DruidSynge: John Millington Synge

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John Millington Synge

biography by Tim Robinson

The company went on to a great success in London with Synge’s two plays, especially Riders to the Sea. In that summer of 1904 it took over what was to become the Abbey Theatre, leased through the generosity of an English admirer of Yeats, Miss Horniman, and rehearsals of The Well of the Saints soon began. Synge visited Kerry again, and then, instead of going to Aran as planned, took his bicycle down to Belmullet in the far west of Mayo. This extraordinarily bleak and remote peninsula was to become the setting for The Playboy of the Western World, although he had picked up the germ of its plot in Inis Meáin. The Well of the Saints was performed in February I905, and evoked the same rage in nationalist quarters as had The Shadow of the Glen. Indeed this grim and comic morality of uncaring youth and foolish age, in which even sanctity and miracle appear as tactless intrusions into hard-won if fantasizing accommodations with reality, holds little comfort for anyone. The setting is again Wicklow, but the well of the title, from which a roving saint has brought holy water to cure an old blind couple, is the one Synge visited in Árainn in company with old Martin Conneely. He could have heard tales of such cures told of any of hundreds of holy wells throughout Ireland, but perhaps in the dreamworkmanship of creativity there was a link between his plot – of old Martin Doul (dall, ‘blind’) and his wife being cured of their blindness, regretting it when they discover they are not the beautiful couple they had imagined, and slowly recovering their blindness – and the odd fact of Synge’s being shown a well reputed to cure blindness, by a blind man.

In Riders to the Sea the young curate is dismissed near the beginning of the play as powerless to avert the impending tragedy, and the comforts of official doctrine are nowhere called on in its aftermath; the miracle-worker of The Well of the Saints sees his dissatisfied clients stumble off to make their way through a dangerous world by the light of their own darkness; similarly, in The Tinker’s Wedding, which Synge was working on at this time, the wanderers of earth finally assert the irrelevance of the clergy to their lifecycles: ‘it’s little need we ever had of the like of you to get us our bit to eat, and our bit to drink, and our time of love when we were young men and women and were fine to look at’. Synge’s tribute to the born anarchs of the Wicklow roads whom he appreciated so much was never staged in his lifetime. The rejection of religious authority implicit in most of his work was acted out in this play, in which the tinkers bundle the venal priest into a sack when he refuses to marry them without his ‘dues’ being paid in full. In his preface to the text, published in 1907, Synge hopes that the country people, from tinkers to clergy, would not mind being laughed at without malice, but at the time Yeats was not so optimistic; he felt the play would cause too much trouble for his young theatre, and Synge seems to have agreed. The first performance of it took place in London in 1909, after Synge’s death, and it was not seen in Ireland until the year of the Synge Centenary Commemoration, I971.

In 1905, at the prompting of Masefield, the Manchester Guardian commissioned Synge to write a series of articles on the distressed state of the Congested Districts. The artist Jack Yeats, younger brother of the poet, was to illustrate the articles, and the two of them explored Connemara and Belmullet in Mayo that summer. On his return Synge wrote to MacKenna:

Unluckily my commission was to write on the ‘Distress’ so I couldn’t do anything like what I would have wished as an interpretation of the whole life . . . There are sides of all that western life the groggy-patriot-publican-general shop-man who is married to the priest’s half sister and is second cousin once removed of the dispensary doctor, that are horrible and awful . . . I sometimes wish to God I hadn’t a soul and then I could give myself up to putting those lads on the stage. God, wouldn’t they hop! In a way it is all heartrending, in one place the people are starving but wonderfully attractive and charming and in another place where things are going well one has a rampant double-chinned vulgarity I haven’t seen the like of.