Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 821
Deirdre of the Sorrows, John Millington Synge’s last play, was not performed until after his death. The play deals with Irish legend, dramatizing an account of the beautiful Irish heroine who preferred death along with her lover to life as the wife of the king. The play is full of this romantic dedication, fully developed in Synge’s rich Irish idiom. The language of the Irish peasant is given power and dignity as it is shaped into the tragic movement of the play. The play is also not without touches of humane characterization. The king is not simply a cruel ruler; he is also a sad and lonely man who deeply regrets the deaths he has caused. Naisi is not simply a martyred hero but also the husband who rants that his wife has caused him to be a softer man and allowed him to desert the ways of his brothers and his companions in arms. The play contains the rich warmth of Synge’s local and distinctively Irish characterizations and the romantic quality of the legendary.
In spite of his relatively small output—four full-length plays and two one-acts—Synge is justly considered one of the finest dramatists of the modern stage and the Abbey Theatre’s most important playwright prior to Sean O’Casey. Completed shortly before his death, but never revised to the author’s complete satisfaction, Deirdre of the Sorrows can be seen as Synge’s final statement on the joys of life, the possibilities, both good and bad, of love, and the inscrutability of human destiny.
The real strength of the play, and the thing that probably sets it apart from the many other dramatic versions of this famous Irish myth, comes from the way Synge combines an austere mood of classic, almost Grecian tragedy with characterizations that are immediate, human, and sympathetic. Deirdre first impresses the audience as a flighty young woman who chases in the woods gathering twigs and nuts with little concern for her future queenly role. Her initial reaction to King Conchubor’s demand for immediate marriage is to beg, like a petulant child, for more time. Almost immediately, however, her mature, defiant, inner strength asserts itself. Faced with Conchubor’s implacability, she grows into maturity almost instantly: “From this day,” she tells her old nurse Lavarcham, “I will turn the men of Ireland like a wind blowing on the heath.” She then dons her royal regalia, assuming the status of a queen, and, by giving herself without hesitation to Naisi, unflinchingly accepts the doom foretold for her. Yet, for all of her tragic grandeur, the girlish element in her character remains evident throughout.
Likewise, the other principal characters contain aspects of both the tragic and the mundane. Naisi is heroic and passionate, willing to risk exile and death for the love of Deirdre. He is also irritable, impulsive, and occasionally inconsistent. Toward the end of the play he admits to Fergus: “I’ve had dreams of getting old and weary, and losing my delight in Deirdre.”
Conchubor is also pictured as a mixture of the grand and the petty. On one hand he establishes himself as a ferocious king, given to extremes of heroism and violence. His desire for Deirdre is intense, and his plans for her are grandiose. The strength of his feelings is evidenced by the lengths to which he is willing to go to secure her, including the destruction of his own kingdom, and by the vengeful rage that is aroused against those who stand in his way, especially Naisi and his brothers. At the same time he is a pitiful old man desperately denying the effects of time and clinging to an image of himself as virile by taking a young and beautiful wife. “There’s one sorrow has no end surely,” he tells Deirdre, “that’s being old and lonesome.”
This powerful merging of the heroic and the human reaches its dramatic peak in the scene in which the lovers separate forever. Deirdre believes that the only way they can escape inevitable disillusionment and acrimony in their passion is to give themselves up to Conchubor’s vengeance, thereby avoiding the slower, but more painful ravages of time. Naisi agrees because he, too, sees that their passion has spent itself, their youth is fading, and the price of their destiny must be paid. “It should be a poor thing to see great lovers and they sleepy and old.” At the moment of parting, however, they have a bitter, petty squabble. Thus, their deaths represent not a victory of passion over fate, but a concession to human imperfection, even in the most noble of characters.
Deirdre of the Sorrows represented a change in direction for Synge. He had previously avoided Irish myth on purpose, feeling it to be unrealistic and irrelevant. What further directions he would have taken had he lived can only be left to conjecture.
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