WASHINGTON — SHIVAUN O'CASEY grew up in the shadow of greatness as the daughter of one of Ireland's most famous playwrights, Sean O'Casey. Critic John Gassner says of him in "The Collected Plays of Sean O'Casey,O'Casey's plays constitute the most exciting dramatic writing in the English language we have had since Shaw completed 'Saint Joan,' if not indeed since the disappearance of the Elizabethan stage."
Now Ms. O'Casey is devoting her life to the burnishing of her father's fame, keeping his name bright in the flickering light of a TV society that knows more about "The Bold and the Beautiful" than "The Plough and the Stars" or "Juno and the Paycock," his greatest plays.
As a director, Shivaun O'Casey has taken her O'Casey Theater Company on the road with his 1923 play, "The Shadow of a Gunman." An intense drama about the Anglo-Irish war in Ireland (1919-21), it seems as contemporary as the Irish terrorist bombings in London recently. Seventy years later, the war that Mr. O'Casey wrote his first produced play about marches on in another form. "Gunman," the company's first production on its first tour, played several cities - Boston, Pittsburgh, New York, and Philadelphia
- before finishing up in Washington last month.
The O'Casey Theater Company paradoxically has its headquarters in the Northern Ireland town of Newry, on the troubled border with the Republic of Ireland. The troupe includes members from both Northern Ireland, the republic, and the US. It will return to the US in l993 for a second tour, after playing in Ireland, England, and part of Europe in 1992.
Before she went back to Ireland for fresh money (this production cost $230,000), O'Casey talked about the production in a quiet room outside the violet-walled Terrace Theater where "Gunman" was playing. A gifted director with a keen insight into her father's play, she has put together a gripping, sometimes black-comedy production that stuns the audience with its tragic ending. A young woman falls in love with a poet, who out of pure romanticism is masquerading as a gunman. The poet wonders "What danger c an there be in being in the shadow of a gunman?" But the innocent woman is killed for protecting him.
As Shivaun O'Casey volleys in a line from the play: "That's the Irish people all over - they treat a joke as a serious thing and a serious thing as a joke."
O'Casey is a former actress (Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts) with a direct blue gaze and a voice as soft as shamrocks. She toured America with the Dublin Players and worked as a scenic designer at the Bristol Old Vic. She later formed a company and produced "The Beggar's Opera," as well as an O'Casey play, one by Samuel Beckett, and "The Shadow of O'Casey," a production she directed and wrote.
The day of the interview she is dressed like a shadow herself, in a black turtleneck and black pants, with a long silver necklace designed by her artist brother Breon. She, Breon, and their mother, Eileen, are involved in putting together a documentary on Sean O'Casey. It will include family interviews and footage of him shot back in l964 by American filmmakers, the Maysles brothers.
Although David Maysles has since died, Al Maysles is still involved with the O'Casey family in filming this documentary, which they plan to bring to Irish television and perhaps to the US.
O'Casey points out that her father's message was one of peace, that he never took the romantic approach to the early Irish Republican Army, the Irish Civil War, and the Anglo-Irish war in his plays.
"Certainly ... he never advocated killing, and he was never a nationalist. That's why he was so disillusioned by what happened in Ireland and what was going on in the Civil War when brother was killing brother. But he did love Ireland, he loved the people of Ireland, and he also loved the people of England."
But he left Ireland for England in l926, when "The Plough and the Stars" opened at the Abbey Theater, and Irish nationalists rioted at a performance two days later. He last saw Dublin in 1935. He had gone to London to pick up a major prize for "Juno and the Paycock," but the play won him more than a prize; it won him a wife.
As Shivaun O'Casey tells it, when her father and Eileen Reynolds Carey met, her mother said later, "He wouldn't let me go, dear, after that." They were married in 1927, when O'Casey was making more money than he ever had.
The affluence didn't last, however, particularly when the children came. There were three children in all, with daughter Shivaun the third. They were a family "without lots of money or central heating," growing up in a "great, rambling Victorian house. At 6 p.m., we'd all go up and listen to the news with Sean, who was a great radio listener."
As Sean O'Casey struggled to raise a growing family, he faced rejection with his plays: When his son Breon was born, The Abbey rejected "The Silver Tassie" (which later opened in London). The day his second son, Niall, was born, the mayor of Boston banned "Within the Gates," effectively cancelling the six-week American tour that was about to start there, with Melvyn Douglas directing Lillian Gish.
"For Sean it was a big blow, because for him that was years of security gone," says Shivaun. "His plays were all banned in Boston; I suppose they were [viewed as] blasphemous and anticlerical."
She says "The Silver Tassie" is "the next one we're bringing here to the US; it's a great anti-war play."
The Sean O'Casey who wrote an autobiographical series on growing up in Ireland and was known as the "Green Crow" loved Ireland. But he stayed on as an expatriate in England.
"I suppose he felt the freedom he was losing in Dublin," says his daughter. He and fellow Irish expatriate George Bernard Shaw had exchanged letters; "Sean was a great admirer of his. And he wrote and asked Shaw if he'd write a preface for one of his books ... and Shaw wrote back and said, 'Certainly not. If I wrote a preface for your book, it would be sold not because of what you had written but because of my preface. You've got to learn to stand alone.
"Sean used to carry that letter that Shaw wrote in his breast pocket along with the other letter that Shaw wrote, about 'The Silver Tassie,' because he knew him well by then. And it ['Tassie'] was rejected. He sent Shaw a copy of it. Shaw wrote back and said, 'You've written one hell of a play!' He signed it, 'Cheerio, Titan!' Things like that kept Sean going. He never compromised himself, ever.
"He was asked once to write a film script for [Thomas Wolfe's] 'Look Homeward, Angel,' I think it was, and it would have made him a lot of money, [what] in those days was a fortune. He said 'I can't do it. I can't write another man's work. It just really isn't in me.... And he said this American [who asked him to do the Wolfe] said, 'Oh, Mr. O'Casey, you've sure turned down a load of hay.'
Shivaun O'Casey laughs. "And he had. And he had."