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 Overview

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 487

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 himself.’’ In an effort to instill a sense of national pride, he insisted, ‘‘The country that condescends either to bully or to permit itself to be bullied soon ceases to have any fine qualities.’’

The play's reputation has grown throughout the twentieth century to the point that it is now recognized as Synge's masterwork. P. P. Howe, in his critical study of Synge, insisted that The Playboy of the Western World ‘‘brought to the contemporary stage the most rich and copious store of character since Shakespeare.’’ Charles A. Bennett, in his essay ‘‘The Plays of John M. Synge,’’ considered it to be Synge's ‘‘most characteristic work. It is riotous with the quick rush of life, a tempest of the passions with the glare of laughter at its heart.’’ Norman Podhoretz, in his assessment of the play in Twentieth Century Interpretations of"The Playboy of the Western World’’: A Collection of Critical Essays, championed it as "a dramatic masterpiece'' that expresses ‘‘the undeveloped poet coming to consciousness of himself as man and as artist.’’

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The Playboy of the Western World

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