Plot Summary | Genre | General Vision or Viewpoint | Cultural Context | Themes and Issues
The play is set in the Dublin slums or tenements in the years of the Irish Civil War 1922 and 1923. The whole play centers on the Boyle family. Juno Boyle is married to Boyle who calls himself Captain Boyle. Boyle is a useless and irresponsible drunkard who shuns the reality of work at every stage in the play, and spends his time in the pub drinking with his friend Joxer Daly.
The Boyles have two children Johnny and Mary. Johnny is a sickly individual who has been involved in the Republican movement but he ended up betraying a comrade by the name of Tancred. Johnny spends his days locked up in the house fearful of his life.
His mother Juno is a selfless character who is concerned all the time about other people. Juno’s daughter Mary is deeply concerned about appearances. She is a shallow character who seems to judge people and things from the outside. When we meet her at the beginning of the play, we learn she is on strike because of the dismissal of a young girl called Jenny Claffey. Yet we are told from Juno how Mary never had a good word to say about Jenny Claffey in her whole life.
The family are told that they will inherit money from a distant relative who has died. Bentham is the solicitor who informs them of this fact. He begins to have a relationship with Mary and she becomes pregnant. Bentham shortly after this abandons her. The Boyles begin to borrow money and accumulate a great deal of debts.
The legacy never materializes, and the Boyles are forced to return the borrowed goods. Johnny is dragged off to be shot for the betrayal of Tancred. Juno finally realizes that Boyle will never take on his responsibilities as father and breadwinner and so she leaves him and sets up home with Mary.
This is a play, which is made up of tragic and comic elements. Much of the comedy serves the function of highlighting the tragic features.
General Vision or Viewpoint
The general vision is grim and sombre. There is a subtle sense throughout the play that war is futile and only contributes to the harsh quality of life. Many of the characters represented in the play are tragic victims of war and poverty. The overall general vision seems to highlight the heroic quality of the woman and their enormous capacity to suffer.
The particular cultural context of this play is war torn Dublin in the years 1922/3 during the Civil war. The play is set in the slums or tenement part of the city. It is deeply rooted in poverty and the degradation consequent on war. Illegitimacy is seen to be something, which brings with it disgrace and the woman, is left humiliated. The play also deals with working class Dublin and how certain people avoid work and spend their time drinking in pubs.
This theme dominates the play at every level. The whole play highlights the cruel irony that while many people were fighting for ideals and principles there were others who were suffering from the debilitating effects of the poverty. Because of the negative effects generated by poverty escapism assumes a major and dramatic element in the lives of characters. Mary’s tragic situation occurs because of poverty. When it becomes clear that the Boyles will not inherit any legacy, Bentham disappears forever abandoning Mary alone to have her baby.
Jerry Devine standards of what are essential features in a husband are set out in terms of money. At one stage he tells Mary how the job is worth 3 50
Juno who is the only character rooted in the harsh practical everyday world of necessity realizes that money, hard work, and responsible social commitment are stronger and more realistic values in this world than principles and ideals. Her pragmatic stance on how principles won’t pay butchers is in striking contrast to the incessant evasion from reality inherent in all of the other characters.
The theme of Religion is also a dominant feature in the play. The play is set against a strong Catholic background. O Casey makes frequent use of images of Our Lady and the votive light to project an air of realism and authenticity in the play. There are also a variety of different religions, and attitudes expressed throughout the play. One of O Casey’s chief mottos in the play seems to show the co-existence of strong religious convictions, together with a sincere and humane commitment to one’s fellowman.
Juno’s faith is sincere, authentic, and traditional. She believes on Johnny’s death that God can do nothing against the stupidity of men, that her husband should be praying novenas for a job, and that what Ireland needs is more piety. On the other hand, Bentham espouses a religion by the name of Theosophy. This is projected as vague and abstract and certainly seems to be compatible with his own shallow commitment to people.
Reality And Fantasy
The play dramatizes the conflict between the dream world and the world of reality and shows what happens when a character is stripped of his illusions and forced to face reality. Boyle the ‘poseur’ or Paycock struts throughout the world of the play on a false and imaginary sense of his own self- importance. His whole life and career consist in fabricating dreams of his gallant years as a captain fighting heroic feats and sailing the oceans of the world. The news of the legacy provides another outlet to Boyle’s habitual evasion of reality, he sees himself as a potential investor on the Stock Exchange. His whole life is a lie. His pains, which are invented for the sake of shirking and avoiding work, become real to him. His refuses to face up to the truth and reality about Bentham and the deception surrounding the news of the will. When reality invades at the conclusion of the play in the form of Mary’s pregnancy and the actual removal of his material possessions, Boyle is unable to cope. His final entrance dramatized in a drunken fragmentary soliloquy is tragic. His habitual escape into fantasy is pathetically expressed through his drunken pose - ‘ Commandant Kelly died....in them arms.....Tell me Volunteer Bullies says he that I died for Ireland’.
Mary who represents the younger generation also falls victim to illusion. On her first appearance in the play, she is shown to be on strike for a principle. The oppressive and stifling atmosphere generated by the tenement life forces her to seek escape through Bentham. For her he represents another way of life and values outside the restricting and debilitating atmosphere within the two-roomed tenement.
She falls victim to the subtle deception of Bentham’ middle-class gentility. She is blinded by external appearances and ends up a tragic victim of Bentham’s hypocrisy and selfishness At the conclusion of the play, she is forced to return to the reality of the slum life with Juno in spite of all her attempts to escape through learning and books.