The Shadow of a Gunman context


Sean O'Casey

  • An Irish playwright
  • Born on the 30th of March 1880
  • Died in 1964
  • Very controversial writing; a committed socialist who often enforced political statements upon his writing, often receiving bad press
  • His goal as a dramatist was to express the vitality of life through his characters' actions and dialogue
  • The Shadow of a Gunman was his first play to be accepted by The Abbey Theatre
  • O'casey was generally in bad terms with the theatre as a lot of his plays were not well received by the audience, and sometimes even the actors e.g. 'The Plough and our stars' caused riots amongst the audience on the fourth night of the show due to his depiction of sex and religion/ some of the actors refused to say their lines (the play was thought to be an attack on the men in the rising)
  • Yeats, an Irish poet and one of the foremost figures of 20th century literature/ founder of The Abbey Theatre, responded to the audience's riots by saying that they were "shaming themselves". O'Casey believed the incident to be an indirect attack in Yeats, using the play to berate him
  • He later gave up his job and became a full-time writer
  • O'casey was the first Irish playwright of note to write about the Irish working classes
  • The death of his friend Thomas Ashe dying in a hunger strike in 1917 inspired him to write about the Dublin working classes
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The Abbey Theatre

  • The 'National Theatre of Ireland'
  • Opened doors in December 1904 (lost it's original building to a fire in 1951)
  • Closely associated in early years with writers of the Irish Literary Revival, a 'nursery' to many of the leading Irish Playwrights such as O'Casey and William Yeats
  • 'The Shadow of a Gunman' performed there in 1923
  • Had a reputation for promoting modern theatre/ supporting cultural nationalism, most of its repertoire depicting Irish life in one way or another
  • In 'The Shadow of a Gunman's opening, the theatre was under armed guard because of a threatened terrorist attack from the IRA, following the theatres public acceptance of an Anglo-Irish treaty
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Context to the plays action

  • Set in tenement room in Dublin in 1920 (the height of the troubles), shared by tenants SEUMAS SHIELDS (a self-educated peddler) and DONAL DAVOREN (an aspiring poet who people mistake for an IRA gunman on the run)
  • DAVOREN's reluctance to disabuse his admirers of their mistake leads to a rumour about the whereabouts of an 'IRA gunman', reaching the ears of the BLACK AND TANS (a notorious branch of the police force) who raid the tenement
  • MINNIE POWELL takes the bombs into her room in attempt to protect DAVOREN, however the BLACK AND TANS find them and MINNIE is arrested and bundled into a lorry
  • The BLACK AND TANS fall prey to an ambush from the IRA
  • MINNIE jumps from the vehicle but is shot in the breast and dies
  • Characteristically for O'Casey, the play presents the relative cowardice of the blustering men in the play (DAVOREN, SHIELDS, TOMMY OWENS AND ADOLPHUS GRIGSON), in contrast to the fortitude and moral courage of the women, especially MINNIE POWELL
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  • Tragi-comedy
  • Some Tragi-comedies deal with serious issues but include comic insights or individually comic characters
  • Others are generally light hearted in tone but end on a tragic note

(- O'Casey's plays tend to fall into the later)

  • Some commentators make a case for 'The Shadow of a Gunman' belonging to the genre of naturalism as his plays are firmly rooted in the context of working-class Dublin
  • Some might argue that some of O'Casey's characters are too caricatured to be truly naturalistic e.g. Mrs Henderson
  • O'Casey wanted his audience to recognise that the play was a Tragi-comedy by the end of the first section

-Quotes from O'Casey:

  • "The first thing I try to do is make a play live: live as a part of life, and life in its own right as a work of drama."
  • "Every character, every life (has) something to say, comic or serious, and to say it well (is) not am easy thing to do."
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Setting context

Set in 1920 during the Irish War of Independance, fought from 1919-1921 between the Irish republican army and the British government

1916: The Easter Rising. Followers of the Irish Republican brotherhood and citizens armies were attacked, taking over Dublin. The leaders surrendered to the British army, the catalyst for what was to come

BLACK AND TANS: A force of temporary constables recruited to assist the RIC during the Irish War of Independance. Their role was to help the RIC maintain control and fight the IRA (the army of the Irish Republic). They became infamous for their attacks on civilians and proved unable to supress the IRA - the British public came to regard them as unacceptable. Many members were ill-trained and ill-disciplined as selection procedures had become increasingly relaxed due to being urgent for members.

THE AUXILIARIES: As the IRA campaign intensified, the government responded in July 1920 by establishing this second force. They were better paid and and recruited from demobolised army officers, generally operating alone. 1900 men were deployed in the 10 most active Irish counties, but they were ill-trained also in guerilla warfare and knew little of Ireland, developing a reputation for drunkness and brutality.

Despite these reinforcements the police were led to conduct 'unofficial reprisals'. These were assaults on the IRA suspects and supporters, occasionally causing death. These were condoned by the police and ignored by the goverment, however the price was the allienation of public opinion in both Ireland AND Britain.

November 21st 1920: 'Bloody Sunday'. The IRA gunned down 19 suspected army intelligence officers in Dublin. The Auxiliaries were sent to search for the wanted men at a football match in Croke park, were they gunned down 12 members of the crowd and wounded 65.

December 11th 1920: The AUXILLARY and the BLACK AND TANS blew up part of the city centre, so British goverment reluctantly declared the martial law that if an IRA 'outrage' occured, troops were allowed to blow up property of the suspected. Over 1300 people died in the conflict, 550 of which were troops and police.

Early 1921: More than 700 people had been killed, 75% of which were BLACK AND TANS or the RIC (armed police force of the UK in Ireland from 19th Century until 1922)

Peace was made on July 11th 1921 as Ireland accepted the British proposal of theh 'Irish Free State' (excluding Northern Ireland). 'Dail Eireann' became the legistature of the Irish Free State and 'Senate' was abolished in 1936.

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