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SONG AND THE ARTIST IN THE AUTOBIOGRAPHIES OF SEAN O’CASEY J. D. SCRIMGEOUR at approximately the same time that Sean O’Casey was writing what many critics consider his most overtly political play, The Star Turns Red (1940), he was working on the Wrst and second books of his six-volume autobiography , I Knock at the Door (1939) and Pictures in the Hallway (1942). Surprisingly, however, the political fervor of The Star Turns Red seems absent in these autobiographies, and the writing of his life story appears an escape for O’Casey from the politics of the Thirties. In the most recent and most thorough study of O’Casey’s autobiographies, Portraying the Self: Sean O’Casey and the Art of Autobiography (1988), Michael Kenneally hints at some explanation for the lack of political dogma in the Wrst two books by approaching them not as history, biography, or Wction, but in light of the conditions of the autobiographical genre. A brief discussion of the autobiographical act and the historical and biographical context surrounding the creation of the Wrst and second autobiographies reveals that O’Casey’s essential reason for writing his autobiographies is to defend himself as an artist. If the autobiographical act is understood as an attempt at self-deWnition in response to current challenges to the autobiographer and his beliefs, notable diVerences can be detected between the seemingly similar I Knock at the Door and Pictures in the Hallway. The Wrst two autobiographies show O’Casey shifting his deWnition of the role of the artist in society in response to the shifting attacks on his dramas and his aesthetics. The autobiographies ’ diVerences in deWning art and the artist, most notably through song, reveal both young Johnny Casside’s steps toward becoming an artist and, more important, the sixty-year-old O’Casey’s evolving conception of art as a conscious attempt to aVect others, rather than a spontaneous expression of life. Knowing when a person writes an autobiography is essential in understanding the autobiography, for one will recall diVerent events or THE AUTOBIOGRAPHIES OF SEAN O’CASEY 93 derive diVerent signiWcance from the same events depending on his or her present conception of self and how that self was formed. Also, autobiographical techniques—the form of the work—are determined by the state of the current self. In autobiography, “the Wnished creation is ultimately a product of present consciousness.”1 The past is only recollected through the Wlter of everything that has happened since in the author’s life, and what is happening as she or he writes. For this reason, often “an autobiography is much more an accurate picture of the self which records personal history than it is a true account of the various selves being recorded” (PS 14). The act of writing an autobiography is not a random occurrence in the author’s life; something in the current self motivates an eVort at self-portrayal . For example, for O’Casey one motivation was simply Wnancial. He hoped the autobiographies would “supplement his always meagre income .”2 But this does not explain why he chooses to write an autobiography speciWcally, rather than a novel, or such a book of essays as his collection The Flying Wasp (1937).3 An urge to deWne the self is also involved,4 and, as Kenneally points out, such an urge is triggered by circumstance. “Many autobiographies,” Kenneally writes, “are written to bolster or verify the self-image when circumstances threaten to undermine it” (PS 18). A major motivation for O’Casey, as we shall see, is his status as an artist, for he deWned himself primarily as an artist and it is his artistic principles —more than his personal life or even his politics—that were being challenged when he set out to write his Wrst two autobiographies. Kenneally provides an excellent introduction to theoretical issues regarding autobiography and their relation to O’Casey’s autobiographies, yet his consideration of the context and O’Casey’s motivation for the six volumes is less thorough. While recognizing that in order to present the development of the current self, O’Casey has his persona assume many different selves, Kenneally does not...


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pp. 93-108
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