Dark comedies tend to skirt the boundaries separating the comedic from the tragic. The critical and often commercial success of films like Fargo, MASH, In Bruges, Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, and the cult classic Donnie Darko, lies in their ability to mine humor from macabre or otherwise dramatic or tragic situations. There is nothing funny about the prospects of nuclear war, but director Stanley Kubrick and screenwriter Terry Southern managed to make one of the most critically acclaimed comedies in the history of film about precisely that scenario. In Fargo, a kidnapping gone awry and the subsequent series of murders that follow hardly constitutes the stuff from which comedy is generally born. The point of so-called dark comedies, however, is precisely the humor that can be derived from even the most horrific of situations.
Author and playwright John Millington (J.M.) Synge was able to find humor in the impoverished communities of turn-of-the-century Ireland. Students of Irish history are familiar with the tragedies and humiliations of that nation's past, whether the subject is English colonization, famine, the Troubles, or the country's legacy of poverty, there would seem little in Ireland's history to suggest it could be the basis of comedic literature. Yet, Ireland has an exceptionally admirable literary past, and produced quite a number of distinguished authors and playwrights, including James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Oscar Wilde, William Butler Yeats, and C.S. Lewis, to name just a few. Among that list of esteemed authors is Synge, and, as with some of the others, he found humor in otherwise serious situations. Such is the case with The Playboy of the Western World.
Synge's play is a variation on the theme of the con man who comes to town and hoodwinks the community into accepting him as some kind of unique and special individual. In the case of the play's principal protagonist, Christy Mahon, described in Act I as "a slight young man . . . very tired and frightened and dirty." Synge's play opens in a rural pub in Ireland, when the routine of the assembled is interrupted by the arrival of this "slight young man":
CHRISTY -- [in a small voice.] -- God save all here!
MEN. God save you kindly.
CHRISTY -- [going to the counter.] -- I'd trouble you for a glass of porter, woman of the house. [He puts down coin.]
PEGEEN -- [serving him.] -- You're one of the tinkers, young fellow, is beyond camped in the glen?
CHRISTY. I am not; but I'm destroyed walking.
MICHAEL -- [patronizingly.] Let you come up then to the fire. You're looking famished with the cold.
CHRISTY. God reward you.
Christy presents himself as an upstanding, mannered individual, and he will continue to pretend to a gracefulness that will be revealed to be hardly warranted. Until his ruse is exposed, however, he continues to speak in a style more befitting an educated member of the aristocracy; however, he is a liar and con man. Observe, in the following passages, Christy's use of language in a conversation with Pegeen:
"It's little you'll think if my love's a poacher's, or an earl's itself, when you'll feel my two hands stretched around you, and I squeezing kisses on your puckered lips, till I'd feel a kind of pit for the Lord God is all ages sitting lonesome in his golden chair." . . .
“If the mitred bishops seen you that time, they'd be the like of the holy prophets, I'm thinking, do be straining the bars of Paradise to lay eyes on the Lady Helen of Troy, and she abroad, pacing back and forward, with a nosegay in her golden shawl.”
These comments by Christy qualify the play as dark comedy, in addition to the plot itself, in that he is such a preposterous character that, despite the circumstances of his arrival and the setting of Synge's play, this fraudster claims to a level of sophistication that his actual personage denies. Synge has, in the tradition of dark comedies, subverted conventions and satirized the downtrodden in a manner that cannot be found in the more noble and sanctimonious of literary efforts.
A comedy is any dramatic presentation where “tragedy is avoided.” There are many subgenres: farce, romantic comedy, satire, social comedy, etc. etc. “Dark” comedy refers to those stories that do not avoid serious subjects but that overcome them by their denouement (Arsenic and Old Lace comes to mind). On the other hand, such comedies as Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream are never “dark”—such complications as donkey heads, mistaken identities, and the like remove this play from “darkness.” Playboy is, on one level, a romantic comedy in which young people flirt, etc. But what makes it a “dark” comedy is the dramatic suggestion that the Playboy might really have killed his “da”; then, in the final complication, when his father “returns, alive,” that darkness is lifted, and the “prodigal son” motif takes its place. The changes in the isolated Irish society he temporarily invaded are of a melancholic, heavy-hearted kind, but tragedy was clearly “avoided.”