Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1486
Soon after Synge met William Butler Yeats in Paris, Yeats advised Synge to spend time living on the Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland, to ' live there as if you were one of the people themselves'' and to "express a life that has never found expression.’’ Synge heeded Yeats's advice, spending a good amount of time living on the islands and recording his observations of the inhabitants' behavior and personalities. His observations, eventually collected in a series of essays, became translated into the central themes, settings, and characters in his plays, which would be heralded for their lyrical yet realistic portraits of the Irish spirit. Daniel Corkery, in his Synge and Anglo-Irish Literature, considered Synge's Aran materials ‘‘descriptive of the consciousness of the people.’’
One story Synge had heard on the Islands concerned a young man from Connaught who killed his father with a spade. The man then fled to Aran, where he begged the inhabitants to shelter him. This tale would become the plot of Synge's play, The Playboy of the Western World, which first appeared on the Dublin stage in 1907. In this play, Synge incorporated his observations of Irish life, uncovering what Robin Skelton in his The Writings of J. M. Synge, deems the ‘‘heroic values’’ and the ‘‘awareness of universal myth'' that characterize the islanders. Skelton also determines that, through his studies, Synge was able to create ‘‘images and values . . . which point towards the importance of reviving, and maintaining, a particular sensibility in order to make sense of the predicament of humanity.’’ The ‘‘particular sensibility’’ that Synge artistically recreates in The Playboy of the Western World is what he calls in his preface to the play "popular imagination [in Ireland] that is fiery, and magnificent, and tender.’’ The Irish penchant for employing the imagination in the creation of myth becomes the focus of the play as Synge explores the lure of mythmaking as well as its inevitable clash with reality.
The characters in the play initially appear unsophisticated and unsentimental. The independent, strong-willed Pegeen especially is characterized as adept at seeing others clearly. Although she has agreed to marry Shawn, she has an accurate perception of his drawbacks. She notes his conservatism and berates him for it. Yet, Shawn does have a touch of the poet, at least in the opening scene when he declares that as he was standing outside of her door, "I could hear the cows breathing, and sighing in the stillness of the air.’’ This lyrical line foreshadows the arrival of the more verbally talented Christy, who will steal Pegeen's heart with his poetic overtures. Shawn will become the voice of reality for the villagers, even though they will pay him little heed.
When Christy arrives, the process of mythmak-ing begins. The characters' love of storytelling becomes evident soon after Christy's arrival, as they quiz the lad about who he is and why he has arrived in their community. Their interest is immediately piqued when Christy inquires whether the police often stop at the pub. As Christy is reluctant to tell them the true reason for his fear of the authorities, all at the pub begin to create their own versions of his story. Pegeen assumes that ‘‘he followed after a young woman on a lonesome night.’’ The others decide he is either being chased by bailiffs or landlords, or perhaps he made counterfeit coins or married more than one wife. Their curiosity about him increases as they construct one scenario after the other that Christy refutes until Pegeen reasons that the fearful boy "did nothing at all.’’ She declares him ‘‘a soft lad’’ who ‘‘wouldn't slit the windpipe of a screeching sow.'' Her...
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