Other Literary Forms

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

ph_0111201591-Synge.jpg John Millington Synge Published by Salem Press, Inc.

John Millington Synge’s nondramatic works—autobiographical sketches, essays, reviews, and diaries—document the proposition that his dramatic career began with his response to William Butler Yeats’s advice to abandon Paris for Ireland’s remote regions. Synge’s observations of the lives of the country people of Aran, Connemara, Kerry, and Wicklow indicate that until he lived in these repositories of folk tradition, he had not found either theme or style. The diaries and essays from these visits report Synge’s compilation of dramatic incidents, details of local color, images, and turns of speech, and show an understanding of that way of life that encompassed its dialect, character, and fatalism. Although these accounts show an acute eye for the dramatic, they have less-than-scientific reliability, permeated as they are with Synge’s nature mysticism, his brooding remove from social engagement, and his lack of sympathy with the religious traditions of the people. Synge’s direct, precise prose is chiefly valuable as a record of the sources for his plays and of his developing creative consciousness.

With a few exceptions—“In Kerry,” “Queens,” and “Danny”—Synge’s poetry merits the same judgment. Ironic, romantic, and morbid, it is rich with Celtic and folk reference. It also shows, however, the influence of various European poets— François Villon, Giacomo Leopardi, Petrarch—whose works Synge translated. There is some evidence that Synge’s direct idiom contributed to Yeats’s abandonment of romantic idealism after 1902.

Synge’s photographs (My Wallet of Photographs, 1971) are valuable documents of turn-of-the-century life on the Irish seaboard. His Letters to Molly (1971) and Some Letters of John M. Synge to Lady Gregory and W. B. Yeats (1971) are equally valuable in coming to an appreciation of Synge’s personal and business struggles in his final and more creative years.


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The Irish Literary Renaissance was the result of the collective efforts of diverse talents in the fields of translation, folklore, fiction, poetry, and drama. Under the leadership of the Olympian William Butler Yeats, the movement counted the folklorist Douglas Hyde, the novelists James Joyce and George Moore, the translator and dramatist Lady Augusta Gregory, and the poet and editor George Russell (whose pseudonym wasÆ) among its contributors. These writers shared the desire for the establishment of a national literature that would express what they considered distinctive about the Irish imagination. Each contributed to the dramatic literature presented on the stage of the Abbey Theatre, but John Millington Synge is the only one of this group whose contribution lies mainly in the drama. Indeed, Synge is generally regarded as the most distinguished dramatist of the Irish Literary Renaissance.

This reputation rests on the output of his final seven years: six plays, two of which, Riders to the Sea and The Playboy of the Western World, are masterpieces. These plays in particular exhibit the characteristic qualities of intense lyric speech drawn from the native language and dialects of Ireland, romantic characterization in primitive settings, and dramatic construction after the classics of European drama. Three central theses dominate Synge’s work: the enmity between romantic dreams and life’s hard necessities, the relationship between human beings and the natural world, and the mutability of all things. These plays are the expressions of a complex personality, formed by Synge’s early musical training, his alienation from his own Anglo-Irish roots, his love for the landscapes and country people of Ireland, the tension between romantic impulse and realistic imperatives, and his persistent morbidity and personal loneliness.

Synge has had considerable influence in shaping the style and themes of subsequent Irish dramatists, such as George Fitzmaurice and M. J. Malloy, and some influence outside Ireland, most notably in the work of Federico García Lorca and Eugene O’Neill.

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

What did the poetry of John Millington Synge owe to William Butler Yeats?

What does it mean to call Synge a primitivist?

Is Synge a tragic or comic playwright, or does he write works that can properly be called tragicomedies?

What does the title The Playboy of the Western World signify?

Why did The Playboy of the Western World occasion so much more controversy than Riders to the Sea?

Are the voices of Synge’s peasants realistic, or are they primarily a translation of peasant dialect into Syngian?


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Casey, Daniel J. Critical Essays on John Millington Synge. New York: G. K. Hall, 1994. These essays by Synge scholars covers topics such as Synge’s use of language, his poems, and most of his plays, including The Well of the Saints and The Tinker’s Wedding as well as the more famous The Playboy of the Western World. Includes bibliography and index.

Gerstenberger, Donna Lorine. John Millington Synge. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1990. A basic biography and critical evaluation of Synge’s works. Includes bibliography.

Kiely, David M. John Millington Synge: A Biography. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995. Kiely covers the life of this complex and difficult dramatist. Includes bibliography and index.

Krause, Joseph. The Regeneration of Ireland: Essays. Bethesda, Md.: Academica Press, 2001. This scholarly work focuses on the intellectual life of Ireland in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, focusing on Synge’s life and works. Includes bibliography and index.

McCormack, W. J. Fool of the Family: A Life of J. M. Synge. New York: New York University Press, 2000. McCormack draws on previously unpublished material in his depiction of Synge, which places the dramatist in the context of the cultural changes taking place around him.

McDonald, Ronan. Tragedy and Irish Writing: Synge, O’Casey, Beckett. New York: Palgrave, 2001. McDonald examines the treatment of tragedy in Irish literature, focusing on the works of Synge, Sean O’Casey, and Samuel Beckett. Includes bibliography and index.

Watson, George J. Irish Identity and the Literary Revival: Synge, Yeats, Joyce, and O’Casey. 2d ed. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1994. Watson looks at the historical and sociological developments taking place in Ireland while Synge, W. B. Yeats, James Joyce, and Sean O’Casey were writing and the influence these events had on their works. Includes bibliography and index.