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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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 465

Social Conventions
Although there are a few independent characters in the play, like the Widow Quin and Pegeen when she challenges male authority, most act according to social conventions. Shawn Keogh is the most conservative member of the community, refusing to step outside the boundaries set by the Catholic Church. He will not marry Pegeen until he has permission from the Vatican to do so, and he even refuses to be alone with her in fear of the Church's disapproval. Although most in the community consider Shawn's conservatism a mark of cowardice, they follow certain social standards as well. All consider Christy a hero since their community considers this type of rebellion praiseworthy.

Synge illustrates their devotion to convention by sending groups of people to listen to and approve of Christy's story. First, two local men, Jimmy Farrell and Philly O'Cullen, arrive and soon champion him for his bravery. Later, a group of young women appear bearing presents as rewards for his heroic deed. Yet, when the myth is exploded, they all again act according to a herd mentality as they almost lynch Christy, determined that his crimes deserve such harsh treatment.

The play contains an ironic mixture of rebellion and conformity to social conventions. All of the characters, save Shawn, value a rebellious spirit. Pegeen often rebels against convention when she stands up to her father and any other man or woman who comes into the pub. She is not afraid to ignore Church doctrine and derides Shawn for his devotion to it.

The village lionizes Christy for his murderous act because of the nature of that act. By killing his father, Christy was striking a blow against the tyranny of the older generation and of the traditions of the past. As a result, the community applauds his courage as expressed by Jimmy who notes, ‘‘bravery' s a treasure in a lonesome place, and a lad would kill his father, I'm thinking, could face a foxy divil with a pitchpike on the flags of hell.’’ Ironically, though, when they face the reality of the act as Christy goes after his father with a club outside of the pub, they declare him barbaric and roundly condemn him.

The issues of conformity and rebellion were at the forefront of Irish politics when the play was produced. During the first two decades of the twentieth century, Ireland was in the midst of clashes between those who wanted to maintain the status quo by remaining a colony of England and those who pressed for home rule. The battle between these warring groups was waged throughout the twentieth century and resulted in Ireland declaring itself a free republic while Northern Ireland retained its colonial status. Clashes, however, still occur in Northern Ireland over the issue of home rule.

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