The Playboy of the Western World is a three-act comedy by Irish playwright J. M. Synge that made its debut in 1907 and has been called “a masterpiece of the literary Irish Renaissance.” With clever dialogue rich in Hiberno-English (dialects of English spoken in Ireland), this work is a satire delivered through the elements of farce. The Playboy of the Western World offended its first audiences and provoked riots when the play opened in Dublin, Boston, New York City, and Philadelphia.
Set in a country pub (shebeen) in County Mayo on Ireland’s west coast, The Playboy of the Western World is the unlikely tale of Christy Mahon, a young man who brags about having murdered his father. Instead of showing moral outrage, the local folk are intrigued by his story and enjoy his vile deed vicariously. Christy’s story also earns him the romantic admiration of the pub owner’s daughter, Pegeen, and that of the Widow Quin. Ironically, when it turns out that Christy’s father is still alive, the would-be murderer loses his status as a town hero.
The Playboy of the Western World is a comedic satire, as it ridicules both the human tendency to brag and the public’s love of sensational stories, but how is it also a farce? Let us review the definition of “farce” provided by the Oxford Dictionary: “A comic dramatic work using buffoonery and horseplay and typically including crude characterization and ludicrously improbable situations.”
The play revolves around the “ludicrously improbable” situation that someone would brag about murdering a parent and be admired by an entire village for it. Another important farcical element is physical humor or horseplay, and The Playboy of the Western World features a great deal of this. Here are just a few examples: Pegeen and Widow Quin pull Christy in opposite directions as they fight over him, village women dress Christy in a petticoat in order to disguise him, and Christy bites Shawn’s leg.