Mrs. Tancred: A Foil and A Mirror

Sean O’Casey’s drama Juno and the Paycock details the slow, painful degradation of the Boyle family in war-torn Ireland in the early 1920s. Juno remains strong and calm throughout the course of the play, even though she suffers from a drunkard, good-for-nothing husband, an illegitimately pregnant daughter, and a dead son. The last of these—Johnny’s death—elicits perhaps the most emotional response from Juno, and rightfully so. After learning of her son’s demise, Juno launches into a speech that she borrows from another son-less mother—Mrs. Tancred, a relatively minor character found only in the second act. . These shared words force the reader to consider Juno and Mrs. Tancred in comparison to one another and, when examined closely enough, one discovers that, while Mrs. Tancred foils Juno in appearance and emotional composition, she and Juno share …When Mrs. Tancred enters the scene (121), she is described as “a very old woman, obviously shaken by the death of her son.” She is obviously defeated by the untimely death of her son and even hints at the probability of her own death, saying “I won’t be long afther him” (122). The death of her son has seeped into her very being and has wreaked havoc on her; she is small and weak and has no use for life any longer. Juno, on the other hand, is described as a woman that, “[w]ere circumstances favourable, she would probably be a handsome, active, and clever woman” (72). Juno is always in a state of motion and is arguably the only true example of life in the play. She is never short on words and possesses a sort of vitality that one could easily believe impossible in Mrs. Tancred. Accordingly, Mrs. Tancred is a woman of extremes while Juno is far more balanced, controlled, and calm. Mrs. Tancred looks the art of the mourning mother; one can imagine her hunched over, pale, and cold even needing a shawl from Mrs. Madigan (122). She speaks in extremes, as well. When a neighbor, trying to console her, assures Mrs. Tancred that her son will be buried “like a king,” she insists that she will live “like a pauper” (122). Directly after that, Mrs. Tancred launches into a speech about carrying her son from the cradle as well as bringing him to his grave (122). There is no middle ground, no area of compromise for Mrs. Tancred: her son may die like a king, yet she lives poor; the only noteworthy experiences of her fallen son’s life are his birth and untimely death. In a latter speech she implores the Lord, asking Him to replace their “hearts o’ stone” with “hearts o’ flesh,” to replace “murdherin’ hate” with “Thine own eternal love” (123). For Mrs. Trancred, things are black and white in a world of grey. Juno, on the other hand, is far more balanced and controlled than Mrs. Tancred appears. When Juno first expects Johnny is in trouble, the reader is explicitly told that she reacts calmly to the news. There are very few stage directions at this point; it seems that Juno barely moves at all, spending most of her energy consoling Mary and figuring out how to salvage what is left of their lives. After being told that a man was found by the police and they think it may be Johnny, Mary throws her arms around her mother, moaning, “Me poor, darlin’ mother!” (153). Instead of giving into emotion, however, Juno tells Mary to “Hush, hush, hush darlin’; you’ll shortly have your own throuble to bear” (153). Furthermore, when Mary admits to Juno that she “dhread[s]” seeing the body of her dead brother, Juno reacts rationally and kindly, saying “No, no, you mustn’t come—it wouldn’t be good for you. You go on to me sisther’s an’ I’ll face th’ ordeal meself. (155). Even in an incredibly difficult moment, Juno still considers what is best for Mary and continues to rely on herself for strength. She even manages to plan their future, saying “We’ll go. Come Mary, an’ we’ll never come back here again… I’ve got a little room in me sisther’s where we’ll stop till your throuble is over, an’ then we’ll work together for the sake of the baby” (154). In the midst of tragedy, Juno manages to control her emotions and, without resorting to extremes, makes logical decisions that should make the best out of the situation.While Mrs. Tancred and Juno seem like very different characters, they share the important similarity of a dead son. Mrs. Tancred makes a heartfelt speech in Act II about her son, saying:Ah, what’s the pains I suffered bringing’ him into the world to carry him to his cradle, to the pains I’m sufferin’ now, carryin’ him out o’ the world to bring him to his grave! … O Blessed Virgin, where were you when me darlin’ son was riddled with bullets, when me darlin’ son was riddled with bullets! … Sacred Heart of the Crucified Jesus, take away our hearts o’ stone…an’ give us hearts o’ flesh! … Take away this murdherin’ hate…an’ give us Thine own eternal love! (122-23)After finding out about Johnny’s death, Juno, in her sadness, remembers Mrs. Tancred:Maybe I didn’t feel sorry enough for Mrs. Tancred when her poor son was found as Johnny’s been found now… Ah, why didn’t I remember that he wasn’t a Diehard or a Stater, but only a poor dead son! It’s well that I remember all that she said—an’ it’s my turn to say it now…(155)These shared words between the two women force the reader to compare Mrs. Tancred with Juno. Mrs. Tancred sets a precedent for Juno, an example for her to follow. Yet only Juno can fully realize the dehumanizing effects of war because of her initial reaction to Mrs. Tancred’s son’s death; she admits that she saw Mrs. Tancred’s son as a Diehard, not a as man, not a as son, not a as human. War reduces people to sides; good and bad, right and wrong, for and against. People cease to be people in wartime, unless a loss is suffered. In order for Juno to grow in her dynamism, she had to feel the sting of mortality through the death of Johnny; only then can she—and the reader—realize that she and Mrs. Tancred are really not that different. Both Mrs. Tacnred and Juno are struggling to get through this period of war, poverty, and squalor; they are simply at different points in their struggle—Mrs. Tancred, near the end and Juno, just beginning.Works CitedO’Casey, Sean. “Juno and the Paycock..” Selected Plays of Sean O’Casey. New York City: St. Martin’s Press Inc, 1954. 69-157.

The Irish Troubles: The Importance of Setting in Juno and the Paycock

Some stories depend more heavily on their environment to advance their plots and themes than others. Such is the case with Juno and the Paycock by Sean O’Casey. The play follows the plight of a working class family in Ireland during the civil war that rocked that country in 1922. This divisive political backdrop to the story reflects how the characters are disconnected from one another and don’t react as a cohesive unit working toward a single goal. Economic woes play a primary part in the unraveling of the family unit. Another facet of setting is the ritualistic religious convictions of the characters, especially Johnny, in their attempt to escape their dilemmas. The financial quandary of the family, the disunity of the political canvas on which their story is painted and their superstitious religious beliefs all define the setting of the play and the way that their surroundings successfully stifles the happiness of the characters. The Boyle family’s struggle to communicate with one another is echoed in the dissension taking place among the Irish people outside their door. The citizens of the country have separated into two opposing camps, the Free Staters and the Diehards. When they should be working toward the common goal of independence from Britain, they are instead pitting brother against brother in a futile and bloody outburst of violence. Likewise, inside the Boyle house-where their situation is such that all members of the family might be expected to be working toward the common goal of self-reliance and financial security-there are a multiplicity of differing individuals at work, often laboring at cross-purposes. Mrs. Boyle toils vigorously to keep the entire family’s financial heads above water. Taking advantage of this situation is Mr. Boyle, the father, who would normally be expected to be the breadwinner but is instead a lazy drunk and a despicable role model for his son. That son, Johnny, is meanwhile held captive by the guilt he feels for having betrayed a fellow political comrade. Meanwhile, the daughter Mary is attempting escape from the realities both inside and outside her home by reading books. The family is detached and alienated from each other, fighting with one another over their values and beliefs just as the citizenry of Ireland are doing outside their tenement. Financial worries can either bring a family together or destroy them completely; in this situation those concerns are accomplishing the latter. At the beginning of the play, it quickly becomes apparent that this is a family in dire financial straits. The mother is the only member currently working since Mary is out on strike from her job. Mr. Boyle is making a habit of drinking and carousing and spending what little money he is able to find. “You’d think he was bringin’ twenty poun’s a week the way he’s going on. He wore out the Health Insurance long ago, he’s afther wearin’ out the unemployment dole, an’, now, he’s tryin’ to wear me out” (69), says Mrs. Boyle of her husband. He’s an indolent slob who doesn’t care where his money comes from as long as he’s not forced to earn it through labor. A supposedly game pair of legs is keeping Mr. Boyle from taking a job, sending the family deeper into a financial spiral. Johnny can’t work at all because he’s missing an arm and his hip has been shot to pieces. It’s quite possible that financial gain played a part in his decision to betray his friend Tancred. The Boyles need a miracle, and it would seem that a miracle comes their way when an unexpected inheritance seems destined for their door. The idea of a great deal of money coming in should bring the family closer together, but even that fails. They are living in more splendor, or at least less squalor, as they begin to decorate their home with better furnishings and flowers all about the place. The squabbling continues, only now it’s progressed to such topics as whether or not they should buy a gramophone and whether or not they are putting themselves into too much debt before they even get the money due them. Their situation in the second act of the play seems hardly better than it was when we first we met them. Money, even the idea of money, seems to be a wedge between their working together to make a joyful home. Christianity plays a major role in the lives of the Irish people; for the Boyles it becomes more of a frustration than an instrument of deliverance from their worries. The Boyles look to their beliefs in the dogma of the Catholic Church as a way of salvation, but their spiritual beliefs are not enough to save them from their destructive-and notably anti-Christian-tendencies. In the actual physical setting of the play, there is a picture of the Virgin Mary with a votive candle constantly kept burning beneath it. Religious images are dispersed throughout the play. At one point Mrs. Boyle says of her husband that he’s “constantly singin’, no less, when he ought always to be on his knees offerin’ up a Novena for a job” (69). Clearly, she thinks prayer is the answer to the heartbreaking question of why her husband refuses to work. This stifles any opportunity for a change in the situation because it is a simplistic approach to the more complex psychological problem of why Mr. Boyle tends to run away from the idea of working for a living. Mary was probably named after the Virgin Mary so it’s ironic that she violated the tenet of the Catholic Church that argues pre-marital sex is a sin. Mary commits the sin of sleeping with Mr. Bentham and predictably winds up with child and without husband. Both Johnny and her father instantly side with the Church by condemning her for bringing shame upon the family. This is very ironic considering both the moral failure of Johnny in his callous betrayal of Tancred and the moral failure of Mr. Boyle, who takes no active part in making sure his family is safe and secure. Finally, there is unique case of Johnny, who exhibits the most intense religious beliefs of any character in the play. Johnny is a man consumed with a very Catholic sense of guilt. The votive candle burning beneath the portrait of the Virgin Mary becomes more than just another religious ritual done regularly and without much conscious thought. The votive candle becomes highly symbolic for Johnny. He seems to believe that as long it’s burning he’ll not have to answer for his great sin of perfidy. He may be right, for almost the minute that the candle goes out the Irregulars arrive to take Johnny to meet his barbarous fate. His belief in his religion has failed to protect him and his family from the ultimate tragedy. The environment in which the story of the Boyles takes place serves up images of violence, poverty and the hope for salvation from sins through religious practice. All of these are presented as background to the story of a family coming apart at the seems. Their story is a microcosm of the events taking place in the larger world outside their walls; a world that also faces violence, poverty and a religion that is a cause of, rather than a solution to, their troubles. Works CitedO’Casey, Sean. Juno and the Paycock. Three Dublin Plays. London: Faber & Faber Limited, 1998. 67-148.