Juno and the Paycock was the third play accepted by the Abbey Theatre and produced in 1924. The play takes place in 1922 during the Irish Civil War. It is described as a tragedy in three acts and has a cast of sixteen.
“A wonderful and terrible play of futility, of irony, humour and tragedy.”
“If there be a message in the play, I imagine it to be that a civil war should be waged only for a deep and great cause… we should be careful of personal idealism; good as it may be and well meaning, its flame in a few hearts may not give new life and new hope to the many, but dwindle into ghastly and futile funeral pyres.”
The Irish Civil War (1922 -1923) was fought by two opposing groups of republicans over the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty that offered a 26 county Free State with a domestic parliament, connected to the British Empire and with an oath of allegiance sworn by its politicians to the British Crown. The opponents to the treaty were ‘militant’ republicans referred to by the Free State government as the ‘irregulars’ or the ‘Die-Hards’. The pro-treaty fighters were called the ‘Freer-Staters’.
The action takes place in the living-room of a two-room tenancy occupied by the Boyle family in a tenement house in Dublin. The central character of the play, Juno, has many of the qualities of Sean O’Casey’s mother and some of his sister Bella. She makes ends meet by charring while her work-shy husband, Captain Boyle, spends what money he can drinking with his sycophantic friend Joxer Daly. Their daughter Mary is on strike over the dismissal of a workmate but normally is the main breadwinner of the family. The son Johnnie is a republican who was wounded in Easter Week and can no longer work. He is believed to have betrayed a former republican comrade of his and is killed as reprisal.
The family is in desperate circumstances when a solicitor, Mr Bentham, discloses that a relative has left a sizable amount of money to Captain Boyle. In the second act the family rejoice at the possibility of moving out ‘of this place’. When they exit to the street below to watch the funeral of the young man betrayed by Johnnie two men on trench coats enter and drag him off to his execution.
The last act shows the disintegration of the family. Bentham has vanished leaving Mary pregnant and the will ‘a wash out’ as he had made it out incorrectly. Juno takes Mary away to never come back and Boyle and Joxer appear in a state of utter intoxication to sink down in an empty room uttering incoherent nonsense.
Boyle: I’m telling you… Joxer… th’ whole worl’s… in a terr…ible state o’…chassis!