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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How does Synge use tragedy and comedy in "The Playboy of the Western World" to depict human complexity?

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In J.M. Synge's uses of tragedy and comedy in Playboy of the Western World, we are able to see the essence of the human condition: tragically we lose sight of what is acceptable by social (and even legal) standards, and ridiculously (comically) venerate that which should be censored.

When Synge originally wrote the play, in caused riots in Dublin. (Synge was Irish.)  He was accused of drawing on common stereotypes for his characters and their actions, though it was based upon an actual incident in history.  However, over time the true value of his work has become apparent.  If there are stereotypes here, they are not directed at a specific race or ethnicity, but at all "men."

There is tragedy in Christy Mahon's "murder" of his father, and comedy in the way he is treated by the occupants of the pub who praise him as a brave and wonderful man.  When Christy stumbles in, afraid of being caught by the law, he know he has done something terrible.  However, as the story progresses, he is given a job, has women arguing over him (Pegeen and the Widow Quin), and eventually comes to feel he is the luckiest of men.

Pegeen, who is engaged to marry Shawn (who she doesn't respect because he is too shy and "follows the rules"), soon tosses him aside.  After hearing the details of Christy's murder of his father, she ironically admires Christy all the more.  The Widow Quin tells Shawn she will marry Christy so that Shawn will have his chance to wed Pegeen.

The farce continues as Christy's father appears, not killed at all. Christy explains to the Widow that he obviously had not succeeded in killing his father.  The Widow offers to marry Christy, but he refuses, however he does promise to keep the Widow well-fed after his marriage to Pegeen, if the Widow will keep his secret.

Meanwhile, Christy's father, sent on a wild goose chase by the Widow, returns.  He shares the details of his "death" with the townspeople who turn on Christy because he did not kill his father, and are further scandalized when he offers to finish the job.  He beats up on his father, believing that he has now truly done the deed, but now the townspeople decide to hang him.

Christy's father enters--once again not dead--and saves his son, declaring that he and Christy must leave these foolish people behind.  Christy departs still acting like he is a king: he has learned nothing--another tragedy.

As Christy leaves, Shawn tries to repair the damage between Pegeen and him, but she spurns him, bemoaning the fact that she's lost the "only playboy of the western world." She is as foolish as Christy's father says.

It is not unusual in our society to find that those who have been accused of wrong doings become heroes who are somehow instantly "swarming" all over the news, on talk shows, and in guest spots on television shows: they have become celebrities.

The play shows how the lines often become blurred within our society.  Situations that were once seen as black or white are washed over in grey, dramatically somehow becoming "fashionable."

One tragedy in the play is the way people determine that what is generally unacceptable or even criminal, can at times be seen as admirable.  This is tragic in terms of how this kind of behavior erodes the fabric of society until the world looks unfamiliar.

The change in the town's attitude toward Christy is also typical of the human condition.  What is "in" today, is quickly "out" tomorrow, as the public's attitudes are extremely fickle.

On a deeper level, we also change as a society as we get older; those things which bothered us so little when we were younger become unsettling or even frightening when we step back and see situations clearly for what they are--in the interest of our children, or society's well being.

Synge draws our attention to the tragic state of specific elements of our society at large.  Using comedy and exaggeration, he makes a clear point about the questionable way we sometimes raise "villains" to a place of honor and importance in our daily lives--even if only for a short time.

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