The Playboy of the Western World Analysis

J. M. Synge

Places Discussed


Tavern. Unlicensed public house in the wild Mayo County region on the west coast of Ireland in which the play is centered. The location is somewhat north of John Millington Synge’s beloved Aran Islands, and thus an apt setting in which to illustrate Synge’s repulsion at the ignorance of Ireland’s poor. Synge came by this disdain honestly, through his fiercely Protestant family, who owned land in both County Galway and County Wicklow (thereby bracketing the island both east and west).

Within the setting’s isolation, there is community. The tavern stands alone but is constantly filled with people. These people have carved an existence out of their remote setting, relying on contact with the larger world both through the post and the gossip at social gatherings. Nevertheless, this is a place beset by evil, both real and imagined. There are strange people out at night, from the madmen of Keel to the ten tinkers in the glen to the thousand militiamen in the countryside. Even the unseen priest, Father Reilly, haunts the action. The people surrounding this public house threaten it with madness, theft, war, or religion. Into this place comes Christy, a boy from eastern Ireland, and therefore one possessing more native wit than the westerners he encounters. He brings the evil of the outer world with him but wins over the local folk. When the truth is found out, they turn against him savagely. However, after he is reprieved from a lynching, he goes forth, returning to the east, a new man, having briefly seen himself as a hero in the eyes of the local people and found out a bit of his true nature.

Historical Context

Birth of the Irish Theater
At the end of the nineteenth century, Irish writers were divided between two impulses: to...

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Literary Style

Realism and Poetry
The play is an interesting mixture of realism and poetry. Synge' s time on the Aran Islands...

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Compare and Contrast

Beginning of the 1900s: In the latter part of the nineteenth century, realism becomes the dominant literary movement in the...

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Topics for Further Study

Research the movement for home rule in Ireland during the early part of the twentieth century. Explain how the clash between those loyal to...

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Media Adaptations

Playboy of the Western World was adapted for television in 1946 by the BBC and in 1983 in Ireland.

A film version of Playboy of...

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What Do I Read Next?

In The Abbey Theatre (1987), E. H. Mikhail presents a comprehensive history of The Abbey Theatre from the beginning to the...

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Bibliography and Further Reading

Bennett, Charles A., ‘‘The Plays of J. M. Synge,’’ in the Yale Review, January 1912.


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(Great Characters in Literature)

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...

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