In the Shadow of the Glen

by J. M. Synge

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The Play

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In the Shadow of the Glen opens on Nora Burke in the kitchen of her cottage. It is a typical Irish peasant cottage, with a turf fire and a table in the center of the room. A front door and a small door to a bedroom are upstage. On a bed against the back wall lies a body covered with a white sheet. The stage directions indicate there are cakes, glasses, and whiskey on the table, “as if for a wake.”

As Nora is clearing things and lighting candles, there is a knock at the door. Removing a sock of money from the table, she answers it. She is greeted by a stranger, who says that he is walking to the Aughrim fair and asks whether he may come out of the rain and stay the night. She consents readily. The stranger is startled by the sight of the corpse on the bed. Nora tells him that it is her husband and that he died only hours before. When he asks why she has not laid him out or arranged him formally, she tells him that he cursed her, or anybody else, who might touch his body if he were to die suddenly.

As they talk, Nora describes her husband’s sudden illness and the great melodrama of his death throes. She offers the tramp whiskey and one of her husband’s tobacco pipes. When he asks why she is not afraid to let him in when no man is around and she is so far from neighbors, she says that she is not afraid of“beggar or bishop or any man of you at all.” They discover that they have a friend in common, one Patch Darcy. The stranger tells of being frightened by weird noises as he walked alone among the hills. He later learned that they were caused by Darcy, who had gone mad and died of exposure in the hills. Nora says that Darcy had had the habit of stopping in for a visit when he passed her glen and that it had kept her from being lonely.

The mention of loneliness reminds Nora to ask whether the tramp has seen anyone on the path. When he says that he did see a young man trying to control a herd of sheep, Nora quickly asks him to stay and watch the corpse while she finds him. She wants to ask him, she says, to spread the word that her husband has died. When the tramp offers to go, she declines, clearly wanting to see the young man herself.

Nora leaves. The tramp sits before the fire saying the De Profundis under his breath. Behind him, the sheet begins to move, and the corpse begins to rise. When he finally notices this, the tramp leaps up in terror. The “corpse,” trying to calm him, reveals that he is not dead after all. He asks the tramp to get him some whiskey before his wife returns, and he complains of aches and pains from lying still so long. He tells him to get his walking stick, which he hides under the funeral sheet. He threatens the tramp with it if he says anything about his trick, explaining that he has done it to catch his wife, because “it’s a bad wife she is—a bad wife for an old man, and I’m getting old, God help me.”

Hearing voices on the path, he jumps back under the sheet, repeats his threat, and lies perfectly still. The tramp returns to the fire and begins mending his coat. Nora and the young shepherd, Micheal...

(This entire section contains 1017 words.)

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Dara, enter. Dara, described in the stage notes as a “tall, innocent young man,” is clearly afraid of the corpse and is soon revealed to be a poor shepherd as well, hardly a match for the feisty, outspoken Nora. When he complains that Nora has too many men friends, she replies, “if it’s a power of men I’m after knowing, they were fine men.” It is clear that she is trying to get the tramp to go to the other room to sleep so she can be alone with Dara. Seeing the potential for an interesting situation and a good wake, the tramp determines to stay.

In conversation with Dara (which the “corpse” overhears), Nora admits that she married her husband only for his “bit of a farm, and cows on it, and sheep on the black hills.” She now regrets her decision and would never repeat it. She feels that life has passed her by and confesses that she has been constantly lonely in her marriage, except for the visits from men friends such as Darcy and Dara. As they talk, they empty Dan Burke’s sock of money and begin to count it. Dara reminds Nora that she can now marry him, but she dismisses this, saying that she does not want to marry him, because he will soon get old like her husband. She begins to describe Burke’s decrepitude, his shaking face, falling teeth, and white hair sticking out around his head. As she does so, he rises from under the funeral sheet, looking just as she described. Meanwhile, Dara counters her arguments against marriage, saying that it will be different with him. The dialogue continues with the “risen” Burke upstage unnoticed until he suddenly sneezes.

After initial terror, Nora and Dara realize that Burke is not a ghost. Burke, infuriated by all he has overheard, opens the door and demands that Nora leave immediately. Nora, equally angered by her husband’s treachery, says that she will go gladly. When she hesitates, wondering how she will live wandering the roads alone, the tramp suggests that she come with him. After a halfhearted attempt by Dara to stop her, she leaves with the vagabond for a life that, in his glowing romantic descriptions, sounds to her liking. As Micheal is about to go after them, Burke steps in, offering him a drink. The two sit down and drink to “a long life, and a quiet life.”

Dramatic Devices

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The set of In the Shadow of the Glen was constructed to replicate a western Irish cottage. The loft, peat fireplace, and thatched roof were rendered in detail, and small touches, such as leather “pampooties” for the actors’ feet and correct color detail in their folk costumes, were included. The overall stage effect was of a precise realism, almost to a “folklife museum” extent. John Millington Synge and the Abbey Theatre producers knew that they were presenting a picture of the Irish peasantry to a middle-class Dublin audience that held a somewhat romanticized and unrealistic view of its lower-class, rural counterpart. So they went to some trouble to make the set of their dramatic representation as authentic as possible.

Such was the case with the language of the play as well. Synge had recorded peculiar pronunciations of words, unusual phrases, and special syntactical quirks in his notebooks during his field trips among the Aran peasants, and he expended great effort incorporating this folk speech into his play. The combined effect of the realistic set and the precise dialect was to give the production a striking documentary authenticity.

This folklife realism provided a suitable context for a story that itself was a field-collected folk anecdote. The plot of In the Shadow of the Glen came to Synge directly from the lips of one Pat Diran. Diran was a teller of tales, lies, and legends whom Synge met in 1898 during his first stay on Inishmaan, the largest of the Aran Islands. These are a bleak and isolated cluster of granite islands thirty miles west of Galway Bay in the North Atlantic Sea. Synge had gone to this desolate region for the express purpose of living among the most isolated Irish peasants and discovering their actual lore and language, as opposed to the romanticized, bowdlerized, and expurgated material found in the published volumes of armchair Celtic antiquaries. He did find this material, and like Diran’s tale of the old cuckold faking his death, much of it did not paint a very heroic picture of the Irish peasant, the supposed source of the Irish national character.

Nevertheless, Synge’s play is not simply a slice of life in the naturalistic mode. Its dramatic ingenuity lies in the ironic tension it maintains between a de-romanticized presentation of the Irish peasantry and the fiery speech and romantic imagination of those same peasants. If the play’s stark picture was meant to clash with that cherished by its Dublin audience, it is also meant to clash with the imagination and yearning of its central characters. The theme of the story is that very clash—the struggle of the self to transcend the mundane world with its obstacles to freedom and fulfillment.

Basing the play on field-collected folklore and staging it to emphasize this base allows the contest between necessity and invention to work organically. That the play’s trappings and atmosphere represent the losing side in the contest simply adds another level of irony to an already deeply ironic dramatic work.


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Sources for Further Study

Casey, David J. Critical Essays on John Millington Synge. Boston: Twayne, 1994.

Flood, Jeanne A. “Synge’s Ecstatic Dance and the Myth of the Undying Father.” American Imago 33, no. 2 (1976): 174-196.

Gerstenberger, Donna. John Millington Synge. New York: Twayne, 1964.

Gonzalez, Alexander G., ed. Assessing the Achievement of J. M. Synge. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996.

Greene, Nicholas. Synge: A Critical Study of the Plays. London: Macmillan, 1975.

King, Mary C. “Towards the Antithetical Vision: Syntax and Imagery in In the Shadow of the Glen.” In The Drama of J. M. Synge. London: Fourth Estate, 1985.

Skelton, Robin. “In the Shadow of the Glen.” In The Writings of J. M. Synge. London: Thames and Hudson, 1971.

Yeats, William Butler. Synge and the Ireland of His Time. Spartanburg, S.C.: Reprint Services, 1992.


Critical Essays