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The Theater: Irish Trinity

3 minute read
T.E. Kalem



Grief is the wood-note wild of the Irish soul. Rarely has a people’s sorrow been sounded with such resonant purity as it is in Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock. Despite moments of bathos and some soap operatics in the construction of the plot, this play is one of the granitic masterworks of modern dramatic art.

It is being given a splendid revival in Los Angeles’ Mark Taper Forum Theater, with Walter Matthau in the role of the vainglorious Captain Boyle, Jack Lemmon as his bar “butty” Joxer, and Maureen Stapleton as his earth mother wife Juno. How did this particular production come about? Matthau and Lemmon had wanted to do the play for some tune, preferably with Stapleton. They approached Gordon Davidson, the energetic artistic director of the Mark Taper, and gave him a commitment for a five-week limited run, which was sold out by opening night.

The immediate suspicion when film stars engage in this sort of enterprise is to assume that they are massaging their egos. It would be truer to think of them as returning redemptively to their roots. At its best, acting is finding oneself in the attentive eye and reciprocal embrace of one’s fellow human beings. The only place where that can happen is on the living stage.

That is what is so exuberantly evident on the boards of the Mark Taper. Tragedy or not, the players are celebrating the joy of acting. Tragedy or not, what is O’Casey celebrating? A trinity of profound, if currently unfashionable values—God, country and family. Not for a single moment during Juno and the Paycock is one unaware that Roman Catholicism, Ireland and the Boyles’ intense awareness of themselves as an embattled entity have shaped the people that we see before us. Not for the good, necessarily. O’Casey had as sharp an eye as James Joyce for the foibles of his race, though it sometimes brimmed with an un-Joycean compassion. He knew the perils of being priest-ridden, the curse of drink, the terrible gift of hurting one another that has remained constant from the 1916 “Troubles” to the present sad day. Yet he set it all down to the ineffable music of English that rarely sounds sweeter than it does on the Irish tongue. And he relished the Irish fondness for gossipmongering, playacting, and scenemaking that has made them, after the Greeks and the Elizabethans, the greatest dramatists of the Western world.

The play’s contents scarcely bear examining—a falsely expected legacy, an unmarried daughter who proves scandalously pregnant, a maimed son slain by his comrades as a suspected informer. With these mundane materials, O’Casey unleashes a torrent of engulfing emotions. The actors are up to the challenge. Though he sometimes seems about as Irish as chopped chicken liver and onion on rye, Matthau is full of baleful Gaelic braggadocio as Captain Boyle. As Joxer, Lemmon is as spry and cunning as a soiled city sparrow, and for once, Maureen Stapleton acts from her heart rather than her frazzled nerve ends. Let loud praise for all be heard, for it is much merited.


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