DruidSynge: John Millington Synge

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John Millington Synge

biography by Tim Robinson

This is impercipient, as personal and business relationships in the small towns of western Ireland were not more incestuous than in Synge’s own familial or artistic milieus; but then a substantial stratum of Irish life hardly found expression in the works of the Irish cultural revival, which recognized no muse between the ranks of countess and colleen. However, the imposed theme focused his eyes on the miserable obverse of the rural economics that had delighted him in Aran, and he expressed this darker matter of poverty and exploitation with moving directness. The articles were republished after his death in the 1910 edition of his works, despite Yeats’s feeling that they were inferior. Jack Yeats was later to illustrate the first (I907) edition of The Aran Islands with twelve drawings, some of them evidently based on Synge’s photographs and only one or two of them remotely adequate to the subtle and vigorous text.

Synge had been engaged in the tempestuous politics of the Irish National Theatre from its foundation, and in the autumn of 1905 he became one of its three directors, with Yeats and Lady Gregory; as he explained in a letter to MacKenna, Yeats looked after the stars while he saw to everything else. Soon afterwards a number of the more politically oriented actors seceded, and among those brought in to replace them was a nineteen-year-old girl, Molly Allgood, with whom Synge was soon in love. He had been living with his mother – for their close relationship still persisted despite her incomprehension of his work – but now he took rooms in the suburbs of Dublin, both to be nearer his theatre and to see more of Molly. She was a cheerful and comparatively uneducated girl whose frank enjoyment of such innocent treats as picnics with other members of the company came to torment the jealous and serious-minded Synge; his Dublin Albertine used to annotate his multitudinous, obsessive and insinuating letters with brisk one-word judgements: ‘idiotic’, or ‘peculiar’, or ‘frivolous’. She was also a Roman Catholic, which promised to cause consternation in his family when their affair should become known. But she inspired the love-talk of Synge’s most richly realized character, Christy Mahon of The Playboy of the Western World. Synge wrote the part of Pegeen Mike in that play with Molly in mind, and she played that role in the first performance in I907.

The company were anxious about the wildly prodigal language of the play, and presented it to their highly reactive audience with trepidation. Yeats was in Scotland at the time, and after Act Two had been received with attention Lady Gregory sent him a telegram: ‘Play great success.’ But Act Three provoked such an uproar that she sent off another telegram: ‘Audience broke up in disorder at the word shift.’ The ‘Playboy Riots’ were to become part of theatrical legend. As Synge wrote to Molly the next morning, ‘Now we’ll be talked about. We’re an event in the history of the Irish stage. I have a splitting headache . . .’ Large numbers of police – the Royal Irish Constabulary, to the nationalists an arm of foreign oppression – were called upon to preserve a semblance of order for the following performances, which were largely inaudible. Yeats returned hastily from Scotland, lectured the baying crowd from the stage with courage and dignity, went into court to testify against arrested rioters, and within a few days organized a public debate, in which despite personal reservations he spoke himself hoarse for Synge’s play against a tumultuous audience. Synge himself was at home in bed suffering from exhaustion and influenza.

The story of the Playboy had been developed out of two incidents Synge had heard of in the west: one, of a Connemara man who murdered his father and was sheltered by the people of Inis Meáin for a while, supplied the theme of parricide, and the other, of a Mayo man who assaulted the lady he was employed by, repeatedly escaped from custody, taunted the police in letters and was protected by various lady-friends, added the ingredients of sexual attractiveness and verbal dexterity. Griffith in an editorial described the play as ‘a vile and inhuman story told in the foulest language we have ever listened to from a public platform’. While it is clear that audiences came to the play primed by such opinions to be shocked, it should be recognized that The Playboy of the Western World is genuinely shocking. We, nine shocking decades later, if we are not rattled to our ontologies by a play, tend to want our money back; but it is hardly surprising that those unhardened Dublin audiences, facing such a flood of bizarre talk and action bursting from depths in which tragic, including Oedipal, themes echo like laughter, found it difficult even to pinpoint the source of their disquiet. When Christy at the peak of passion cries, ‘It’s Pegeen I’m seeking only, 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?’ they thought they found the word ‘shift’ offensive as being an indelicate synonym of ‘chemise’; in fact it is the steam-hiss of an exorbitant fantasy compressed into a moment. Synge, to some degree, knew what he was at. As he wrote to MacKenna, ‘On the French stage you get sex without its balancing elements: on the Irish stage you get the other elements without the sex. I restored sex and people were so surprised they saw the sex only.’