Question

Question

With reference to the ways that O’Casey presents Johnny, show how far you agree that Johnny is deserving of sympathy.

You could make a variety of the following points if you were writing an essay in response to this question.

This list is neither prescriptive nor exhaustive – you may not have time to mention all these points in an hour and there are many more points that you could make.

Just make sure you know the play well enough to come up with a selection of good points quickly, no matter what question you are asked.

  • O’Casey uses dramatic structure to ensure that our first impression of Johnny is of an unstable and fearful character, even though we are not yet aware of the reasons. The opening stage directions immediately suggest Johnny is a vulnerable and/or passive character with the use of the verb "crouched" - he is "crouched beside the fire". The verb in the next stage direction conveys agitation as he is described as "springing up from the fire" to tell his mother and sister to stop talking about the murder of the neighbour. Therefore our first impressions of him are of someone who may be vulnerable and scared.
  • Johnny's first lines of dialogue reinforce his agitated state through the punctuation, "Oh, quit that readin' for God's sake! Are yous losin' all your feelin's?" The exclamation "for God’s sake" shows his exasperation and the question mark and exclamation mark emphasise it further. O’Casey very quickly establishes that Johnny is worried and jumpy.
  • O’Casey’s stage directions describe him as "a thin, delicate fellow … he has evidently gone through a rough time", therefore depicting him as a pitiable character.
  • His speech continues to be like this at various stages of the play. There are examples of repetition and ellipsis at times too, showing disjointed speech patterns. The impression of him as not being mentally healthy is built on as the play progresses.
  • In Act I Johnny asserts "I won’t stop here be meself" - a grown man being frightened to stay in the house alone raises the suspicions of the audience and it becomes clearer that he is scared of something.
  • Johnny’s anxiety that the votive light stays on seems to associate it with safety, perhaps linking the colour "crimson" to his death later on. We may pity his desperate questions about whether the light is still on. At the opening of Act III we are told that the votive light "gleams more redly than ever" – perhaps the brighter red foreshadowing that Johnny’s death is getting closer. We feel sorry for Johnny as the appearance of various men and the crimson light getting redder quickens up the pace towards the inevitable.
  • There are further incidences of Johnny seeming quite childish, which can make him a sympathetic character. In Act III the stage directions describe him as "throwing himself on the bed", conveying a petulant child unable to express himself.
  • It is revealed gradually that Johnny is trapped by the idealism of his political views. He cries "Ireland only half free’ll never be at peace while she has a son left to pull a trigger" - O’Casey may be critiquing how young, poor men were used as pawns for the benefit of others.
  • As we realise that Johnny has been involved in the murder of Mrs Tancred’s son, we see that his fear has trapped him - literally - in the flat. He never leaves until the Irregulars take him away. He is also psychologically trapped, constantly awaiting the consequences of his actions.
  • Stage directions describe him in Act II as "his face pale, his lips twitching, his limbs trembling".The verbs and adjectives used here suggest he is so terrified that the fear is affecting him physically. This is also shown when he says, "I’m afther feelin’ a pain in me breast".
  • His pleading with the Irregulars - reminding them that he is “an oul’ comrade” - shows his desperation as he is aware that execution is imminent. This may make us empathise with his feeling of panic.
  • His desperation is shown when he prays in anguish, “Sacred Heart of Jesus, have mercy on me!”
  • The removal men’s reactions to Johnny’s behaviour - and their assertion that “He’s goin’ mad” - show that he is clearly distressed.
  • The violent nature of the Irregulars and their use of threatening language increase tension and make us fear for Johnny. When they tell the removal men to “Get over to the other end of the room an’ turn your faces to the wall – quick!” we realise that they do not want to be identified or seen, and that this may mean they are going to kill Johnny.
  • In the end, he is shot and killed. Juno’s final lament for a “poor dead brother ... a poor dead son ... riddled with bullets” shows the grief of the family and leaves us with sympathy for the futile loss of a young man’s life.

You should always try to provide a counterargument in any essay as this shows you know the play well enough to see other arguments and interpretations.

If you want to get the highest marks, it is essential that you show understanding of different points of view.

Remember that characters and situations are rarely simple and that - like most real life people and events - there are often two sides to most opinions.

In this case some points of counterargument could be:

  • Johnny can be peevish and demanding, expecting his mother to look after him. His imperative “Bring us in a dhrink o’ wather” for example is typically demanding and he shows little thanks.
  • He is cruel and heartless towards his own family, demonstrating little compassion despite the fact that they have looked after and defended him in his own time of need. He is quick to suggest that Mary must go "into some place ower this, there’s no one here to mind her" when he thinks she is very ill. When he discovers that she is actually pregnant he declares that "she should be dhriven out o’ th’ house she’s brought disgrace on!" He condemns his father saying “I’m done with you, for you’re worse than me sisther Mary!” He holds his mother responsible for everything that has happened when he says in the end, “You’re to blame yourself for a gradle of it ... givin’ him his own way”. His empathy has not been developed by his own sufferings and he is harsh in his judgment of others. In one of his final selfish speeches - showing no understanding of anyone else’s suffering - he says “Not one o’ yous, not one o’ yous, have any thought for me!”
  • Johnny's fear and suffering are consequences of his betrayal of his comrade Tancred, therefore it could be argued that he is to blame for his own problems and this makes him less deserving of sympathy.
  • We could argue that his poor suffering mother is a lot more deserving of sympathy than him as she must live with the consequences of his actions. She laments "What was the pain I suffered, Johnny, bringin' you into the world to carry you to your cradle, to the pains I’ll suffer carryin’ you out o' the world to bring you to your grave!"