an inability to act, a form of impotency. Finally,

O?Casey relates this specifically male failing and elevates the female

characters to an anti-heroic status embodying an Ireland with many failings,

but real courage and an honesty that shames the hypocrisy of the heroic cult.It is a neat

irony that Davoren, the writer in The

Shadow of a Gunman, ascribes to an imaginative ideal of poetry, embodying

all the shallow clich?s of Romanticism (romantic love, nature, beauty as truth,

the tragic muse and so forth.) Yet he ends up (in his courting of the na?ve and

resolutely uncultured Minnie, for example) as a mock-heroic character in the

best traditions of Augustan satire, unaware of his overblown foolishness. Both

literary and literal senses of ?mock-heroic? undercut Davoren?s two images:

that of the poet in communion with the muse and as a dangerous revolutionary on

the run. As we find out, he is actually a second-rate pseudo-Shelley and, of

course,? a mere ?shadow of a gunman.?[1]This pattern,

where the heroic pretensions of a character are revealed to have a comic or

satirical core is recurrent within O?Casey, and is thoroughly analysed by

Krause. [2]This

movement is interlocked with a larger one between image and reality, where

pretensions are ridiculed and often levelled by the concrete intrusion of the

outer world?s violence and suffering. For example, Capt. Boyle lives an illusion

similar to that of Davoren: he builds around him the myth of a seafaring past

which is in fact limited to a single trip on a collier. Boyle is arrogant

enough to even place his heroism above that of the gunmen: ?When I was a

sailor, I was always resigned to meet with a watery grave; an? if they want to

be soldiers, well there?s no use o? them squealin? when they meet a soldier?s


O?Casey cleverly undercuts this by interrupting Boyle?s most expansive

panegyric on his ocean-ranging spirit with the insistent call of a

coal-merchant. In a comic vein, the Captain can be played with heavy comedy ?

for example, when he reverses opinion and defends the Church at the prospect of

taking on bourgeois airs. More tragically, in the wake of his son?s shooting,

the oblivious Boyle is drunken and incoherent with his roguish mate, Joxer.A similar clash

between heroic and comic, image and truth, is seen in the other two plays.

Davoren?s fantasies have already been mentioned, and both his literary

pretension and Shields? piety can be played comically. There is a mock-heroic

tone to the heavy-handed and letter of Grigson?s (to the Irish Republicans) and

an exposure of his true cowardice when he ingratiates himself to the raiding

auxiliaries. A similar capitulation that underscores hollow rhetorical

posturing comes in the following sequence:Seumas ? There?s a great comfort in religion; it makes a man strong in

time of trouble an? brave in time of danger. No man need be afraid with a crowd

of angels round him; thanks to God for His Holy religion! Davoren You?re welcome to your angels; philosophy is mine; philosophy that

makes the coward strong.The volley of

shots that follows this exchange, as well as their fear at finding the bombs,

vindicate O?Casey?s critique of their pretensions. The Plough and The Stars sees the characters at least partially

live up to their boasting, some of them taking to the streets in the Easter

Rising, but they still fall far short. Clitheroe?s vanity is noted when the

audience learns he left the revolutionaries because he didn?t get a promotion.

The Young Covey?s Socialist ideals, whilst sometimes providing an accurate

attack on the shortcomings of the Rising, are pared down to a comic motif as he

quotes from his single Socialist textbook. The general myth surrounding 1916 is

deflated by O?Casey as he contrasts the supposed solidarity of Dublin with the

squabbling and petty rivalries of the tenement block. The tenement dwellers,

despite their superficial adherence to the image of revolutionary Ireland,

actually take to looting: something that can be read as grotesquely comic in

itself ? the two women fighting over the wheelbarrow, for example. This reading

has been advanced been Krause.Thus, in

O?Casey?s drama, the tragic cult of heroism is often comically inverted into a

fantastical and daydreaming mock-heroism, where pretensions give way to fear,

reputations gives way to idle boasts, and the image of glorious Irish

solidarity gives way to the chaotic and abrasive existence of the slums. The

examples are only a small selection. O?Casey also shows that rhetoric not only

disguises cowardice or frailties or delusions of grandeur, but often represents

an impotence. There is an element whereby O?Casey is pointing out the Irish

working-classes were largely swept up in a tide of nationalist fervour, without

really being in control of their own destinies. Without realising the paradox,

the sheen of nationalistic feeling was actually layered over more mundane

levels of attainment: a folk-song and a drink are more likely to be the

concerns of an O?Casey character than national emancipation. Neither are the

tenement-dwellers immune to the lure of bourgeois respectability, as seen in

Mary?s attempts to escape the slums through marriage, Boyle?s sudden airs and

graces, and perhaps the aloofness of Nora Clitheroe too. The petty social

ladder is particularly well-evoked in the jealousies of The Plough And The Stars.Yet this narrow

world and its impotence also represents a wider set of concerns closely allied

to anti-heroism. O?Casey is asserting the value of pragmatism over idealism,

and also the tragic consequences of the largely comic fronts of the idealists

themselves. The idea of impotence is most clearly deliberated in The Shadow of a Gunman, where Seumas?

non-response to the question ?I mean what action shall we take??[4]

foreshadows their response to Act II?s crisis. It is left to Minnie to snatch

Maguire?s bag of explosives and save them from arrest. Mitchell[5]

follows a similar reading in analysing Juno

and the Paycock, where the expectation of a legacy leads the family to a

more socialised and expansive existence. Yet, the character?s internal

fantasies belie a complete impotence which disintegrates the family: ?their

hopes of?break-outs are based on rescue through outside agencies rather than

through their own efforts.?[6]

One might cite Fluther?s drunkenness (when he is needed to fetch a doctor) or

Clitheroe?s paralysis in the arms of his wife as further examples of impotence

in The Plough and the Stars. What is

apparent, then, is that the tenement-dwellers, locked in by their own

pretensions and illusions, can do nothing to stop the chaos around them.

Characters like Johnny, awaiting the inevitable assassination, and the

slowly-fading consumptive Mollser, represent the irreversible entropy of their

situation; the futility of rhetoric in dealing with the suffering and violence

of the Irish troubles. Boyle ends up drunk, the male characters in The Plough and the Stars end up gambling

in a barricaded house (a useful motif for the chances of fate, perhaps a

harbinger for the stray bullet that catches Bessie at the window.) Only Davoren

really realises his own predicament, although Schrank has argued his poetic

finale is a rhetorical internalisation and denial of the tragedy, where his own

egoism eclipses the death of Minnie: ?Donal Davoren, poet and poltroon,

poltroon and poet.?[7]The only real

modes of existence is such a situation are escape or acceptance. O?Casey?s

treatment of the former, which we have seen embodies both mocking comedy and

accusing tragedy, is damning. Instead, pragmatism is seen as a possible line of

least resistance. We see the ascendance of pragmatism in Juno?s matter-of-fact

comment: ?Yis, ?an when I go into ?oul Murphy?s tomorrow, an? he gets to know

that, instead of? payin? all, I?m goin? to borry more, what?ll he say when I

tell him a principle?s a principle??[8]

This mirrors very much the attitude of Nora towards Clitheroe: ?you?ll make a

glorious cause of what you?re doin?, while your little red-lipp?d Nora can go

on sittin? here, makin? a companion of th?loneliness of th?night!?[9]

Although Minnie does not offer the audience such a vocal affirmation, it is

clear that she is practically-minded, unswayed by the seductions of rhetoric. Her

only question at Davoren?s poetry is who the sweetheart is in reality: it is

merely a lovely little poem, just as she sees the supposed wildflowers for the

weeds they are.It is these

pragmatic characters that get everything done in O?Casey?s drama. The only

triumph in the tragic finale of Juno and

the Paycock is Juno abandoning her husband and setting out on her own.

Minnie?s sacrifice, based around the simple principle that the soldiers will

respect a woman?s property, is in sharp contrast to the fearful inaction of

Davoren and Shields. It is Bessie who rises to dominate the closure of The Plough and the Stars, selflessly

fetching the doctor for Mollser, and nursing Nora, who is declining into

madness. Yet Bessie was the Protestant who (partially out of sorrow for her son

fighting in the trenches) mocked the revolutionaries and spent the entire play

sparring with her neighbours.It must be noted

that most of these characters are female: O?Casey attacks mock-heroism as a

particularly male vice. Of course, the pattern is not universal: Mary shares

the faults of the male dreamers, and Fluther redeems himself by an act of

courage. Yet, the female is deeply implicated in two vital polarities that

O?Casey sets about deconstructing.The first

revolves around the figure of Kathleen ni Houlihan who represents an

alternative love for the men of Ireland: ?Ireland is greater than a

mother?Ireland is greater than a wife.?[10]

Most prominently in The Plough and the

Stars, O?Casey dramatises a conflict over the soul of men between

Nationalism and their womenfolk. As already mentioned, women represent the

dogged, imperfect but pragmatic voice of reasonable action; whereas Nationalism

represents the seductive rhetoric of tragic and impotent idealism. The superb

scene in which the true-life words of Pearse are juxtaposed with the earthy

prostitute Rosie confirms this polarity. It is also apparent that Johnny

forsook his mother for the principles of Nationalism, and pays the price with

his death; confronting his own hollowness and hypocrisy in betrayal. The

relationship is modified and more subtle in The

Shadow of a Gunman (especially as Minnie is partly taken in by images, too)

but we see here the female spirit sacrificed to Nationalism by Shields and

Davoren.The second polarity

is that between dead heroes and living women. It encompasses the polarities of

image/reality and impotence/pragmatism already discussed. The female characters

become the only ones with a measure of heroism precisely because they are

anti-heroic. The moment when the Boyle family leave the gramophone to watch the

cortege is a capitulation motif: the cult of death has overwhelmed the capacity

for life, and as Mitchell points out, everything goes downhill from then on in.

Heroism in O?Casey is ruthlessly exposed as a tragicomedy, an illusion that is

both pathetic and ultimately damaging. On the other hand, the pragmatic females

who forsake the heroic illusion of Romantic Ireland for love of their wayward

sons and husbands, are presented as alternative ideals. They have the potential

to lift the deadweight of dead heroes that condemned Ireland to the ideological

bloodshed. Although their anti-heroism depends, to a large extent on their

relationship with men, O?Casey?s position was nevertheless courageous and radical

in its own way. He portrayed the slums as symbolic of a malaise that beset all

Ireland and set Pearse next to a whore to reveal the brutality of his words. As

Krause says of Juno, Minnie and Bessie: ?they are the Ireland of tenacious

mothers and wives, the women of the tenements ? earthy, shrewd, laughing,

suffering, brawling, independent women.?[11]

Their anti-heroism was O?Casey?s brave alternative to a hail of gunman?s

bullets and a shallow grave.Bibliography Sean O?Casey

Three Plays: Juno and the Paycock, The Shadow of a Gunman, The Plough and the

Stars (London, 1957) O?Casey: The Dublin Trilogy, ed.Ronald Ayling (Basingstoke, 1985) David Krause, O?Casey and His World (London, 1976) [1] The Shadow of a Gunman,

collected in Sean O?Casey, Three Plays (London,

1957) p.104 [2] David Krause, O?Casey?s

Anti-Heroic Vision (1960) collected in O?Casey:

The Dublin Trilogy, ed.Ronald Ayling (Basingstoke, 1985) [3] Juno and the Paycock,

collected in O?Casey, p.47 [4] The Shadow of a Gunman,

collected in O?Casey, p.88 [5] Jack Mitchell, Inner

Structure and Artistic Unity (1980), collected in Ayling [6] Ibid. p103 [7] The Shadow of Gunman,

collected in O?Casey, p.130 [8] Juno and the Paycock,

collected in O?Casey, p.8 [9] The Plough and the Stars,

collected in O?Casey, p.158 [10] Ibid. p.178 [11] David Krause, O?Casey?s

Anti-Heroic Vision (1960), collected in Ayling, p.36

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