DruidSynge: Synge's Influence

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Synge's Influence

by Fintan O’Toole

Looking back on the early days of the Abbey Theatre in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, W.B. Yeats claimed: “neither then nor at any later time could I discover whether Synge understood the shock that he was giving.” Whether or not Synge understood the shock of his work, however, there is no doubt that it has been felt time and again by other playwrights. Synge’s presence in Irish and world theatre is typically contrary: he is both utterly unique and immensely influential, a deeply distinctive writer whose work has inspired a wide range of artistic responses.

Synge’s impact on Irish drama is obvious enough. He didn’t invent the idea of an Irish linguistic mode in the theatre, but he made it theatrical. His ability to combine a dense, poetic language with vivid action, weighs on every line of Sean O’Casey’s Dublin trilogy. That baroque note sounds out through the work of M. J. Molloy and John B. Keane, through Tom Murphy’s Bailegangaire and Sebastian Barry’s The Steward of Christendom, and through the plays of Martin McDonagh.

But Synge is also an immense influence on the great 20th century dramatist who might seem to be his polar opposite. When Samuel Beckett‚s biographer James Knowlson asked him in 1972 “who he himself felt had influenced his own theatre most of all, he suggested only the name of Synge. He was drawn to Synge’s unusual blend of humour and pathos, his stark but resilient tragi-comic vision, his imaginative power and clear-sighted pessimism. And he was impressed by the rich texture and vitality of Synge‚s theatrical language, and the striking, bold simplicity of his verbal and visual imagery.”

Beyond Ireland, the founder of modern American drama, Eugene O’Neill, was stunned into writing for the stage by seeing the Abbey players perform in New York in 1911, and in particular by Riders to the Sea. That visit, he later recalled, “was what first opened my eyes to the existence of a real theatre.” When, a short while later, he was forced into a sanatorium, he brought with him a group of play texts, Synge’s chief among them, and began to write. At the same time, the black writers of the Harlem Renaissance were setting out, in the words of one of the leaders of the Renaissance, to do for black America “what Synge did for the Irish.”

Beyond the English-speaking world, Synge was an important exemplar for Federico Garcia Lorca, whose Blood Wedding bears the marks of a close reading of Riders to the Sea. The latter play was adapted by Bertolt Brecht in 1937 as Señora Carrar’s Rifles which transposes its action to civil war Spain. For the black writers emerging from colonialism in the second half of the 20th century, like Wole Soyinka in Nigeria or Derek Walcott in the West Indies, Synge was again a mighty presence. Walcott has said that reading Riders to the Sea “released him creatively” and allowed him to write in 1954 The Sea at Dauphin, the first of many plays that used dialogue in the local idiom. With Mustapha Matura’s 1950 transposition of The Playboy to Trinidad, as The Playboy of the West Indies, it was obvious that Synge belonged to the world.