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Some stories depend more heavily on their environment to advance their plots and themes than others. Such is the case with Juno and the Paycock by Sean O’Casey. The play follows the plight of a working class family in Ireland during the civil war that rocked that country in 1922. This divisive political backdrop to the story reflects how the characters are disconnected from one another and don’t react as a cohesive unit working toward a single goal. Economic woes play a primary part in the unraveling of the family unit. Another facet of setting is the ritualistic religious convictions of the characters, especially Johnny, in their attempt to escape their dilemmas. The financial quandary of the family, the disunity of the political canvas on which their story is painted and their superstitious religious beliefs all define the setting of the play and the way that their surroundings successfully stifles the happiness of the characters.
The Boyle family’s struggle to communicate with one another is echoed in the dissension taking place among the Irish people outside their door. The citizens of the country have separated into two opposing camps, the Free Staters and the Diehards. When they should be working toward the common goal of independence from Britain, they are instead pitting brother against brother in a futile and bloody outburst of violence. Likewise, inside the Boyle house-where their situation is such that all members of the family might be expected to be working toward the common goal of self-reliance and financial security-there are a multiplicity of differing individuals at work, often laboring at cross-purposes. Mrs. Boyle toils vigorously to keep the entire family’s financial heads above water. Taking advantage of this situation is Mr. Boyle, the father, who would normally be expected to be the breadwinner but is instead a lazy drunk and a despicable role model for his son. That son, Johnny, is meanwhile held captive by the guilt he feels for having betrayed a fellow political comrade. Meanwhile, the daughter Mary is attempting escape from the realities both inside and outside her home by reading books. The family is detached and alienated from each other, fighting with one another over their values and beliefs just as the citizenry of Ireland are doing outside their tenement.
Financial worries can either bring a family together or destroy them completely; in this situation those concerns are accomplishing the latter. At the beginning of the play, it quickly becomes apparent that this is a family in dire financial straits. The mother is the only member currently working since Mary is out on strike from her job. Mr. Boyle is making a habit of drinking and carousing and spending what little money he is able to find. “You’d think he was bringin’ twenty poun’s a week the way he’s going on. He wore out the Health Insurance long ago, he’s afther wearin’ out the unemployment dole, an’, now, he’s tryin’ to wear me out” (69), says Mrs. Boyle of her husband. He’s an indolent slob who doesn’t care where his money comes from as long as he’s not forced to earn it through labor. A supposedly game pair of legs is keeping Mr. Boyle from taking a job, sending the family deeper into a financial spiral. Johnny can’t work at all because he’s missing an arm and his hip has been shot to pieces. It’s quite possible that financial gain played a part in his decision to betray his friend Tancred. The Boyles need a miracle, and it would seem that a miracle comes their way when an unexpected inheritance seems destined for their door. The idea of a great deal of money coming in should bring the family closer together, but even that fails. They are living in more splendor, or at least less squalor, as they begin to decorate their home with better furnishings and flowers all about the place. The squabbling continues, only now it’s progressed to such topics as whether or not they should buy a gramophone and whether or not they are putting themselves into too much debt before they even get the money due them. Their situation in the second act of the play seems hardly better than it was when we first we met them. Money, even the idea of money, seems to be a wedge between their working together to make a joyful home.
Christianity plays a major role in the lives of the Irish people; for the Boyles it becomes more of a frustration than an instrument of deliverance from their worries. The Boyles look to their beliefs in the dogma of the Catholic Church as a way of salvation, but their spiritual beliefs are not enough to save them from their destructive-and notably anti-Christian-tendencies. In the actual physical setting of the play, there is a picture of the Virgin Mary with a votive candle constantly kept burning beneath it. Religious images are dispersed throughout the play. At one point Mrs. Boyle says of her husband that he’s “constantly singin’, no less, when he ought always to be on his knees offerin’ up a Novena for a job” (69). Clearly, she thinks prayer is the answer to the heartbreaking question of why her husband refuses to work. This stifles any opportunity for a change in the situation because it is a simplistic approach to the more complex psychological problem of why Mr. Boyle tends to run away from the idea of working for a living. Mary was probably named after the Virgin Mary so it’s ironic that she violated the tenet of the Catholic Church that argues pre-marital sex is a sin. Mary commits the sin of sleeping with Mr. Bentham and predictably winds up with child and without husband. Both Johnny and her father instantly side with the Church by condemning her for bringing shame upon the family. This is very ironic considering both the moral failure of Johnny in his callous betrayal of Tancred and the moral failure of Mr. Boyle, who takes no active part in making sure his family is safe and secure. Finally, there is unique case of Johnny, who exhibits the most intense religious beliefs of any character in the play. Johnny is a man consumed with a very Catholic sense of guilt. The votive candle burning beneath the portrait of the Virgin Mary becomes more than just another religious ritual done regularly and without much conscious thought. The votive candle becomes highly symbolic for Johnny. He seems to believe that as long it’s burning he’ll not have to answer for his great sin of perfidy. He may be right, for almost the minute that the candle goes out the Irregulars arrive to take Johnny to meet his barbarous fate. His belief in his religion has failed to protect him and his family from the ultimate tragedy.
The environment in which the story of the Boyles takes place serves up images of violence, poverty and the hope for salvation from sins through religious practice. All of these are presented as background to the story of a family coming apart at the seems. Their story is a microcosm of the events taking place in the larger world outside their walls; a world that also faces violence, poverty and a religion that is a cause of, rather than a solution to, their troubles.
O’Casey, Sean. Juno and the Paycock. Three Dublin Plays. London: Faber & Faber
Limited, 1998. 67-148.
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