my review of JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK

I am grateful to have had the opportunity to see the original play that helped motivate Lorraine Hansberry to write A RAISIN IN THE SUN. It is Sean O’Casey’s 1923 play JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK and I recently saw an awesome production of it Friday at the Washington Shakespeare Company, hosted by the Artisphere in Arlington, Virginia. My hats off to the director of this production, Shirley Serotsky. And a phenomenal cast which included Joe Palka (Jack Boyle), Cam Magee (Juno), Jay Hardee (Johnny), Melissa Marie Hmelnicky (Mary), Christopher Henley (Joxer), Kathleen Akerley (Mrs. Madigan), Slice Hicks (Needle/Furniture Removal Men), Rebecca Herron (Mrs. Tancred), Sam McMenamin (Jerry Devine), Colin Smith (Bentham), Evan Crump (Irregular/Vendor/Furniture Removal Men/Neighbour/Policeman), Daniel Corey (Sewing Machine Man/Vendor/Furniture Removal Men/Neighbour).

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Juno and the Paycock by Sean O’Casey is a play that explores the struggle of one’s fidelity to principle within an environment designed to kill that fidelity. Its set in a 1922 Dublin tenement and its main characters, the Boyle family, each had their personal principles affected in some way by Ireland’s fiery civil war. The war was fundamentally about independence of Ireland from Britain but, by 1922, was specifically over the Anglo-Irish Treaty, a controversial treaty signed between Britain and Ireland. The treaty caused a split between within the Irish Republican Army (IRA) between those who supported it and those who didn’t because of what they saw as it falling short of Ireland’s complete independence. The treaty did not concede an all-Ireland Republic, as many demanded, but instead established a “free state” with near sovereign powers for Ireland. The powers were near sovereign because they required parliament members in Ireland to swear an oath of allegiance to the British crown to the disgust of many in the IRA. Supporters of this “free state” clashed with those in the IRA who opposed the treaty and adopted guerilla tactics and were known as the “Irregulars.” This civil war has created a hostile environment outside the Dublin tenement in which this play takes place and the strong feelings on either side of the war, for or against the Anglo-Irish Treaty, threaten to ravage anything in its path, especially the fidelity of this play’s characters to their own principles. In O’Casey’s play, the son of the family, Johnny Boyle, was fighting for the Irregulars and by the play’s start is in infirm at home, after losing an arm in battle with them. Johnny’s fidelity to principle is one that uncompromisingly fights for an independent Ireland without any concession to the British crown whatsoever. At the same time, however, Johnny has very understandable reservations about his own level of commitment when one of his own comrades, Tancred, is killed and he subconsciously feels responsible for it. We see him needing consolation from his mother after he is haunted by an image of a bloodied Tancred. In Johnny we see the cerebral commitment to principle at odds with an emotional commitment to self-preservation. After losing his arm, he questions the need for the killing and maiming in the civil war. His sister Mary also begins the play with her own fidelity to principle. She is striking, as part of her labor union, to protest a fellow female worker’s victimization on the job. Her extra time at home concerns her mother who herself challenges the decision of her daughter’s labor union to strike: “Wan victim wasn’t enough. When the employers sacrifice wan victim, the Trades Unions go wan betther be sacrificin’ a hundred.” She questions the morals and principles of the Trade Union’s strike especially when it makes it more difficult for striking families to make a living. This matriarch of the family, Juno Boyle, is dedicated to the principle of keeping her family together yet is in charge of a Dublin tenement whose environment makes every effort to weaken her family. This environment either threatens the life or the livelihood of her loved ones: from her son’s struggle with the Irregulars, to her daughter’s solidarity with her Trade Union, to her husband’s struggle with his alcoholism. Keeping this family together requires caring for her injured son who suffers from some post-traumatic disorder; it requires minding her daughter which becomes a growing task as the play closes; and it requires keeping her husband, Jack ‘Captain’ Boyle, out of the pubs where he drowns his sorrows in the spirits of the local snug. Juno tries to get Jack to take more responsibility as a father and provider of the family. This includes challenging the role that Jack’s friend, Joxer, plays in his life, which seems to be nothing but dead weight. A kind that makes no effort to break Jack out of the alcoholic stupor long enough to help maintain fidelity to a principle or help Juno maintain her fidelity to principle. By the end of the first act Mary’s suitor, Bentham, informs Jack that according to the will of his descendant, he is entitled to a large sum of money. By the beginning of the second act, we see materially where that large sum of money goes: for more extravagant furniture including a new couch and new gramophone. His friend Joxer indulges in these niceties with him however when their neighbor Mrs. Madigan and tailor, ‘Needle’ Nugent, demand that Jack pay them and he doesn’t, we see the real issue of Jack’s alcoholism that masks a deeper issue caused by their environmental poverty. Johnny worked for a principle that on some level tried to alleviate the poverty and alcoholism that his own father was slave to. His principle however was hindered by his father’s own alcoholism which Johnny laments, when he berates his own father for not handling his newfound money responsibly. Jack assumes every thing that Bentham says is true and gains material items with the assumption that his inheritance will replace his expenses he incurred getting these material items. Jack later discloses that the money he was promised by the will according to Bentham was essentially gobbled up by other competing families, presumably part of the British empire, who also claimed their lineage to Jack’s descendant. If we are to believe what Jack says about why the family could not claim their money they inherited, then we see that the Boyle family’s loss of money represents a greater loss of autonomy by Ireland vis-à-vis Great Britain. The fate of their inheritance is like the fate of many soon-to-be colonies of the British: its gobbled up too quickly by the British to be enjoyed by anybody else. Like British colonies, the Boyle family is relegated to an inferior place by other British in order to allow British citizens first dibs or first helpings on their inheritance. This is especially true of Bentham who impregnates Mary then disappears to England to escape responsibility of raising the child. Mary’s sexuality becomes an object of colonization for Bentham who can enjoy the pleasure of conception and escape the responsibility that comes with conception, the way a colonist can escape the responsibility that comes with helping maintain a colony. By the start of the third act, one by one, members of the cast including Nugent and Mrs. Madigan reclaim their material items that Jack felt he needed to have to be the ‘paycock’ that Juno knows him as. He loses them because of his belief that they indicated his elevation in social status, which is definitely a result of British colonization, where Victorian values that make strong distinctions by class, are taught and solidified in its colonial subjects. The material items would suggest that the Boyle family is in a higher class than they are, but they are an illusion as O’Casey shows us very clearly. What enhances the living room in the second act is gone by the third act and certainly dramatizes the deep level of poverty that the Boyle family and many others are truly in, essentially as a British colony, in the eyes of the anti-Treaty Irish. The family we see is undone by the illusion of wealth that the American habit of speculation is based on. Paycock gets these material things, including the chairs, couch and gramophone based on the idea that he would have money that he never really had, much less earned. O’Casey suggests that it took people like Paycock, whose materialism fuels the civil war between free-staters and anti-Treaty Republicans, to prevent the Irregulars from recruiting more members. His materialism is a distraction for die-hard Republican cause because it buys material items that only strengthen the pro-free-state economy instead of supporting the Irregular cause that his son Johnny is part of. Johnny Boyle represents the strife of Ireland’s civil war. On one side he fights the Irregulars, after losing his arm, and denies his role in Tancred’s death. On the other side he fights the shiftlessness and alcoholism of his father who waits and exploits others’ labor for material gain. John O’Riordan writes that Johnny is a test of real acting strength: his political guilt lies behind the whole momentum of the play.
The younger members of the Boyle family, Johnny and Mary, represent not only the younger generation, but a newer opportunity to break the sexist, oppressive colonial norms that the older generation is still crippled by. Johnny battles with the Irregulars yet at the same time battles against them when two of their soldiers in the play’s third act accuse him of setting Tancred up and ultimately kill him. Mary befriends an Englishman Bentham who impregnates then abandons her. Juno vows that despite his flight, the two of them will raise the baby and thereby breaks an oppressive colonial norm of Dublin that tended to shun unwed mothers by sending them off to a convent to have the baby without their involvement, putting an unfair onus on the women to handle the responsibility of childbearing. The play ends with Johnny’s death, Juno’s commitment to help Mary raise her baby, and at the very last scene is Jack and Joxer in a drunken stupor. Most of all, it ends with the Irish civil war that remains unresolved; a war that has taken a toll on each and every member, especially Johnny, whose fellow Irregular fighters kill him, presumably out of a belief that he betrayed his fellow comrade. In reality O’Casey shows how Johnny gave more than anybody in his family for the anti-Treaty cause, his limb and his life, which included his fight against his father’s materialism caused by his alcoholism. This ailment distracted his son and his family from addressing the main cause of the anti-Treaty Republicans that Johnny fought for: the cause of full sovereignty from the British. These Republicans no doubt attributed their poverty to their status as a colonial subject of England and fought against every ailment that stood between them and their fidelity to unconditional independence, including the ailment of alcoholism, which we see in Jack. O’Casey shows the fidelity of the Irregulars who in the third act demand that Johnny go with them. In their presence he denies their request, yet by the play’s end is killed by these same forces. Juno delivers a searing monologue, lamenting the death of her son, asking God to replace our hearts of stone with hearts of flesh. Despite his mother’s care, he is not able to escape the demands of an all consuming civil war that demands sacrifices from those who’ve sacrificed the most.
This play has been credited as the piece of creative art that helped inspire Lorraine Hansberry to leave the University of Wisconsin and become a full time playwright. In her biographical play To Be Young, Gifted, and Black, Hansberry writes:
I remember sitting there stunned with a melody that I thought might have been sung in a different meter. The play was Juno, the writer Sean O’Casey—but the melody was one I had known for a very long while. I was seventeen and I did not think then of writing the melody as I knew it—in a different key; but I believed it entered my consciousness and stayed there…(65)
The melody that stayed in Hansberry’s consciousness is the tragedy of the Boyle family, which she relates to members of her fictional Younger family in A Raisin in the Sun. The tragedy of the Boyle family is the loss of their son to an unforgiving civil war that demanded uncompromising, unconditional love of country. The tragedy of the Younger family is the loss of their inheritance to a son who trusted an unforgiving friend with a ten thousand dollar inheritance because of his belief in the American business model. The melody that O’Casey shows us is the enormous sacrifice that one mother makes, to bolster her husband, her son and her daughter despite a world that is prepared to shatter that family. The melody that Hansberry shows us is the enormous sacrifice one mother makes to bolster her son, her daughter, and her daughter in law despite a world that prepared to shatter that family. Both playwrights are obviously concerned with the role of a mother within a family of an oppressed culture: O’Casey shows how Juno fights ultimately against British colonization which is a force formidable enough to demand supreme loyalty from her son that is enough to kill him. Hansberry shows how Lena Younger fights against American individualism, when she laments Willy Harris’ selfish theft of her husband’s money. These playwrights are making profound comments on the importance of fidelity to one’s own principle and the cold environments that try desperately to kill that fidelity. They both suggest that the role of the caring, loving mother is crucial, and her fidelity to keep that family together is perhaps the most important role that there is in a family within an oppressed culture.

Special thanks to Melissa Hmelnicky who invited me to see this important play; John O’Riordan for his book A Guide to O’Casey’s Plays; and to Jane Horwitz for background on Dublin in 1922. –RF.

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Author: Dr. Rhone Fraser

Dr. Rhone Fraser is an independent writer and journalist born of Jamaican immigrants in Brooklyn, New York, on October 12, 1979. He moved to Florida in 1989 and graduated from Zephyrhills (FL) High School in 1997. He graduated from Yale University in 2001, after which time he taught in the public school systems in New Haven (CT) and the Bronx for three years. He then began writing independently and finished a documentary play on the life of Fannie Lou Hamer entitled, "Living Sacrifice," for which he still seeks publication. He earned his Ph.D. in African American Studies from Temple as of August 31, 2012. His dissertation was a literary and historical analysis of Pauline Hopkins, A. Philip Randolph and Paul Robeson. He also is a freelance editor and radio producer, and is currently producer of WPEB's Freedom Readers on 88.1 FM in Philadelphia.

2 thoughts on “my review of JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK”

  1. Thank you for this piece – I came across it while looking for some background or insight into this play other than Sparknotes etc, and it has really helped. It' interesting and thoughtful and really informative. Thanks again!

  2. clea concept of "principles of principle';everyone is responsible of his/her actions and commitments.

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