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,...
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