Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
The Playboy of the Western World is Synge’s masterpiece, capturing his major themes in their most complex form. It is difficult today to discern why the play was so controversial, but the playwright managed to offend not only the repressive sexual mores examined in other plays but also the image of the peasant as a rural saint.
Christy Mahon, a lad from Kerry, is taken into a pub in Mayo, where he tells and retells, each time embellishing more elaborately, the tale of killing his father. The publican’s daughter, Pegeen Mike, quickly becomes enamored of Christy, and the two pledge love. When Mahon’s father abruptly appears, Christy is discredited and the same people who earlier valorized him suddenly turn against and punish him. In one of the richer ironies, Christy departs in the company of his father, leaving Pegeen to wed Shawn Keogh, a timid boy in thrall to the Church. Christy is another of Synge’s nomadic heroes, one who first takes to the road without a father or a place in the world; later, he is a man who still has no home but has arrived at a firm sense of identity. He ultimately opts for a life free of Church and society and seeks a natural freedom. Christy defines tyranny, and although yearning for Pegeen’s love, he settles for isolation as an alternative to conformity.
The view of the peasantry is particularly complex; they are suspicious, narrow, bigoted people who, ironically, have a remarkable sensitivity to...
(The entire section is 450 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
One evening a young man arrives at a small inn on the wild Mayo coast of Ireland and announces that he has run away from home. He says that his name is Christopher Mahon and that he ran away because he had killed his father during a fight. The farmers who are passing the time in the inn are very much pleased by his exhibition of courage. Christopher is especially admired by Margaret “Pegeen” Flaherty, the pretty young daughter of Michael Flaherty, the innkeeper. She and the others press the young man to tell his story again and again.
At home, Christopher had been a meek and obedient son, controlled by his domineering father. He accepted the insults of his parent until the latter tried to force him into marrying a rich old woman. At last, in desperation, he hit his father over the head. Seeing the old man fall, Christopher presumed that he was dead.
The experience at the inn is something new for Christopher, who for the first time in his life is regarded as a hero. When the news of his story spreads among the villagers, they flock to look at this paragon of bravery. The young women are particularly interested in him—and the not-so-young as well. Dame Quin, a thirty-year-old widow, is much taken with the young taproom hero. Christopher, however, is attracted to pretty Pegeen. He is flattered by her admiration and, in an attempt to live up to her opinion of him, he begins to adopt an attitude of bravado. Before long, he himself believes...
(The entire section is 742 words.)
Act 1 Summary
The Playboy of the Western World opens in a country public house owned by Michael Flaherty, father to Pegeen, who is preparing for her upcoming wedding to Shawn Keogh, a young farmer. Shawn arrives and is uneasy about being alone with her. Pegeen complains about being left by herself at night, fearing some harm will come to her. They argue about Shawn, who is waiting for the local priest to get a dispensation allowing their marriage, since they are cousins. Pegeen insists that Shawn should be more daring. When her father and local farmers Philly O'Cullen and Jimmy Farrell arrive, they join Pegeen in berating Shawn about his fear of doing anything to displease the Church.
Christy Mahon soon arrives exhausted and frightened, asking whether the police often come to the pub. When Michael assures him that they do not, all begin to quiz him about why he is running from the law. After several wrong guesses, Christy admits that he killed his father. The others embrace him as a courageous young man, and Michael promptly gives him a job helping out Pegeen, which delights his daughter. With the exception of Shawn, who does not appreciate the interest Pegeen is taking in Christy, they all assert that Pegeen will now be safe at night. Pegeen quickly dismisses Shawn, telling him to seek out the priest.
After Christy tells Pegeen the details of his father's murder, which increases her admiration for him, the Widow Quin arrives full of curiosity about...
(The entire section is 294 words.)
Act 2 Summary
The next morning four girls from the village, Sara, Susan, Nelly, and Honor, come to see Christy, wanting to meet the man who killed his father. They all offer him presents and admire his brave act. When the Widow Quin arrives, she entreats Christy to tell them all the details of the murder. Christy takes great pleasure in telling the story and afterwards all call him a hero.
When Pegeen arrives, she chases everyone out and angrily orders Christy to work. She tries to scare him away from talking to the village girls by suggesting that they might tell the police. Shawn arrives and tells Pegeen her sheep are in a neighbor's garden, and she runs out. Shawn then tries to convince Christy to accept a passage to America, admitting that he fears Christy will interfere with his plans to marry Pegeen. Christy refuses the ticket but accepts the new clothes Shawn has brought him. The Widow Quin soon convinces the despondent Shawn that she will marry Christy and so clear the way for him with Pegeen.
Just as Christy begins to believe himself to be the hero all claim he is, he spots his father and hides from him. Mahon explains to the Widow Quin that Christy hit him but he recovered. Mahon then characterizes his son as a coward and "the laughing joke of every woman where four baronies meet." In an effort to save Christy, the widow tells Mahon that he has "gone over the hills to catch a steamer."
After Mahon leaves, Christy comes out of hiding...
(The entire section is 337 words.)
Act 3 Summary
Later that day, Jimmy and Philly arrive at the pub, discussing Christy's mastery of the village's games and sports and his new role as "playboy of the western world." Soon, Mahon arrives, and the widow tries to convince Jimmy and Philly that Mahon is a raving lunatic and not to pay attention to him. But, as Mahon tells his story, the two men become convinced of its veracity, and they point Christy out to him. After just having won all the day's trophies, Christy tells Pegeen of his love for her in poetic terms, and Pegeen returns his devotion. After some disagreement, Christy convinces Michael that Pegeen should marry him and not Shawn.
When the three return to the pub, Mahon confronts Christy and begins to beat him. Initially, Christy denies that Mahon is his father, but the crowd, along with Pegeen, soon turns against him. When Pegeen calls him "an ugly liar," he threatens to finish the job he had started and goes after his father with a club. The crowd thinks he has really killed him this time and so calls for him to be hanged. After they bind him, Pegeen burns his leg.
When his father appears at the door and sees what the crowd has done to his son, Mahon tells Christy to turn his back on the "villainy of Mayo and the fools is here." The two depart, Christy confidently swaggering out the door. When Shawn insists that he and Pegeen can now marry, Pegeen boxes his ear and laments, ‘‘Oh my grief, I've lost him surely. I've lost the only...
(The entire section is 271 words.)