The Playboy of the Western World is Synge’s masterpiece, capturing his major themes in their most complex form. It is difficult today to discern why the play was so controversial, but the playwright managed to offend not only the repressive sexual mores examined in other plays but also the image of the peasant as a rural saint.
Christy Mahon, a lad from Kerry, is taken into a pub in Mayo, where he tells and retells, each time embellishing more elaborately, the tale of killing his father. The publican’s daughter, Pegeen Mike, quickly becomes enamored of Christy, and the two pledge love. When Mahon’s father abruptly appears, Christy is discredited and the same people who earlier valorized him suddenly turn against and punish him. In one of the richer ironies, Christy departs in the company of his father, leaving Pegeen to wed Shawn Keogh, a timid boy in thrall to the Church. Christy is another of Synge’s nomadic heroes, one who first takes to the road without a father or a place in the world; later, he is a man who still has no home but has arrived at a firm sense of identity. He ultimately opts for a life free of Church and society and seeks a natural freedom. Christy defines tyranny, and although yearning for Pegeen’s love, he settles for isolation as an alternative to conformity.
The view of the peasantry is particularly complex; they are suspicious, narrow, bigoted people who, ironically, have a remarkable sensitivity to narrative extravagance and individuality. These are not idealized figures but people in whom a passion for life is unquenchable. When Pegeen wails, “Oh my grief, I’ve lost him surely. I’ve lost the only Playboy of the Western World,” she expresses her sorrow over losing a lover and the anguish of realizing that she has betrayed her best instincts and the agent of personal freedom and liberation. In Pegeen, readers will find the same paradox that Synge creates in the peasants in general—people who often realize and desire more than they accept in their lives.
In Christy, Synge presents his most developed view of the artist. He quickly develops from a backward boy into a sophisticated poet who discovers a language he never knew he had in him, a language of the imagination, which sets him apart from quotidian existence. He accepts a life of the imagination, one of complete freedom, where sensibility is raised to its highest pitch. Although decidedly idiomatic, his speech is rich in figurative tropes and densely textured. Synge artfully re-created Irish-English habits of flexible word order, elaborate turns of phrase, and rhetorical exaggeration as no other writer before him had.
One evening a young man arrives at a small inn on the wild Mayo coast of Ireland and announces that he has run away from home. He says that his name is Christopher Mahon and that he ran away because he had killed his father during a fight. The farmers who are passing the time in the inn are very much pleased by his exhibition of courage. Christopher is especially admired by Margaret “Pegeen” Flaherty, the pretty young daughter of Michael Flaherty, the innkeeper. She and the others press the young man to tell his story again and again.
At home, Christopher had been a meek and obedient son, controlled by his domineering father. He accepted the insults of his parent until the latter tried to force him into marrying a rich old woman. At last, in desperation, he hit his father over the head. Seeing the old man fall, Christopher presumed that he was dead.
The experience at the inn is something new for Christopher, who for the first time in his life is regarded as a hero. When the news of his story spreads among the villagers, they flock to look at this paragon of bravery. The young women are particularly interested in him—and the not-so-young as well. Dame Quin, a...
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