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Synge and Europe

by Mary C. King

In his autobiographical sketches, Synge records how reading ‘a book of Darwin’s’ made him ‘the playfellow of Judas. Incest and parricide …possessed me.’ After a few weeks, he ’ began to write verses and compose. I wished to be at once Shakespeare, Beethoven and Darwin.’ Darwin reasoned that plants, insects, animals and humans were related parts of a natural process wherein only the fittest survived. Synge’s sensational reaction points to a more than intellectual conversion. It changed utterly his psychic attitude to religion and nature. Previously, he found in landscapes he imagined were ‘untouched by man’ some divine Wordsworthian confirmation of his existence. ‘Whether the view was beautiful or not did not interest me.’ Now he was filled with terror of dissolution in a cosmic movement. He records how on one occasion, at dusk, two clearings in the woods appeared to him as two eyes ‘that seemed to consume my personality…. I did not know where or when I was existing.’
Music seemed to offer initially an escape from this nightmare. During his Trinity years, Synge studied at the Royal Irish Academy of Music. He explored works by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Wagner. In 1893 he went to Oberwerth, half hoping to become a composer. He had already begun to investigate German literature and philosophy. He knew the ‘Eroica’ symphony thoroughly and had read Wagner’s essay on Beethoven. Wagner claimed music alone rescued Beethoven from ‘a hell of discordant existence, and this discord again he can only resolve harmoniously as an artist.’ He linked Beethoven’s greatness with Germany’s heroic destiny.
Such concerns may seem remote from the Synge we know through Yeats. Turning, however, to his first play, When the Moon Has Set, we find Synge wrestling, via music and Ibsen’s Ghosts, with spectres of Ascendancy legitimacy and identity. He tries both to dramatise Catholic and peasant Others and to define the artist’s role. The medium through which his hero resolves the political and psychic discord haunting the Sweeny family is a Nietzschean manuscript about the symphony. The Protestant Columb Sweeny’s Catholic nun and cousin, Sister Eileen, opens the two-act version by reading ‘Every life is a symphony and the translation of this sequence into music and from music again … is the real effort of the artist.’
Columb takes Eileen on a whistle-stop tour of some of the philosophers, writers and artists Synge began to explore during his continental sojourns. These include Rousseau, Nietzsche, Wagner, Rodin, Schopenhauer, Michaelangelo, Rabelais, Rubens, Goethe and Heine. The gauche but revealing play concludes with the couple’s nuptial absorption into life as a symphony. This revelation enables them to accept death as part of a cosmic process. Later, Synge expresses this secular vision more felicitously, and in a manner closer to the essence of Darwinism, through words given to Maurya in Riders to the Sea. They are borrowed from a letter written in Gaelic by Martin McDonagh, his tutor in Irish from Inis Meain: ‘No man at all can be living for ever, and we must be satisfied.’
Synge never realised his ambition to become musician or composer. He did carry over into his plays and into his great prose work, The Aran Islands, a grasp of musical form and structure. And he records once dreaming on the Aran Islands of seeing the score of his beloved Beethoven’s Egmont overture and being able to read every note as the pages turned, because he knew it by heart. Synge’s great works for the stage are also substantially influenced by his eclectic reading in modern continental literature, philosophy and sociology as well as by dramatic encounters with Darwin and Ibsen. A secretive man, he covered his intellectual tracks so well that Yeats misguidedly – or strategically – declared him to lack interest in reading, or, indeed, in any writings other than his own. He was capable of great conviviality, at times feeling utterly at one with the peasants on Aran and in Wicklow. But he also records feeling alienated, aware always of his ‘filthy job, To waste and die’.
Synge discovered that language is the primary mediator between our social and psychological complexities, and the rest of the cosmos. Nora Burke, Maurya, Martin and Mary Doul, Christy Mahon and Pegeen Mike, and Deirdre of the Sorrows, make themselves through fine words in a society that makes and mars them, yet they, too, are set apart. Listening to the people’s stories and sharing their lives, Synge related his readings, his experiences in nineteenth-century Paris, his explorations of aesthetics, philology and economics, to Ireland. He did not spare the budding nation its repressions and duplicities, for his vision was dialectical and dialogic.

In one of his poems about his journeys Synge wrote ‘I travel for my turning home.’ A complete bibliography of his recorded intellectual excursions into books and music remains to be compiled. Jeanne Flood in the 1970’s, I myself in the 1980’s and W. J. McCormack more recently, have explored the place of music and the impact of Darwin and of German philosophy on his aesthetic and psychic development. When these areas are even more comprehensively studied, and their significance carried over into new interpretations of his plays on the stage, Synge will acquire the status he deserves alongside James Joyce as a truly great European modernist.