‘Paycocks and others: Sean O’Casey’s world’

by Bernard Benstock, Dublin, Gill and Macmillan, 1976. x, 318 pp., $11.00.


Barbara Brothers


Bernard Benstock’s Paycocks and others: Sean O’Casey’s world is more than a penetrating and lively analysis of Captain Boyles, Junos, Ayamonns, Minnies and the less prominent actors that people O’Casey’s dramas and autobiographies. It is a scenario of the values and attitudes of the Green Crow. Benstock identifies the character prototypes and their individualized variations, the ‘predecessors’ and ‘successive generations of chips from the block,’ clearly delineating those traits that are shared and those that are unique. His counterpointing the characters and the dramatic situations in which they are actors illuminates which of their traits merit forgiveness, damnation or admiration in the view of their creator. What is revealed then in Benstock’s study is the keen eye and impassioned heart of O’Casey, O’Casey’s unflinching exposure of human weakness and his optimistic vision of human potential.


Fluther Good, like others in the class of Paycocks, exhibits the qualities of ‘cowardice, self-interest, braggadocio, and a refusal or inability to accept virile responsibilities.’ But unlike Captain Boyle and Seumas Shields, two of his predecessors, he takes pride in his work, slight as it may be, and indulges less often in the pub scene. His seeing Rosie home after she is spurned by the Young Covey and his fetching Nora from the combat-riddled Dublin streets are acts which stand in direct contrast to Boyle’s denial of his daughter Mary. The importance O’Casey attaches to small acts of human kindness is highlighted by Benstock’s juxtapositions of characters and their actions.


Benstock’s approach also enables him to point out clearly that characters who speak for causes and attitudes O’Casey elsewhere proclaimed are frequently not the heroes of the dramas in which they take part. O’Casey favoured the Fluther Goods and the Juno Boyles, those who rejected the Socialist Cause through a failure to understand it and loyalties to established religious institutions or bourgeosie values, to the Coveys and Jerry Devines, those characters who, like O’Casey, espoused the trade union movement but who were either meanspirited, as is true of the Covey, or who would use the movement to gain position and power for themselves, as is true of Jerry Devine. Benstock states the case succinctly: ‘To O’Casey being a Socialist was not enough; a man is a man for all that.’ When the Covey or Devine are set beside Jack O’Killigain, the Irish foreman of Purple dust, who is a virile lover, a superior workman, and a politically intelligent man, or Ayamonn, who moves from ‘the passive expounder of a cause [the workingman’s] to the active martyr of the cause,’ it becomes evident, as Benstock says, that: ‘Basic to O’Casey’s table of values in estimating any man is the degree of his passionate involvement with life.’ The test of a man, for O’Casey, was not his knowledge of the right cause but his commitment to the people. There is the group that Benstock identifies as the ‘Unsocial Socialists.’


As O’Casey’s dramas depict the socialist manqué so too they depict the poet manqué. Minnie, in The shadow of a gunman, does the right deed for the wrong reason; her hero is neither poet nor gunman. And she becomes the first of the O’Casey heroines who, Benstock notes, are immediately recognizable to the audience by ‘the distinctive splash of colour that is the sign of vibrant life.’


Though concerned with illuminating O’Casey’s vision of life and skill in creating characters, Benstock does not let the reader lose sight of the fact that there is more to O’Casey’s merits as a dramatist than a humanitarian spirit, that spirit which made him ‘rarely vindictive toward any of his characters’ and which ‘demonstrates frequently a willingness to tolerate most elements of individual idiosyncrasy, bending over backward to disclose human traits in the most despicable, and personal justifications for all unacceptable actions.’ Benstock’s first chapter is an overview of the plays and traces the development of O’Casey’s expressionistic techniques, which are then called attention to in asides throughout the book, such as in the discussion of Jannice, heroine of Within the gates, whose costume of black and scarlet, ‘assumes the proportions of emblematic significance’: she is both doomed and possessed of a loving heart.


Benstock’s knowledge of Irish history and the O’Casey canon, as well as the critical commentary on it, the clarity of his writing and his responsiveness to the facility of O’Casey’s humor makes his study a lively, informative guide to O’Casey’s world.