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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The Theme of Myth Making

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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...

(This entire section contains 1486 words.)

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boy "did nothing at all.’’ She declares him ‘‘a soft lad’’ who ‘‘wouldn't slit the windpipe of a screeching sow.'' Her accurate portrait of his weak character prompts Christy's rebuttal, and he declares that he murdered his father.

Immediately, all are caught up in the drama of the event; even Pegeen is amazed at this daring feat. They will not let Christy rest until he has told the entire story, and when he has finished, they all determine him to be a brave and fearless lad who should be given the job of watching over Pegeen as she works at night in the pub. Shawn expresses the only voice of reason at the scene when he warns, "That' d be a queer kind to bring into a decent quiet household with the like of Pegeen.’’ The others dismiss him, caught up in their vision of the hero in their midst.

The villagers' shower of praise begins to transform Christy from a weak and fearful boy into a confident young man who declares himself ‘‘a seemly fellow with great strength in me and bravery.’’ The transformation, however, is gradual. Often, his confidence is checked by his fear of the police catching up with him, which causes him on one occasion to cower in the corner when someone knocks on the door of the pub.

Christy especially blossoms under Pegeen's attention, becoming the romantic hero all assume him to be. No one can beat him at games and sports, and by the end of the day, he is heralded as "the playboy of the western world.'' Christy's newfound confidence inspires him to construct lyrical declarations of love for Pegeen, who, completely won over, declares, ‘‘it's the poets are your like, fine fiery fellows with great rages when their temper's roused.’’ Synge illuminates the seductive power of the imagination in his depiction of the relationship between Christy and Pegeen. Christy leads a willing Pegeen into his visions of their future, full of afternoons when he declares they will be ‘‘making mighty kisses with our wetted mouths, or gaming in a gap of sunshine with yourself stretched back unto your necklace in the flowers of the earth.'' Christy's new confidence allows him to stand up to Michael James's reservations about him marrying his daughter and to threaten Shawn with bodily harm if he does not leave the two of them alone.

Reality abruptly shatters the mythmaking, however, with the appearance of Christy's battered but still breathing father, who declares that his "dribbling idiot’’ son is lazy, stupid, and inept with women. When confronted by his father, Christy teeters on the edge of the reality and the myth, fearing his father's wrath but unwilling to give up the adoration of the crowd. Initially, Christy appears to revert back to his fearful self as he insists, "he's not my father. He's a raving maniac would scare the world.’’ Eventually, the myth wins out, and Christy determines to finish the job he started and goes after his father with a club. The myth, however, has exploded for the villagers, who see Christy's once "gallous [splendid] story'' of murder now as "a dirty deed'' as it is played out in front of them.

Christy's fall from his mythic status infuriates the villagers who turn into a nasty mob, fueled by their shattered illusions and bent on revenge. All resort to conventional behavior in their demands for retribution. Ironically, by the end of the play, Christy has become the man the others had envisioned him to be. While he is bound and threatened with hanging, he bravely declares,"if I've to face the gallows I'll have a gay march down, I tell you, and shed the blood of some of you before I die.’’ His father recognizes that his son has transformed into a courageous and capable man and so allows him to take the upper hand. Pegeen also notices the transformation, but she is too late. As Christy declares that he has become "a likely gaffer in the end of all'' and exits triumphantly to "go romancing through a romping lifetime from this hour to the dawning to the judgement day,’’ Pegeen's vision of an escape from her conventional life evaporates. She understands, after he leaves, that she has truly lost "the only playboy of the western world.''

Elizabeth Coxhead, in her article on Synge for British Writers, quotes Lady Gregory, one of the founders with Yeats of the Irish Literary Theatre and a strong supporter of Synge's works, who expresses her view of the Irish character by recognizing "our incorrigible Irish talent for myth-making.’’ In The Playboy of the Western World, Synge deftly illuminates that talent and the subsequent tension it inevitably produces between imagination and reality. His villagers are ready for a hero to rescue them from their monotonous and difficult lives and so do not examine Christy too closely when he appears. The lure of the dream, however, is difficult to reconcile with reality, at least for those who cannot break free from the bonds of convention. For others, like Christy, the "Irish talent for mythmaking’’ can become the inspiration for the fulfillment of the dream.

Source: Wendy Perkins, Critical Essay on The Playboy of the Western World, in Drama for Students, Gale, 2003.
Perkins is a professor of English and American literature and film.

J. M. Synge and the Playboy of the Western World

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Under the fanfare of the wrangling schools, a new voice is making itself heard, and strange, peasant-like harmonies announce the advent of another figure. It is to simple but exotic strains—to the melodies of rustic flute and weatherbeaten strings that the spirit of J. M. Synge is disclosed—the spirit of bogs and peatmarshes, the spirit of unfettered poetry. Wild poetry itself is in his utterance, for although Mr. Synge writes entirely in prose, his sentences are so steeped in similes of the skies that his very commonplaces are filled and colored with all the nuances of rhythm. The sunlight filters through his lines and the spell of scenic splendor is over all his work. This very poetic quality is at one time the most obvious and most indefinable characteristic of the four prose plays with which Mr. Synge has declared himself. Nor is dramatic power lacking; as the following passage between the two disillusioned beggarfolk (the man and wife in 'the Well of the Saints') testifies:

Mary Daul.—I wouldn't rear a crumpled whelp the like of you. It's many a woman is married with finer than yourself should be praising God if she's no child, and isn't loading the earth with things would make the heavens lonesome above, and they scaring the larks and the crows and the angels passing in the sky.

Martin Doul.—Go on now to be seeking a lonesome place where the earth can hide you away; go on now, I'm saying, or you'll be having men and women with their knees bled, and they screaming to God for a holy water would darken their sight, for there's no man but would liefer be blind a hundred years, or a thousand itself, than to be looking on your like.

Even in this scrap, torn from its context, there is the natural burst of speech that is almost lyric. William Butler Yeats has pointed out that 'it blurs definition, clear edges, everything that comes from the will; it turns imagination from all that is of the present, like a gold background in a religious picture. . . Perhaps no Irishman had ever that exact rhythm in his voice, but certainly if Mr. Synge had been born a countryman, he would have spoken like that. It makes the people of his imagination a trifle disembodied; it gives them a kind of innocence even in their anger and their cursing.'

In The Playboy of the Western World (his latest drama, published by Maunsel & Co., Dublin), he himself explains this absence of prosiness in a remarkably spirited preface (the Shavian worshippers notwithstanding). In this he acknowledges his debt to the fishermen and ballad-singers, the beggar women and peat gatherers; from Kerry to Mayo or near Dublin he borrows the phrases from the folk imagination of these people. 'Any one who has lived in real intimacy with the Irish peasantry will know that the wildest sayings and ideas in this play are tame, indeed, compared with the fancies one may hear in any little hillside cabin in Geesala or Carraroe or Dingle Bay. All art is a collaboration; and there is little doubt that in the happy ages of literature, striking and beautiful phrases were as ready to the storyteller's hand as the rich cloaks and dresses of his time [or the playwright's].' And so Mr. Synge goes on to tell how, when he was writing The Shadow of the Glen (a tremendous little one-act play), he got more aid than any learning could have given him from 'a chink in the floor of the old Wicklow house where I was staying, that let me hear what was being said by the servant girls in the kitchen.' The keynote of the preface, however, may be found in the next to last sentence where he maintains—'In a good play every speech should be as fully flavored as a nut or apple, and such speeches cannot be written by any one who works among people who have shut their lips on poetry.' 'Give up Paris; you will never create anything by reading Racine,' Yeats told him. 'Go to the Arran Islands. Live there as if you were one of the people themselves; express a life that has never found expression.'

All of which has borne fruit in this play itself, which, though it may lack the delicate suggestion and the haunting minor cadences of his Riders to the Sea, contains fresher and more virile writing than anything the prophets of the 'Celtic revival' have produced. The characters move naturally and seemingly of their own warm will,—they are peasants of to-day who live with hot words on their lips and hot blood in their hearts—peasants who believe in the beauty of the actual and who concern themselves little with esoteric symbolism, or the fates of Deirdre and Naois.

Christy Mahon, a young Irish Peer Gynt, but with more dreams and less fire than the Norwegian ne'er do well, confesses to the murder of his father and thereby gains the respect of the community in general, and the girl Pegeen in particular. This, and the subsequent chorus of admiration from the countryfolk, furnishes the first shock to the unprepared reader—a shock from which the theatergoers in Dublin did not recover, until provoked by further outrages against what they considered the sanctity of the drama, they had vented their disapproval in rather medieval manners at the Abbey Theater early last year. Later, when the Widow Quin and Pegeen bid openly for Christy's favor and vie with each other before the bashful braggart the shock is aggravated, and finally in the second act, when the village girls and the widow hotly woo him, the climax is reached. These passages are boldly written and forceful dialogues, and though the writer of this cannot vouch for their genuineness, they have the almost unmistakable ring of truth. Intensely modern it is yet highly poetic. It is Shaw, without his sophistries and smart speeches—it is the 'Life force' revealing itself with neither paradox, decoration, nor apology. And in a country where the sex relation is a topic unfit for public mention—a topic for the fashionable clubman on one hand and the psycopath on the other—all of this was, naturally, unpardonable.

But it will succeed in spite of the 'prurient prudes' (as Charles Reade was wont to call that estimable class). Mr. Synge is not writing for today, but for the years to come in such passages as these:

It's that you'd say surely if you seen him and he after drinking for weeks, rising up in the red dawn, or before, it may be, and going out into the yard as naked as an ash-tree in the moon of May, and shying clods against the visages of the stars till he had put the fear of death into the banbhs and screeching sows.

I've told my story no place till this night, Pegeen. . . I've said it nowhere till this night, for I've seen none the like of you the eleven long days I am walking the world, looking over a low ditch or a high ditch, on my north or south, into stony scattered fields, or scribes of bog, where you'd see young limber girls, and fine prancing women making laughter with the men.

The imagery of the first quotation and the delicate naturalism of the second can only be matched with prose like this:

It's little you'll think if my love's a poacher's love or an earl's itself, when you'll feel my two hands stretched around you, and I squeezing kisses on your puckered lips, till I' d feel a kind of pity for the Lord God (who) is all ages sitting lonesome in his golden chair.

But it is futile to quote; the play is full of such lines, and illuminated with the most skilful character-delineation. Mr. Synge calls it a 'comedy in three acts,' but in reality it is at one time history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, etc. There are moments of truly glorious farce (such as the return of Old Mahon, supposedly 'destroyed' by Christy), and there are times (notably in the last act) when the play verges perilously on rather bitter tragedy. But it is a comedy for all that, even though the ending may not be the conventional happy one, for this unflinching dramatist has no intention of flinging a sop to Cerberus.

Taking it all in all the play (in conjunction with Mr. Synge's other dramas) points with promise to the reincarnation of poetry in prose, the beautiful growing up through the common.

It is to the chronicler of the peasant of to-day that we must look for the fulfilment of this promise, and should Mr. Synge continue to carry out this wonder, he shall have put the whole world in his debt.

Source: Louis Untermeyer, " J. M. Synge and the Playboy of the Western World,’’ in Poet Lore, Vol. XIX, No. III, Autumn 1908, pp. 364-67.


Critical Overview