Tragi-comedy is a kind of writing in which comedy is hovering on the brinks of tragedy. O’Casey’s “Juno and the Paycock” is a tragi-comedy although, on the whole, it is a serious and somber play having much destruction and violence. But there are a number of comic elements in the play which would not fit into the pattern of a tragedy. On the other hand, as the comic elements do not outweigh the tragic ones, it would be inappropriate to label the play as a comedy. It means there is a co-existence in the play of tragic and comic elements and so, the best course is to treat it as a tragi-comedy.
The play starts with a graphic description of Boyle’s household. The setting reflects the poverty of the dwellers. Then the news of murder of Robbie Tancred is also very gloomy. Johnny’s neurotic condition adds to the tension of the play. But suddenly the mood of the play changes when Captain Boyle and Joxer Daly come in. The description of Mr. Boyle and Joxer’s physiognomy creates laughter. They are in fact grotesques. Mr. Boyle’s neck is short and his head looks like a stone ball on top of a gatepost. He carries himself with the upper part of his body slightly thrust forward. His walk is a slow consequential thrust.
We again burst into laughter when we see Juno hiding herself to catch Joxer and Captain Boyle as they make themselves at home. Joxer’s repetition of the words “a darling man, a darling man”, “a darling thing, a darling thing”; his attempt to escape from the situation at the sight of Juno; Mr. Boyle’s pretension that he is searching for a job sincerely, are all funny indeed. When jerry Devine enters, the situation becomes more ludicrous. Mr. Boyle is not willing to accept the job opportunity brought by Jerry. His lame excuses produce nothing but laughter.
“Won’t it be a climbin’ job? How d’ye expect me to be able to go up a ladder with these legs? An’, if I get up a self, how am I goin’ to get down agen?”
We are also much amused when Captain Boyle is interrupted while singing first by sewing machine man’s entry and then by the thundering knocks at the door. And when Boyle invites Joxer to a cup of tea Joxer says:
“I’m afraid the missus ud pop in on us agen before we’d know where we are, somethin’s tellin’ me to go at wanst.”
And to this Boyle replies:
“Don’t be superstitious, man; we’re Dublin men, ……”
We are also greatly amused when we find Joxer Daly and Mr. Boyle discussing about books and history. But their mock-intellectual discussion is interrupted by the voice of a coal vender. Again we burst into laughter when Joxer flies out of the window at learning the voice of Juno.
In fact, this whole episode is very humorous and funny. But in this fun and ludicrous description there is a tinge of pathos as well. For example, at one place, Juno says to Boyle:
“Here, sit down an’ take your breakfast – it may be the last you’ll get, for I don’t know where the next is going to come from.”
Then when there is knocking at the door and Boyle asks Joxer to tuck this head out of the window and see who is there, Joxer replies:
“An, mebbe get a bullet in the kisser?”
Apparently, this remark may be funny but underneath there is a grim tragedy in it … the tragedy of Ireland destroyed and wasted by civil war. Boyle’s remark that:
“… the clergy always had too much power over the people in this unfortunate country.”
This again shows the grim situation of Ireland. Thus here we have an intermingling of light and serious elements of a mixture of comedy and pathos.
In act II, too, we have much laughter. For example the changed attitude of Boyle at the prospect of false will, the singing of Juno and Mary, Mrs. Madigan and especially Joxer and Mr. Boyle are amusingly funny. In fact this whole episode is a merry comedy, although on the background we can also perceive the tensions of the funeral.
In act III, where there are much sufferings and destruction even then we find some comic situation there. Joxer’s behaviour at the downfall of Mr. Boyle is very funny. He instigates Nugent, the tailor, to get his suit away from Mr. Boyle. He also stoles away a bottle of brandy from the table and Boyle’s indignation at the moment creates laughter.
Actually, on the whole, farce in the play, is verbal – the repartee, the comic catchphrases, the cumulative comedy of repetition. There is the comedy of dialect and mispronunciation; of pompous phrases misused; of ludicrous images. Inflation and deflation both are comic. Captain Boyle’s inflation of his fantasies with invention, exaggeration, rhetoric and bombastic and Juno’ facility in knocking him down etc all are comic.
But, despite, so much laughter and comedy, the play is predominantly tragic in theme. For example, the ignorance that prompts Joxer’s and Captain Boyle’s mistake makes us laugh at first but is fundamentally tragic; their idleness, drunkenness and deviousness give numerous opportunities for comedy, but are in themselves wasteful and destructive. Tenement life gives rise to farcical situations but is in reality grim. Thus the superficialities of certain circumstances of Dublin life make an audience laugh, whereas, these are tragic if examined in full e.g. heroes become cowards, nationalism becomes jingoism, labour, humanitarianism becomes inhumanity. These are the tragedies of the play, which are mingled with comedy.
The pith and marrow of all this discussion is that, comedy is here, in fact, hovering on the brink of tragedy and so we are apt and just when we call “Juno and the Paycock” a tragi-comedy.