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Synge and the Dublin of his Time

by Ben Levitas

John Millington Synge was a revolutionary playwright during a transformative period in Irish history. His gift, however, was not that of uniting people in a common cause. Synge’s genius was provocative, disturbing, and challenging. As W. B. Yeats put it so vividly: ‘He loves all that has edge, all that is salt in the mouth, all that is rough to the hand, all that heightens the emotions by contest.’ Despite this, or rather because of it, Synge can lay claim to be the true laureate of the Irish cultural revival.

Synge’s capacity to inspire admiration and accusation in equal measure was evident from the first. When The Shadow of the Glen made his debut in 1903, its production split the newly formed National Theatre Society, and stimulated prolonged remonstration and debate among the rising generation of nationalist thinkers. His next play, Riders to the Sea, possessed such compact intensity it shocked both foes and friends to silence. The Well of the Saints firmly established Synge as the Abbey Theatre’s dominant creative spirit, while The Tinkers’ Wedding was deemed too dangerous to be produced in Ireland in his lifetime – a judgement perhaps confirmed by the riotous reception afforded The Playboy of the Western World. The seething protests of 1907 should not, however, be seen as a final break between author and audience, but on the contrary, as the most acute example of what made Synge’s work irremovably connected to the audience’s closest concerns.

Synge came late to theatre and left early. Already 32 by the date of his debut, his death to cancer six years on gave him little time to influence his age. But in those years Irish cultural life was in turbulent flux. While radical nationalists attained new definition with the founding of Sinn Féin, the return of a Liberal Government in 1906 gave Home Rulers hope. Catholic conservatism was tightened by the Papal encyclical against modernism, while issues of language and education were brought centre stage by a quickly growing Gaelic League. The land began to change hands as peasant proprietorship replaced an Ascendancy landlord class; and even the Orange Order split as a new generation sought change.

With identity politics forming a crucial dynamic within Irish aspirations toward independence, Synge forcibly added urgent questions to the interrogations that characterised his times. Crucially, Synge combined a European, combative urge for the avant garde with a lyrical power that drew on a thorough commitment to Irish life and language. It was this capacity to darken romanticism with material realism and to enliven both with formal invention that produced the powerfully comic ironies in his work.

It also gave offence. If Synge’s gift for lyrical flight resonated with a new confidence in revival Ireland, his bitter edge and observation sought out a broader agenda. This was also a period that saw the founding of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union, and the Irish Women’s Franchise League, bringing issues of class and gender new definition. The question began to be asked – what kind of Ireland would a free Ireland be? Synge’s work typically drew out violent antagonisms lurking within a superficial national unity, exposing the assumptions of its leaders, and the presumptions of its elites. These included his own. Synge was crucially aware of his own prejudice, compromised social circumstances, and his attachment to Anglo-Irish landed privilege. Prior to his stage success, his trips to the Aran Islands provided not only raw material for his drama, but an awareness of a gap he feared too great to bridge. Loneliness and beseeching remonstrance recur in his work, carrying an echo of this feared estrangement.

But by the time his final play, Deirdre of the Sorrows was posthumously performed in 1910, it was already clear that Synge’s capacity to provoke had won out. While there were always those ready to dismiss, Synge found favour among republicans, left-leaning intellectuals and feminist militants impressed by his plays’ impolite ferocity. ‘It makes people think, makes them angry, sends them to find their tempers and their profanity’, the republican activist P. S. O’Hegarty declared in 1912. It was no coincidence that the leader of the 1916 Easter Rising, Padraic Pearse, became more attracted to Synge the more convinced he became by a strategy designed to shock Ireland into revolution.

The power of Synge’s drama remains in its capacity to set people talking, to the extent that each is forced into opinion and all into controversy. His plays can make an audience act. As Synge wrote following the first outing of The Playboy of the Western World: ‘It is better to have the row we had last night, than to have your play fizzling out in half-hearted applause. Now we’ll be talked about. We’re an event in the history of the Irish stage.’