Who is Donal Davoren?

Sean O’Casey’s Shadow of a Gunman offers a indiscreetly tense, vivid view into the Irish War of Independence of the 1920s. The play, along with the rest of O’Casey’s Dublin Trilogy (Juno and the Paycock, The Plough and the Stars) deals with the height of the conflict, pitting its seemingly simple-minded characters against the militarized world outside their front door. While the characters of Gunman seem to want no part of the war raging on outside (other than the occasional intoxicated commentary), they find themselves right the middle of it at the play’s close.

Donal Davoren, the play’s protagonist, gives us an intriguing range of archetypes to choose from. What makes him such an interesting character to read is his complete lack of definition; while characters such as Seamus Shields and Mr. Mulligan fill the roles of sidekick and authority figure (respectively), Donal’s true intentions are somewhat shadowed (hey, look at that) throughout the play.

His inner conflict is represented by the war waging outside his window. Characters like Seamus and Tommy Owens clearly have chosen sides, yet Donal appears to remain neutral throughout the entire play. This reflects his own struggle to define himself. He strives to be a poet, yet when the other tenants of his building suspect him to be a “gunman” for the IRA, he actually uses this false information to his advantage to win over the infatuated Minnie Powell. Unsatisfied with his current lifestyle, Donal escapes his own problems by creating a new figment of importance for his life. This ultimately winds up costing him the trust (and lives) of his friends.

At the end of the play, Donal’s “shadow” becomes evident: as a result of his indecision, he will now have to live with the death of Minnie following him for the rest of his life. As the curtain falls, the question remains: who is he? His last words shed light on this: “Oh, Davoren, Donal Davoren, poet and poltroon, poltroon and poet!” Donald, nor the audience, cannot answer this question. By abstaining to root himself in an artistic or political stature, he winds up becoming a victim of both. His lack of archetype comes as a consequence of his indecision.

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