Critical notes on John Millington Synge and "Playboy of the Western World"

"The Playboy of the Western World" was produced for the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, Ireland--a theater founded by W. B. Yeats and others to foster a new generation of Irish drama (see the chapter by Seamus Deane for further discussion). The aim of the Abbey group was to promote drama that spoke positively for the Irish people--positively and compellingly to them and for them in conjunction with their quest for independent statehood.

The following passages by various critics and writers should help you understand the context of the play.

From W. B. Yeats, "J. M. Synge and the Ireland of His Time," Essays and Introductions (New York: Collier Books, 1968)

On Saturday, January 26, 1907, I was lecturing in Aberdeen, and when my lecture was over I was given a telegram which said, `Play great success.' It had been sent from Dublin after the second act of `The Playboy of the Western World,' then being performed for the first time. After one in the morning, my host brought to my bedroom this second telegram, `Audience broke up in disorder at the word shift.' I knew no more until I got the Dublin papers on my way from Belfast to Dublin on Tuesday morning. On the Monday night no words of the play had been heard. About forty young men had sat in the front seats of the pit, and stamped and shouted and blown trumpets from the rise to the fall of the curtain. On the Tuesday night also the forty young men were there. They wished to silence what they considered a slander upon Ireland's womanhood. Irish women would never sleep under the same roof with a young man without a chaperon, nor admire a murderer, nor use a word like `shift'; nor could any one recognise the country men and women of Davis and Kickham in these poetical, violent, grotesque persons, who used the name of God so freely, and spoke of all things that hit their fancy.

"A patriotic journalism which had seen in Synge's capricious imagination the enemy of all it would have young men believe, had for years prepared for this hour . . . . The preparation had begun after the first performance of `The Shadow of the Glen,' Synge's first play, with [his] assertion that he had taken his fable and his characters, not from his own mind . . . but `from a writer of the Roman decadence.' . . . the frenzy that would have silenced his master-work was, like most violent things, artificial, that defence of virtue by those who have but little . . .

"As I stood there watching, knowing well that I saw the dissolution of a school of patriotism that held sway over my youth, Synge came and stood beside me, and said, `A young doctor has just told me that he can hardly keep himself from jumping on to a seat, and pointing out in that howling mob those whom he is treating for venereal disease.'

. . .

"Synge seemed by nature unfitted to think a political thought, and with the exception of one sentence, spoken when I first met him in Paris, that implied some sort of Nationalist conviction, I cannot remember that he spoke of politics or showed any interest in men in the mass, . . . Often for months together he and I and Lady Gregory would see no one outside the Abbey Theatre, and that life, lived as it were in a ship at sea, suited him, for unlike those whose habit of mind fits them to judge of men in the mass, he was wise in judging individual men, . . . but of their political thoughts he long understood nothing. . . . Yet I doubt if he would have written at all if he did not write of Ireland, and for it, and I know that he thought creative art could only come from such preoccupation.

. . .

". . . `Riders to the Sea' has grown into great popularity in Dublin, partly because, with the tactical instinct of an Irish mob, the demonstrators against `The Playboy' both in the Press and in the theatre, where it began in the evening, selected it for applause. It is now what Shelley's `Cloud' was for many years, a comfort to those who do not like to deny altogether the genius they cannot understand. Yet I am certain that, in the long run, his grotesque plays with their lyric beauty, their violent laughter, `The Playboy of the Western World' most of all, will be loved for holding so much of the mind of Ireland. Synge has written of `The Playboy': `Any one who has lived in real intimacy with the Irish peasantry will know that the wildest sayings in this play are tame indeed compared with the fancies one may hear at any little hillside cottage of Geesala, or Carraroe, or Dingle Bay.' It is the strangest, the most beautiful expression in drama of that Irish fantasy which overflowing through all Irish literature that has come out of Ireland itself . . . is the unbroken character of Irish genius. In modern days this genius has delighted in mischievous extravagance, like that of the Gaelic poet's curse upon his children: `There are three things that I hate: the Devil that is waiting for my soul; the worms that are waiting for my body; my children, who are waiting for my wealth and care neither for my body nor my soul: O, Christ, hang all in the same noose!' I think those words were spoken with a delight in their vehemence . . . . An old man on the Aran Islands told me the very tale on which The Playboy is founded, beginning with the words: `if any gentleman has done a crime we'll hide him. There was a gentleman that killed his father, and I had him in my own house six months till he got away to America.' Despite the solemnity of his slow speech his eyes shone as the eyes must have shone in that Trinity College branch of the Gaelic League [a Nationalist organization] which began every meeting with prayers for the death of an old Fellow of College who disliked their movement, or as they certainly do when patriots are telling how short a time the prayers took to the killing of him. I have seen a crowd, when certain Dublin papers had wrought themselves into an imaginary loyalty, so possessed by what seemed the very genius of satiric fantasy that one all but looked to find some feathered heel among the cobble-stones. Part of the delight of crowd or individual is always that somebody will be angry, somebody take the sport for gloomy earnest. We are mocking at his solemnity, let us therefore so hide our malice that he may be more solemn still, and the laugh run higher yet. Why should we speak his language and so wake him from a dream of all those emotions which men feel because they should, and not because they must? Our minds, being sufficient to themselves, do not wish for victory but are content to elaborate our extravagance, if fortune aid, into wit or lyric beauty, and as for the rest, `there are nights when a king like Conchobar would spit upon his arm-ring and queens will stick out their tongues at the rising moon.' This habit of the mind has made Oscar Wilde and Mr. Bernard Shaw the most celebrated makers of comedy to our time, and if it has sounded plainer still in the conversation of the one, and in some few speeches of the other, that is but because they have not been able to turn out of their plays an alien trick of zeal picked up in struggling youth. Yet, in Synge's plays also, fantasy gives the form and not the thought, for the core is always, as in all great art, an overpowering vision of certain virtues, and our capacity for sharing in that vision is the measure of our delight. Great art chills us at first by its coldness or its strangeness, by what seems capricious, and yet it is from these qualities it has authority, as though it had fed on locusts and wild honey.

"To speak of one's emotions without fear or moral ambition, to come out from under the shadow of other men's minds, to forget their needs, to be utterly oneself, that is all the Muses care for. Villon, pander, thief and man-slayer, is as immortal in their eyes, and illustrates in the cry of his ruin as great a truth, as Dante in abstract ecstasy, and touches our compassion more. All art is the disengaging of a soul from place and history, its suspension in a beautiful or terrible light to await the Judgment, though it must be, seeing that all its days were a Last Day, judged already. It may show the crimes of Italy as Dante did, or Greek mythology like Keats, or Kerry and Galway villages, and so vividly that ever after I shall look at all with like eyes, and yet I know that Cino da Pistoia thought Dante unjust, that Keats knew no Greek, that those country men and women are neither so lovable nor so lawless as `mine author sung it me'; that I have added to my being, not my knowledge . . . ."

The objections to Synge's play were not just moral--some people felt that Synge was making fun of the Irish peasantry in a way that was not significantly different from the British depiction of the "stage Irish," which was certainly not a flattering comparison. (In London at the turn of the century and earlier, it was common to see the Irish depicted in newspaper cartoons as tramps, boobs, or worse--sometimes monkeys.) Or, they thought that he had overly romanticized the situation of the Irish peasants. At any rate, many Irish Nationalist activists and sympathizers thought that Synge had betrayed their movement.

But in response to this critique, consider something else Yeats had to say: "The outcry against `The Playboy' was an outcry against its style, against its way of seeing" (qtd. in Twentieth Century Interpretations of The Playboy of the Western World, ed. Thomas R. Whitaker [Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1969], p. 2). In the margin of the book where I found that quote, someone has written in pencil, "Yeats always calls attention to Synge's style in order to distance it from plot." Do you think that criticism of Yeats has merit?

From Synge: A Critical Study of the Plays, by Nicholas Grene (London: Macmillan, 1975)

"On the first night of `The Playboy of the Western World,' after the audience had rioted, Synge replied to nationalist criticisms with an irritated disclaimer: `I wrote the play because it pleased me, and it just happens that I know Irish life best, so I made my methods Irish.' He described satirically to his friend Stephen MacKenna the sort of questions which had annoyed him. `"Do you really think, Mr. Synge, that if a man did this in Mayo, girls would bring him a pullet?" The next time it was, "Do you think Mr. Synge, they'd bring him eggs?' Synge's reaction is understandable. Any artist thus faced with demands for verisimilitude which he regards as irrelevant, will be inclined to insist on the individuality of his vision. Obviously it is absurd to judge his work simply as a representation of Irish life, and to condemn it out of hand if it is considered inaccurate. Yet, it is not just accidental that Synge `knew Irish life best,' and his plays ore more than incidentally Irish. What did being Irish mean to Synge? . . ."

Synge's background is Anglo-Irish Protestant. That is to say, he is descended from English people who in the process of colonizing the Irish intermarried with them. (The same is true of Elizabeth Bowen, as we'll see at the end of the semester.) Being Anglo-Irish Protestant does not mean that you're part of the British aristocracy. But on the other hand, it means that you are not thoroughly part of the native Irish population, which is a Catholic culture. It is kind of betwixt and between--which explains part of Synge's troubles being accepted by the politically active nationalists.

Within his own family, Synge went through the same kind of intellectual rebellion that others of his generation were going through. He became a disciple of Darwin rather than the church, for example--to the dismay of his mother particularly, who was an evangelical member of the Church of Ireland and the daughter of a clergyman. As a young man he went to Germany study music--this was the first of a series of trips to the Continent, a period of self-education.

In Paris in 1896 a meeting, now famous, took place between Synge and Yeats. Yeats advised him, "Give up Paris. You will never create anything by reading Racine, and Arthur Symons will always be a better critic of French literature. Go to the Aran Islands. Live there as if you were one of the people themselves; express a life that has never found expression" (qtd. at 19). And so, two years later, he did. The notebooks he kept there are published in his book The Aran Islands.

Earlier notebooks that he had been keeping in Paris show that he was reading Wilde and Pater, among other contemporary writers. About The Renaissance, he wrote,

You will find in him a fresh estimate of aesthetic things, perillous, it may be tinged (even) with (the most) harmful decadence, yet full of suggestion and spoken in a style . . . more flagrantly beautiful--more penetrated with the mysterious harmony of language than any other. He writes of Boticelli . . . Leonardo and many more drawing dreamy decadence from work, to us . . . natively robust. (qtd. at 20)

Thus Synge was "attracted to the exotic elegance of Pater, and at the same time distrustful of his `decadence'" (20).

. . .

"Synge went to Aran attracted by the ideal of the simple harmony of the lives of the peasants, to escape the decadent culture of Paris. He wrote of his first curragh trip to Inishmaan, `It gave me a moment of exquisite satisfaction to find myself moving away from civilisation in this rude canvas canoe of a model that has served primitive races since man first went on the sea.' But even here, as he exults in his withdrawal from civilisation, his language is that of the decadence; the `moment of exquisite satisfaction' is Pater's ideal in the famous `Conclusion' to The Renaissance, it is the object of Des Esseintes' quest in A Rebours [the work by Huysmans that is a candidate for the book that poisoned Dorian Gray; see your Norton edition]. Synge in 1898 was a dilettante, self-consciously cherishing his `impressions,' at his most imitative when he tried hardest to express his own reactions. Yeats's recollection of Synge's early work gives us an acute image of his failings: `I have but a vague impression, as of a man trying to look out of a window and blurring all that he sees by breathing upon the window.' Synge at this stage was indeed a prisoner of his own self-consciousness, and the window had to be shattered before he could develop into a creative artist" (23).

From Seamus Deane, "Synge and Heroism" (1985), in J. M. Synge: Four Plays, ed. Ronald Ayling (London: Macmillan, 1992)

". . . Synge never loses sight of the constrictions of peasant life. all his work recognizes the link between constriction and intensity and shows a desire to escape from the intensities of the personal life, which can become merely neurotic or worse, into the `naturalness' of the folk life, which can retain intensity and remain communal. The psychological finesse of his autobiographical writings and of the literature of decadence . . . is, in his own view, symptomatic of an illness, a closure within the self characteristic of the late-bourgeois era. Ireland's nationalism offered an escape into health, sanity and community, but for Synge nationalism was a moment of resistance to the inevitable transformation of traditional life, not a programme for redemption for it. In this his nationalism deviates in a radical manner from that of [Padrick] Pearse who sought, in a new educational system and in a new ideology of cumulative rebellion, the instruments for the re-establishment of a lost cause.

"In Synge, the cause is always lost. The order of things is not regenerated. Traditional Irish life, in Wicklow or in the West, is changed only to the extent that it becomes conscious of its bereavement from authentic value. In `The Playboy of the Western World,' Pegeen Mike's desolate cry of loss brings to an end the prospect of a glorious future with Christy Mahon, one which Christy had invoked by articulating a vision of pastoral romance which properly belongs to the old Gaelic past. The failure of the community to bring the past Eden into a Utopian future marks the boundary line of nationalist and romantic desire. The vagrant hero or heroine fades into legend or fantasy. The community remains; more deeply stricken, more visibly decayed. . . . Society is not redeemed, and the traditional function of comedy remains incomplete. Synge is not writing out the failure of heroism. He is registering its failure in regard to society or, conversely, society's failure in regard to it.

". . . Synge himself became one of the lost heroes in Yeats's pantheon, especially after the Playboy riots in 1907 . . . . In fact Yeats's search for the ideal audience is part of his interpretation of the meaning and reception of Synge's drama. The meaning was heroic, the reception base. Thus, a new audience was needed, one to which heroism would come naturally. This is not a distortion of Synge. Rather it is a true perception of the plight of the hero in his plays. Yeats's own repeated attempts to conceive of Cuchulian as a hero who could participate in the mind of the present generation [about which more later], Pearse's assertion of Cuchulain's presence, and their mutual castigations on the community which could not receive these demanding exemplars, are repeated, with variations, by Joyce, O'Casey, George Moore and others. There was no audience for heroism when it became flesh.

"The complexity of Synge's plays is in part focused for us by their ostensible adherence on the one hand to an oral tradition which prizes story, an institutionalized narrative, and on the other to a written tradition which prizes textuality, a linguistic production which calls attention to its own nature rather than to any narrative end for which it is merely an instrument. Synge was aware of the blend of opposites in his work. He read it sometimes as a blend of the Irish and English elements: `With the present generation the linguistic atmosphere of Ireland has become definitely English enough, for the first time, to allow work to be done in English that is perfectly Irish in essence, yet has sureness and purity of form.' . . .

"But the programme, which envisages the fusion of diverse elements, is not identical with the plays, which enact the contradictions between them.

. . .

". . . So in the plays we find ourselves confronted by discontinuities. Their narrative form is oral, that of the folk-tale; their narrative mode is literary, that of the specialized language. Their background is Nature, open, wild and romantic; their foreground is Society, closed, decayed and utilitarian. The rituals of a community are invoked but the loneliness of individual heroism prevails. Mythical figures are remembered, historical detail is blurred. Love is an enchantment, marriage a travesty; lies become truths, dreams become realities, vagrancy is a virtue, settlement a vice; the heart's a wonder but there are no psychological problems; authority is pervasive but anarchy also prevails. Each play presents its own peculiar form of discontinuity, but they all have in common the story of a fantasy . . . which is, first, rebuked by fact and then, in the next instant, legitimized as belonging or contributing to a higher truth than mere fact could ever reach. . . . Finally, the illusion must be ratified by something larger than realism. Mesmerized by an eloquence which begins in illusion but which continues after the destruction of illusion, we are forced to concede to the imagination a radical autonomy. It insists on its own truth not by ignoring fact but by including it and going beyond it. The imaginary, overtaken by the real, becomes the imaginative.

"The dynamic force which makes this possible is language. People talk themselves into freedom. No longer imprisoned by sea or cottage, by age or politics, the Synge heroes and heroines chat themselves off stage, out of history, into legend. Yet they leave behind them a community more hopelessly imprisoned than ever. In one sense, we can read this as a criticism of the community's hopelessness as a receptive audience for heroism. But it is also an acknowledgment that heroism of this sort is a hopeless means of reviving the community. The central discontinuity is there. Synge's drama affirms and denies the value of the heroicizing impulse of the [Irish Literary] Revival. It produces the hero out of the `organic' community but leaves the community empty and exhausted. The glorious language is not a signal that all is well. Self-realization involves social alienation . . . .

". . . The poverty and the limited incestuous nature of the society is hinted at on several occasions. Yet famine, eviction, military oppression and landlordism, the characteristic facts of late-nineteenth-century Irish rural existence for the peasantry are almost entirely repressed features of the text. The peasant society that Synge knew was dying because it had been atrociously oppressed--not because it had lost contact with the heroic energies which its early literature had once exhibited.

"Synge aestheticizes the problem of oppression by converting it into the issue of heroism. The oppression is finally understood as self-inflicted by the community, because it insists on the lower-class realism of fact and refuses the aristocratic symbol of imaginative truth. It is strange to see this mutation of politics into literature against the background of the County Mayo which had produced Michael Davitt and the Land League, Captain Boycott and some of the worst agrarian unrest in late-nineteenth-century Ireland. . . .

Synge and Yeats created "a myth of union between peasant and aristocrat--leading to the emergence of heroism, spiritual leadership, still aristocratic in tone, Anglo-Irish in content, but frustrated . . .

"It is therefore quite proper to resign ourselves to the mythic interpretations of Synge's plays . . . . The disappearance of the central figures into death, resignation, or the horizons beyond the cottage or village, is the precondition of that figure's abiding presence in the mind of the community. Real heroism is never in the here and now; it is always in the past of the mind. . . ."

From Declan Kiberd, "Sharp Critique of Excess" (1980), in J. M. Synge: Four Plays

". . . Synge's work has often been interpreted as a study in Irish exaggeration, but in fact his plays and essays offer a sharp critique of excess. In an essay written as early as 1904, he rejected the braggadocio and feckless Stage Irishman of the past, but was no less critical of the anti-Stage Irishman of the present. He complained pointedly about the brogue of the Stage-Irish writers in whose idiom he found `a familiarity that is not amusing'; and he wrote that, as a result `a great deal of what is most precious in the national life must be omitted from their work, or imperfectly expressed.' When Frank Hugh O'Donnell went from door to door among the denizens of literary Dublin with his pamphlet attacking `The Stage Irishman of Pseudo-Celtic Drama,' he cannot have expected support from a leading playwright of the very theatre which he had denounced most bitterly. But Synge welcomed the pamphlet and wrote: `A young literary movement is never the worse for adverse and candid criticism. It should never be forgotten that half the troubles of England and Ireland have arisen from ignorance of the Irish character, ignorance founded on the biased views of British and Irish historians and on the absurd caricatures which infest the majority of plays and novels dealing with Irish folk and affairs. . . .' This clear rejection of the Stage Irishman was accompanied in the same essay by an equally trenchant denunciation of the holier-than-thou anti-Stage Irishman of the present. He felt that men such as O'Donnell were so intent on avoiding any taint of Stage Irishness that they had ceased to be real--they had forgotten who they truly were in their endless campaign not to be somebody else. Synge therefore insisted that `the rollicking note is present in the Irish character--present to an extent some writers of the day do not seem to be aware of--and it demands, if we choose to deal with it, a free rollicking style.' . . . He praised the Abbey Theatre which had offered a solution to this problem: `it has contrived by its care and taste to put an end to the reaction against the careless Irish humour of which everyone has had too much.' That sentence shrewdly implies a criticism not only of the careless humour of the past, but also of the excessive reaction against such caricature in the present. . . .

"Just such an accusation was made against `The Playboy of the Western World' three years later; and it is clear from the 1904 essay that Synge had always anticipated this type of criticism. Far from being another travesty of the national character, however, his play is an attack on the lyric gush, pugnacity and violence popularly associated with the Stage Irishman. It is also, though covertly, an assault on the anti-Stage Irishman of Wilde and Yeats. In `The Decay of Lying' Wilde had constructed an elaborate defence of the mask or anti-self, which took the form of an ingenious justification of lying. Conceding that the mask was founded on a lie, he asserted that lying was no shame: `After all, what is a good lie? Simply that which is its own evidence.' This is the datum of `The Playboy' where Christy Mahon became great by believing himself so, winning the acclaim of the community, as Pegeen acidly remarks, `by the power of a lie.' The whole play is simply an investigation of the validity of Wilde's initial observation: `Many a young man starts in life with a natural gift for exaggeration which, if nurtured in congenial and sympathetic surroundings, or by imitation of the best models, might grow into something really great and wonderful.' Much later, Yeats would describe his own cultivation of the anti-Stage Irish pose as the strategy of a man not so very different from Christy Mahon:

One that ruffled in a manly pose

For all his timid heart.

In `The Player Queen' Yeats followed Wilde in his explanation of the underlying idea: `To be great . . . we must seem so. . . . Seeming that goes on for a lifetime is no different from reality.' Synge was not so sure. In `The Playboy' he offered his criticisms of Wilde's theory, of fine words divorced from real action, of gestures struck rather than deeds done--in short, of the fatal Irish gift for blarney. He voiced his own doubts in Pegeen's grief-stricken complaint that `there's a great gap between a gallous story and a dirty deed.' Synge suspected that, at bottom, the mask of the elegant anti-self purveyed by Wilde and Yeats was merely a subtle latter-day version of ancient Irish blarney.

"In portraying an Irish hero who is acclaimed by village girls for a deed of violence, Synge offered . . . `a subtle irony on the cult of the hero.' His play shows that the so-called fighting Irish can only endure the thought of violence when the deed is committed elsewhere or in the past. But when a killing occurs in their own back yard, then they become suddenly aware of that gap between poetic stories and foul deeds. Far from being another attempt to pander to the British notion of Ireland, Synge's play was an honest attempt to express the nation to itself, to reveal to his own countrymen the ambiguity of their own attitude to violence. . . . He saw only too well how generations of Irishmen would sing ballads of glamorized rebellion and offer funds for the freedom-fighters--so long as the fighting took place at a safe distance in past history or at the other side of a patrolled political border. He believed that a writer's first duty may be to insult rather than to humour his countrymen, to shock his compatriots into a deeper self-awareness of their own dilemmas. He exploded forever the strange myth of the fighting Irish and, like Joyce, revealed to his countrymen an even more distressing truth--the fact that their besetting vice was not pugnacity but paralysis . . . ."

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