Juno and the Paycock
Irish poverty and politics - a lethal combination
The cast of Juno and the Paycock. Photo by David Cooper
Opening night - Juno and the Paycock: For me, this is Shaw's strongest, best-acted play of the season with roles to-die-for, made-to-measure for the two principals, Mary Haney as Juno and Jim Mezon as Captain Jack Boyle, the Paycock (peacock). Haney and Mezon are superb along with Benedict Campbell as Joxer Daly, Mezon's crusty sidekick and Corrine Koslo, always brilliant as Maisie Madigan, another struggling lodger in the Boyle's dingy
tenement building and Marla McLean and Charlie Gallant, the Boyle children, their sullen, glazed faces epitomizing shock and degradation along with a terrific supporting cast that includes the likes of Gord Rand (Charles Bentham), Jennifer Phipps (Mrs. Tancred), and Lorne Kennedy (Needle Nugent). Wow! What a cast and what a performance!
The Irish are an irascible breed indeed. They are sentimental and prone to anguish, stoked by drink, fanatically devout or worldly, moody and miserable or irresistibly merry with song and dance, and magically lyrical with their wonderful word choice, natural poets who speak expressively of the human condition - evoking an insatiable yearning that can never be quenched, no matter
how hard they live and drink. Their "troubles" are both internal and external, a dangerous duality that imposes both ruin and rumination, and leads to poignant lines from Juno and Mrs. Tancred such as "Take away our hearts o' stone and give us hearts o' flesh," at the end of the play and early on, an alpha-omega recurring theme that mothers today must scream in Gaza, the Ukraine, Iraq and Syria - where merciless men set about to destroy each other, murdering civilians in the way - including children, at an alarming rate.
Sean O'Casey's Juno and the Paycock is one of the great plays of the twentieth century, a stunning portrait of an impoverished Irish family torn apart by the chaos of civil war and just as much by poverty - economic and spiritual. Lazy Captain Boyle, the "paycock," ("Never tired o' lookin' for a rest") and his chum, Joxer, who loves to use the term, darlin' to describe most everything, choose to drink away each day and regale themselves with fanciful stories of the past, back-slapping each other while uttering silly slogans with Mezon's constant chuckle as a dumb and dumber soundtrack. Juno, the gritty matriarch, tries vainly to keep her family intact as it is callously tugged apart by political unrest and foolish dreams. ("It's nearly time we had a little less respect for the dead, an' a little more regard for the living.")
When they learn of an inheritance from a relative, the money is quickly spent before it arrives with purchases of furniture and household decorations that all disappear along with their hope in the final scene, Peter Hartwell's splendidly depressing set (Irish plays seem to focus on the kitchen.), a symbol of metamorphosis in itself, reduced to bare bones, darkness and numbness (The Paycock), thanks to Bonnie Beecher who adjusts light to reflect the family's waning fortune. With fitting original music from Paul Sportelli, we move from the hilarity and faux happiness of Act I to absolute pathos, bleakness and despair in the final scene, an unnerving mix of humour, drama and politics that makes this play a contemporary classic.
Sean O'Casey: Spirit of Ireland
Sean O'Casey, a major Irish dramatist, was the first Irish playwright of note to write about the Dublin working classes, provoking public outcry because of his refusal to glorify the violence of the nationalist movement, instead, mocking the heroics of war. In Juno and the
Paycock, he explores Irish culture in complex fashion, revealing both the tragic and comic sides of his characters as they thrash about for a better life,
the lingering existential angst highlighted by lines such as this from the Paycock, "I ofen looked up at the sky an' assed meself the question - what is the moon, what is the stars?" The pathos is so palpable that if I had a razor blade, I might cut my wrist!
Congratulations to gutsy
Artistic Director Maxwell (see her wonderful Director's notes below) for staging this thorny play and deriving the best from her skilled team. A true champion of women at Shaw and blessed with an incredible female ensemble, with Juno, Jackie champions women throughout the world. At the end,
when Juno assists her pregnant daughter Mary, the Captain long gone, she offers
up the ultimate hope for the baby: "It'll have what's far better - it'll have two mothers" This is a must-see play at Shaw. Juno and the Paycock runs
at the Royal George Theatre to October 12 and is 2 hours and 40 minutes long including one intermission.
The Boyle family lives in a Dublin tenement during the
Irish Civil War. The father, "Captain" Jack Boyle (a retired merchant seaman with a propensity for telling colourful stories of the sea while wearing his nautical-looking hat) claims to be unable to work because of leg pains, and he wastes his money at the pub with his ne'er-do-well "butty," Joxer Daly. The mother, Juno, is the only member of the family working. The daughter Mary is on strike, and the son, Johnny, lost his arm in the War of Independence. Johnny betrayed Tancred, a neighbour and comrade in the
IRA, subsequently killed by Free State supporters; Johnny fears he will be executed in retribution. A distant relative dies, and a solicitor, Mr Bentham, advises the family of an inheritance. They immediately buy goods on credit and borrow money from neighbours to pay them back when their fortune arrives. They conduct a party during Tancred's funeral procession, halting it only when Tancred's mourning mother passes by their door.
In the third act, Mr Bentham, who had been courting Mary, abandons the family, and it's obvious no money will arrive because Bentham erroneously drafted the will. As the goods bought with the borrowed money are reclaimed, Mr. and Mrs. Boyle learn that Mary is pregnant by Mr. Bentham. "Captain" Boyle goes with Joxer to a pub to spend the last of his money and take his mind off of the situation. While gone, Mrs. Boyle learns that her son, Johnny, has been murdered by the Republican IRA. Mary and Juno leave to live with Juno's sister. Captain Boyle and Joxer return to the stage drunk, not knowing that Johnny is dead, or that the house will be empty when he gets home. The Paycock speaks the final words of the play: "The whole world's in a terrible state of chaos."
The Catholic Connection
In 1984, my high school friend and football teammate, Mike Wadsworth, was appointed by PM Brian Mulroney to serve as Canada's Ambassador to Ireland. Later, Mike related to me the intricate security arrangements arranged for him while serving in Ireland during "The Troubles" which began in the late 1960s and ended with the Belfast Good Friday Agreement of 1998.
As in Ireland, growing up in Toronto in the 50s and 60s, there was a distinct Protestant-Catholic divide. Our senior football team (DeLaSalle) was not allowed to play in Toronto's high school league. Hence, we played against private schools; each year we challenged the public school champs; and my recollection is that we regularly beat them.
There was always an elaborate
Orange Day parade in Toronto, mimicking the Orange walks, a series of parades held annually by members of the Orange Order during the summer in Northern Ireland and Scotland. These celebrations marked Prince William of Orange's victory over King James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. As a Catholic youth then in Toronto, I felt like an outsider and didn't understand the enmity between the two camps..
Director's Notes by Jackie Maxwell
I was born and raised in Belfast, Northern Ireland, living my formative years through a civil war that was known as "The Troubles" which began in the late 1960s and came to a tentative end by the late 90s, long after I had left. The line back to the civil war that is the ever-present backdrop of Juno and the Paycock is direct: "Loyalists" and "Republicans" or, on the street, "Prods" and "Fenians" replacing O'Casey's "Diehards" and "Free-Staters". In spite of the name changes, the struggle remained essentially the same: a free, united Ireland as opposed to one with any part connected to Britain, and once again sectarian violence reigned in the name of "principles," as O'Casey's injured Johnny proudly calls them.
I saw bombs decimate people and places. I watched the city become a war zone, with barriers erected and whole areas of people displaced. And throughout it all I heard "the talk" - the endless arguments about who was right and who was wrong that would go back to the 1600s, if necessary, to prove a tribal point.
But there were those who didn't have time to talk - those who were caring for their injured sons and husbands, who had to risk all to hide young men on the run and who struggled to keep their families together and alive as the violence heightened and as unemployment rose. They became known as the "Women of Ulster" and, again, a direct line can be drawn back to the women we meet in O'Casey's play - Mrs Tancred who we meet as she mourns her dead son, Maisie Madigan the stalwart tenement neighbour and witness to all and, of course, Juno, the indomitable force
at the play's centre.
To me, these women are heroes - but as we see in the play, not ones whose behaviour could necessarily be called heroic and certainly not noble. They are quick to anger, to criticize, to apportion blame and, thankfully, equally quick to snatch moments of pleasure - a laugh, a song, a dance - before harsh reality returns. In other words, they are deeply human. But always, always, as the world around them deals blow after blow, and the men around them theorize, argue and ultimately take off to the pub or right out of the picture, they summon their energy and whatever resources are left to them and, especially in the case of Juno, fight like hell to keep what is left of their families together.
And how brilliantly does O'Casey clarify the grim continuum of hate by giving us his own theatrical continuum. Juno and the Paycock takes us to the vaudeville of his past, through the naturalism of his time, to a final vision of Beckettian bleakness. Our women have pulled together and moved on while the men - the "sthruttin" Boyle and his ingratiating "butty" Joxer - are left behind, literally unable to move.
I have loved this play since I first saw it as a teenager in Belfast. Mrs Tancred's extraordinary cri de coeur, echoed by Juno later in the play, "Sacred heart o' Jesus, take away our hearts o' stone, and give us hearts o' flesh! Take away this murdherin' hate and give us Thine own eternal love!", shook me to my bones then, and perhaps even more so today as I shift my gaze from my own parochial background to look at a world which sees Junos of every faith and hue still fighting to keep their families intact through the ravages of war.