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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The Playboy of the Western World is Synge’s masterpiece, capturing his major themes in their most complex form. It is difficult today to discern why the play was so controversial, but the playwright managed to offend not only the repressive sexual mores examined in other plays but also the image of the peasant as a rural saint.

Christy Mahon, a lad from Kerry, is taken into a pub in Mayo, where he tells and retells, each time embellishing more elaborately, the tale of killing his father. The publican’s daughter, Pegeen Mike, quickly becomes enamored of Christy, and the two pledge love. When Mahon’s father abruptly appears, Christy is discredited and the same people who earlier valorized him suddenly turn against and punish him. In one of the richer ironies, Christy departs in the company of his father, leaving Pegeen to wed Shawn Keogh, a timid boy in thrall to the Church. Christy is another of Synge’s nomadic heroes, one who first takes to the road without a father or a place in the world; later, he is a man who still has no home but has arrived at a firm sense of identity. He ultimately opts for a life free of Church and society and seeks a natural freedom. Christy defines tyranny, and although yearning for Pegeen’s love, he settles for isolation as an alternative to conformity.

The view of the peasantry is particularly complex; they are suspicious, narrow, bigoted people who, ironically, have a remarkable sensitivity to narrative extravagance and individuality. These are not idealized figures but people in whom a passion for life is unquenchable. When Pegeen wails, “Oh my grief, I’ve lost him surely. I’ve lost the only Playboy of the Western World,” she expresses her sorrow over losing a lover and the anguish of realizing that she has betrayed her best instincts and the agent of personal freedom and liberation. In Pegeen, readers will find the same paradox that Synge creates in the peasants in general—people who often realize and desire more than they accept in their lives.

In Christy, Synge presents his most developed view of the artist. He quickly develops from a backward boy into a sophisticated poet who discovers a language he never knew he had in him, a language of the imagination, which sets him apart from quotidian existence. He accepts a life of the imagination, one of complete freedom, where sensibility is raised to its highest pitch. Although decidedly idiomatic, his speech is rich in figurative tropes and densely textured. Synge artfully re-created Irish-English habits of flexible word order, elaborate turns of phrase, and rhetorical exaggeration as no other writer before him had.


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One evening a young man arrives at a small inn on the wild Mayo coast of Ireland and announces that he has run away from home. He says that his name is Christopher Mahon and that he ran away because he had killed his father during a fight. The farmers who are passing the time in the inn are very much pleased by his exhibition of courage. Christopher is especially admired by Margaret “Pegeen” Flaherty, the pretty young daughter of Michael Flaherty, the innkeeper. She and the others press the young man to tell his story again and again.

At home, Christopher had been a meek and obedient son, controlled by his domineering father. He accepted the insults of his parent until the latter tried to force him into marrying a rich old woman. At last, in desperation, he hit his father over the head. Seeing the old man fall,...

(This entire section contains 742 words.)

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Christopher presumed that he was dead.

The experience at the inn is something new for Christopher, who for the first time in his life is regarded as a hero. When the news of his story spreads among the villagers, they flock to look at this paragon of bravery. The young women are particularly interested in him—and the not-so-young as well. Dame Quin, a thirty-year-old widow, is much taken with the young taproom hero. Christopher, however, is attracted to pretty Pegeen. He is flattered by her admiration and, in an attempt to live up to her opinion of him, he begins to adopt an attitude of bravado. Before long, he himself believes that he had done a courageous deed.

Each year the village holds a festival in which the men compete with each other in various sports. Christopher is naturally expected to take part. His early timidity having long since disappeared, he makes every effort to appear a hero in the eyes of Pegeen, to whom he is now openly betrothed. She had broken her engagement with a young farmer, Shawn Keogh, soon after Christopher arrived on the scene.

While her Playboy, as Pegeen calls him, is taking part in the sports activities, an old man comes to the inn. He is looking for a young man whose description fits Christopher’s appearance. Dame Quin, who still has designs on the boy, deliberately misdirects the stranger. When the man returns from his wild goose chase, he arrives in time to see Christopher hailed as a hero because he had just won the mule race. Old Mahon, not dead from Christopher’s blow, recognizes his son and flies into a rage. He insists that Christopher go home with him, and, through his angry tirade, he humiliates his son in front of the spectators.

The Playboy, however, had enjoyed too long the thrill of being a hero. He does not give in timidly as he would have done at an earlier time. Much to his father’s astonishment, he again strikes the old man over the head. Once again it appears that old Mahon is dead. The reaction of the people, however, is not at all what Christopher might have expected. Killing one’s father some miles away is one thing, but killing him in front of a number of spectators who might be involved in the affair is another. The people mutter angrily among themselves, and even Pegeen joins with them in denouncing the murderer.

Deciding at last that the only thing to do is to hang Christopher for his crime, they tie up the struggling young man and prepare to lead him away. Old Mahon, however, had proved himself a tough fellow once before, and he does so again. The first blow from Christopher had only stunned him, so that, soon after the boy had run away, his father was able to follow him to the village. This second blow had merely knocked him unconscious for a short time. As Christopher struggles and the noose is slipped over his head, Mahon crawls through the door on his hands and knees.

While the villagers stand around dumbfounded, Mahon walks over to his son and quickly unties him. Far from being angry with Christopher for hitting him, he is pleased to discover that his son is not the timid weakling he had thought him to be. The two leave the inn, arm in arm, deaf to the pleas of Pegeen, both of them jeering at the foolishness of the people on the Mayo coast.