There had been two major Seán O'Casey productions scheduled for 2020: The Shadow of a Gunman was due to open at the Gate next week, and Juno and the Paycock was due in the Olympia in July from Decadent Theatre Company. These productions were clearly intended as a nod to the centenary commemorations of the Civil War and would have formed part of the national debate, had virus-shaped events not blown the more contentious period of commemorations off centre stage. You can almost hear the sigh of relief - the year had not started well with the controversial proposed RIC event.
Since his debut in 1923 with The Shadow of a Gunman, O'Casey has remained enduringly popular. His plays have repeatedly rescued the Abbey from financial ruin over the decades. Poet Valentin Iremonger and playwright Roger McHugh protested against the lazy revivals of O'Casey on the Abbey stage in the 1940s, where he was trotted out as a money-spinner without the theatre investing much creative effort. The Plough and the Stars was the play running on the night of the Abbey fire in 1951.
The Easter Rising centenary commemorations of 2016 saw a Gate production of Juno and the Paycock and an Abbey production of The Plough and the Stars. In 2014, the National Theatre in London produced The Silver Tassie, the fourth O'Casey Dublin play, which revolves around World War I. It seems that O'Casey is the go-to guy for commemorative drama.
Descendants of his talent include actor and writer Emmet Kirwan and director Louise Lowe. Kirwan has a campaigning, socially engaged persona, his work creating heroic everyman archetypes from working-class characters. Kirwan has extended his talent into film and video, with his hit play Dublin Oldschool made into a successful film last year. Lowe, who made her name with the theatrically innovative Anu Productions, was due to bring her distinctive directing style to the Gate production of Shadow. She directed an award-winning adaptation of O'Casey's lost one-act play Nannie's Night Out last year at the Gate. O'Casey's writerly fingerprints are evident in the work of many others, including the marginalised characters of Conor McPherson's plays and the homeless squatters in Cristín Kehoe's impressive debut, Shelter. Like Charles Dickens before him, O'Casey gave the impoverished classes a lasting nobility.
O'Casey fell out with many people over the years, finding it impossible to even consider bending the knee to avoid conflict. This did not make life easy for a man dependent on his writing to support his family. O'Casey's creative life is dotted with painful and public rows. There was the opening night of The Plough in 1926, when he was confronted by the enraged widows of 1916 in the Abbey foyer. Over three decades later in 1958, he was still being roughed up by dominant ideologies when he was forced to withdraw The Drums of Father Ned from the Dublin Theatre Festival. All his life, O'Casey was the artist that the establishment could not abide.
Part of the reason for his endurance is the astute comic touches in these family dramas. But what resonates most strongly today is O'Casey's chippy, uncompromising persona and his social conscience. He appeals to a politically alert, activist generation, who are not afraid to pick a fight. He was a committed Marxist and happily made his characters spout lefty tracts, sometimes to comic effect, as with the Covey in The Plough. Above all, though, his characters embody the lived reality of early 20th-century capitalism's victims. Their lives were the problem for which he saw socialism as a cure. He was, in modern parlance, completely woke.