Expressionism in Sean O’Casey’s "Juno and the Paycock" (1924)

Term Paper, 2015

10 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Content

1. Introduction

2. Expressionism – Origin and Characteristics

3. Background – Sean O’Casey and Juno and the Paycock (1924)

4. Use of expressionism in Juno and the Paycock

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Having read the Dublin Trilogy consisting of The Shadow of a Gunman (1923), Juno and the Paycock (1924) and The Plough and the Stars (1926), I understand that Irish history in the 1910’s and 1920’s was formative to the author Sean O’Casey. Just like many of his fellow playwrights he concerned himself with “the [Irish] War of Independence, the [Irish] Civil War, the Easter Rising and World War One.”[1] Unlike many however, O’Casey was especially interested in the Irish working class, being very much aware of the impact these political events had in every individual’s reality.[2] Whilst Lady Gregory and W.B. Yeats, for instance, propagandized Irish nationalism through plays such as Cathleen ni Houlihan (1902), O’Casey depicted the actual suffering caused.[3] Yet, he thereby not only made use of realism, but also of expressionism, which is exactly what this essay shall be focussing on.[4]

Firstly, the roots of expressionism, which can be found in Germany at the beginning of the 20th century, shall be outlined because they closely resemble the situation out of which O’Casey’s work arises. Secondly, the characteristics of this rhetoric style are to be explained. Using Juno and the Paycock as an object, the aforesaid characteristics are then to be analysed in context. In a final step, this research shall be summarised, hoping to prove that O’Casey’s use of expressionism emphasises his general topic, the dangers of ideology, through subjectification.[5]

2. Expressionism – Origin and Characteristics

Expressionism originated in Germany during the early 20th century and generally associated with the years between 1905 and 1925. Rather than an artistic epoch however, expressionism can be understood as a pessimistic mind-set that evolved from society’s already critical feeling of utter disaster and imminent catastrophe caused for example by the global economic crisis.[6]

Especially in Germany, expressionism as a form of protest was also sparked by the reign of the last Emperor of Germany, Wilhelm II.[7] Due to the arms race between European colonial powers, his rule had the relatively young German nation embrace the militaristic tradition of its strongest constituent, Prussia. This pushed German society into a strong belief in authority instead of humanity.[8]

This rise of dehumanisation and depersonalisation was additionally furthered by industrialisation and its consequences.[9] The increasingly fast development of technology, which enabled mass production, caused the majority of small farmers and their families in the vicinity of cities to lose their work, sink into poverty and often even starve to death. In search of new occupations, scores of needy farmers migrated into the newly formed metropolises such as Berlin. Yet, life in a bigger city was not necessarily more sustainable. Trying to earn a living by operating colossal machines with neither technical understanding nor training, (child-) workers were mutilated and simply replaced on a regular, cruel basis.[10] At the same time, the upper class, many of whose members owned these poorly conceived, colossal machines, were not satisfied either. Due to the frenzied, urban growth their lives, too, lost their established order and appeared aimless, dull and miserable. Yet, the loss of their bearings was all the different social classes had in common. In terms of wealth they could not have been further apart.[11]

Shocked by the escalating inequality between social classes, many writers abandoned the academic use of naturalism and realism, which they considered too positivist, and instead turned towards expressionism.[12] In order to demonstrate their wish for emancipation as well as authenticity of humanity they turned their attention towards their own irrational feelings, dreams and subconscious. Therefore, they used a very figurative language, full of symbols, metaphors and personifications. Purposely contrasting traditions, many representatives also deployed uncommon syntaxes and rhythm. Other rhetorical devices to modernise language were the reduction or accumulation of words. Finally, the newly phrased subjectivity was not only accompanied by a renewal of form, but also by modernist sorts of topics. Recent subjects such as big cities, environment, illness, fear, radicalisation and, of course, war and apocalypse proved that a recommencement was urgently desired.[13]

Taken as a whole, owing to feelings of chaos, uncertainty and anonymity originating from the diverse changes in society and technology as well as from various tensions in economics and politics, expressionism was a style of very negative extremes.

Considering the social and economic state of Dublin in the very same times, Sean O’Casey could have related well to the historical context from which Expressionism emerged in Germany.

3. Background – Sean O’Casey and Juno and the Paycock (1924)

Born in 1880, O’Casey was first raised in a Protestant lower middle-class family in Dublin. After his father’s death however, the family was forced down a social class, which was mainly Catholic. Now belonging to the labour class their poverty caused the death of several of O’Casey’s twelve siblings.[14] Due to continuous malnutrition O’Casey also suffered from several diseases such as very poor eye sight.[15] Nevertheless, he educated himself by reading as much as he could, studying especially the plays of Shakespeare as well as other English classics.[16]

Moreover, O’Casey joined the Gaelic League and learned the Gaelic language enabling him to write in two languages. As a matter of fact, he even Gaelicised his name to Seán Ó Cathasaigh, clearly showing where his interests lay. Since O’Casey wrote his first stories for the Gaelic League’s journal, this can be viewed as the starting point of his career.[17] Also, abandoning the Protestant church in 1905 and temporarily turning toward Catholicism, O’Casey became increasingly interested in nationalist politics.[18] Fraternising with other nationalists he soon after joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) as well as the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU), which was founded by Jim Larkin in 1908.[19]


[1] Ronan McDonald, Sean O’Casey’s Dublin Trilogy: disillusionment to delusion, in The Cambridge Companion to Twentieth-Century Irish Drama, ed. Shaun Richards (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 136.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Joep Leerssen, The Theatre of William Butler Yeats, in The Cambridge Companion to Twentieth-Century Irish Drama, ed. Shaun Richards (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 53.McDonald, Sean O’Casey’s Dublin Trilogy, 137.

[4] Ibid., 139.

[5] In this context subjectification is to be understood as the process of making something subjective. It does not relate to the concept of subjectification which was coined my Michel Foucault.

[6] Bernd Schurf, Andrea Wagener, ed., Texte, Themen und Strukturen. Deutschbuch für die Oberstufe (Berlin: Cornelsen, 2009), 404.

[7] This not only applies to expressionism in context of literature, but also in terms of music and fine arts.

[8] Johannes Ebert, Andreas Schmid, Das Jahrhundert-Buch (München, ADAC Verlag, 1999), 10.

[9] Ibid., 11.

[10] Philip Ajouri, Literatur um 1900: Naturalismus, Fin de Siècle, Expressionismus (Berlin: Akademie Verlag GmbH, 2009), 91-96.

[11] Thomas Anz, Literatur des Expressionismus (Stuttgart, Verlag J.B. Metzler, 2010), 93-95.

[12] Schurf, Wagener, Texte, Themen und Strukturen, 404.

[13] Ibid.

[14] It is worth mentioning, that O’Casey – although widely believed so – was not actually a slum child. His housing situated on 85 Upper Dorset Street can scarcely be understood as part of Dublin’s tenements.

[15] James Moran, The Theatre of Sean O’Casey (London, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2013), Kindle Edition, Early Life – 3/14.

[16] Both his sister, who was training to become a school teacher, as well as his brother, who was also interested in theatre and drama, supported this passion of his.

[17] Moran, The Theatre of Sean O’Casey, Nationalism – 1/10.

[18] Ibid., Nationalism – 2/10.

[19] Ibid., Nationalism – 6/10.

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Expressionism in Sean O’Casey’s "Juno and the Paycock" (1924)
Trinity College Dublin  (Drama Department)
Theater and Ireland
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expressionism, sean, o’casey’s, juno, paycock
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Sally Seifert (Author), 2015, Expressionism in Sean O’Casey’s "Juno and the Paycock" (1924), Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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