The Playboy of the Western World by J. M. Synge

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Critical Overview

(Drama for Students)

Des McAleer, as Old Mahon, and Aidan Gillen, as Christy Mahon, in a scene from a 1994 theatrical production of The Playboy of the Western World Published by Gale Cengage

Irish theater had never experienced such a violent audience response as it did when The Playboy of the Western World premiered on January 26, 1907. Theatergoers loudly proclaimed their disapproval of the plot, which appeared to glorify parricide; of what they considered offensive dialogue; and of Synge's depiction of the Irish character. Hisses continually disrupted the performances during the play's first week, and arrests were made nightly. The most controversial line in the play was Christy's declaration that he was not interested in "a drift of chosen females, standing in their shifts itself.’’ Similar outbursts occurred during a 1909 revival of the play and during performances in North America in 1911. County Clare, County Kerry, and Liverpool issued official condemnations of the play. Elizabeth Coxhead, in her article on Synge for British Writers, explains that when the play was produced, ‘‘Irish nationalistic feelings were high, and Synge's plays had caused offense before among those who felt that Ireland and the Irish should always be depicted with decorum on the stage.’’

While the January 28 edition of the Irish Times would observe that the play's language brought "what in other respects was a brilliant success to an inglorious conclusion,’’ most reviews roundly condemned it. The Freeman's Journal considered the ‘‘squalid, offensive production’’ to be an ‘‘unmitigated, protracted libel upon Irish peasant men and worse still upon peasant girlhood,’’ citing its ‘‘barbarous jargon’’ and ‘‘the elaborate and incessant cursings of [the] repulsive creatures’’ in the play.

The riots during the first week's performances prompted Yeats, a firm supporter of the play, to hold a public debate on the issue of artistic freedom. Susan Stone-Blackburn, in her article on Synge in the Dictionary of Literary Biography , quotes Yeats's argument that "every man has a right to hear'' a play "and condemn it if he pleases, but no man has a right to interfere with another man hearing a play and judging for...

(The entire section is 487 words.)