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November 03, 2004

The Shadow of a Gunman - Sean O'Casey

Posted by David Wootton

Sean O'Casey's The Shadow of a Gunman
Tricycle Theatre, Kilburn, London
30th September - 6th November 2004

The Shadow of a Gunman is the first play in Sean O'Casey's Dublin trilogy, first performed at the Abbey Theatre in 1923 – James Joyce's Ulysses had been published the year before. It is set in 1920, as the War of Independence rages. The other two Dublin plays are Juno and the Paycock [Peacock], and The Plough and the Stars, the latter of which caused a riot when first performed at the Abbey because nationalists in the audience resented O'Casey's hostile portrayal of the revolutionaries of the 1916 Easter Rising.

Dominic Dromgoole's revival of The Shadow of a Gunman is at the Tricycle Theatre in London's Kilburn, long an Irish ghetto, where during the 70s and 80s the local public houses were full of IRA fund-raisers. Clearly Dromgoole wants the play to resonate with Kilburn's own history. The key event in the play is a Black and Tan raid in the middle of the night on a tenement house: the sense of what it is like to be caught up in a war between guerrilla fighters and an occupying army is evoked with extraordinary economy. How many wars of national liberation have there been in the last eighty years, how many raids, how many innocents killed? The mind shies away from these questions.

O'Casey said that the play:

is built on the frame of Shelley's phrase [from 'Prometheus Unbound']
"Ah me! Alas, pain, pain ever, for ever!"

Indeed the line is quoted in the opening moments of the play. This suggests the play is a tragedy, and indeed it is. It ends with the death of a brave and innocent girl, Minnie Powell (wonderfully performed by Jane Murphy, making her first appearance on the professional stage). All the characters seem hopelessly trapped in circumstances from which they cannot escape. Every character (even Minnie's perhaps) is fatally flawed. No good, it seems, can come of anything they do, and the violence that surrounds them invades their lives whether they want it to or not.

At the same time the play is a comedy. Indeed something like ninety per cent of it consists of a seemingly unending series of comic sketches. As in Beckett and Joyce, one can sense the constant influence of the music hall. The comedy is all at the expense of the foibles of the Irish – their inability to be tidy, clean, or punctual; their addiction to long words; their drunkenness and wife beating; their sentimentality and political naïveté; their love of literature and song – so if the play wasn't written, directed, and performed by Irish people one could hardly but suspect it of racism. This is the world of TV's Father Ted, but with 'real' violence instead of slapstick. As Seumas says (and Donal says much the same thing later):

That's the Irish People all over – they treat a joke as a serious thing and a serious thing as a joke.

There's no reason why a tragedy shouldn't also be a comedy – Martin McDonagh's Lieutenant of Inishmore is surely both. But the comedy has to be black, and a good deal of this comedy is actually rather sentimental. At one moment the play seems bitter and angry and its message is summed up in the cry (repeated more than once):

Oh this is a hopeless country!

But at another we are being invited to admire the pluckiness of the characters, their ability to survive and even flourish in impossible circumstances, their quest for truth, their "devotion", as O'Casey himself says of the central figure, the poet Donal Davoren, quoting Shaw:
to "the might of design, the mystery of colour, and the belief in the redemption of all things by beauty everlasting."

So there's a case for saying that the central weakness of the play is that it can't decide whether it admires or hates the characters it presents. But one could also redescribe this as its strength. O'Casey sees both the best and the worst of the world he portrays, and he sees that the two are inseparably connected with each other: fecklessness, sentimentality, violence, indomitability, and love of poetry all bound up together, each feeding on the others.

O'Casey himself had received almost no formal education, had worked as a labourer, had lived in great poverty, had been active in nationalist politics and had despaired of nationalism. He was forty-two when his first play, this play, was accepted for the stage. He is describing a world he is struggling to escape from, belongs to, and can't get free of. Twelve years later he was to leave Ireland for the last time – he lived twenty-nine years in England without returning. Donal Davoren is "poet and poltroon, poltroon and poet." O'Casey, as soon as he had established himself as a playwright, seems to have been eager to leave the poltroons behind him.

Perhaps the most important feature of the play is that it portrays a shadowland. Donal's poetry is clearly dreadful. His roommate has become a local figure of fun because he spends hours selling a single packet of hairpins. Young Tommy Owens wants to die for his country, but hasn't the courage to fight for it. Minnie Powell wants to be a gunman's girlfriend because of the status it will give her. Adolphus Grigson pretends to be brave when he's a coward. Mr Gallogher expects IRA gunmen to settle his dispute with his neighbours over whether their children are too noisy. (This is a world of unbearable noise, where people live seven and eight to a room.) Every character in the play is caught up in a fantasy that they have no prospect of turning into reality. Worst of all, Donal Davoren feeds these fantasies by allowing himself to be mistaken for a gunman on the run, in the hope that this will enable him to seduce Minnie. There is a real gunman in the play (in the world of the play, that is), there are real bombs, there are real soldiers, and real deaths, but all this reality takes place offstage (the deaths), or is invisible to us (the bombs), or is only apparent in retrospect (the gunman). The play is mired deep in a world of shadows, illusions, fantasies. By the end Davoren has seen through to some painful truths: he realises that Minnie is courageous, that he is a coward, that he is responsible for her death. But the rest of the characters are scarcely affected, and he is still trapped in their world of shadows, and still spouting terrible poetry. We're never sure if we can take these characters seriously enough to regard anything that happens to them as tragic; the central irony of the play is that they are all too flawed to attain the dignity of a single tragic failing.

It's a feature of the play that we can't be absolutely sure that Davoren is not (as his neighbours come to believe) a gunman on the run. In what way would his behaviour be different if he was? His arrival in Seumas's room is mysterious, and he has no visible source of income. If he wasn't on the run at the beginning of the play he is by the end. It's easy to think that we have seen through the shadows and know what is really happening, but the play leaves us a little unsure that false appearances can so easily be distinguished from realities. Minnie, after all, does turn out to be the real thing (or so it seems).

This is a stunning production of a beautifully crafted and brilliant play. I really can't make up my mind about it. Is it too sentimental, or is O'Casey's fellow-feeling for the downtrodden one of his strengths? Does it commit the fault it repeatedly mocks, of turning comedy into tragedy, and tragedy into comedy? Or is it the way in which it negotiates back and forth between the two the very thing which makes it worth watching? Is it trapped in a postmodern world of shadows, a play about writing, a fiction about fictions, or is it truly remarkable for its capacity to show the ways in which fantasy and reality are inseparably intertwined? O'Casey, I think, wants to leave us in this condition of uncertainty, but he also wants us to understand that there is something deeply pathological about the world he portrays. Yeats celebrated, in the Irish uprising, "a terrible beauty." As Donal says in the opening speech of Act Two (this is a two act play):

There is an ugliness that can be made beautiful, and there is an ugliness that can only be destroyed, and this is part of that ugliness.
The sordid Dublin tenements in which the play is set are now expensive apartments. The Kilburn pubs in which the IRA once recruited terrorists are now turning into wine bars and gastropubs. O'Casey would not have lamented the disappearance of those worlds, and even those of us who think that the world is going to hell in a handbasket would have to admit that he was right.

David Wootton is Anniversary Professor of History, University of York.


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I would just like to thank you for writing such great notes on Shadow of a gunman. I am taking my A-Level Theatre studies exam in two weeks and this has been a big help.

Thanks again,

Rachael Mutch

Posted by: Rachael Mutch at May 21, 2007 01:37 PM
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