Edmund John Millington Synge was born April 16, 1871, in Rathfarnham, County Dublin, the youngest of the five children of a comfortable Anglo-Irish Protestant family. His schooling was mostly private until, at the age of seventeen, he entered Trinity College, Dublin, where he won prizes in Irish and Hebrew even though he put most of his energy into the study of the piano, violin, and flute. During his youth, he developed a strong reaction to his mother’s religiosity and an enthusiasm for the antiquities and natural beauty of the Irish countryside. He went to Germany in 1893 to study music but the following year abandoned his plans to move to Paris and attend lectures in European language and literature at the Sorbonne. Instead, he traveled through Germany, Italy, and France between 1894 and 1896. He wrote some poetry and dramatic fragments, gave lessons in English, and studied French and Italian, returning during the summers to Dublin, where he furthered his interests in the Irish language and Irish antiquities.
In December, 1896, Yeats encountered Synge in Paris and discerned a literary talent in search of a subject. He advised Synge to go to the Aran Islands off the Atlantic coast of Ireland, where the people spoke Irish and still led lives free of modern convention. Synge complied, and for a portion of each summer from 1898 to 1902, he lived among the fisherfolk and recorded his observations with notebook and camera. He continued to write dramatic sketches and literary reviews and edited his notes under the title The Aran Islands (1907). His first plays, When the Moon Has Set, written in prose, and A Vernal Play and Luasnad, Capa, and Laine, written in verse—although apprenticeship works—exhibit fragmentary characteristics of his mature work. This maturity came rapidly, for during the summer of 1902, he wrote Riders to the Sea and In the Shadow of the Glen and began The Tinker’s Wedding. Riders to the Sea was the first of Synge’s plays to be published (October, 1903), but In the Shadow of the Glen was the first to be produced on the stage—by the Irish National Theatre Society (October, 1903). An acrimonious public debate over the play’s depiction of Irish life followed this production, a debate to which its author contributed little. When Riders to the Sea was produced, Synge’s reputation improved, especially following the London presentation of the two plays in March, 1904.
When the Abbey Theatre opened in December of 1904, Synge was appointed literary adviser and later director, along with Lady Augusta Gregory and W. B. Yeats. The following February, The Well of the Saints was produced there, though it was poorly received. Meanwhile, Synge was visiting Counties Kerry, Galway, and Mayo and was working on his masterpiece, The Playboy of the Western World. As he drafted and revised this play throughout 1906, a romantic relationship was growing with Molly Allgood (known on stage as Máire O’Neill), the Abbey actress who played the role of Pegeen Mike in the first production, on January 26, 1907. The play offended Irish sensibilities, provoking a week of riots and a bitter public debate over the play and freedom of expression on the stage. Again, Synge took little part in the argument, leaving the burden of defending his work to Yeats.
Synge commenced his last play, Deirdre of the Sorrows, which is based on a story of the Sons of Usnach from the Ulster cycle of Celtic tales, during 1907. During this same year, the symptoms of Hodgkin’s disease, which had first manifested themselves in 1897, reappeared. The resultant operations interfered with Synge’s revisions of the play, caused the postponement of his wedding, and failed to arrest the disease. He died on March 24, 1909. In January, 1910, Deirdre of the Sorrows was first performed, with Molly Allgood in the title role.
Edmund John Millington...
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