Terrible Beauty: Ideology and Political Discourse in the Early Plays of Sean O'Casey
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This thesis argues that prominent in the purposes of the dramaturgy of Irish playwright Sean O'Casey was the promotion of his political causes - most notably socialism. In his avidity for the cause of establishing a workers' paradise, following the Soviet model, in Ireland, his ire was drawn to the movements and institutions he perceived as distracting the masses from pursuit of this ideal: republicanism and the Church. These political ideals are prominent themes in his collected works - both fiction and non-fiction. The work is essentially divided into two sections. The first examines the development of O'Casey's ideologies - his socialism, anti-nationalism and anti-clericalism - and the backdrop against which they developed. The purpose is to establish just how passionately O'Casey felt about these ideals and how, in his letters, histories and autobiographies, he dedicated much of his effort to promoting them. Having dedicated so much time and energy to championing socialism and attacking the Church in these texts, it is little wonder they should appear so prominently in his plays. The thesis argues that O'Casey distorted the content of his Autobiographies to reinforce his role as self appointed champion of Dublin's "bottom fifth" and his beloved working class. It contends that O'Casey embellished the suffering of his childhood and the hardship endured by his family to fortify his credentials as a "socialist hero" - to be "for them" he sought to be "of them," and to provide a model for how learning and conversion to the socialist ideal would liberate them from the economic oppression that kept them low. A number of facts, even elementary ones like the number of children in the Casey brood and particular dates and addresses where he had lived, were changed to cultivate the working class hero image, the disadvantaged boy who rose up against all that an unjust and unsympathetic world could throw at him, that he so coveted. The more abject the origins, the greater the final triumph. The thesis then looks briefly at the origins and purposes of the Abbey Theatre, and its part in the Irish Renaissance that gave O'Casey his start. It focuses particularly on the role of Yeats, and his desire to build a dramatic movement which created work free from opinion. His famous determination to "reduce the world to wallpaper" brought him into conflict with O'Casey, who saw his plays as a legitimate vehicle for the expression of his own world view. It is important, in terms of the objective of this study, to establish that O'Casey's works were deliberately constructed pieces of didacticism, to demonstrate just how inimical to the original intent of the movement his purposes were. With this in mind, it is instructive to compare him with the other great Irish dramatist of the period, John Millington Synge, whose works, with their more rustic focus, promoted the kind of impressionistic 'slice of life' theatre the Abbey founders were championing. For O'Casey, the cause was paramount. He wrote morality plays. The study examines how O'Casey's dominant ideological position evolved by examining his own changing perspective about the world around him. It shows how O'Casey began to see all struggles in terms of the economic one between classes, and how he came to be converted to the tenets of socialism. His opposition to nationalism and his anti-clericalism essentially reflected his belief that they were hostile to the interests of the workers, and therefore must be engaged. The dominant sources in this section are O'Casey's letters, his Autobiographies, and his book, The Story of the Irish Citizen Army. The second sectio of the thesis focuses on the first seven extant plays: The Harvest Festival, The Shadow of a Gunman, Juno and the Paycock, The Plough and the Stars, The Silver Tassie, Within the Gates, and The Star Turns Red, and examines how each promotes O'Casey's causes. The purpose of the thesis is not to promote a reworking of the biographical detail of O'Casey's life, but to trace the shift in the playwright's ideology - from Protestant Orange to Republican Green and finally, and most steadfastly, Socialist Red - and examine how these beliefs found voice in the characters and construction of his earlier plays.
Master of Philosophy (MPhil)
School of Humanities
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