The Playboy of the Western World and Other Plays

Table of Contents
John Millington Synge
(1871-1909), one of Ireland's greatest playwrights, graduated from Trinity College and then studied piano and violin on the Continent before turning to literature. His destiny was changed by a meeting with the poet W. B. Yeats, who suggested he go to Galway and the Aran Islands to live among the peasants. The experience inspired
The Aran Islands
Poemsand Translations
(1910), and Synge's plays:
In the Shadow of the Glen
Riders to the Sea
The Well of the Saints
The Tinker's Wedding
The Playboy of the Western World
(1907), and the unfinished
Deirdre of the Sor
Edna O‘Brien
was educated in a convent and then trained as a pharmacist before publishing her first novel,
The Country Girls
(1960). She has gone on to publish numerous short story collections and novels, including
Down by the River
(1997) and
In the Forest
(2002) and nonfiction works such as
Mother Ireland
(1977). She lives in London.
Professor Robert Welch
is Dean of the Faculty of Arts at the University of Ulster. He is the author of numerous works, including fiction in both English and in Irish; three collections of poetry, including
The Blue Formica Table
and such works of criticism as
The Abbey Theatre 1899-1999: Form and Pressure, Irish Poetry from Moore to Yeats,
The Oxford Companion to Irish Literature.
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Published by Signet Classics, an imprint of New American Library,
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First Signet Classics Printing, May 1997
First Signet Classics Printing (Welch Afterword), March 2006
Introduction copyright © Edna O‘Brien, 1997
eISBN : 978-1-101-15400-7

by Edna O‘Brien
When James Joyce railed that he did not want to be a literary Jesus Christ, he need not have worried as that laurel was destined for J. M. Synge, whose most famous play,
The Playboy of the Western World,
met with a merciless fate. “A violent laughing work” is how Yeats described it. It was dogged with difficulties and booed by Irish zealots who believed it to be a travesty of Irish life and condemned by the Nationalist hero Arthur Griffith as “being a foul echo from degenerate Greece.” Save for Shakespeare and Web ster, I do not know of a playwright whose appetite for language is both so animate and so gory.
Christy Mahon, the hero of the play, had been a mild sort of a boy in dread of his powerful father, a dominant figure “naked as an ash tree skying clods against the visage of the stars, to put the fear of death into the young pigs and the screeching sows,” until the day came, digging spuds, when Christy could take no more. Oh, what a liberation it would have been to Kafka had he read this, but then Synge had never to battle with his own father (he died while Synge was a child) and so his mother became the unwitting symbol for slaughter. Forget crime, forget punishment, the gusto and suspense of
The Playboy
is sheer intoxication.
Having dispatched his father, Christy sets off and for eleven days facing hog, dog and devil, he wonders where he can put his head. He comes to a lonely public house run by an old man and his daughter, Pegeen Mike, whose biting tongue “is the fright of seven town lands.” Christy makes no secret of his crime, even allowing the old man to concede that bravery is a treasure in a lonesome place. As in Greek drama Christy has many obstacles to overcome before winning the love of Pegeen, this Penelope of the bogs who is engaged to a streel of a boy called Sho neen Keogh. There is as well the widow Quin, she who suckled a black ram at her breast, and a welter-of young women, sirens who come to listen to his boastings, revelling in it. They bring him gifts—duck eggs, a cut of cake, and a little pullet crushed by the curate's car. He is murderer, suitor and hero. It is of course Pegeen that he loves, tempting her with visions of closeness out on the side of the Neifin mountain, in the dews of night and a little shiny moon—the piquancy of the language more amorous than the fiercest embrace. Christy is in his element, except that his father is not dead. Contrary to Greek tragedy, the skull that was supposed to be split in half is merely wounded and bandaged as a furious father takes to the road to avenge the wrong. He arrives on sports day, when Christy has further advanced his prowess by winning all the races, but once the truth is known, the people turn on him, put hot turf coals on his shins and even Pegeen, in defiance of her own heart, rejects him. Yet Christy leaves the public house with his father, not as slave but as a gallant captain who intends to be master from that moment on, a man whose father will be stewing his oatmeal and washing his spuds.
Yeats talks of “the vivifying spirit of the finest art,” but the spirit of
The Playboy
was too much for Roman Catholic Irish men, who upon hearing the line “A dream of women in their shifts” rose up in mutiny at this insult to their womankind. Synge was appalled. Violence on the page is one thing, but an ignorant mob quite another. He who wanted to magnify the minds of his audience, to make them realize the dark reaches of the unconscious, the small and the large cries of the soul, was reviled by his own.
The fate of the play reads like a play itself. Yeats describes being in Scotland, giving a lecture, when he received a telegram from the Abbey Theatre, after the end of Act I saying, “Playboy going very well.” At one in the morning, his host brought in a second telegram to apprise him of riots. The next night, forty bellicose men sat in the middle of the pit making the play inaudible. Some brought tin trumpets and the rucktions began at the rise of the curtain. In it were the mixed ingredients of venom and farce. The cries and the booing of the men in the pit had nothing ancestral about them, they were scurrilous and uncouth, accompanied by hissing, stamping of feet and cries of “Hit him” or “Brain him” the moment the actor playing Christy came on stage. At other moments, the performance was drowned out with the singing of “By the banks of Zuyder Zee,” this meeting with applause and boos while Yeats ran up and down some steps at the side of the stage to beg for order so that the actors could be heard. The audience included fifty or more policemen. Towards the end of the drama, when the father comes to claim his vagabond son, he is told not by Pegeen or by anyone on stage but by the vociferous mob that the villain “is behind the door, old chap.” Everyone leapt to the attack. Articles appeared in the press calling for its withdrawal, and the rioting commenced in the theatre spread into the surrounding streets. A cleaner confessed that she would not use the offending word “shift” not even to her own self and then went on to call Synge “a right snot.” The
Freeman's Journal
accused Synge of barbarous jargon and repulsive characterization. It was too much. He took to his bed with influenza, vowing to his sweetheart, the actress Molly Allgood, that he would write quiet and stately things from that moment on. Managements in England and America were reluctant to put it on in case of offending their Irish population, and in New York, where it was performed, a man's watch and a cake of bread were thrown on stage opening night, in the presence of President Roosevelt. However, unlike Ireland the applause drowned out the hissing. There were seven performances and on the last night 500 policemen were called in to keep order.
So who was this man? “This silent drifting man,” Yeats described him. Born in 1871 into a genteel and zealously Protestant family in Rathfarnham, near Dublin, he spent his adolescence vacillating, wishing to be at once Shakespeare, Beethoven and Darwin. Finally yielding to the call of music, he left Ireland to travel, first to Germany, and then settled in Paris, where he lived on a pittance and wrote some dilatory verses. It was there Yeats met him and advised him to go to the Aran Islands and listen to the talking of those unsung people. Not long after, Synge set out equipped with his meager belongings—pipe, fiddle, typewriter—and on arrival he purchased a camera from another visitor and resolved to study Irish. He lodged first in Aranmor, the larger island, then moved to Inismean, the middle island. He immersed himself in the place and was enthralled both by the wildness and the resilience of these islanders, flung out on the brink of the Atlantic, having to subsist on fish and the small crops of potatoes which grew on the makeshift patches of clay and seaweed spread over the slabs of limestone. He looked and he listened. He walked, with a near-blind man as his guide, accruing what would turn out in his own estimation to be his “first serious piece of work,” a journal of the islands. He had left, as he put it, “the nullity of the rich and the squalor of the poor” to settle among these hardworking vital peasants who lived long, unrelieved days of Aran mist and rain, whose cattle and horses had to be shipped in hookers over to Galway to graze and whose only source of income was from weaving or from the seaweed which they burnt in kilns and sold as kelp. Men galloped horses at a reckless pace with only a halter to keep the animals in check, and the girls were to be seen with their red petticoats tucked up and standing in pools left by the tide, washing their flannels among the sea anemones. The older men, the story-tellers, clung to the memories of the supernatural, describing encounters with fairies, little “fellas” a yard high with caps pulled down over their faces, playing ball at dusk. But their everyday lives were devoid of any such magic. The sea was at once monster and provider, and the little curachs, which the fishermen rode, mere bits of canvas, a tongue between themselves and eternity. The keening of the women for the drowned fishermen struck him as being orgiastic, their cries and the beating of the coffin-boards suggesting some incomprehensible Arabian rite. There were the deaths from drowning, typhus, rheumatism, old age; there was monstrous hardship but there was also gaiety, stories, dancing in the parlor, courtships, with Synge endearing himself by playing the fiddle and doing conjuring tricks.

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