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