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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Places Discussed

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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

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Birth of the Irish Theater At the end of the nineteenth century, Irish writers were divided between two impulses: to express the nostalgia of the heroic legends of the past and to illustrate the beliefs and struggle of the home-rule movement. They met in Dublin, as that city's theater became an artistic representation of Irish country life and legends as well as the politics of the age.

In the 1890s, the Irish middle and upper classes clamored for literature that reflected the nationalistic spirit of the age. They turned their interest to the tales of Ireland's heroic past, recorded by folklorists like Douglas Hyde who studied the Irish language still spoken by the inhabitants of the western coast of the island. William Butler Yeats who had already established himself as an important Irish poet, discovered the store of poetic material in the stories of this part of the country. Yeats, along with Lady Gregory and Edward Martyn, founded the influential Irish Literary Theatre in 1899 to promote a national movement of the arts. When Martyn, an Ibsen devotee, later left, the remaining members retitled themselves the Abbey Theatre Company. Yeats had envisioned a people's theater where writers and actors could return to the sources of their art: the native speech, habits, and rich mythology of the Irish. Later, Synge would become one of the Abbey's directors.

The first performance at the Irish Literary Theatre was a production of Yeats's The Countess Cathleen, on May 8, 1899. Yeats's forte, however, was lyric poetry, not realistic drama. His early verse dramas contained beautiful language but had little dramatic spark. Though he inspired the resurgence of the Irish literary movement, Yeats turned over the literary duties to Lady Gregory, who would pen several plays for the group, and Synge, who became the Abbey's most famous and controversial playwright.

Realism In the late nineteenth century, playwrights turned away from what they considered the...

(This entire section contains 607 words.)

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artificiality of melodrama to focus on the commonplace in the context of everyday contemporary life. They rejected the flat characterizations and unmotivated violent action typical of melodrama. Their work, along with much of the experimental fiction written during that period, adopts the tenets of realism, a new literary movement that took a serious look at believable characters and their sometimes problematic interactions with society. To accomplish this goal, realistic drama focuses on the commonplace and eliminates the unlikely coincidences and excessive emotionalism of melodrama. Dramatists like Henrik Ibsen discard traditional sentimental theatrical forms as they chronicle the strengths and weaknesses of ordinary people confronting difficult social problems, like the restrictive conventions under which nineteenth-century women suffered. Writers who embraced realism use settings and props that reflect their characters' daily lives and realistic dialogue that replicates natural speech patterns.

Synge adopted many of the characteristics of realism in his plays but also added poetic elements. As a result, his plays became a complex mixture of traditional forms arranged in new ways. Ann Saddlemyer writes, in her introduction to Oxford's collection of Synge's plays, that Synge's study of the inhabitants of the Aran Islands resulted in an ‘‘appreciation of their heightened sensitivity to the changing moods of nature and the harsh conditions they endured,'' which helped him develop ‘‘his own aesthetic, a blending of romantic pantheism and ironic realism.’’ Synge writes in his preface to The Playboy of the Western World that he rejected the realism of Ibsen and Zola whom he argued "dealt with the reality of life in joyless and pallid words.’’ He insisted that"on the stage one must have reality, and one must have joy . .. the rich joy found only in what is superb and wild in reality.’’

Literary Style

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Realism and Poetry The play is an interesting mixture of realism and poetry. Synge' s time on the Aran Islands studying the inhabitants helped him create vivid and accurate portraits of Irish life. He writes in his preface to the play that his experiences on the islands provided him "more aid than any learning could have given [him].’’

His focus in the play also reflects the dominant themes of realism, with its attention to ordinary people confronting difficult social problems. In The Playboy of the Western World, Synge adopts this focus in his depiction of the villagers' treatment of Christy, which is based on a combination of the community's devotion to mythmaking and its mob mentality.

The language of the play is a complex combination of realism and poetry. Dubliners were initially shocked by terms like "shift," referring to women's garments that they found filthy—terms that are considered examples of local color today. When this language is expressed through the unique phrasing and rhythms of the Irish tongue, Synge creates poetry within his prose. Christy's declarations of love to Pegeen are especially praised for their lyric beauty.

Symbolism As an extension of the theme of mythmaking, Synge transforms Christy into a symbol of the Christ figure. His name adds just a y, and, like Christ, he is the son of Mahon (man). The villagers' treatment of him echoes Christ's, as the community first praises and then betrays them both. Ultimately, both are also saved by their fathers.

Compare and Contrast

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Beginning of the 1900s: In the latter part of the nineteenth century, realism becomes the dominant literary movement in the Western world. In the last decade of the century, symbolism and naturalism emerge as important new movements.

Today: Musicals like The Producers and reality-based plays like Proof dominate Broadway.

Beginning of the 1900s: In 1905, Arthur Griffith founded Sinn Fein among Irish Catholics to help establish home rule in Ireland. Demonstrations, especially in Northern Ireland, often turned violent as England fought to retain control over her colony.

Today: The troubles in Ireland have calmed but have not been resolved. Northern Ireland is still under British rule and as a result, violent skirmishes between the Nationalists and those loyal to England still occur.

Beginning of the 1900s: Samuel Clemens dubbed this era "The Guilded Age,’’ due in large part to the industrialization of the West. During this period, a handful of large industries gained control of the economy in the United States. Those industrialists who profited saw their fortunes grow at a rapid rate while the working class suffered with low wages and dangerous working conditions.

Today: Public awareness of major companies exploiting foreign workers has grown. Many fear that the current push for economic globalization will reinforce the imbalances between the rich and the poor.

Media Adaptations

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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 the Western World was produced in Ireland in 1962, starring Siobhan McKenna and Gary Raymond and directed by Brian Hurst.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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

Corkery, Daniel, Synge and Anglo-Irish Literature, Mercier, 1931.

Coxhead, Elizabeth, ‘‘J. M. Synge / Lady Augusta Gregory,’’ in British Writers, Vol. 6, 1983, pp. 307-18.

Howe, P. P., J. M. Synge: A Critical Study, Martin Secker, 1912.

Podhoretz, Norman, ‘‘Synge's Playboy: Morality and the Hero,'' in Twentieth Century Interpretations of "The Playboy of the Western World’’: A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice-Hall, 1969.

Review of The Playboy of the Western World, in Freeman's Journal, January 28, 1907.

Review of The Playboy of the Western World, in Irish Times, January 28, 1907.

FURTHER READING Bushrui, S. B., ed., Sunshine and the Moon's Delight, Colin Smythe, 1972. Bushrui edits several essays on Synge's plays, including several on his use of language.

Greene, David H., and Edward M. Stephens, J. M. Synge, 1871-1909, rev. ed., Macmillan, 1989. This indispensable biography contains little criticism of the works, but it offers a wealth of information about Synge's life and influences on his work.

Price, Alan, Synge and Anglo-Irish Drama, Methuen, 1961. Price presents insightful analyses of Synge's plays and places them in a literary historical context.

Skelton, Robin, J. M. Synge and His World, Viking, 1971. Skelton's admirable work provides commentary on Synge's life as well as relevant historical background.


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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.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide