Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 732
Edmund John Millington Synge (sihng) was born outside Dublin, Ireland, in Rathfarnham on April 16, 1871, to John Hatch and Kathleen Traill Synge, the youngest of five children. Synge’s father died within a year, and he lived most of his life with his mother, who exerted a great influence on him and is believed to have been one of the models for the strong women in his plays. Synge was ill throughout his childhood and was forced to live a reclusive life that resulted in a solitary, independent nature. At age fourteen, he read Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859), which transformed him into a confirmed naturalist who broke with his family’s devout Protestantism for a private combination of aestheticism and mysticism, a quality that informs his best plays. As a boy, he had little formal schooling but later simultaneously attended Trinity College, Dublin, and the Royal Irish Academy of Music, which encouraged his decision to become a professional musician. In 1893, he left for Germany to continue his musical apprenticeship but returned to Ireland in 1894 to devote himself to a literary career, writing poetry (which he had begun composing in college) and a play in German.
In 1895, he moved to Paris and studied languages and literature at the Sorbonne. For the next seven winters, he would travel to Paris, seeking the life of a Continental writer and critic. Although he had been studying Celtic civilization and Irish, his meeting William Butler Yeats in 1896 sparked an even deeper immersion in Irish life and culture. In 1898, at Yeats’s suggestion, Synge traveled to the bleak landscape of the Aran Islands off Ireland’s west coast, the first of five summer visits that would permanently change the course of his artistic development and ultimately establish his place in world literature. His experiences there are rendered in The Aran Islands (1907), a unique account that has been described as a collection of essays, a travel narrative, and a writer’s notebook. Synge’s intention was to record faithfully, yet objectively, the life that he discovered, which, despite its hard particularities, he saw as representative of the human condition. Synge then explored other remote areas of Mayo, Kerry, and the Blasket Islands, which led to a series of articles collected in In Wicklow (1910). A less unified volume than The Aran Islands, this work also reveals the writer’s concern with the timeless patterns of life and nature and with the crippling poverty endured by many of his compatriots.
Between 1900 and 1901, he worked on When the Moon Has Set (wr. 1900-1901, pb. 1968), the first play that he submitted to Lady Augusta Gregory and Yeats for presentation at the Irish National Theatre but which they rejected for aesthetic and moral reasons. In 1902, he completed his two one-act plays, Riders to the Sea (pb. 1903, pr. 1904) and In the Shadow of the Glen (pr. 1903, pb. 1904); the latter set a precedent for the hostile reactions that greeted most of his plays. In 1905, he became a member of the board of directors of the newly created Abbey Theatre and was deeply involved in the productions of his plays. In the same year, The Well of the Saints (pr., pb. 1905) was produced at the Abbey, and the next year he became engaged to the actor Molly Allgood, the inspiration for many of his poems and for the figure of Pegeen Mike in The Playboy of the Western World (pr., pb. 1907). He wrote to her nearly every day, and these letters provide revealing glimpses into his love, view of nature, and artistic ambitions.
In 1907, The Playboy of the Western World opened to riots in the Dublin streets, and Synge found himself the object of social hysteria, notoriety he neither sought nor enjoyed. In the next year, 1908, The Tinker’s Wedding (wr. 1903, pb. 1908, pr. 1909) was published; his mother died, and Synge’s own health was seriously declining from Hodgkin’s disease. Now severely ill, he wrote, but never fully revised, his last play, Deirdre of the Sorrows (pr., pb. 1910), and was at work on the final version of Poems and Translations (1909) when he was admitted to a hospital. Synge died in Dublin on March 24, 1909, and was remembered by Yeats as a man “the more hated because he gave his country what it needed, an unmoved mind where there is a perpetual Last Day, a trumpeting and coming up to judgment.”