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 Playboy of the Western World

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The story of Christy Mahon, the play’s main character, is at once comic, pathetic, a bit sordid, and frightening. Its diversity reflects the richness of human nature that Synge observed in the people around him.

Christy arrives at Flaherty’s pub, bringing with him the story of how he has killed his own father in the fields. By the end of the day, he is at least a local hero, the object of much gossip and many a batted eye from the ladies, while the men hold his athletic prowess in high regard. Synge’s comedy focuses on how easily Christy’s supposed crime is overlooked in favor of his novelty, his singularity, for which the crime is in fact a kind of symbol.

Finally, Christy’s reputation suffers a dramatic decline, and the people who were once his admirers--his idolaters even--nearly become his executioners. The Flahertys and the other Mayo countrymen who populate the play end up looking rather foolish, but they are never merely ridiculous. For Synge, these people are characterized by an imagination that is the source both of their vitality and of their limitations. The play stands in the end as a celebration of this quality, a mixed virtue for the characters of the play and a source of great enjoyment for Synge’s readers.


Bloom, Harold, ed. Modern Critical Interpretations: John Millington Synge’s “The Playboy of the Western World.” New York: Chelsea House, 1988. Eight representative essays consider Christopher’s self-transformation and parallels with Christ, the realistic and fantastic aspects of the play, its complexity and ambiguity, and its irony, wit, and poetry.

Greene, David, and Edward M. Stephens. J. M. Synge: 1871-1909. Rev. ed. New York: Macmillan, 1989. The standard, authorized biography based on Synge’s diaries, letters, and manuscripts. Provides the basic accounts of the composition of The Playboy of the Western World and of its riotous reception in 1907.

Kopper, Edward A., Jr., ed. A. J. M. Synge Literary Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1988. A valuable collection of sixteen chapters by leading scholars, covering all aspects of Synge’s life and work. Excellent introduction to the critical literature. Good bibliographies.

Owens, Cóilín, and Joan Radner, eds. Irish Drama: 1900-1980. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1990. Places the play in the general context of the Irish dramatic movement. Concise introduction, map, and the best detailed annotations to the text of the play.

Whitaker, Thomas R., ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of “The Playboy of the Western World”: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1969. Thirteen judicious selections on the composition of the play, its milieu, early audience reaction, and production values. Interpretive essays consider the paradoxes of Christopher’s characterization, Synge’s ironic language, and the play’s surrealistic qualities.

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Critical Evaluation


Critical Overview