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Synge and His Contemporaries

by Adrian Frazier

J. M. Synge is often portrayed as having been a solitary man—a boy who rambled alone over the Dublin mountains, tramped about Wicklow fishing for trout, and after study at Trinity wandered in Germany playing his fiddle, before, on the advice of W. B. Yeats, plunging into the solitude for long spells on the Aran Islands. Yet it would be a mistake to think of Synge as an unsociable person. He was well in with the prominent creative individuals of his own generation. Synge became possibly the closest, most influential male friend Yeats ever had, though on Synge’s side, it was with Jack rather than W. B. Yeats that he enjoyed the most sympathetic comradeship.
In 1897 while still in Paris, Synge befriended Stephen McKenna, then a correspondent for a Catholic journal, later the author of a great translation of Plotinus. Their deep friendship—”we talked days and nights through, mainly on literature and the technique of it” is apparent from surviving letters. In Paris, McKenna introduced Synge to that “jewel of a man…with real uncantified knowledge,” Richard Best, later librarian at the National Library of Ireland. Together, Synge and Best studied with Professor H. d’Arbois Jubainville, one of the great European scholars of Celtic literature. In January 1903 – having drafted The Shadow of the Glen, Tinkers’ Wedding, and Riders to the Sea the previous summer—Synge was in London trying to drum up business with editors of literary journals. He was nervously aware that James Joyce was about to arrive in London, armed with similar letters of introduction to the same editors from Yeats and Lady Gregory. Synge and Joyce finally met up in Paris in February 1903. Having read the manuscript, Joyce pronounced Riders to the Sea “un-Aristotelian” (apparently a damnable weakness), while Synge described Joyce as “indolent” – “I cannot think he will ever be a poet of importance.” Such insults are sure signs of respect between writers. George Moore became a lusty admirer of Synge after seeing The Well of the Saints in February 1905; there is no sign that Synge returned his affection. After The Playboy, Moore came to believe that only through the study of his own works can Synge have arrived at his point of view on Irish life, an egotistical illusion on Moore’s part, and a very high compliment. Synge got along on terms of great familiarity with the Abbey actors—obviously, as he was ready to marry one of them, Molly Allgood. Even before romance implicated him in the interrelationships of the actors, he was more comfortable in the rehearsal room with the Fay brothers, the Allgood sisters, J. M. Kerrigan, and Arthur Sinclair than the other directors appear to have been. Still, as a director himself and a Protestant university graduate, he was never just one of the company, or, for that matter, even though full of fellowship, a follow-along member of any group at all.