DruidSynge: Deirdre of the Sorrows

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Deirdre of the Sorrows

Deirdre of the Sorrows is Synge’s last play. Begun in the autumn of 1907, Synge was still reworking it at the time of his death in March 1909. Synge based his last play on an Old Irish story Longes mac nUislenn, ‘The Exile of the Sons of Usna’, so entitled in its earliest form in the 12th century Book of Leinster. Which is to say, Synge worked the famous legend of Deirdre, fated to bring destruction on the warriors of Ulster, into a stageplay and wrote it with his fiance, Molly Allgood, in mind for the lead role. Synge’s Deirdre is loving and heroic and sets fate on when she induces the great young warrior Naisi to escape with her to Scotland, so avoiding marriage to the aged king Conchubar. After seven years the lovers return to Ireland, won over by promises from Conchubar’s emissary, Fergus, but inwardly fearing division between themselves more than death itself. The king betrays his promise and has Naisi and his brothers killed, earning enmity from Fergus and destruction on his warriors in ensuing civil conflict. Deirdre stabs herself and claims a place beside Naisi and his brothers in the open grave where they lie. Synge brings the story of Deirdre into line with our modern sense of what’s possible. Motivations are human rather than explained by the geis (code of honour) of the original telling and Deirdre is given centre-place. Synge does however retain much of the starkness of the earliest telling. He concentrates on presenting the actuality of death in all its weight and terror, and in the last speeches the lovers confront the grave as a place of solitude. After Synge’s death, the manuscript was arranged for production by W. B. Yeats, Lady Gregory and Molly Allgood. It was first performed at the Abbey Theatre on the 13 January, 1910, with Molly in the lead role. It was first published by Cuala Press, run by the Yeats sisters, in July 1910.

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