Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

Sean O'Casey's Dublin Trilogy and the "Promise" of Metropolitan Modernity

Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

Sean O'Casey's Dublin Trilogy and the "Promise" of Metropolitan Modernity

Article excerpt

The three early plays that established Sean O'Casey's reputation are known collectively as the Dublin trilogy because they take as their ostensible subject urban life in Ireland in the early years of the twentieth century. The Shadow of a Gunman, Juno and the Paycock, and The Plough and the Stars were performed at the Abbey Theatre in 1923, 1924, and 1926, respectively. Each play is not only set in the nation's capital, but also explicitly examines Irish urban life during the period of colonization, revolution, and, later, decolonization, charting changes within Irish culture and politics in terms of the impact that these changes make on Irish urban social formations. O'Casey is interested in Irish life, in Irish people, but chooses to look at his subjects through the lenses of modernity and urbanism in order to understand the peculiar and particular problems and opportunities available to Dublinites in the 1920s. It may seem to many that O'Casey was prevailingly critical of Irish urban life, and while I have no doubt that this perception is easily demonstrated by a close reading of his plays, it is nevertheless incomplete. The city is a highly artificial and sometimes delimiting place for O'Casey, but it also offers opportunities for counter-hegemonic practice. It is my contention in the argument that follows that O'Casey's plays offer progressively more complex and incisive readings of the city and the visible and invisible forces that curtail or enable forms of collective life. In order to demonstrate O'Casey's engagement with various compelling aspects of urban culture, I will bring his work into a discussion, and even debate, with two prevailing theorists of urban culture: Henri Lefebvre and Walter Benjamin. I will also reference, albeit briefly, Foucault's notion of heterotopia and his reading of the ways in which contemporary spaces contain such "unacknowledged sacralized oppositions as private/public, family/social, work/leisure, cultural/useful" (Johnson 78). Space, in O'Casey's work, is frequently permeated by what it seeks to hold at bay, and while this is usually the source of much of the comedy found in these plays, it is invariably the source of the tragedy as well.

The underlying premise of this paper, and, indeed, of my thinking on urbanism in general, is that history unfolds within space, and that the space in which history transpires exerts an influence on the history that unfolds. This generally makes it difficult to distinguish between time and space, and it is constituent in many theories of space and the city that time and space cannot be differentiated in any coherent way. Lefebvre in particular collapses the distinction between the two, repeatedly. As I will suggest in what follows, Dublin was a rapidly changing, even tumultuous space, and this general tumult certainly had an as yet under-considered effect on Irish politics, and especially on the rise of political nationalism, in the early decades of the twentieth century. History, understood as a series of events, values, and human actions, is formed in and, at least in part, by, spatial structures. More specifically, for O'Casey the political and ideological apparatus in any society must first occupy a space that it can then use to produce and reproduce the system of economic, political, or gender exploitation on which every society bases itself. The occupation of space is, of course, paramount in O'Casey's work, given that he is writing about the tumultuous time of colonization, military and paramilitary resistance, and civil war in Ireland. It is my contention that this historical moment, cohering as it did around the occupation, contestation, and control of space (as well as people), allowed O'Casey to see quite clearly the relationship between space and a politics of oppression, and that these insights are at least part of what makes his work compelling to modern readers. My view, then, is that the military contest over Ireland's geographical space led O'Casey to a more abstract conception of space itself as always inhabited by visible and invisible forces--political, economic, erotic, historical--that are in every way as present as the physical material bodies, buildings, furniture, weapons, or even words (which are quasi-physical)--that reside in any locale. …

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