Seán O’Casey’s best known and arguably most controversial plays are his early Dublin plays about Ireland’s revolutionary years between 1916 and 1923. Less known and performed are his superb later plays. One of these, the dark comedy Cock-a-doodle Dandy, written in 1949, was O’Casey’s own favourite play. It is set in Ireland around 1940 and was long considered anti-Catholic, and so not performed in Britain, Ireland or the USA.
Witchcraft seems to be haunting the fictional village of Nyadnanave, ever since Marthraun’s daughter by his first wife, Loreleen, arrived from London. A rooster causes untold commotion and embodies indomitable joie de vivre, and an accompanying rebelliousness against the diktat of church and state. The setting of the dramatic action in the backwoods suggests a provincial and stagnant Irish state. A theocracy overlays and dominates all action, preventing possible change.
The play takes place outside Michael Marthraun’s house – eerie whispers are abroad, holy pictures are inverted. This is what Marthraun, small farmer, local politician, and owner of a lucrative bog, tells Mahan, the owner of a fleet of lorries carrying turf from bog to town:
there’s always a stern commotion among th’ holy objects of th’ house, when that one, Loreleen, goes sailin’ by; an invisible wind blows th’ pictures out, an’ turns their frenzied faces to th’ wall; once I seen the statue of St. Crankarius standin’ on his head to circumvent th’ lurin’ quality of her presence; an’ another time, I seen th’ image of our own St. Pathrick makin’ a skelp at her with his crozier; fallin’ flat on his face, stunned, when he missed!
Loreleen is a well-read young woman who, it later transpires, has brought with her books that have been banned by the state. She, like other life-affirming characters in this play, is colourfully dressed like a rooster. Loreleen has a disquieting effect on the other women in the house; Marthraun’s young wife begins to adorn herself and look in the mirror. Slowly but surely, they begin to reject their assigned place in the home and the church.
An’ me own wife, Lorna Marthraun, is mixin’ herself with th’ disordher, fondlin’ herself with all sorts o’ dismayin’ decorations. Th’ other day, I caught her gapin’ into a lookin’-glass, an’ when I looked meself, I seen gay-coloured horns branchin’ from her head!
A love of life and an advocacy of a better life go together. Two young workers, appearing together (almost as a class) and wearing colourful scarves, demand more pay and threaten to strike. At the same time, they also show themselves open to Loreleen’s charms. Here, as in the women’s behaviour, again the link between joie de vivre and revolutionary power becomes apparent.
1ST ROUGH FELLOW [laying a hand sternly on the shoulder of MAHAN]. Looka, you; you give us th’ exthra shillin’, or we leave your lorries standin’, helpless an’ naked on th’ roads!
2ND ROUGH FELLOW [laying a hand sternly on MICHAEL’s shoulder]. Looka, you; looka that! D’ye think a good week’s wages is in a cheque for tuppence?
Mahan and Marthraun are, on the other hand, closely connected to the state and the church. Both belong to the (Catholic Masonic) Knights of the Order of Columbanus, are friends with the old arch-Catholic Shanaar (Irish: ‘old man’), Father Domineer and the Sergeant, all of whom still believe in witches in a very medieval way. In the constellation of characters, Catholicism, the state and business all belong together.
When a rooster gets lost in the house, great chaos ensues, birdcalls are heard, dishes fly around, Marthraun’s (stately) top hat is damaged, which he hoped to wear when he meets the president. The men hide, terrified by their own superstitions, and send the household help Marion for Father Domineer to exorcise the evil.
The rooster after which the play is titled is highly symbolic and combines two things. First, something menacingly supernatural. Much like Shakespeare’s witches in Macbeth, only the superstitious backwoodsmen ‘see’ the cockerel and the other ‘sinister’ omens as threatening witchcraft.
Loreleen and Robin are the only two who from the start don’t believe in this hocus-pocus. Gradually, the other women join these life-loving characters and also begin to see only a common fowl, later an ordinary top hat, unremarkable whiskey. But like Shakespeare, O’Casey brings the superstition on to the stage.
Secondly, however, the rooster also symbolises positive vitality and sensuality, courage and rebelliousness. Some of the characters are adorned in his colours, some more, some less. Loreleen most resembles the colourful rooster. It is even conceivable that Loreleen and the rooster transform into one another – they never appear together on stage. In this symbolic function, the rooster is most important.
The messenger Robin Adair, also colourfully dressed like a rooster, fearlessly enters the house and laughingly brings out the rooster. Robin (in reference to the legendary Robin Hood and his girlfriend Maid Marion), along with Loreleen, are the antagonists. Just as laid back as she, he is completely realistic and immune to superstition. Marion also loses her fear through Robin’s common sense. Slowly, the characters group around the poles of the humane and life-affirming and the inhumane and life-denying. But things are not black and white.
Through O’Casey’s portrayal of contradictory characters, this drama is not simply a satire, but brings to the stage a dramatic conflict between love of life and hostility to life, which is also played out in individual characters themselves. For example, Mahan and Marthraun talk about Marion’s charms, acting contrary to their own indoctrination. Women are both attractive and a source of ‘evil’ to them.
MICHAEL [doubtfully]. Maybe he’s too down on th’ women, though you have to allow women is temptin’.
MAHAN. They wouldn’t tempt man if they didn’t damn well know he wanted to be tempted!
As a commentary on fatal superstition, Lorna’s sick sister Julia is sent to Lourdes for a miracle cure.
Act 2 opens with a conversation between Marion and Lorna, laughing at Mahan and Marthraun, and becoming increasingly realistic, less superstitious. When Robin reappears and wants to kiss Marion, the audience learns that he has already been in prison once for publicly kissing Marion, while Marion was fined. In 1935 Éamon de Valera had passed a ‘Vice Act’, which criminalised kissing in public. Robin says he would be happy to go to jail for a kiss.
O’Casey lampoons the ignorance and complacency of the two older men, as well as their ‘allies’. These backwoodsmen contrast to varying degrees with the far cleverer women and working men around them. Mahan and Marthraun do not, however, completely double each other – the haulier (and former sailor) Mahan is just a little more mobile and receptive to women and sensuality.
A delivery man appears with a new top hat for Marthraun to replace the one damaged in the cock hunt, but it has already been shot through in transit by the sergeant – the sergeant, like the local politician, is part of the establishment. This is not only indicated by his bizarre behaviour – he also speaks as pompously and wrongly as Mahan and Marthraun. They all use words that sound ‘educated’ to them, but they use them incorrectly due to their lack of book reading.
MICHAEL. Yes, yes; but we must suffer th’ temptation accordin’ to the cognisances of th’ canon law. But let’s have a dhrink, for I’m near dead with th’ drouth, an’ we can sensify our discussion about th’ increased price you’re demandin’ for carryin’ th’ turf;
Old Shanaar speaks of “th’ circumnambulatory nature of woman’s form,” etc., etc. The sergeant tells us that when he shot at the cock, it turned into a top hat. Mahan and Marthraun, as well as the sergeant, are beside themselves with fear and blame the unmanageable women. The sergeant declares that women must be chained to the house and that books are forbidden, which is precisely the policy of the state and the church in Ireland and is repeatedly stated emphatically by various representatives of this unholy alliance.
The whiskey Mahan and Marthraun brought to seal their business negotiations turns into a fiery monster whenever they approach. When other male, church-going visitors show interest in the liquor, this eerie metamorphosis also frightens them off.
Soon the bellman appears and warns of a rooster, which now supposedly even transforms into a woman. The allusion to witches is abundantly clear again and again. Fearfully, Mahan, Marthraun and the sergeant wait outside the house and to combat their fear, they begin to sing. Loreleen appears announcing a carnival that evening. She calls Marion and Lorna out of the house, and encourages them to sing along. Marion and Lorna appear in colourful costumes, dressed as gypsies, completely undermining the Catholic notion of proper women’s dress, and being ‘rebellious’. At this moment a golden light appears which has a strange effect, dazing the men. Marion removes the sergeant’s rifle and rebukes him for his superstition:
MARION. Aw, let’s be sensible. What’s th’ gundoin’? Who owns th’ gun?
SERGEANT. It’s mine. I’m on pathrollookin’ to shoot down th’ demon bird loose among innocent people.
MARION. Demon bird loose among innocent people! Yous must be mad.
Lorna is also dismayed. As a retarding moment, Marthraun verbally attacks his wife for daring to defy Christian men, orders her to change her clothes and reprimands his daughter Loreleen for bringing this calamity upon her from the city of sin, London. Again he is ridiculed as he shrinks fearfully from the new top hat. The women have changed so much by now that they can see nothing unusual in either feathered fowl, top hat or whiskey.
Lorna pours herself, Marion and Loreleen a glass of whiskey. The women ask the men to dance and also offer whiskey to the men, who can now finally take the coveted water of life unharmed under the protection of the beautiful women. Robin appears and plays music on the accordion.
At this wonderful moment, the men forget their haggling and their fear of witchcraft. Women are understood by them as the most important thing in life. Mahan and Marthraun are able to reach a business agreement and even the top hat loses its menace. Only the demands of the workers are not considered in all this brotherhood. Still, it is a moment that illustrates the power of sensuality, a new lust for life that has the potential to include the workers.
MICHAEL [to MARION]. In our heart of hearts, maid Marion, – we care nothin’ about th’ world of men. Do we now, Sailor Mahan?
MAHAN [cautiously – though a reckless gleam is appearing in his eyes too]. We all have to think about th’ world o’ men at times.
MICHAEL. Not with our hearts, Sailor Mahan; oh, not with our hearts. You’re thinkin’ now of th’ exthra money you want off me, Sailor Mahan. Take it, man, an’ welcome! [Enthusiastically] An’ more! You can have double what you’re askin’, without a whimper, without a grudge!
MAHAN [enthusiastically]. No, damnit, Michael, not a penny from you! We’re as good as bein’ brothers! Looka th’ lilies of th’ field, an’ ask yourself what th’ hell’s money!
MICHAEL [excitedly]. Dhross, be God! Dhross, an’ nothin’ else! [To MARION] Gimme that hat there!
The men and women dance – horns appear on the women’s heads. The dance becomes more ecstatic until suddenly, with a clap of thunder, Father Domineer appears and all but Loreleen and Robin fall to their knees.
Robin continues to play music, unfazed. Domineer threatens the group gathered before him for dancing and rages that pagan poison is coming into the country through films, books and plays that weaken the priests’ power over souls.
Stop that devil’s dance! How often have yous been warned that th’ avowed enemies of Christianity are on th’ march everywhere! An’ I find yous dancin’! How often have yous been told that pagan poison is floodin’ th’ world, an’ that Ireland is dhrinkin’ in generous doses through films, plays, an’ books! An’ yet I come here to find yous dancin’! Dancin’, an’ with th’ Kyleloch, Le Coq, Gallus, th’ Cock rampant in th’ disthrict, desthroyin’ desire for prayer, desire for work, an’ weakenin’ th’ authority of th’ pastors an’ masters of your souls! Th’ empire of Satan’s pushin’ out its foundations everywhere, an’ I find yous dancin’, ubique ululanti cockalorum ochone, ululo!
Again, O’Casey refers to existing laws. In 1935, the draconian Public Dance Halls Act was passed, making it virtually impossible to hold dances without the approval of the trinity of clergy, police and judiciary. Also in place since 1929 was the law banning books, films and plays deemed unsuitable by the clergy and establishment. This did not apply to O’Casey and O’Flaherty alone, but to a long list of national and international literature from past centuries as well.
Robin and Loreleen, on the other hand, rebel against the priestly diktat and refuse obedience. Domineer rebukes the women for their misbehaviour and the men submit to him. Mahan, however, is not quite so submissive and refuses to obey Domineer’s order to dismiss his best driver Jack because he living with a woman outside of marriage. Domineer kills Jack. The sergeant immediately exonerates the killer. No one stands up for Jack; he is isolated in the community. Robin ‘comments’ on the murder like a chorus:
FATHER DOMINEER [to the others]. Yous all saw what happened. I just touched him, an’ he fell. I’d no intention of hurting him – only to administer a rebuke.
SERGEANT [consolingly]. Sure, we know that, Father – t was a pure accident.
FATHER DOMINEER. I murmured an act of contrition into th’ poor man’s ear.
MESSENGER [playing very softly]. It would have been far fitter, Father, if you’d murmured one into your own.
In the last act, Marion and Lorna first talk about the hunt for the rooster. Since the rooster is on the loose, the workers refuse to work, and the women think only of dancing and beauty, according to Mahan:
MAHAN [hardly noticing]. Is it? I didn’t notice. I’m busy. Everything thrust through everything else, since that damned Cock got loose. Th’ drouth now dhryin’ everything to dust; the turf-workers refusin’ to work, th’ women thinkin’ only of dancin’ an’ dhress. But we’ll lay him low, an’ bury him deep enough to forget he ever came here!
Lorna’s emancipation allows her to support the workers’ demands.
Domineer, Marthraun as well as one-eyed Larry appear and enter the house to drive away the cock and its evil magic. Loreleen comes running out of the village – men and women have been chasing her, throwing things at her. The pursuit of Loreleen and the rooster, as well as the attempted intimidation of all the women here, allows for parallels not only to the Middle Ages, but also to McCarthyism, which was emerging in the late 1940s. Lorna and Marion defend Loreleen.
LORELEEN [out of breath]. God damn th’ dastards of this vile disthrict! They pelted me with whatever they could lay hands on – th’ women because they couldn’t stand beside me; th’ men because there was ne’er a hope of usin’ me as they’d like to! Is it any wondher that th’ girls are fleein’ in their tens of thousands from this bewildhered land? Blast them! I’ll still be gay an’ good-lookin’. Let them draw me as I am not, an’ sketch in a devil where a maiden stands!
LORNA [soothingly]. Be calm, child! We can’t go in, for Father Domineer’s inside puttin’ things in ordher. [Releasing LORELEEN] I’ll run along th’ road to them disturbers, an’ give them a bit o’ me mind! [She catches hold of MARION’s arm] Come on, MARION!
All the establishment characters want rid of Loreleen, but her father won’t return her money to allow her to leave. Mahan hopes to seduce Loreleen. The house is shaken by thunder and lightning and all but Loreleen run for safety. Domineer emerges. He orders the women into the house and to serve their master. Domineer demands Loreleen’s books and he removes them to destroy them. In O’Casey’s later play The Bonfire for the Bishop (1955) book burning was to become a central theme.
MICHAEL. That one’s mind is always mustherin’ dangerous thoughts plundered outa evil books!
FATHER DOMINEER [startled]. Books? What kinda books? Where are they?
MICHAEL. She has some o’ them in th’ house this minute.
FATHER DOMINEER [roaring]. Bring them out, bring them out! How often have I to warn you against books! Hell’s bells tolling people away from th’ thruth!
FATHER DOMINEER [explosively]. A book about Voltaire! [To LORELEEN]. This book has been banned, woman.
LORELEEN [innocently]. Has it now? If so, I must read it over again. FATHER DOMINEER [to ONE-EYED LARRY]. What’s th’ name ofthat one? ONE-EYED LARRY [squinting at the title]. Ullisississies, – or something. FATHER DOMINEER. Worse than th’ other one. [He hands his to
ONE-EYED LARRY] Bring th’ two o’ them down to th’ Presbytery, an’ we’ll desthroy them.
The cock dances during this confrontation between all the protagonists, and accordion music is heard. Mahan and Marthraun resume their endless haggling, Marthraun’s attitude towards his wife reverts to what it was. Lorna, however, is no longer the same. Common sense and a new self-confidence have taken hold of her. Superstition among the church-going men continues, this time triggered by a goose.
Shanaar and the two workers bring Loreleen, who was attacked by an incited mob when she went with Mahan, believing he would give her the money for a ticket. Her clothes are torn. There is nothing to indicate that these workers defended Loreleen, to whose sensuality and beauty they had earlier been attracted. They have regressed, failed to realise their potential; they even robbed her of her money.
Very different behaviour might have been expected from Jack, the driver who was killed, the more conscious proletarian over whom Domineer had no control. Robin now carries the accordion on his back and no longer plays. All hope seems lost at this moment. Superstition and misanthropy have prevailed for the time being. But the rooster, despite every effort, is neither caught nor killed. Although the forces of humanity leave the stage, he remains, part of eternally renewing nature, expecting to cause turmoil again in future. Robin alone defends Loreleen and takes control of the moment.
MESSENGER [coming over to the ROUGH FELLOW on LORELEEN’s right – calmly]. Let that fair arm go, me man, for, if you don’t, there’s a live arm here’ll twist your neck instead. [With a shout] Let it go! [After a nod from the priest, the 1ST ROUGH FELLOW lets LORELEEN’s arm go. The MESSENGER goes quietly round to the 2ND ROUGH FELLOW.) Let that fair arm go, me man, or another arm may twist your own neck! Let it go! [The 2ND ROUGH FELLOW sullenly does so.] Now stand a little away, an’ give th’ girl room to breathe. [The TWO ROUGH FELLOWS move a little away from LORELEEN.] Thank you. [To the priest] Now, Father, so full of pity an’ loving-kindness, jet out your bitther blessin’, an’ let th’ girl go. An’ thry to mingle undherstandin’ with your pride, so as to ease th’ tangle God has suffered to be flung around us all.
Much like the youth of Ireland, young people now flee the village that embodies Ireland. Loreleen leaves and Lorna goes with her. Marion also departs. Robin plays another tune. Julia is brought back and only Robin speaks to her kindly, giving her encouragement. Then Robin also leaves “To a place where life resembles life more than it does here.” However, he and the women, like Loreleen, may return and cause upheaval once more.