John Millington Synge World Literature Analysis - Essay

J. M. Synge

John Millington Synge World Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

As a result of his own self-promotion, Yeats gave the impression that he molded and shaped Synge into the artist that Synge became, but as numerous scholars have pointed out, such was hardly the case. Synge came to the writing of plays and poetry with his own clearly defined set of interests and aesthetic imperatives, and while Yeats and Lady Gregory encouraged him and provided a forum in which to present his works, Synge was always an independent artist.

Synge’s major concern, and the basis for his greatest literary successes, is the distinctive version of Irish-English that he developed. Like other writers in the twentieth century, he sought to demonstrate the possibilities of idiomatic language as a vehicle for expressing complex human interactions and for creating enduring aesthetic experiences. There is no question that his travels in western Ireland brought him in contact with a folk language that inspired that of his plays. His achievement, however, was not the mere incorporation of something that he found, but an artful manipulation of vocabulary, syntax, and rhythms of Irish-English.

These linguistic features are evident throughout Synge’s career, with Riders to the Sea and The Playboy of the Western World representing, in different ways, the most masterful demonstrations of this style. In each of his plays, Synge depicts otherwise unprepossessing figures speaking in a rich, mesmerizing idiom that brings a sense of pageantry and splendor to the commonplace. What the plays assert as much as anything else is that language, the medium that expresses and surrounds all the characters, is perhaps their most valuable resource, without which life would be unendurable.

Closely aligned with his experiments in language is his consistent concern with the peasant class of Ireland. In many ways, such an interest would appear inconceivable for a member of the Protestant Ascendancy, yet Synge was undeniably proud of his Irish lineage, and in the peasants he saw what he regarded as the true Ireland, the last vestiges of a breed of people who had avoided the snares of civilized life and its restricting values. Synge was certainly not the first to depict the Irish peasantry in his plays. In the eighteenth century, in works written by English and Anglo-Irish playwrights, the Irish were depicted in less than flattering fashion. The term “stage Irishman” denoted a cultural stereotype, a figure full of blarney and alcohol given to hopeless malapropisms and clumsiness. Such a character came in two basic forms—a happy, besotted fool or a bumptious, irascible figure. Both versions of the stage Irishman were presented for comic effect and were broad caricatures of an imagined ethnic type.

The push for Irish independence in the nineteenth century under the nationalist leader Daniel O’Connell and the declarations of cultural independence of the Gaelic League and Irish Renaissance had elevated the peasant into a new cultural hero. As could be expected, these versions of the peasant were rife with sentimentality, and they, too, presented stereotypes.

Synge sought an alternative, and having lived among these people, he knew at first hand who they were and how complex their lives actually were. He approaches his peasants as a primitivist would, seeing in them the last remnants of a more authentic human order that the veneer of civilization has obscured. There is no question that he idealizes these figures, depicting them as mystical, wise people, yet he also reveals the hard, brutal dimensions of their existence.

One of his most ambitious experiments came in rewriting Irish myth in Deirdre of the Sorrows, a tale that both Yeats and Æ (George Russell) had treated in dreamy, otherworldly fashion. When his friend Stephen MacKenna first suggested that Synge devise his own version, the playwright wrote, “No drama can grow out of anything other than the fundamental realities of life which are never fantastic, are neither modern nor unmodern and, as I see them, rarely spring-dayish, or breezy or Cuchulainoid [Cuchulainn, the hero of the Ulster cycle of Irish mythology].” The kings and queens in this play are not depicted as peasants, but neither are they elevated creatures. Synge humanizes them and, in so doing, reveals his interest in the peasant as a symbol of all that is undeniably human.

In the person of the tinker (itinerant Irish Traveller), Synge found another compelling symbol. As he and other writers of his generation saw them, tinkers could be equated with artists because of their solitariness and marginal position in society. Both figures were outsiders to middle-class life and therefore enjoyed a freedom from the tyrannies of social conformity. As Synge described this symbolic figure, “Man is intellectually a nomad, and all wanderers have finer intellectual and physical perceptions than men who are condemned to local habitations.”

They are, furthermore, people who possess an esoteric knowledge unavailable through mainstream experiences. As many critics have pointed out, the tinker is a premier motif in Synge’s work, appearing in four of his plays. Perhaps the most obvious...

(The entire section is 2123 words.)