What are the themes in The Playboy of the Western World by J. M. Synge?
The primary themes of The Playboy of the Western World on the literal level are the Oedipus Complex reversed, the difficulty of growing up, and the power of rumor over information. On a metaphorical level, the challenge of rebellion to colonial tyranny is strongly suggested.
The crux of the play is that Christy, the protagonist, thinks he has committed patricide but has not. In the classic Oedipus play, Oedipus did kill his father but did not know it. Christy attacked his bully father, then ran off thinking he had killed him. Finding refuge in the pub, he shares the tale with the villagers, who construct a myth around his exploits. Ultimately, when the father appears decidedly non-dead, Christy’s failure is revealed. Unlike Oedipus, Christy did not marry his mother. However, his acceptance as a leader and hero in the community can be taken as a social marriage, although not a sexual relationship, and through his actions he does win Pegeen.
Growing up involves not just Christy but Pegeen and Shawn as well. As an impulsive, angry young man, Christy lashes out at his father, not thinking about the future implications. Even though he thinks he speaks truthfully to the villagers, he has not established the facts. And rather than face the consequences, he fleed and left his father to die. Through conversing with them, and getting to known Pegeen, he finds himself for the first time amidst a caring community. As Pegeen comes to doubt her relationship with Shawn, she also faces the facts of her father’s domination. In her case, however, growing up includes an acceptance of the reality of her family dynamic. While she might trade Christy for Shawn, she cannot escape her father.
The whole plot, until Christy’s father appears alive, hinges on the villagers’ acceptance of Christy’s tale. All the “information” is rumor; nothing is supported. The story takes on a life of its own as the villagers spread it and make it more elaborate. When it turns out to not be true, they do not accept responsibility for the exaggerations, but blame Christy.
play was written during the Troubles, it is often interpreted as anallegory of Irish anti-British resistance. In that scenario, Old Mahon represents the British and Christy is the Irish. The fact that he fails is seen to parallel the historical problem of the actual Irish rebellions.