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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Critical Evaluation

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The Playboy of the Western World, John Millington Synge’s last completed work, is the author’s greatest play, and in many ways his most difficult to interpret. The play may be viewed as a satire of Western myths and conventions, beginning with the age-old habit in the West of cheerfully, even eagerly, extending a welcome to criminals and fugitives seeking shelter. In the romantic sphere, the play uses a comic reversal of the traditional situation of man as the sexual aggressor, instead having Christopher hotly pursued and competed for by Pegeen and her rivals. Greek myths are also satirized, beginning with the obvious parallel between Christopher and Oedipus as having committed patricide. In the same vein, Christopher becomes a mock-heroic counterpart to Odysseus as he wanders into the Mayo village seeking refuge, and eventually crowns his conquests there by winning a mule race.

On another level, The Playboy of the Western World is a deeply symbolic play; its meaning revolves around the emotional and moral growth of the hero through a series of ritual “murders” of his father. The first “murder” is a spontaneous, unconscious, almost accidental act; Christopher’s blow is a reflex reaction to his father’s incessant taunting and ridiculing of the young man’s physical and sexual abilities. It is crucial to examine the reactions of the Irish peasants to Christopher’s deed. Steeped in mythical, preintellectual concepts, they view the patricide as a necessary and admirable act. Because the violence occurred far away and reaches them only by the report of an intriguing visitor, it exists for them only as a fantasy, not as a down-to-earth, bloody deed; the murder is like another folktale in which the hero gloriously kills all obstacles in his path. Thus they lionize Christopher, who as a result blossoms from a sniveling, terrified boy to a confident braggart and ladies’ man.

Unfortunately, Christopher’s new stature is based on a lie, as becomes known when Old Mahon appears in the village and humiliates his son, thus necessitating the second “murder.” This second act of violence, however, is essentially different from the first; faced with a threat to his self-image, reputation, and independence, Christopher now makes a conscious—and therefore moral—decision to kill his father. The qualitative difference in the two acts is immediately reflected in the villagers’ reaction to this second “murder.” They are horrified and drag the hero off to hang him; he has grown, through this rational and very real action, past the comprehension of their primitive unconsciousness and must be punished.

Christopher’s growth is completed and his triumph as hero complete, however, only with the third “murder.” This time the act is purely verbal and symbolic, and consists of Christopher’s discovery that he can order his father to do his will. Thus, Christopher at the end of the play has transcended the primitive stage of physical murder; he has asserted his power by throwing off the domination of a tyrannical father, thus reaching the full status of hero.

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The Playboy of the Western World