Sean O’Casey is being remembered this weekend at a conference at the National Theatre, London entitled – In-Depth: The Dublin Plays of Sean O’Casey. I will be joiningProf James Moran of Nottingham University and Dr Nicholas Grene of Trinity College Dublin to discuss O’Casey’s trilogy, The Shadow of a Gunman, Juno and the Paycock and The Plough and the Stars.
The conference – on Saturday September 24 – will examine the circumstances of the original performances of the plays, how they related to O’Casey’s own life, and will place them in the context of Ireland’s revolutionary decade. There will also be staged readings from the plays.
The National Theatre has enjoyed a long association with O’Casey’s work – Laurence Olivier directed Juno and The Paycock at the theatre shortly after O’Casey’s death in 1964. Olivier had seen the Royalty Theatre’s acclaimed production of the play in 1925 – with several Abbey stalwarts, including Sara Allgood and Arthur Sinclair – as an aspiring 18-year-old actor.
Olivier’s response to the play, according to Christopher Murray, one of O’Casey’s biographers, was that Juno was both life-like and tightly constructed. “It is, in fact, closer to Osborne than to Chekhov. There is no playing about with it, it is all there and it is as clear as daylight. . .”
My place at the conference is owing to The Rising of Bella Casey (Brandon Press) my 2013 novel which re-imagines the life of Bella Casey, the playwright’s sister and dramatizes the writing of O’Casey’s six volumes of autobiography. Episodes and characters from the Dublin plays are woven into the narrative.The novel was nominated for the Dublin Impac Award in 2014.
For those interested in attending, the conference takes place at the Clore Learning Centre, Cottesloe Room, National Theatre and runs from 10.30 to 4.30pm.
(Poster image courtesy of the Irish Classical Theatre, Buffalo, NY)
Writing about real people makes you maternal about your characters. You know things about them that you mightn’t know about fictional creations. Their birthdays, for example. Today, 150 years ago, the heroine of my IMPAC Prize nominated novel, The Rising of Bella Casey (Brandon) was born on February 6, 1865, at 22 Wellington Street, Dublin.
Christened Isabella Charlotte Casey, she was the eldest of five and the only girl in a family of four brothers, Mick, Tom, Isaac and the baby of the family, John, who would later convert to the Irish version of his name, to become the renowned playwright, Sean O’Casey. Bella’s parents, Michael Casey and Susan Archer, had met on Chambers Street in Dublin, where Susan lived and Michael rented a room.
The Caseys were Protestants in a city where Protestants were outnumbered by Catholics by five to one. Sean O’Casey often depicted himself as a child of the tenements, but the Caseys belonged to the respectable lower middle-class at the time of Bella’s birth. On her birth certificate, Bella’s father, Michael Casey, is registered as a mercantile clerk and by the time Sean was born in 1880, he was leasing a large, three-storey, above basement Georgian house at 85 Upper Dorset Street where the family lived. He was also working as a clerk at the Irish Church Missions on Townsend Street.
At the time Dorset Street was a trading street rather than a top-notch address, but it was respectable nonetheless and it was this background that informed Bella’s early years ─ she played the piano and spoke French. The family’s relative comfort nurtured her upwardly mobile ambitions, allowing her to finish secondary schooling and to train as a primary school teacher at the teaching college on Marlborough Street. It was only when Bella’s father died – in 1886 – that the Caseys began to slide into more straitened circumstances. Even so, by this stage Bella was a qualified teacher, and was a major contributor to the family’s finances.
As sometimes happens, dates cluster in family history and February 6th became memorable for the Caseys for another reason when in 1914, Bella’s brother Tom died of peritonitis at the age of 44. Tom was one of two Casey brothers who had “married out” – i.e. married Catholics – much to the chagrin of their mother, Susan, who was a staunch Protestant. Tom was Sean O’Casey’s favourite brother, having a gentle nature, but he was hostile towards Tom’s wife, Mary Kelly. Perhaps channelling his mother’s bigotry, he blamed her for Tom’s early demise.
Writing in the 1940s in his autobiographies, Sean O’Casey described Mary Kelly as “an ignorant catholic girl who in some way had influenced him [Tom] towards a new home. . . a yellow-skinned, stout woman, badly built in body and mind-sly in a lot of ways as so many toweringly ignorant persons are”. O’Casey declared the marriage was the death of Tom, though how is not made clear.
O’Casey’s biographer Christopher Murray notes that the publishers of O’Casey’s autobiographies, Macmillan, were worried about his possibly libellous description of Mary Kelly, but O’Casey replied loftily that there was not the slightest chance she would ever read his account. (She had died in 1936). But Tom and Mary’s children were still alive.
Kit Casey, their son, speaking to Colm Cronin in The World of Sean O’Casey (ed Sean McCann) remembered things differently. “My father seemed to be the most popular of the O’Caseys and every Sunday evening they’d all meet in our house. A family within a family, very proud and they kept together. They all met for a social evening and they used to sing and recite and so on.”
Of Sean O’Casey he says: “You know he borrowed twenty sovereigns from my mother and he hadn’t the decency to pay it back. . . I never cared for him or got on with him.”
Tom Casey died on Bella’s 49th birthday and was buried in Mount Jerome cemetery, as she would be four years later.
The death of maverick Irish writer, Brendan Behan, (above) 50 years ago, has been much remarked upon. But Behan shares this anniversary year with another major Irish literary figure, playwright Sean O’Casey, who appears as a character in my latest novel, The Rising of Bella Casey, which tells the story of his sister Bella.
The bare biographical details of Behan and O’Casey’s lives tell their own story. Behan died aged 41 on March 20, 1964, from alcohol-related diabetes. Six months later, O’Casey passed away aged 84. The age gap between them belies how much they had in common, although their lives did not cross.
Behan was certainly influenced by O’Casey’s work, particularly his Dublin trilogy – Shadow of a Gunman, Juno and the Paycock and The Plough and the Stars. Although a Protestant, O’Casey was brought up in straitened circumstances in northside Dublin and combined his literary career with a political radicalism, although he was a late bloomer as a writer. He was in his forties before his first play was staged.
Born 43 years after O’Casey in the same neighbourhood, Behan, a Catholic, was a precocious talent. He began writing in his teens contributing to Irish Republican magazines. His work was heavily influenced by his political commitment. In Behan’s case, that commitment included active involvement in the IRA, which resulted in two spells in prison.
Borstal Boy – a play based on his novel of the same name is now running at the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin in a new production directed by Conall Morrison – describes Behan’s first sentence in England for IRA activities. The Quare Fella tells of an execution at Mountjoy Jail when Behan was imprisoned there, and The Hostage deals with an IRA kidnapping of a British soldier.
Through very different routes, both came to roughly similar conclusions in their writings about the fight for Irish freedom – “that while the issues involved were nationalism and imperialism, the ordinary poor had nothing to gain and a great deal to suffer in the cross-fire” as Colbert Kearney notes in The Writings of Brendan Behan.
But perhaps the most telling difference between them was one of temperament and habits. Unlike Behan, O’Casey was a tea-totaller. In his biography of O’Casey, Christopher Murray remarks:”It is a sobering thought, if the pun will pass, that had O’Casey taken Behan’s path, he would have been dead before a single play had been staged. . .”
Conversely, Behan described himself as a drinker with a writing problem.
O’Casey’s view of Behan’s work is not recorded, but he was almost paternal in his concern for the younger writer. In an interview in the Irish Press on May 9, 1961, he remarked: “It’s sad to see this man abusing himself like he is. If he does not mind his talent it will fade.” On Behan’s death, he told the Evening Press: “One thing Brendan Behan never did was to exploit his own talents. . . He died too quickly.”
Behan was reverent in his admiration of O’Casey. In a BBC television interview on November 29, 1962 he declared “. . .any playwright, certainly any Irishman writing plays in the past forty years that denies that O’Casey influenced them is a fool – a liar. Yes, of course, he influenced us all.” In Brendan Behan’s Island, he went further: “I come from the same area as Sean O’Casey about whom I don’t intend to say anything for the simple reason that it would be like praising the Lakes of Killarney – a piece of impertinence. A far as I’m concerned, all I can say is that O’Casey’s like champagne, one’s wedding night, or the Aurora Borealis, or whatever you call them – all them lights.”