Like Lady Gregory, Synge was also a dramatist portraying the Irish on stage as a means of reviving interest in Irish heritage and Irish cultural nationalism. However, while Lady Gregory generally wrote comedies about peasants that had political undertones, Synge illustrated the harsh living conditions of the Irish on the Aran Islands and the Western Irish seaboard.
J.M Synge was born on 16 April 1871 in Rathfarnham, near Dublin. He was part of the Ascendancy, meaning he was Anglo-Irish and a Protestant. His fiercely Protestant family had produced no less than five bishops since settling in Ireland in the 17th century. However, Synge grew up to reject his religious roots, as well as the bigotry and ascendancy attitudes of his class, instead devoting himself to art.
Educated largely by private tutors due to ill health, he went on to study at Trinity College Dublin and The Royal Acadamy of Music. In 1893 he went to Germany to study music, but while there he decided to study language instead. In 1895 he moved to Paris to enrol at the Sorbonne University with the intention of becoming a critic of French literature.
While in Paris he became exposed to European theatre, which included new philosophical movement of modernism. This came to prominence in the late 19th century and early 20th century which aimed to separate the arts from their classical and traditional forms. One of the leading figures of modernity was the controversial playwright Henrik Ibsen, who examined the realities behind facades. Ibsen became the founding father of ‘The Theatre of Realism’ – the idea of bringing real life to performance – and strongly influenced Synge.
Synge met W. B. Yeats in December 1896. He suggested that Synge ‘give up Paris … go to the Aran Islands. Live there as if you’re one of the people themselves. Express a life that never found expression.’ Yeats singled out the Aran Islands to Synge as they were considered to have an authentic ‘Irish’ culture with an uncorrupted heart and spiritual values.
Taking heed of Yeats’ advice, and with a need to distance himself from his own family’s values, Synge arrived on the Aran Islands in 1898 to find a pure and untainted ‘Irish’ people. While there, he recorded stories and reported on most aspects of life on the Aran Islands. These shaped his book The Aran Islands, written in 1901 and his play Shadow of The Glen, completed in 1902.
Not long after his first visit to the Aran Islands in 1898 he went to stay with Lady Gregory at her home, Coole Park. During his visit he became co-founder of The Irish National Theatre, which later became The Abbey Theatre, along with Lady Gregory, Edward Martyn and W. B. Yeats. Their aim was to create a national theatre for a new generation of distinctively Irish drama.
Over the next four years Synge split his time between the Aran Islands and Paris, generally spending his winters in Paris and summers on the Aran Islands. During these visits Synge came to believe that Inis Meán was the last remaining example of an authentically Celtic way of life as opposed to the corrupted culture of the rest of Ireland. He took photographs and notes and conversed with the people in Irish and English, listening to stories and learning the impact that the sounds of words could have apart from their meaning.
Synge believed himself to be dedicated to realism, depicting the social problems, religious domination, sexless marriages, alcoholism and insanity he witnessed, while also challenging the hypocrisy of Catholicism. However, the general public did not feel the same way about his work and it was not the political liberation they expected. It was suggested that Synge’s anti-modern and anti-commerce beliefs were just another instance of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy attempting to keep the native Irish in medieval poverty.
Synge’s attitudes and beliefs are paticularly evident in "The Playboy of the Western World." It revolves around Christy Mahon, who shows up in a village claiming he has killed his father. Everyone there shows their fascination and admiration for what he has done and he becomes a hero in the village, especially among the women. However, Christy’s father appears in the village suffering from a blow to the head and describes his son as weak and as ‘a dirty stuttering lout’. When Christy comes face to face with his father he hits him again, knocking him unconscious, making it seem as though he is dead. As a result the villagers capture and incarcerate Christy. When his father regains consciousness, Christy is released and the two of them leave the village mocking the locals who had been unable to accept reality when it landed at their door.
The story had been recounted to Synge by the oldest man on the Aran islands. However, the general public felt that the play was a derogatory depiction of rural life where the idea that the Irish could not govern themselves is advanced.
It is worth noting that in Playboy the character Pegeen Mike falls in love with Christy Mahon, much to the indignation of her would be suitor Shawn Keogh, a weak and cowardly man devoted to the Catholic Church. It could be said Synge uses Keogh to embody the ‘rampant, double-chinned vulgarity’ that he observed in his travels in the west of Ireland. When the play concludes Pegeen decides she no longer loves Christy as a result of his lie and she is left with her loveless alliance to Shawn Keogh. The play ends with Pegeen lamenting the lost of the “only 'Playboy of the Western world.'" It appears as though Pegeen is praising Christy’s violence and through this Synge is defaming Irish womanhood.
"The Playboy of the Western World" premiered on 26 January 1907 at The Irish National Theatre. The theatre had already witnessed riots as a result of W. B. Yeats’ The Countess Cathleen. Yeats was also a member of the Ascendancy, and his play had been protested against for its portrayal of a servile Irish peasantry. "The Playboy of the Western World" as a representation of rural Irish life, with its characters’ vulgar language, the depiction of Shawn Keogh’s cringing servitude to the local priest, the violence of the murder and the hero worshipping by the villagers of a shamelesss ‘killer’, infuriated the Irish audience. It is reported that the final straw for the audience was the reference by Christy Mahon to a drift of females standing in their nightdresses – ‘and what’d I care if you brought me a drift of chosen females standing in their shifts itself maybe, from this place to the Eastern world’ – both the reference to girls as ‘chosen females’ and the mention of an undergarment were thought offensive by many. The Freeman’s Journal of Monday 28 January 1907 described the play as an ‘unmitigated, protracted libel upon Irish peasant men and worse still upon Irish peasant girlhood’.
Synge stated in his preface to the play and in a note attached to the programme for the ill received performance that the language he used was based on language he had heard the Irish people use. However, the audience and critics maintained that the play was not a truthful or just picture of Irish peasants.
Rioting continued over the course of its run in the theatre. Synge remained unrepentant about the reception given to his story of life in the West of Ireland. In a letter to his friend, Stephen McKenna, he attacked his critics by stating ‘the scurrility and ignorance and treachery of some of the attacks upon me have rather disgusted me with the middle-class Irish Catholic. As you know I have the wildest admiration for the Irish peasants and for Irish men of known or unknown genius … but between the two there’s an ungodly ruck of fat-faced, sweaty-headed swine.’ (Collected Works Volume II, p. 283)
However, remarkably enough, when the play was staged in the West of Ireland at a later stage accounts state that it was well received. This would suggest that the offence at its Dublin premiere was more of a politically mediated objection from a group of urban-based nationalists. Synge admired the lifestyle of the Aran Islands and he considered those inhabitants to possess the ‘conciousness of the Irish people’. This was a quality the protestors did not own and, therefore, perhaps they were just unable to understand. On the other hand, the conclusion that the play oppressed political agendas, as well as being anti-modern and anti-commerce, were reasonable.
Synge died just two years after the Playboy riots. He’d had time to draft but not revise one more play before his death. With his neck glands enlarged by Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and having had surgery, he began writing Deirdre of the Sorrows, his only non-peasant play. He wrote it between hospital visits and knowing he was fatally ill, asked Yeats and Lady Gregory to complete it for him if necessary. After his death on 24 March 1909, they decided to perform the play as he had left it.
Despite the controversy and questions over his nationalism, Synge became one of the most highly esteemed playwrights of the Irish Literary Revival. Although he died just short of his thirty-eighth birthday and produced a modest number of works, his plays have had a profound impact on audiences, writers and Irish culture.
The Works of J.M Synge
In the Shadows of the Glen (1903)
Riders to the Sea (1904)
The Well of the Saints (1905)
The Playboy of the Western World (1907)
The Aran Islands (1907)
The Tinkers Wedding (1908)
Poems and Translations (1909)
Deirdre of the Sorrows (1910)
In Wicklow and West Kerry (1912)
Collected Works of John Millington Synge: Four volumes, 1962 – 1968
Volume one: Poems (1962)
Volume two: Prose (1966)
Volume three and four: Plays (1968)
J.M Synge quotes
"There is no language like the Irish for soothing and quieting."
"Every article on these islands has an almost personal character, which gives this simple life, where all art is unknown, something of the artistic beauty of medieval life."
"In a good play every speech should be as fully flavored as a nut or apple."
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