Theatre and Morality: Synge’s Playboy of the Western World
On the 26th of January 1907, The Playboy of the Western World, a three-act drama, written by Irish playwright John Millington Synge, was first performed at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. Synge’s main writing interest revolved around the life of churchgoing Roman Catholic peasants of rural Ireland, paradoxically, the raw paganism of the way they perceived the world. He also favoured low-life characters such as tramps and beggars, present in the novels and dramatic works of Samuel Beckett, who was significantly inspired by him.
The story of the play follows Christy Mahon, who enters Flaherty’s tavern, somewhere on the west coast of County Mayo, Ireland. He tells the locals that he is on the run after having smacked his father in the head with a spade and killing him.The publicans’ reaction is surprising: landlord Flaherty praises Christy for his daring, and Flaherty’s daughter (and barmaid), Pegeen, falls in love with him, to the consternation of her beau, Shawn. Christy retells his sordid story in such a heroic way that the townspeople start looking up to him as some kind of a bold adventurer. Intrigue and discord break out between the women who start competing for his attention. All of this changes when Christy’s father, Mahon, who was merely wounded, finds his son at the tavern – everybody now regard him as a loser and a liar. Shockingly, in order to be in Pegeen’s good books again and regain the people’s respect, Christy makes a second attempt at patricide; this time, he seems to finish his old man off properly. However, public perception has by now changed from admiration, then disrespect, to condemnation: far from owning up to their own moral misdeeds, they all fear being accused of complicity to murder, so they get ready to hang Christy for his criminal act. Christy is saved from the death sentence when his father, injured and bloody, crawls back onto the scene, having escaped his son’s attack once again. The two, now reunited, leave to travel the world. Meanwhile Shawn realises that he has lost Pegeen’s favours for good, as she now cries after Christy: “I’ve lost the only playboy of the western world.”
The moral fibre of this work is sewn in painful detail, only to cause it to collapse over and over again. Synge writes a play from which the spectator comes away with a complete distrust of inherent human sympathy, kindness or any sort of scruples. Christie’s character changes are not caused by his strength of personality or principles, but by fate and chance occurrences, the oscillating hate or love of others. Nobody seems to have a conscience or a soul; even Pegeen, who appears to be the softest, most caring character in the play, has her affections totally distorted by her community’s wrong value system. Synge’s harsh portrayal of the peasants was sure to anger his Irish compatriots and it feels almost as this was his main goal, to elicit a reaction: “Though the village people’s enthusiasm about parricidal Christy was the main difficulty for an Irish audience, Synge presented the people’s reaction to show their peculiar way of life. Synge obviously emphasizes the people’s sense of oppression by making Christy’s crime an object of general envy as well as approbation. Father-destruction is, after all, an archetypal theme, and the necessity of father-murder is symbolically stressed in The Playboy by the character of Shawn, who is totally unable to free himself from materialism and patriarchal authority. As Pegeen’s lamentation suggests, a starved community which has lost ‘great men of yesterday’ retains a strong sense of heroic life. And the poverty and fantasy, always so closely related, nourish each other. That is why they do not judge Christy merely in moral terms, but regard him as a hero appealing to their nature. And Christy’s patricide represents, from the beginning, a sort of metaphor of achievement. This respect of theirs for Christy, which is actually based upon illusion, is meaningful because it enables them to discover a real hero as well as to get a new insight into their own lives and society.” (Kim Moon Gyu, ‘The Conflict of Two Realities in The Playboy of the Western World’, Journal of Irish Studies, The Harp, Vol. 10, 1995).
The Irish public and critics were appalled by Synge’s atypical social and individual character portrayal. The so-called Playboy Riots emerged in January 1907, during and following the opening performance. The Irish nationalists, who instigated them, saw the play as an insult to national moral values. The Dublin Metropolitan Police had to intervene to calm the protesters. As the critics in the press started to praise the play’s unique success, the riots dwindled. Yet more animosity against it became evident during the play’s opening night in New York in 1911, a city with a booming Irish population, when hecklers booed and reportedly threw vegetables and stink bombs onto the stage as men started fighting in the stalls. The theatrical company which put on the play was arrested in Philadelphia for showing an ‘immoral performance’, but the charges were subsequently dropped.