DruidSynge: John Millington Synge

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John Millington Synge

biography by Tim Robinson

The first performance, in October of that year, of The Shadow of the Glen was hissed by an audience which pronounced its theme an offence to Irish womanhood. Arthur Griffith, founder of the nationalist organization Sinn Féin and editor of the United Irishman newspaper, was particularly violent in his attacks on Synge and the National Theatre. Synge’s fantastic realism was at odds with that cast of mind which, tensed in repudiation of the 600-year-long slurs that had accompanied colonization, would admit no defect in the life of Catholic rural Ireland and held that an Irish National Theatre should be the vehicle of patriotic propaganda. His plot had been suggested by a folktale he had heard in Inis Meáin in 1898, concerning a husband who pretends to be dead in order to catch his young wife with her lover; he added to it the wife’s abandonment by the pusillanimous lover and her going off with a tramp who has by chance been witness of these events. The setting he chose was one of the great sheep-glens of Wicklow he knew so well. In fact there are sheep everywhere in the dialogue of the play: the productive and individually recognizable sheep of the skilful shepherd who had befriended the lonely wife and then gone mad and died before the action begins, unmanageable sheep escaping in all directions from his incompetent successor the lover, sheep jumping through gaps, leaving their wool on thornbushes, coughing in the fog, stretched out dead with spiders’ webs on them, and perhaps even, covertly, aimlessly astray in the famously depressing view from the wife’s door, of ‘the mists rolling down the bog, and the mists again and they rolling up the bog . . .’ Indeed, to accept the nationalists’ own simplistic account of why they were disturbed by such a weird drift of disorderly feelings as Synge let loose through this play, is to close one’s eyes to the psychological wastes he explores in it.

When Riders to the Sea, a sombre presentation of the anguish and resignation of Aran wives and sisters successively robbed by the sea of all their menfolk, was given a first performance in February 1904, it was well received by a small audience, and even Griffith’s paper had to admit its tragic beauty. Aran must have long been associated in the public mind with death by drowning; Petrie’s account of an old Aran woman still grieving for her son lost to the sea, Burton’s painting The Aran Fisherman’s Drowned Child (exhibited at the Royal Hibernian Academy in 184I, and circulated widely as an engraving ), the heroine’s drowning in Emily Lawless’s Grania: The Story of an Island, are some earlier treatments of the theme, and Synge’s play, the action of which is always on the point of condensing into ritual, was the definitive celebration of the cult. Folk beliefs of hearth and threshold weigh so heavily if obscurely on speech and gesture in this play that the air its protagonists displace seems thickened with symbol and significance. North, south, east and west are so compulsively evoked as every change of tide and wind brings in new anxiety or despair, that the island itself seethes in a doomful infusion of the compass rose. The elegiac rhythms of Synge’s dialogue are those inherent in the English of native Irish speakers, an English the grammar of which has been metamorphosed by the pressure of Irish, and the words of which have therefore been galvanized into new life by syntactic shock. As (necessarily simplified) examples: Irish has two verbal forms that both have to be translated by parts of the verb ‘to be’ in English; is, used in identifying two things, and tá, used in attributing quality to something; thus ‘Is é Beartla atá ann’ translates literally as ‘It is Bartley that is in it (i.e., there)’. Again, there is no word for ‘yes’ in Irish; instead one repeats the verb of the question: ‘Is it Bartley that is there?’ ‘It is.’ Both these features involve repetition, and thus the possibility of rhythm, when imitated in English. Also, Irish is rich in little tags and pieties that prolong a sentence soothingly. Synge calls on all these effects for the simple, death-hushed syllables of this exchange, when the body of one of the drowned sons is brought in:

Is it Bartley it is?
It is, surely, God rest his soul.

Here he has avoided the form ‘Is it Bartley that’s in it?’ which in a lighter context he would have exploited. But where there is poetic advantage in it, he will translate word for word, ignoring dictionary equivalents: in ’. . . no one to keen him but the black hags that do be flying on the sea’, those ominous and mysterious ‘black hags’ come literally from the Irish name of the shag or green cormorant, cailleach dhubh. And where poetry would be irrecuperably lost, he does not translate at all: in ‘the dark nights after Samhain’, the Irish word for November is so much more expressive of wind and rain (the pronunciation being approximately ‘sawain’) and the reminder of the ghosts of Hallowe’en, Oiche Shamhna, so much more immediate, that Synge chooses to rely on an Irish audience’s familiarity with the word and its associations, and on an English audience’s intuition of mystery. Douglas Hyde, in his translations of folksongs, and Lady Gregory in her versions of legends, had preceded Synge in the literary exploration of the borderzone between Irish and English inhabited by the folk-people of Ireland, but Synge is the only playboy of this western world of words, in which he grew to his full freedom and power. Synge’s language is the translation into English not of an Irish text but of the Irish language itself.