He knew the lives of the poor

As the theater world celebrates the 100th anniversary of Sean O'Casey's birth , the world at large continues to give tragic currency to his prevailing themes. He took a victim's-eye view of oppression, poverty, and war before it was fashionable to do so. What he wrote so controversially about Ireland in his searing plays of the 1920s could be written today about Angola, Cambodia, Rhodesia, Afghanistan.

So a spectator will have to feel some reverberations with present history when the New York Shakespeare Festival looks back on O'Casey with an anniversary program at the Public Theater April 7. The same should be true across the water during commemorations in the Soviet Union and East Berlin and new productions of O'Casey plays in London ("The Shadow of a Gunman" and "Juno and the Paycock"), Dublin ("The Shadow of a Gunman" and "Red Roses for Me"), and Belfast ("The Drums of Father Ned"). Certainly some recent conflicts came to mind when O'Casey's tragicomedy of the 1916 Irish rebellion against Britain, "The Plough and the Stars," toured America in a 50th-anniversary Abbey Theatre production a few years ago.

Even the date of O'Casey's birth remains the subject of controversy. Official records say it was March 30, 1880. O'Casey set the scene as "sometime in the early eighties, on the last day of the month of March," when he graphically evokes his own birth in his autobiography, "Mirror in My House." In these volumes, with their latter-day Elizabethan abundance of language, O'Casey expresses the range of his humanness. Here pain and sorrow, wrath and bitterness, petty polemics and remembered slights, finally give way to the springtime resilience of joy and life. His world ends neither with a bang nor a whimper but with a hurrah.

It is this joy of life that is cherished, while anything that suppresses it is condemned, in a "Cock-a-doodle Dandy." This seldom-produced comedy was at first taken as satire on Ireland, but its spirit resonates far beyond its fantastic Irish village setting, where people don't recognize happiness when they see it and try to drive it away. It was O'Casey's own favorite O'Casey play.

Yet the earlier ones -- on a strife-torn Ireland emerging into independence -- remain the prime basis of O'Casey's reputation. Before he wrote them he had been a railroad laborer for nine years. He had briefly been secretary of the Irish Citizen Army. He knew the lives of the poor and the fighters for freedom he wrote about. He gave them onstage a gift of language, comic and tragic, that would in itself make his anniversary worth celebrating.

But what aligns him with many in today's generation is a putting down of the glory of war in relation to the women and children who suffer for it.In "The Silver Tassie," taking the broader canvas of World War I, he shows another side, the suffering of the men in combat sent off by those safe at home caught up in wartime fervor.

O'Casey does not go quite as far as the recent antidraft placard in the United States -- "Nothing is worth dying for." But he forces a look at the question from the point of view of those who are asked to do the dying or to be the bereaved. And, with a detail like the contrast between spending money on fancy uniforms and on the needs of Dublin's slum dwellers, he hints at today's debate on how much the world's poor could be helped by a fractional reduction in global arms trade.

Today an Angolan O'Casey could write about the victims of civil war following independence. A Rhodesian O'Casey could write about the innocents who suffered in the cross fire on the way to freedom. A Cambodian O'Casey could write about the millions impoverished as a result of invasion plus civil war.

And what of an Afghan O'Casey? He would value the freedom the rebels are fighting for while commiserating with the casualties of the strife. But O'Casey himself, a self-styled Communist, had a blinkered admiration of the Soviet Union and what he thought it did for his beloved poor. In an interview I had with him in the '50s he said he favored a system that kept people from falling below a decent standard of living; it didn't have to be communism. From all his outspoken vigor, O'Casey would be the last to knuckle under if confronted by the repression of a Communist regime. He once said of the Communists: "They drive me mad. They know nothing but what they read in their little pamphlets." Surely he would be outraged by the Soviet killing in Afghanistan as well as touched by the victims as individuals.

Yet, somehow, in the midst of oppression and of rebellion against it, he would find traces of the human comedy irrepressibly coexisting with tragedy. And he would find a character like the embracingly maternal Juno to see at last that mourning for one's own requires mourning for all -- and to pray, "Take away our hearts o' stone, and give us hearts o'flesh!"

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