Poverty dominates the play, whose characters have barely enough money to stay afloat. The Boyles don't even have enough for Juno to be willing to share tea with Joxer Daly. Jerry Devine states his standards for a husband in terms of money, telling Mary how much he expects to earn, and Bentham leaves Mary when he finds out she has no money to share.
Ironically, the Boyles live in poverty despite both children's beliefs in ideals and principles. Mary, for her part, has gone on strike with her trade union to support a fellow worker and often tells her mother, "a principle's a principle." Yet despite their sacrifices, Ireland remains at war, both Mary and her co-worker now have no work, and the family has barely enough money to survive.
The play's language reveals the dehumanizing effects of poverty. There are several allusions to animals: Boyle is a peacock, possessing pride and useless display; he refers to working as "mulin," becoming a beast of burden. Even Juno has to act like a huntress in order to catch Joxer. There are also a number of animal-related verbs, such as butchering, sacrificing, grousing, galloping, cantering, gobbling, and so on, which imply the animalistic nature of the poor. The references disappear in Act II, when the family thinks they have money; thus we see it is the conditions of life that brutalizes the characters and causes most of them to treat each other in an exploitative way.
Religion is another dominant theme, with characters espousing a variety of religious views. Juno is a traditional Catholic; she believes Boyle should be praying novenas for a job, that bad things happen due to the folly of men rather than the absence of God, and that the world would be a better place if people followed their religions more faithfully. Mary is not so sure, for she cannot understand how God would let horrible things happen such as the murder of her brother. Her fiance Charlie Bentham is a Theosophist, an esoteric philosophy portrayed as somewhat vague and fitting for a man with shallow commitments to other people. Johnny has an almost magical view of religion, for he believes he will be safe only as long as the votive candle under the picture of the Virgin Mary remains lit.
Boyle makes a number of humorous comments about religion. A poem he composes reflects how churchgoers do not necessarily have good morals: "He was not what some call pious - seldom at church or prayer; For the greatest scoundrels I know, sir, goes every Sunday there" (48). Of Jerry, he says: "I never heard him usin' a curse; I don't believe he was ever dhrunk in his life - sure he's not like a Christian at all!" (22) He also points out how the clergy have historically had too much power over the Irish people. It may be that O'Casey is expressing his own religious views through Boyle, as he left the church early in his life to become an Atheist.
Truth and Illusion
The play dramatizes the conflict between the worlds of fantasy and reality. In a sense, Boyle's entire life is a lie: he invents entire years of his life as a seafaring captain and acquires fictitious pains in his legs any time he is asked to work. When he thinks he will receive a legacy, he imagines himself an investor in the stock exchange; he also imagines himself scholarly and sophisticated, quoting titles of books he has never read. Boyle cannot cope when confronted with reality. He refuses to face the truth of Bentham's disappearance and the worthlessness of the legacy, and he cannot cope when he loses his possessions. Instead he escapes into fantasy once again through drink, which we see in the last scene: "Commandant Kelly died... in them... arms.... Tell me Volunteer Butties... says he... that... I died for... Irelan'!" (72-3)
Mary, too, lives a fantasy life of sorts. She believes strongly in her principles and is on strike to support a co-worker, despite the fact that the family can hardly afford to forego her salary. She tries to escape the poverty of her existence through books and learning. Bentham offers a tangible opportunity to escape slum life, but she is blinded by her fantasies and does not realize his selfishness until reality strikes and she discovers he has abandoned her, pregnant and penniless.
Only Juno seems to have a firm grasp on reality. She chastises Boyle for his invented stories and reminds Mary that a principle won't pay the bills. Her pragmatism allows her to respond appropriately to Mary's pregnancy and come up with a solution that makes her plight bearable.
The play suggests that nationalism and religion are both romantic illusions which permit and even encourage an escape from the harsh reality of poverty, just as alcohol does.
The male and female characters stand in stark contrast to one another. The tenement women demonstrate a capacity for love, altruism, and wisdom, while the men are self-centered and try to escape reality through alcohol and nationalistic dreams. Johnny's violent slogan "Ireland only half free'll never be at peace while she has a son left to pull a trigger" (27) constrasts with Mrs. Tancred's plea for eternal love. Mary, though vain, has passion; her suitors, on the other hand, are self-centered and desert her in her time of need. The most detailed contrast is between Juno and Boyle. Ironically, the Roman goddess Juno's chariot is said to be drawn by peacocks, but the "paycock" Boyle hurts more than helps Juno through his vanity and self-centeredness. He believes war is the government's business, not theirs, and accuses his daughter of bringing shame on the family rather than supporting her in her plight. Juno, on the other hand, feeds the family, comforts her children, and reminds her husband of the countless acquaintances who have died or been injured in the war. The strength of the female characters, particularly juxtaposed with the male ones, reflects a feminist perspective in this and others of O'Casey's plays.
Public / Private Drama
The play has both national and domestic themes; these are linked through a number of parallels. The Irish people's hopes of unity and independence have been thwarted by partition and the civil war; similarly, Boyle's hopes of fortune are thwarted by the partition of his cousin's property between all of his first and second cousins, so that nobody will get anything of value. Mary, too, has her hopes dashed when Bentham breaks their engagement and disappears to England.
Both the nation and the Boyles suffer from the breaking of fundamental relationships. Ireland is split between Republicans/ Diehards and Free Staters, and Johnny Boyle betrays his former comrade Robbie Tancred. Johnny and Boyle turn against Mary when they hear of her pregnancy, and Mary and Juno desert Boyle after he fails to support Mary and tell them about the worthlessness of the legacy. The family, like the country, breaks up.
O'Casey occasionally makes this parallel between public and private drama explicit. Boyle says Juno will have to take an "oath of allegiance" to the "independent Republic" he will establish (24), and when Juno sits him down to tell him about Mary, he asks "More throuble in our native land....?" (60.) Boyle also identifies himself with Ireland in the last scene, when he drunkenly mumbles, "The counthry'll have to steady itself... it's goin'... to hell...." (72).
Juno and the Paycock takes place during a tumultuous time in Irish history, as the country is in the midst of a civil war. We see the horror of civil strife through the murders of Robbie Tancred and Johnny Boyle, along with the effects those deaths have on their families. The police are little help, as Mrs. Madigan asserts: "For you're the same as yous were undher the British Government - never where yous are wanted! As far as I can see, the Polis as Polis, in this city, is Null an' Void!" (71.) O'Casey draws upon his experience living through these events and presents them in such a way that we can see the senselessness of the violence.
Johnny is a staunch nationalist, having fought for the Republicans to keep the country together. We see the effect this nationalism can have on people's lives through Johnny's injuries. When the Mobilizer comes for him, he asks, "Haven't I done enough for Ireland! I've lost me arm, an' me hip's desthroyed so that I'll never be able to walk right agen! Good God, haven't I done enough for Ireland?" "Boyle, no man can do enough for Ireland!" (30), the young man replies. O'Casey may be communicating his own views on the folly of nationalist fervor, as he had became disillusioned with such causes.
O'Casey also draws upon patriotic writings, poems, fables, proverbs, and other such references that were familiar to much of the population. While not exactly nationalistic, these quotes reflect the "Irishness" of the play.
Juno and the Paycock Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Juno and the Paycock is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
O'Casey is against war, noting the exorbitant cost in terms of ordinary people's lives. Through the play, he condemns the violence of man against man, showing the effect it has on families (such as Mrs. Tancred, Juno, and Mary) and on the...