DruidSynge: Synge, Women and Love

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Synge, Women and Love

by Ann Saddlemyer

Throughout his life Synge was surrounded by women – brought up by his mother (who became the model for old Maurya) and grandmother, living next door to his only sister, his closest playmate a cousin with whom he experienced the first childish flush of passion and rejection, his mother’s houseguests a series of dedicated women missionaries. His first marriage proposal was refused by Cherrie Matheson, a member of the Plymouth Brethren who lived just three doors away. After brooding for years, he finally rewrote their story in When the Moon Has Set, an ill-fated early play quite rightly rejected by Yeats and Lady Gregory. When he finally escaped from his evangelical surroundings it was with the assistance of another cousin, herself a professional pianist, who encouraged him to study music in Germany. There he stayed in a guest house run by six sisters equally rigid in social conventions but far more relaxed and expansive; the youngest, Valeska von Eicken, became his teacher and confidante. By the time he moved on to Paris, renouncing music for literature, he had gained such confidence that he could note in his diary “many friendships with women especially develop a man.” The poet John Masefield would later recall that “his talk to women had a lightness and charm”; and after his death even Lady Gregory, who did not always approve, wrote “One never had to rearrange one’s mind to talk to him.”

Most of these European friendships were with art students who were also fellow travellers – the American Lily Capps whom he met in Rome; the Polish Maria Zdanowska, with whom he regularly visited museums in Paris; the English art historian Hope Rea, with whom he continued to meet and correspond throughout his life. With them all he talked of politics, the quality of friendship, religion, belief and unbelief, spiritualism and mysticism, relationships between men and women, books, life, and, of course, art. But none blossomed into love affairs, though Margaret Hardon, an American etcher and student of architecture (romantically nicknamed “la robe verte” in his diary), briefly replaced Cherrie as the unattainable ideal. It was not until he arrived on Aran that he was able to acknowledge the “romance of reality” in the candour with which he discusses the attractiveness – their wildness, humour and passion—of the women he knew on the islands and in Kerry. Again, his conservative decorum and courtesy distanced him from enjoying anything more intimate than long frank talks with the few young women he admired.

When he fell passionately in love with the young actress Molly Allgood his mother was deeply troubled by the difference in age (he was 35, she was 19), religion (Molly a Roman Catholic, he a non-believer) and social status (he from the professional classes, she from the workers). His fellow directors worried more about the possibility of scandal, Yeats confiding to Lady Gregory, “We shall have to try & get him to keep away from the theatre for a good long time”. Nor was theirs to be an easy relationship, for both had hasty tempers and Molly was joyously flirtatious, leading to many quarrels and lectures. But at last dream had become reality: “Little Heart you dont know how much feeling I have for you. You are like my child, and my little wife, and my good angel, and my greatest friend, all in one! I dont believe there has been a woman in Ireland loved the way I love you for a thousand years.” He created Pegeen Mike of The Playboy of the Western World for her and finally, in the shadow of his own death, Deirdre of the Sorrows.

It was appropriate that they first fell in love while rehearsing The Shadow of the Glen; his love letters were signed “Your old Tramp”. But even before Molly walked on to the Abbey stage, Synge insisted on an honest presentation of sensuality in his work, cavalierly dismissing objections to The Shadow of the Glen with, “I restored the sex-element to its natural place, and the people were so surprised they saw the sex only.” Indeed all his work presents a carefully planned attack on our reflexes, making room for primeval urges beneath the veneer of social norms; anger is very close to the surface, ready to break out in violence at the denial of a dream and betrayal by the hoped-for saviour who himself proves to be a sham. And all of his women characters are a gift to actors; most of them wilful, vital, and hungry for a larger experience than is offered by the circumstances of their surroundings, they not only speak their dreams but actively reach out to achieve them – and woe betide any man who stands in their way!