To Winchester for Seán O’Casey’s ‘Juno and the Paycock’. A play that is compact and oppressive, with much of the action occurring in a single Dublin tenement front room, while also being outward-looking and expansive, all of apiece.
Specifically, the fate of the Boyle family is insolubly linked to the Easter Rising, the 1916 armed rebellion against British colonial rule in Ireland. As with Milton’s Paradise Lost and the English civil war, it is difficult if not impossible to understand Juno without recourse to the rising, its suppression, and the subsequent civil war. As Billington points out, the conflict is “much more than a backcloth: it is woven into the very fabric of the text”.
The Boyle household is headed by Juno and her drunken, spendthrift husband Jack, the paycock (peacock) of the tile. Like Jack, their two children are not working, but for different reasons: daughter Mary is on strike, while the son Johnny is physically disabled and psychologically traumatised by his experience of fighting in the war of independence.
The family unexpectedly come into good fortune when a distant relative dies, leaving Jack as the sole inheritor of some considerable wealth. Within the domestic sphere of the play, the action proceeds out as one might expect. Jack is not a man to be trusted with a fortune, and disaster awaits when the circumstances of the inheritance are more complicated than originally thought.
What elevates the play beyond a drama of domestic disharmony and personal avarice is the connection to the wider political canvas. Rather like the rebels, whose actions were uncoordinated and half-planned at best – check out Charles Townshend’s Easter 1916: The Irish Rebellion for a detailed and readable account – Jack pursues a dream without thinking through the potential consequences.
Ultimately, he fails, and destroys his family in the process. The rebels also failed in the short-term, though their actions are credited with keeping alive the spirit of independence, while revulsion at the brutal suppression by the British drove a great swathe of the population into the welcoming arms of the nascent Sinn Féin.
The most poignant and powerful crossover between the individual and the global comes at the end of the play, when Johnny’s history returns to haunt him. His treatment at the hands of the IRA reflects the internecine strife and intra-community recriminations that were a feature of the period before, during and beyond the days of the rising.
O’Casey succeeds in developing an engrossing and relatable ‘state of the nation’ drama, in contrast to my experience of Harley Granville Barker’s Waste. The characters are individuals, making their own good and bad choices, while also being swept along by the waves of social strife and civil conflict. They are not mere ciphers, in the style of Camus, for philosophical concepts.
For all that Jack’s buffoonery and loquacious blarney steal focus, Juno is the main character and moral compass of the play. As Billington puts it, she is “both a symbol of long-suffering Irish womanhood and a richly complex character in her own right”.
Her final speech, when she learns of Johnny’s fate, is a powerful piece of writing; a confessional demand for love, for fellow-feeling amongst people regardless of religion or politics, instead of hatred.
The play ends of a sparse note; the tenement stripped bare by bailiffs and empty apart from an inebriated Jack. The Winchester Dramatic Society’s sparse staging at the Chesil fitted this aesthetic perfectly, while the historic and compact theatre complimented the claustrophobia of the tenement.
“A magnificent play”, Billington concludes. I couldn’t agree more.