Irish Literary Renaissance: Synge’s Playboy
The Irish Literary Renaissance was a cultural revolution that began in Ireland in the late 19th century and continued to grow and gather force well into the 20th century. It was a widespread collaboration of literary prowess, nationalism, and cultural revival spurred on by the revival of the Gaelic language, literature, and history in the previous century. The plays and playwrights of this time, namely John Millington Synge and his Playboy of the Western World, not only influenced styles of Irish theatre, but also proved inspiration for future playwrights on a global scale. The Gaelic League was founded in 1893 by the first president of the Republic of Ireland, Douglas Hyde. This group of Protestants AND Catholics, directed by Patrick Henry Pearse, fought to revive the Gaelic language and culture. Hyde also wrote “A Literary History of Ireland” in 1988 that fed the nationalist movement even further. In 1922 the founding of the Irish Free State finally accorded the Irish language as equal to English. William Bulter Yeats, a prominent poet and playwright of the time, stood at the very forefront of this literary movement. As he wrote very few practical plays, his contribution to the establishment of Ireland’s first national theater in 1899, the Abbey Theatre, became his greatest theatrical legacy. Lady Isabella Augusta Gregory was Yeats’ primary colleague in the establishment of the Abbey Theatre where she took the leading management position and wrote many plays concerning the translation of Irish legends, peasant comedies, and fantasies based on aforementioned folklore. She later published a book of retellings of stories from ancient Irish folklore. The Abbey Theatre was established in 1899 as Ireland’s first national theatre and was managed by Yeats, Lady Augusta, and Edward Martyn, an Irish political and cultural activist and playwright, their primary mission being to promote Irish poetic drama. In 1902 it was given over to the Irish National Drama Society, which focused on putting Irish actors, in Irish plays, on an Irish stage.
This nationalist literary movement gave birth to some of the most important Irish literary figures in the island’s extensive history. Lennox Robinson wrote The Lost Leader (1918) and The Whiteheaded Boy (1916). Sean O’Casey published his The Shadow of a Gunman in 1923, Juno and the Paycock in 1924, and The Plough and the Stars in 1926. Even the Irish Republican movement had its poets in Patrick Henry Pearse, Thomas MacDonagh, and Joseph Plunkett, who were all executed in 1916 for their parts in the Easter Rising. But, above all is John Millington Synge who is Widely accepted as the greatest dramatist of the movement. As theatre moved more toward rural realism, his powerfully beautiful plays, written in a stylized peasant dialect, gained great notoriety. Riders to the Sea, The Tinker’s Wedding, and The Aran Islands embraced Irish traditions and exposed the beautiful pain his people could experience in everyday life. Synge died of Hodgkin’s disease in 1909 while writing the play, Deirdre of the Sorrows. Surprisingly, many of the forefather of the Irish nationalist and literary movements rejected Synge’s works were often rejected by because of his brutally honest and candid expressions of Irish rural life. They wished Synge to gravitate toward folklore and tradition rather than the stark reality of Irish life.
Playboy of the Western World (1907) is undeniably Synge’s masterpiece. This three-act comedy aboutChristy Mahon, a young man running away from his farm, claiming he killed his father. The locals are more interested in vicariously enjoying his story than in condemning the immorality of his murderous deed. He captures the romantic attention of the barmaid Pegeen Mike. Christy becomes a sort of hero the townspeople, but when his father (who had merely been wounded) finds him, the people declares Christy to be a liar and a coward. I order to maintain the love of the locals and Pegeen, Christy attacks and kills his father second time. But, instead of lauding Christy as before, they arrest him and attempt to hang him so as not to be of the boy’s crime. Christy is saved by yet another miraculous return of his seemingly immortal father. Upon the plays opening performance in January of 1907, riots were ignited by Irish nationalists who viewed the contents of the place as an insult to the public morals of the people of Ireland. Participants in the riots pegged the play as “ a vile and inhuman story told in the foulest language we have ever listened to from a public performance”, and “an unmitigated, protracted libel upon Irish peasant men, and worse still Irish girlhood”. Later, in response to the rioters concerning Sean O’Casey’s pacifist drama, The Plough and the Stars, Willaim Yeates said of the Playboy Riots, “You have disgraced yourself again, is this to be the recurring celebration of the arrival of Irish genius?” In his preface to the play, Synge wrote, “I have used one or two words only that I have not heard among the country people of Ireland, or spoken in my own nursery before I could read the newspapers. I am glad to acknowledge how much I owe to the folk imagination of these fine people. Anyone who has lived in real intimacy with the Irish peasantry will know that the wildest sayings and ideas in this play are tame indeed, compared with the fancies one may hear in any little hillside cabin in Geesala, or Carraroe, or Dingle Bay. This matter, I think, is of importance, for in countries where the imagination of the people, and the language they use, is rich and living, it is possible for a writer to be rich and copious in his words, and at the same time to give the reality, which is the root of all poetry, in a comprehensive and natural form. In the modern literature of towns, however, richness is found only in sonnets, or prose poems, or in one or two elaborate books that are far away from the profound and common interests of life. On the stage one must have reality, and one must have joy; and that is why the intellectual modern drama has failed, and people have grown sick of the false joy of the musical comedy, that has been given them in place of the rich joy found only in what is superb and wild in reality.In Ireland, for a few years more, we have a popular imagination that is fiery and magnificent, and tender; so that those of us who wish to write start with a chance that is not given to writers in places where the springtime of the local life has been forgotten, and the harvest is a memory only, and the straw has been turned into bricks.”
Synge’s plays established the primary style of plays at the Abbey Theatre until the 1940’s and plays of rural peasant life were the main staple of the repertoire until the end of the 1950’s. The stylized realism of his writings was even reflected in the training given at the theater’s school of acting.. Sean O’Casey, the next major dramatist to write for the Abbey, knew Synge’s work well and attempted to do for the Dublin working classes what Synge had done for the rural poor. Vivian Mercier, an Irish literary critic a devout scholar of Samuel Beckett and his writings, became the first to link Beckett with John Synge’s writing. Beckett, the Irish avante-garde novelist, playwright, theatre director, and poet who emerged as one of the most influential writers of the 20th century, was heavily influenced by the writings of Yeats, O’Casey, and Synge as he regularly attended performances of their works as a youth at the Abbey Theatre. Mercier drew parallels between Synge’s vagabonds, beggars, and peasants to the dark and absurdest characters in Beckett’s works. Synge’s influence has permeated the very essence of modern theatre through his own literary contributions and his impact on Beckett and the scores of playwrights that followed him through the postmodernist era of theatre until today.