Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
Tavern. Unlicensed public house in the wild Mayo County region on the west coast of Ireland in which the play is centered. The location is somewhat north of John Millington Synge’s beloved Aran Islands, and thus an apt setting in which to illustrate Synge’s repulsion at the ignorance of Ireland’s poor. Synge came by this disdain honestly, through his fiercely Protestant family, who owned land in both County Galway and County Wicklow (thereby bracketing the island both east and west).
Within the setting’s isolation, there is community. The tavern stands alone but is constantly filled with people. These people have carved an existence out of their remote setting, relying on contact with the larger world both through the post and the gossip at social gatherings. Nevertheless, this is a place beset by evil, both real and imagined. There are strange people out at night, from the madmen of Keel to the ten tinkers in the glen to the thousand militiamen in the countryside. Even the unseen priest, Father Reilly, haunts the action. The people surrounding this public house threaten it with madness, theft, war, or religion. Into this place comes Christy, a boy from eastern Ireland, and therefore one possessing more native wit than the westerners he encounters. He brings the evil of the outer world with him but wins over the local folk. When the truth is found out, they turn against him savagely. However, after he is reprieved from a...
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Birth of the Irish Theater
At the end of the nineteenth century, Irish writers were divided between two impulses: to express the nostalgia of the heroic legends of the past and to illustrate the beliefs and struggle of the home-rule movement. They met in Dublin, as that city's theater became an artistic representation of Irish country life and legends as well as the politics of the age.
In the 1890s, the Irish middle and upper classes clamored for literature that reflected the nationalistic spirit of the age. They turned their interest to the tales of Ireland's heroic past, recorded by folklorists like Douglas Hyde who studied the Irish language still spoken by the inhabitants of the western coast of the island. William Butler Yeats who had already established himself as an important Irish poet, discovered the store of poetic material in the stories of this part of the country. Yeats, along with Lady Gregory and Edward Martyn, founded the influential Irish Literary Theatre in 1899 to promote a national movement of the arts. When Martyn, an Ibsen devotee, later left, the remaining members retitled themselves the Abbey Theatre Company. Yeats had envisioned a people's theater where writers and actors could return to the sources of their art: the native speech, habits, and rich mythology of the Irish. Later, Synge would become one of the Abbey's directors.
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Realism and Poetry
The play is an interesting mixture of realism and poetry. Synge' s time on the Aran Islands studying the inhabitants helped him create vivid and accurate portraits of Irish life. He writes in his preface to the play that his experiences on the islands provided him "more aid than any learning could have given [him].’’
His focus in the play also reflects the dominant themes of realism, with its attention to ordinary people confronting difficult social problems. In The Playboy of the Western World, Synge adopts this focus in his depiction of the villagers' treatment of Christy, which is based on a combination of the community's devotion to mythmaking and its mob mentality.
The language of the play is a complex combination of realism and poetry. Dubliners were initially shocked by terms like "shift," referring to women's garments that they found filthy—terms that are considered examples of local color today. When this language is expressed through the unique phrasing and rhythms of the Irish tongue, Synge creates poetry within his prose. Christy's declarations of love to Pegeen are especially praised for their lyric beauty.
As an extension of the theme of mythmaking, Synge transforms Christy into a symbol of the Christ figure. His name adds just a y, and, like Christ, he is the son of Mahon (man). The villagers' treatment of him echoes Christ's, as...
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Compare and Contrast
Beginning of the 1900s: In the latter part of the nineteenth century, realism becomes the dominant literary movement in the Western world. In the last decade of the century, symbolism and naturalism emerge as important new movements.
Beginning of the 1900s: In 1905, Arthur Griffith founded Sinn Fein among Irish Catholics to help establish home rule in Ireland. Demonstrations, especially in Northern Ireland, often turned violent as England fought to retain control over her colony.
Today: The troubles in Ireland have calmed but have not been resolved. Northern Ireland is still under British rule and as a result, violent skirmishes between the Nationalists and those loyal to England still occur.
Beginning of the 1900s: Samuel Clemens dubbed this era "The Guilded Age,’’ due in large part to the industrialization of the West. During this period, a handful of large industries gained control of the economy in the United States. Those industrialists who profited saw their fortunes grow at a rapid rate while the working class suffered with low wages and dangerous working conditions.
Today: Public awareness of major companies exploiting...
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Topics for Further Study
Research the movement for home rule in Ireland during the early part of the twentieth century. Explain how the clash between those loyal to England and those who supported Ireland's separation from the British is reflected in the themes of the play.
During the first few decades of the twentieth century, a ‘‘New Woman’’ emerged who rejected the stereotyped roles of the past and demanded equal rights. Investigate whether this movement also appeared in Ireland. Then, analyze Synge's treatment of women in the play. Do they fit stereotypes, or are they reflective of more modern ideas concerning a woman's place?
Read Synge's Riders to the Sea. Analyze the qualities of Irish life and character as depicted in the play and compare this portrait to that of The Playboy of the Western World.
Think about how an American version of the play would be produced. Would the play be able to retain its main themes, or would they have to be tailored to reflect the American character? Write up a scene-by-scene outline of a possible American version.
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Playboy of the Western World was adapted for television in 1946 by the BBC and in 1983 in Ireland.
A film version of Playboy of the Western World was produced in Ireland in 1962, starring Siobhan McKenna and Gary Raymond and directed by Brian Hurst.
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What Do I Read Next?
In The Abbey Theatre (1987), E. H. Mikhail presents a comprehensive history of The Abbey Theatre from the beginning to the present time, focusing on the actors, playwrights, directors, and supporters of the theater.
Following Yeats's suggestion, Synge lived for a time on The Aran Islands, where he made careful observations of the inhabitants there. He gathered together his notes in essay form, which were eventually published as The Aran Islands (1907).
Riders to the Sea was produced by the Irish National Theatre Society in Dublin in 1904. Like Playboy of the Western World, this play presents a realistic yet poetic vision of Irish life, specifically on one of The Aran Islands off the western coast of Ireland.
In the Shadow of the Glen (1903) was Synge's first play to be produced by the Irish National Theatre Society in Dublin in 1904. It began the author's battle with Irish theater patrons over his authentic portrait of Irish life.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Bennett, Charles A., ‘‘The Plays of J. M. Synge,’’ in the Yale Review, January 1912.
Corkery, Daniel, Synge and Anglo-Irish Literature, Mercier, 1931.
Coxhead, Elizabeth, ‘‘J. M. Synge / Lady Augusta Gregory,’’ in British Writers, Vol. 6, 1983, pp. 307-18.
Howe, P. P., J. M. Synge: A Critical Study, Martin Secker, 1912.
Podhoretz, Norman, ‘‘Synge's Playboy: Morality and the Hero,'' in Twentieth Century Interpretations of "The Playboy of the Western World’’: A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice-Hall, 1969.
Review of The Playboy of the Western World, in Freeman's Journal, January 28, 1907.
Review of The Playboy of the Western World, in Irish Times, January 28, 1907.
Bushrui, S. B., ed., Sunshine and the Moon's Delight, Colin Smythe, 1972.
Bushrui edits several essays on Synge's plays, including several on his use of language.
Greene, David H., and Edward M. Stephens, J. M. Synge, 1871-1909, rev. ed., Macmillan, 1989.
This indispensable biography contains little criticism of the works, but it offers a wealth of information about Synge's life and influences on his work.
Price, Alan, Synge and Anglo-Irish Drama, Methuen, 1961.
Price presents insightful...
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Bloom, Harold, ed. Modern Critical Interpretations: John Millington Synge’s “The Playboy of the Western World.” New York: Chelsea House, 1988. Eight representative essays consider Christopher’s self-transformation and parallels with Christ, the realistic and fantastic aspects of the play, its complexity and ambiguity, and its irony, wit, and poetry.
Greene, David, and Edward M. Stephens. J. M. Synge: 1871-1909. Rev. ed. New York: Macmillan, 1989. The standard, authorized biography based on Synge’s diaries, letters, and manuscripts. Provides the basic accounts of the composition of The Playboy of the Western World and of its riotous reception in 1907.
Kopper, Edward A., Jr., ed. A. J. M. Synge Literary Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1988. A valuable collection of sixteen chapters by leading scholars, covering all aspects of Synge’s life and work. Excellent introduction to the critical literature. Good bibliographies.
Owens, Cóilín, and Joan Radner, eds. Irish Drama: 1900-1980. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1990. Places the play in the general context of the Irish dramatic movement. Concise introduction, map, and the best detailed annotations to the text of the play.
Whitaker, Thomas R., ed. Twentieth Century...
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