DruidSynge: Synge and Religion

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Synge and Religion

by W. J. McCormack

There is no evidence to show that John Synge practiced any kind of religious observance, and likewise none to suggest that he held (privately, so to speak) any religious beliefs. On the contrary, his stubborn refusal to adopt the conventional church-going behaviour of his mother and older siblings is well documented. One brother (Samuel) became a medical-missionary in China; a second (Edward) combined a land-agent’s role in East Cavan with the meekest compliance in evangelical belief; a third (Robert) went to Argentina but returned little altered from his childhood religious practices.

When it was observed that, during the last days in Elpis Nursing Home, John Synge read silently from a bible wrapped in brown paper, was he reverting to family type? One predictable interpretation of this detail would stress the frequency with which death-bed reversion to earlier religious beliefs, or even conversion to a belief not previously held, is encountered. Personally, I do not think either to have been the case with Synge. The brown paper, within such a view, could only be taken as a sign of embarrassment or evasion, or – more extremely – as ‘having it both ways’, preserving a reputation for disinterest in scripture and belief while covertly taking up the option. None of this rings true to the personality of Synge as we know him through his private letters, his social life and utterances, and his literary work.

The brown paper, I suggest, signifies privacy, most difficult for a very weakened man, fighting for each hour and day, attended by numerous staff and visited regularly by relatives, some of whom were close to the fundamentalist Plymouth Brethren. Nevertheless, beneath the nonedescript cover there was a bible, in whose literal truthfulness the dying man’s family believed. The brown paper signifies the privacy implicit in the notion of personal interpretation, a notion – however paradoxical in this context – emerging in history with the circulation of the ‘protestant bible’ in print from the sixteenth century onwards.

The Synge family was closely identified with the Church of Ireland over several centuries, providing archbishops, bishops and lesser clergy in abundance. As for many older Victorians, the encounter with Darwinian theories of evolution put paid to whatever childhood faith John Synge had possessed. Recording the crisis later, he characterised himself as ‘a playfellow of Judas’, adding that ‘incest and parricide were but a consequence . . .’ Behind these brown-paper words, one can discern Synge’s transformation of lost faith into a crisis of inheritance. Like that of Oedipus, it both overvalued blood (incest) and undervalued it (parricide).

On several successive religious themes, the plays work through a similar dialectic of intimacy and alienation. Riders is virtually pagan, yet its most poignant and moving stage business (Maurya’s turning over the empty cup) can be traced to Old Testament recesses (2 Kings 21:13) where God’s abandonment of Jerusalem is compared to a dish wiped and turned upside down. Better known is the ironic reworking of Christ’s agony on the cross in The Shadow of the Glen, while The Well of the Saints neatly summarises its own dilemma – ‘The lord protect us from the saints of God.’

Parracide and incest emerge more incautiously in The Playboy through Christy’s assault on Old Mahon and Peggy’s need of papal dispensation to wed her cousin. The once-popular notion that the play’s resolution enacts an ironic Father-and-Son theological identification has been several times replaced, and yet a more subversive and debased religious sub-theme – that of Irish sectarian conflict – deserves further consideration.

In Playboys of the Western World (ed. Adrian Frazier. Dublin: Carysfort Press, 2004), I suggested that the play as we have it retains evidence of an ur-version (abandoned, apparently without other trace) in which Christy hales from protestant Ulster, perhaps Cavan in particular. The play at this virtual stage was provisionally called ‘The Fool of Farnham’. To textual evidence adduced in the article of 2004, I want now to add some historico-contextual material in support of the broader consideration of Synge and Religion.

The earl of Farnham’s estates in County Cavan were well-known as a centre of protestant evangelical activity in the mid-nineteenth century. The first earl’s only daughter, Lady Harriet Maxwell, had married Denis Daly, a distinguished Irish parliamentarian. Their second son, the Revd Robert Daly (1783-1872) was for almost thirty years rector of Enniskerry, County Wicklow, with John Synge of Glanmore as a neighbour and fellow-evangelical. Daly brought Farnham’s ‘Second Reformation’ into Wicklow where it found supporters. Daly’s curate, John Nelson Darby (1800-1882) became the founder of what is known as The Plymouth Brethren. Moreover, to judge from the description given by Frank Newman – the cardinal’s brother – in Phases of Faith (1850), folk-memory of Darby’s appearance and behaviour contributed to the dramatic character of ‘The Saint’ in J.M. Synge’s play of 1905. The ultimate insistence of Martin and Mary Doul on blindness and (if necessary) expulsion is a dramatic statement of the playwright’s claim to privacy.

Moving away from explicit references to Farnham, also covert allusions to Daly and Darby, but retaining a tell-tale reference to Wicklow sheep, the evolving play-script enacted a transformation of (well)lost authorial inheritance into a drama of blood over- and under-valued, a generic mongrel work where comedy and tragedy change places.

W. J. Mc Cormack