The theme of conflict is a brooding and dominant characteristic of the playwright Sean O’Casey’s acclaimed masterpiece Juno and the Paycock, first performed at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, in 1924. The events’ portrayed in the drama unfold against the backdrop of the sectarian violence of the Irish Civil War, waged from1922-1923, in an Ireland not yet healed from many recent years’ of armed political struggle with the British authorities’ who for centuries’ had controlled the governance of the island.
This modern armed struggle began with the Easter Rising of 1916, carrying through to the events’ of The Irish War of Independence, fought from 1919-1921, which resulted in the signing of the Anglo Irish Treaty of 1921, the root of the current aggression in the play being engaged in by former comrades’ on the streets’ and in the homes’ of towns’ and cities’ across the nation. Pivotal to the action of the play are the Boyle family, terribly poor, working class tenants’ living in the tenements’ of Dublin, the slums’ of the period, in conditions’ comparable with the worst known anywhere in Europe.
The narrative explores their efforts’ to carry on with their normal daily lives’ in the tumultuous, often explosive conditions’ they are encompassed by. To accurately discuss every aspect of conflict that exists’ within the pages of, arguably, O’Casey’s finest work would be a monumental undertaking and unfortunately would require significantly more time than this discussion could allow. The purpose of this essay instead, will be to examine the conflict existing in the relationship, and acted out within the pages of the play, between two of the central characters’, “Captain” Jack Boyle, the self deluded patriarch of the household, and his long suffering wife, the titular Juno.
The aim of this work is to dissect the dynamics’ of their relationship, examining the roles’ they have adopted that lead, despite a temporary lull in hostilities during act two, to the irrevocable breakdown of the marriage, helping Juno to the final courageous decision to place the welfare of her daughter and unborn grandchild before that of her layabout, thankless, disaster of a husband, a truly radical and virtually unheard of decision for a woman to take in the male dominated, patriarchal society of that time.
From the outset of the play we are confronted with the animosity that exists between Jack and Juno. In the opening scenes of act one, we are introduced to Juno who has just returned from an early morning shopping trip with breakfast items for the not yet returned Jack, who has apparently stayed out all night with his ne’er do well, parasitic drinking buddy Joxer Daly. The tone of her exchange with Mary, her daughter, in reference to Jack’s absence is unmistakeable.
Mary has just informed her mother of her father’s failure to return to which she replies, “Oh, he’ll come in when he likes; struttin’ about the town like a paycock with Joxer, I suppose.” This is a woman unimpressed with her missing husband to say the least, the reader is left with the impression that not only will Jack feel her wrath when their paths’ cross, Joxer will receive a lashing also should he surface alongside his nefarious companion! Act one progress’s to the point where the trio meet. The exchange is filled with vehemence from the wrathful Juno, determined to exact her revenge on the lackadaisical duo presented before her.
Joxer and the “Captain” have entered the tenement believing Juno long gone to work, but secretly secluded behind hangings separating her bed from the living quarters she has listened to both men insult and berate her in her believed absence. She emerges from her seclusion and unceremoniously chases the vagrant Joxer from her home despite the protestations of a perplexed Jack, who in cohorts with his partner in crime, has tried to convince his wife the two loafers’ have the potential of work that afternoon. Juno retorts to Jack, “Look here Mr. Jacky Boyle, them yarns won’t go down with Juno. I know you an’ Joxer Daly of an oul’ date, an’ if you think you’re able to come it over me with them fairy tales, you’re in the wrong shop.”
The exchange continues with Jack unable to get a word in his own defence and Juno revelling in her dressing down of the “Captain”. His sparse responses’, when allowed, are pleading and full of self pity, “it ud be betther for a man to be dead, betther for a man to be dead.” is as useful a response as we receive from Jack as Juno’s tirade against him continues.
The reader is left in no doubt throughout the exchange that this morally indolent little man is no match for his wife. We are also left in no doubt as to the roles occupied by the couple within the relationship at this point. Jack is a fantasist, he refuses to accept his responsibility to help provide for his family, he refuses any and all offers of work, claiming chronic pain when genuine opportunities arise, “I’m afther gettin’ a terrible twinge in me right leg” he is heard to cry when presented with the possibility of work by Jerry Devine.
Yet he is found to be in the rudest of health when no work is to be found, “it’s miraculous that whenever he scents a job in front of him, his legs begin to fail him!” is the explanation presented to us, tongue firmly in cheek, by Juno. He prefers to spend the family’s last few pounds loafing from bar to bar with the lecherous Joxer in tow, rather than contribute to help relieve the crushing poverty trap into which his family have found themselves ensnared. His is an existence full of exaggerated exploits, “Everybody callin’ you the “Captain”, an’ you only wanst on the wather in an oul’ collier from here to Liverpool”.
He believes thoroughly in the legend he has created around himself and believes completely in his right as the patriarch of the family not to have his decisions questioned regardless of how morally deficient to their situation they may be. In the character of Jack we find comparisons, as suggested by Pressley, N, (2011), in his review of the play for The Washington Post, to Shakespeare’s Jack Falstaff “for his inflated presentation and chronic lack of means”.
In contrast to this vulgar fantasist we are given the ultimate realist in the downtrodden and hassled form of Juno, named by O’Casey for the Roman goddess of “Protection, Motherhood & Marriage”, Waldherr, K, (2007). Through Jack’s refusal to embrace his responsibility to provide for his family and be a dutiful husband Juno has been forced over time to assume the role of wife, mother and sole provider for the family.
She is all to aware of the severity of their situation, walking the tight rope alone of providing for her invalided son, out of work daughter and obnoxious husband as well as herself in an environment where not only must she contend with the harsh and unrelenting poverty stricken conditions, inescapable for most at the best of times, she must also contend with the bitter knowledge of the potential for any of her loved ones to lose their lives at any given time if caught up in the guerrilla warfare being waged around them on the streets’ of their home. Juno faces all this with a reality and strength of character befitting her name that shines through despite the best attempts of her Falstaffian husband to break her spirit and reduce her life to the petty existence of his own.
One would argue, to be judged successfully or not by the reader that these traits already existing in the relationship of Mr. and Mrs. Boyle, explored throughout the piece, doomed them to the fate to which they inevitably succumbed. The events of the play may have been the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back but the foundations of this relationship had long since been rendered asunder by years of neglect, abuse and selfishness from Jack towards his wife and family.
This finally culminated in our heroines realisation that no matter how much she tried, no matter how much effort she made her feckless husband was never going to be capable of any sort of decency towards her or the family and the radical road she was forced to choose with Mary, helping to raise and provide for her daughter’s unborn child was not only the right thing to do for themselves but it was the only chance the child would have at a decent beginning for the future. The humanity, courage and strength of Juno are fully realised in this exchange with Mary;
Mary. “my poor little child that’ll have no father!
Mrs Boyle. “It’ll have what’s far betther – it’ll have two mothers.”
This exchange is an act of selflessness that Jack could never comprehend of making, representing the final nail in the coffin of the Boyle’s marriage and the final separation of the characters involvement with each other on a relationship or any other level imaginable. This is the decisive moment where Juno transcends both her husband and the restrictions of her environment ending her conflict and enabling her to move on to the next stage of her life as a single, yet more complete person.
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