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The Playboy Riots: Synge’s Incendiary Play

Figure 1 Abbey Theatre

Such a mythology has developed around the first performances of Synge’s renown play. Premiering on the 26th of January 1907, The Playboy of The Western World incited rioting in and around the Abbey Theatre for its glorification of patricide by a Western peasant in rural county Mayo. Synge’s Playboy follows the story of a young man named Christy Mahon after he stumbles into a public house and disrupts the unstable relationship between a young barmaid (Pegeen Mike) and cowardly suitor (Shawn Keogh). Shawn awaits the dispensation of Father Reilly, who would approve the marriage of him and Pegeen. Pegeen doubts this prospect, believing all the men of the village to be incompetent or drunkards. She teases Shawn for his lack of courage and for his inflexible dedication to the Church. Christy’s appearance in the play is transformative, for once Pegeen finds out that he struck down his father to liberate himself from a life of miserable servitude, he becomes a local hero. His patricide is elevated to mythological heights, and he comes to the attention of many of the village’s young women. “[You are] a fine, handsome young fellow with a noble brow”, barmaid Pegeen Mike tells the young Christy Mahon after learning about how the boy killed his father with the blade of a loy.

Figure 2 Cillian Murphy playing the role of Christy Mahon

Although literary companions hailed Synge’s work as an original masterpiece in a new cannon of Irish theatre, the heretical themes of the play rendered it unpalatable for the general Dublin audience. On the very surface, it’s easy to see why the play might’ve been problematic. The Catholic majority would not approve of the portrayal of the Church as a coercive influence on the lives of parishioners, the sexual proclivity of Pegeen, or the mythologisation of Christy’s patricide which borders on Pagan. But more interestingly, performances of the play were shot down by nationalists. Arthur Griffith, Sinn Féin leader, condemned Synge’s work as “a vile and inhuman story told in the foulest language we have ever listened to from a public platform”. Nationalists were worried that Synge’s play threatened the ideal version of the Irish peasant that had been fetishized for so long amongst Nationalists. More interestingly, however, was a single line that parodied the primary hero and figurehead of the Irish literary revival, Cuchulainn.

Figure 3 Arthur Griffith, who condemned the play as anti-patriotic

Cuchulainn, whose battle rage could only be quelled by comrades sheltered in the city of Emain Macha by sending 30 naked virgins across the plains, was revered for his seemingly impossible fortitude against an enemy whose size and strength did not matter. It’s for this reason, perhaps, that Cuchulainn became the instrument of the Nationalist literature: what bigger and mightier enemy than the largest empire in human history? “It's Pegeen I'm seeking only and what'd I care if you brought me a drift of chosen females, standing in their shifts itself maybe, from this place to the Eastern World,” Christy says as he resists the interests of the local women. Whilst audience members of the play believed that Synge was falsely equating the heroism of Cuchulainn with acts of senseless violence and adoration amongst the peasant class, Russian writer Maxim Gorky wrote on the delicate process by which Synge unearthed “a subtle irony on the cult of the hero”. That irony being that Revival Literature had fabricated an ideal peasant class, had dug up a cultural myth to fuel its legitimate claims to independence and had (in some instances) glorified the use of senseless violence to consolidate its own political agenda (for example, the notion of Republican blood sacrifice set forth in works such as Lady Gregory and W.B. Yeats’s play Cathleen ni Houlihan).

Nationalists attempted to heckle and shun the play as it was performed and in formal arenas, such as newspapers and magistrates. Far from developing the cultural and literary essence of Ireland, the Nationalists and Revivalists saw it within their interests to develop a form of theatre that was inward-looking and tightly controlled. Critics of the Abbey Theatre’s aesthetic goals claimed that a genuine Irish literary tradition should establish itself in the Irish language, not English. But this linguistic and cultural censorship was anti-progressive, Abbey founders argued. In his poem, ‘On Those That Hated "The Playboy Of The Western World"’, Yeats writes:

Once, when midnight smote the air,
Eunuchs ran through Hell and met
On every crowded street to stare
Upon great Juan riding by:
Even like these to rail and sweat
Staring upon his sinewy thigh.

Those who protested The Playboy are castrated “eunuchs”, envious of the vigour, morality, and imaginative prowess of Synge. Years later, after a performance of Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars, he would accuse Dubliners of the same crime when he rose to the stage to condemn them. “You have disgraced yourself again. Is this to be the recurring celebration of the arrival of Irish genius?”, he spoke.

The entire debacle has been criticised from many aspects and draws attention to the consumption of art as politically, morally, and culturally encoded. Does a free, uncensored corpus of artwork allow the fledgling country to establish itself as progressive and therefore distinguished from the English theatre, with its entrenched forms of realism, its binary moralities, its repetitive, drooling “stage Irishmen”, or is it better to adopt a more absolute approach? Is it better to whitewash stage performances with a language that just 15% of the population can speak (as of 1901), to have heroes that are unquestioningly heroic, to have art follow a general moral code instead of being morally explorative? Although much more extreme, it does seem to offer a very distinct sense of otherness – a complete antithesis to the theatre of England and Europe. It’s an interesting moral dilemma to brood upon and it is perhaps why Synge wrote his play with the intention of being incendiary and causing upheaval. In a letter to a friend, concerning the performance of the play, Synge wrote simply, “my next play will make them hop.

If you wish to read the play, it can be found online for free at Project Gutenberg:

Tom Westhead

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