Illustration of Christopher Mahon with a noose around his neck and a woman standing in front of him

The Playboy of the Western World

by J. M. Synge

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Why did J. M. Synge write The Playboy of the Western World?

Quick answer:

Synge's play was a satire that upset Irish nationalists who saw peasants as the bedrock of Irish culture.

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Synge wanted to demythologize certain aspects of Irish rural life as they had traditionally been portrayed on stage. At that time, rural communities tended to be romanticized in Irish nationalist discourse. They were seen as Ireland's cultural and spiritual backbone, whose values would form the basis of a new independent nation.

Synge thought that such a valorization of the Irish peasantry deprived them of their humanity. He wanted to present rural folk as living, breathing human beings, with the same faults and foibles as everyone else. In other words, he wanted to humanize them. Unsurprisingly, Synge's radical approach didn't go down well with the self-appointed leaders of Irish cultural life, who thought that in his grittily unromantic portrait of Irish rural life Synge was insulting and patronizing the Irish peasantry, the very people they'd put on a pedestal for so long.

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To a certain degree, asking why J. M. Synge wrote The Playboy of the Western World presumes that we can somehow have access to his innermost thoughts and motivations; that is not actually possible. We can, however, analyse the external circumstances of the writing and also look at what he says about the play in his preface to it. Synge, at the advice of William Butler Yeats, spent several years living in the Aran Islands and participating in local life in search of authentic Celtic tradition. This play was a response to those years, attempting to portray the culture he encountered. He tries to balance realism, in so far as it looks closely at actual people, with joy and myth. This play was part of a nationalistic movement to rediscover the authentic Irish traditions marginalized by the Protestant Ascendancy.

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