John Millington Synge: Commentary

File 1 File 2

Contemporary reviews

D. J. O’Donoghue
Arthur Griffith
Lady Gregory
W. B. Yeats
George Moore
James Joyce
St. John Ervine
Francis Bickley
Violet Martin
Patrick Pearse
G. B. Shaw
Thomas MacDonagh
Daniel Corkery
Lord Dunsany
Conrad Arensberg
Louis MacNeice
Stepen Spender
Patrick Kavanagh
Edward Stephens
Greene & Stephens
Robin Skelton
Robin Flower
Seán Ó Tuama
Alan Price
Frank Tuohy
Declan Kiberd
Seán McMahon
Andrew Carpenter
Seamus Heaney
Seamus Deane
Mary C. King
Ulick OConnor
Luke Gibbons
Nicholas Grene
Robert Welch
Benedict Kiely
Richard Murphy
Conor Farrington
Stanley Sultan
David Edgar
Kevin Barry
C. L. Dallat
Terence Brown
Nicholas Grene
Rob Doggett
Nelson Ó C. Ritschel
James Pethica
Michael Billington
Roy Foster
J. W. Foster
Fintan O’Toole
Rebecca Stout
Alan Titley

Robin Skelton, J. M. Synge and His Work (Thames & Hudson 1971): ‘He noted only those aspects of island life which fed his own imagination and supported his views while he referred to the hardness of the islander’s life he did so rather with the admiration of the romantic than with the concern of the sociologist […]. Haunted by thoughts of mortality, he saw in the endless battle of the islanders with the elements and their constant nearness to sudden death a parable of the human condition […] in their ancient culture, their stories and mythic understanding of the natural world, he perceived a kind of knowledge that lay deeper than that of intellect […] (Q.p.; cited in Tomás Mac Síomáin, intro. [trans. Douglas Sealy] Tacar Dánta/Selected Poems, Newbridge: Goldsmith Press 1984, p.[viii].)

Robin Flower, introductory notice to “Deirdre of the Sorrows”, in The Writings of J. M. Synge, Camelot 1971, p.133: ‘It is the language of Deirdre of the Sorrows that is particularily interesting. There are few, very few speeches in which the word-order and syntactical constructions are English, and yet the vocabulary of the play is not that of colloquial Irish. Synge seems to have sought a dialect which could be pervasively Irish in its struture and yet sophisticated enough to handle the high seriousness which necessarily outlaws the vividly gross and harshly direct.’ (Quoted by Angela Cushley, UUC 3rd Yr Diss., p.23.)

Seán Ó Tuama, ‘It was [Synge], and not Yeats, who shaped the future of the Abbey Theae. So it was that our national theatre, in the process of being saved from becoming “Cuchulainnoid”, tended to become “peasantoid” instead.’ (The Gaelic League Idea, 1972, p.2; cited in Máirín Nic Eoin, An Litríocht Réigiúnach, Baile Átha Cliath: An Clóchomhar Tta 1982, p.43.)

Alan Price, Synge and the Anglo-Irish Drama (1961; [rep.] 1972), ‘Aran was a microcosm of all that Synge considered to be important in the world; and it offered the essence of life, not stale, diffuse and incoherent, but fresh, compact and comprehensible.’; also, They understand that death is the only actuality, and love a dream; and so they go back to Emain to face death rather than endure the agony of living with a love or dream that they know must fade.’ (Price, 1972; p.207.) Further: ‘Owen’s words demonstrate that Lavarcham was once, like Deirdre, beautiful; but that when her love was killed, she did not join him in the grave but chose to live on.’ (pp.213.)

Frank Tuohy, Yeats (1976), quotes Yeats on Synge: ‘he had the egotism of the man of genius which Neitszche compares to the egotism of a woman with a child. Neither I or lady Gregory had every a compliment from him or, I think, thanks for working for him. […] He was too confident for self-assertion. I once said to George Moore, “Synge has always the better of you, for you have brief but ghastly moments during which you admit the existence of other writers. Synge never has.’ I do not thing he disliked other writers. They did not exist’ (p.132). Cf., from the same: ‘he had the egotism […] of the man of genius which Neitszche compares to the egotism of a woman with a child […] In the arts he knew no language but his own.’ (Ann Saddlemyer, ‘John Millington Synge’, in Robert Hogan, ed., Dictionary of Irish Literature, 1979, p.658.)

[ top ]

Richard Ellmann, ed. Selected Letters of James Joyce (London: Faber 1976): ‘In the Freeman’s Journal of 5 February 1907, Francis Sheehy-Skeffington is quoted as saying at the debate [on the Playboy of the Western World, held at the Abbey on 4 Feb. 1907] that he was both for and against. “The play was bad, the organised disturbance was worse, the methods [of the police] employed to quell that disturbance were worst of all.” Richard Sheehy declared, “The play was rightly condemned as a slander on Irishmen and Irishwomen. An audience of self-respecting Irishmen had a perfect right to proceed to any extremity.”’ (Ellmann, op. cit., p.147, n.2.) [Cont.]

Richard Ellmann, ed. Selected Letters of James Joyce (London: Faber 1976): ‘Daniel Sheehan (whom Joyce had known at University College) spoke, as a peasant now working for a medical degree in Dublin, in defend Synge’s play. He said, in part: “Mr. Synge had drawn attention to a particular form of marriage law which, though not confined to Iceland, was very common in Ireland. It was with a fine woman like Pegeen Mike and a tubercule Koch’s disease man like Shaun Keogh - and the point of view was not the murder at all, but when the artist appears in Ireland who was not afraid of life and his nature, the women of Ireland would receive him.’ The newspaper report, that “At this stage in the speech many ladies, whose countenances plainly indicated intense feelings of astonishment and pain, rose and left the place. Many men also retired.” An earlier phrase of Sheehan’s about Irishwomen was “lost in the noise”.’ (Ellmann, ibid., n.3.) Further: ‘Sheehan also said he came “to object to the pulpit Irishman, just as they objected to the stage Irishman”’. (Ibid., n.4.) [See Joyce’s letter to which these notes are appended under Joyce, Quotations, supra.]

[ top ]

Declan Kiberd, ‘Synge as Sociologist’ [letter], in Hibernia (Feb. 1974), takes Leo Daly’s ‘rambling letter on John Messenger’s book’ to task for the supposition that Synge possessed a ‘herioc mustic concept of the people’ of Inis Beag and writes: ‘Synge never laboured under any illusins baout the island life and the sexual inhibitions of the folk are all sensitively and quietly documented in the Aran Islands’, asserting that the playwright’s findings are fairly closely related to Prof. Messenger’s. Challenging Daly’s view that the resignation in Maurya’s final speech in Riders to the Sea rings false, he adds: ‘he [Daly] can know little of the scrupulous fidelity to detail exhibitied by Synge in the composition of the speech just quoted [viz, ‘No man at all …’]. The precise words of the last sentence of Maurya’s speech were used in a letter, written by an Inishmaan boy to Synge in the Gaelic language, concerning the death of a close relation. The letter was written on February 1, 1902, and the relevant extract is: “Fuair bean mo dhearbhráthair Seaghan bás, agus déineach do mhí no nodlag agus feuc gurab brónach a sgéul é le rá, ach má sadh féin caithfidh mid a bheaith sásta mar nach féidir le héinne a bheith beo go deo .” […] Such words, mistakenly traced to via Synge to Sophocles by generations of American professors, give the lie to people like Mr Daly who seem to assert that Synge was not in close touch with the attitudes of the island. folk. […] in borrowing from the simple style of a young island boy for the climactic utterance of Riders to the Sea, Synge showed just how much he trusted the islanders to speak for themselves.’ Kiberd goes on to speak of ‘the failure of generations of Gaelic scholars in Ireland to trace and to explain the immense use made by Synge of Gaelic literature’, an ‘ignorance which prevented the production, on native soil, of The Tinker’s Wedding, simply on the grounds that its climactic sccene, [sic] was “un-Irish”. Kiberd further argues that the scene was probably suggested to Synge by a passage from Douglas Hyde’s translation-poem “The Lout and His Mother” in The Religious Songs of Connacht : “’s dá mbeitheá-sa marbh ar maidin amárach / ’s go mbéarfainn chun sagairt thú, ceanghaite i mála, / Ní léighfeadh duit aifreann gan airgead láimhe .” Kiberd concludes by stating that he is preparing a thesis on the subject of Synge’s literary debt to previous Irish writers, in both Gaelic and English, and solicits information about any helpful material. The letter is subscribed Linacre College, Oxford University, Oxford.

Declan Kiberd, ‘Writers in Quarantine?: The Case for Irish Studies’, in Crane Bag, Vol. 3, No. 1 (1979; pp.9-21; rep. in Crane Bag Book of Irish Studies, Dublin: Blackwater Press 1982, pp.341-53): ‘It was Synge’s particular achievement to ignore this foolish division [decreed by the young Pearse between Irish and English language writing in Ireland] and take both literatures out of quarantine. (p.341.) ‘Of course he ignored the division between those rival traditions at his peril and, in the Ireland of his time, he paid the inevitable price. Those who might have admired him for his commitment to the native culture denounced him for his belief in the higher claims of art. Those who admired his art could never fully appreciate the extent of his commitment to the native culture.’ (p.341.) ‘It was one of the most cruel ironies of literary history that the attempt to restore the Irish language coincided with the emergence of some of the greatest writers of English whom Ireland has ever produced.’ (p.342.) ‘The artificial division between writing in English and Irish still holds sway. Synge was its first and most spectacular victim. He bravely broke the quarantine decreed by Pearse only to find it sedulously observed by the nation’s theatre-goers and readers. His work, so deeply rooted in the Gaelic tradition, was rejected by the strident professional Gaels of his own time because it was written in the English language’ (p.342.) ‘Synge did not believe that the artist could so divide his own creations, neatly slotting each work into one or other tradition. Each of his plays and poems represent a fusion, in a single work, of both traditions and an attempt by the power of his imagination to make them one.’ (p.344.)

[ top ]

Declan Kiberd, Synge and the Irish Language, Macmillan 1979; new edn. Gill & Macmillan 1993), ‘countless critics of [Synge’s] play took grave exception to Christy’s scenes of courtship with Pegeen, without realising that almost all the controversial lines of the speech were culled from Gaelic poetry and song. The Gaelic Leaguers protested that Christy’s free and passionate idiom misrepresented the peasants of the west. They did not realise that it was from the songs of the folk that Christy’s most passionate lines have been looted.’ (pp.138-39.) ‘Synge had a genius for translation. His literary sensibility found its truest expression in the manoeuvre between two languages, Irish and English. His own poetry, composed in English, seems all too often to be a pastiche of second-rate contemporary styles, whereas the brillianat translations from continental langauges into Anglo-Irish dialect gives us a sense of the man himself. The dialect in which he finally found his desired medium was the bilingual weave produced by this manoeuvre between languages.’ (Ibid., 1993 edn., p.88.)

[ top ]

Declan Kiberd, ‘J. M. Synge - Remembering the Future’, in Inventing Ireland: The Literature of the Modern Nation (London: Jonathan Cape 1995), pp.166-188; ‘[For passage on violence and the Mayo peasants in the play, see under Kiberd, RX]; ‘Christy’s radical blankness as a personality’ (p.167.) ‘A major investigation is conducted in The Playboy of the relationship between the folowe and the crude life at its roots, between style and shock, which is to say between poetry and violence. In a private letter to an admirer, written soon after the riots, Synge remarked tht “the wildness and, if you will, vices of the Irish peasantry are due, like their extraordinary good points, to the richness of their nature, a thing that is pricesless beyond words.” [Coll. Letters, I, 1983, p.297]; ‘Synge’s extraordinary influence on the middle period of Yeats’s poetry was attributable to his insistence that violence and poetry went hand in hand.’ (p.169.) ‘So if the violence and the poetry sprang from a common source, it would have been impssible to separate them without a diminution of both’. (p.169.) ‘In the opening act of The Playboy, Synge describes a people who only rise to intensity of feeling when they are recounting deeds of violence. […] So obsessively are poetry and violence interwoven in the mental fabric of the Mayoites that the women seen incapable of describing [169] poetry except in terms of violence, and unable to imagine violence except as a kind of poetry.’ (170.) ‘Synge was amused by the fact that the great deeds of a Cuchulain were typically applauded by men too timit to think of emulating them’ (p.171.) ‘The mortal charm of Synge’s dialect is the beauty that inheres in all precarious or dying things. Much of it is traceable to the Gaelic substratum, those elements of syntax and imagery carried over from the native tradition by a people who continue to think in Irish even as they speak in English. The famous “jawbreakers” - words like “bedizened” or “potentate” - are in the tradition of the hedge-schoolmasters nervously advertising their new mastery of English polysyllabic effects to impress the parents of their putative pupils, in the absence of a more forma diploma. the tradition was at least as old as Goldsmiths village schoolmaster.’ (173.) ‘Hiberno-English, like Christy Mahon, owes its force to the apparent murder of its parent: and the Playboy of the Western World may thus be read as a critical reflection upon its own linguistic parasitism.’ (p.174.) ‘Synge was a radical who grew up in an oppressed society, impressed by its cultural richness but even more horrified by its costs’ (p.174.) [Cont.]

Declan Kiberd, ‘J. M. Synge - Remembering the Future’ (1995) - cont.: here refers to Seamus Deane’s ‘eloquent defence of the Playboy rioters’, and remarks:] ‘Nevertheless, Deane’s reading of the play is mistaken, because it is based on revivalist productions and on a scholarly tradition which claims Synge as one of Anglo-Ireland’s crowning glories’ [here citing T. R. Henn; 175]; ‘Synge was, by his own say-so, a radical, whom he defined as “someone who whanted to change things root and branch”. He was a student of such terxsts as Marx’s Das Kapital and Communist Manifesto, the works of William Morris, L’Anarchie, Problems of Poverty, Principes du Socialisme and Basic Socialism . He went to Paris in 1896 with the intention of immersing himself in the radical movement: “he wants to do good”, lamented his mohter, “and for that possibility he is giving up everything” [Greene and Stephens, J. M. Synge, 1961, p.66; 1959 Macmillan edn. p.57]. This was no passing youthful fancy: for in the last days of his life, at the Elpis Nursing Home in Dublin, he repeatedly sought to engage the nurses on the topic of feminism. The protesters may have known exactly what they were doing. They were middle-class nationliasts who did not want a revolution: and so they attacked and tried to stop his play as it moved into its liberationist third act. This process must now be explained.’ [175]; ‘It is this very emptiness of personality and in his contexts which has allowed generations of critics to read so many different meanings into the character of Christy […; 180] The cause for his own heroism is not made by him, but for him./Chief among the claimants if Pegeen, whose invention Christy really is, her animus returned after centuries of Anglicisation to the level of female consciousness. Her lament in the play’s final lines is less for the physical man just gone off stage than for lost possibilities of her own womanhood.’ (p.181.) ‘The spark that lit the Playboy riots is well known, recorded in the famous telegram sent by Lady Gregory summoning Yeats to return at once from Scotland: “Audience broke up in disorder at use of the word ‘shift’”.’ [… /] ‘It is hard, at the same time, not to feel some sympathy for the protesting audiences in the play’s first week. Most were nationalist males who frequented the theatre for political reasons, since the Abbey was one of the few national institutions in occupied Ireland. Few men anywhere in the Europe of 1907 could have coped with Synge’s subversive gender-benders, least of all a group committed to the social construction of precisely the kind of Cuchulanoid heroism which the playwright was so mischievously debunking. Irishmen had been told that when they protested their voices rose to an unflattering female screech: and so they were off loading the vestigial femininity of the Celtic male onto icons like Cathleen ni Houlihan or Mother Ireland.’ [183] / These were the men who accused Synge of “betraying the forces of virile nationalism” (David H. Greene & Edward M. Stephens, J. M. Synge 1871-1909, New York 1961, p.148) to a movement of decadence. They were hardening themselves into hypermasculinity, in preparation for an uprising, rather than adopting the more complex strategy of celebrating their own androgyny. That Synge preferred the latter option is clear from the tripartite structure of his play, which corresponds very neatly with Frantz Fanon’s dialectic of decolonisation, from occupation, though nationalism, to liberation.’ (Kiberd, p.184; going on to read the play as an allegory of liberation from the ‘false image’ that entails ‘Irish self-disgust under colonial misrule’.)

Declan Kiberd, ‘J. M. Synge - Remembering the Future’ (1995) - cont.: ‘In Act One, Christy finds a false image of himself in the cracked mirror of his father’s cruel home, the very image of Irish self-disgust under colonial misrule. In Act Two, he then discovers an over-flattering image of himself in the perfect mirror of Pegeen’s shebeen, the very acme of Irish pride under the conditions of a self-glorifying revival. But nationalism, as Fanon warned, is not liberation, since it still persists in defining itself in categories imposed by the colonizer. A revolution couched in such terms is taken away from a people even as they perform it: it is only by breaking out of the binaries, through to a third point of transcendence, that freedom can be won. Only in Act Three can Christy forget about the good opinion of others, throw that mirror away and construct himself out of his own desire (as opposed to allowing himself to become the locus for the desire of others). Only then does he lose the marks of a provincial who is doomed to define himself through the distorting mirror of a public opinion shaped in some faraway centre of authority. / The Mayoites, on the other hand, never achieve a rudimentary self awareness, but abjectly defer to a set of laws which they privately despise. Like hopeless provincials, they have no sense of their own presence. Christy’s by-play with the mirror in the second act may be narcissistic, but it does serve to frame his face, raising it from a commonplace thing to the realms of self-reflexive art. The very repre sentation of that face bestows on it an interest it would otherwise have lacked, the growth of consciousness in various characters being indicated in the repeated phrase of recognition “Is it me?” This is “the transformation which takes place in the subject when he assumes an image” (Jacques Lacan, Ecrits: A Selection, New York 1977, p.2) - like those Aran Islanders who, contemplating Synge’s photographs, saw themselves as if for the first time./The perfect mirror in The Playboy points forward to that moment when Christy will form a conception of himself, rather than existing as a conception of others. This is the first act in any revolutionary agenda, a moment reminiscent of that when an insurgent Mexican peasantry to be stunned by the sight of their entire bodies in the vast mirrors. (p.185.) ‘Until this point, Christy has been repeatedly described as one who is afraid of his own shadow [… &c.] (p.185.) ‘Synge is arguably the most gifted Irish exponent of the three phases of artistic decolonisation later described by Fanon. He effortlessly assimilated the culture of the oocupying English and then proceeded to immerse himself in the native culture.’ (p.186.) ‘Irish Synge’s Playboy […] was a sort of blue-print for a new species of Irish artist. In his hands the meaning of Gaelic tradition changed from something museumised to something modifiable, endless open. He sensed that the revivalists’ worship of the past was based on their questionable desire to colonise and control it: but his deepest desire was to demonstrate the continuing power of the radical Gaelic past to disrupt the revivalist present.’ (p.187.)

Declan Kiberd, ‘John Millington Synge’, in Encyclopedia Britannica [Online], gives bio-data: (b. April 16, 1871), Rathfarnham, near Dublin, Ireland; d. March 24, 1909 (Dublin), leading figure in the Irish literary renaissance, a poetic dramatist of great power who portrayed the primitive life of the Aran Islands and the western Irish seaboard [… &c.] (EB Sharing site with NYTimes .)

[ top ]

Seán McMahon, remarks of Synge that ‘He began his study of music when he was twenty-one and for six years he travelled in Germany, Italy and France. The writings of this period, Vita Vecchia and Étude Morbide (the pieces he had originally wished Yeats to exclude), give evidence of a sickly kind of thanatophily. He was an impressionable young man, extremely sensitive to emotion, subject to fits of depression and equally neurotic elation. The quasi-autobiographical pieces mentioned above are very like the journals of the composer Schumann at the same age. Synge was also greatly affected by the Romantic Agony, addicted to Huysmans and other fin-de-siècle writers and shattered by broken love affairs. Some of the most despairing poems, which do show a depression that would have seemed to welcome death, belong to this period. But this agonised man bears little resemblance to “that slow man, that meditative man” who met Yeats in Paris and was advised to seek the material for his writing not in continental Europe but in the parts of his own country where life was most primitive and most real.’ (p.122 in McMahon, ‘Clay and Worms’, Éire-Ireland, 5, 4, Winter 1970 [Vol. 1], pp.116-43.)

Andrew Carpenter, ‘Synge and Women’, Études Irlandaises, Patrick Rafroidi [et al.] eds. (Lille 1979), pp.89-106; ‘I have often found myself asking whether there can be a link between repression in Synge’s life and the bursting energy of the plays. Unfortunately for Synge scholarship as a whole, much important autobiographical material and many of his early poems - in which lie the answers to my question and which I have indeed been lucky enough to study - remain unpublished.’ (p.89.)

Seamus Heaney, ‘A Tale of Two Islands: Reflections on The Irish Literary Revival’, in Irish Studies, I, ed. P. J. Drury (Cambridge UP 1980), pp.1-20: ‘One has a sense that for Synge there was enormous exultation and confirmation and destination in the Aran experience: he had found a power-point, he was grafted to a tree that had roots touching the rock bottom, he had put on the armour of authentic pre-Christian vision which was a salvation from the fallen world of Unionism and Nationalism, Catholicism and Protestantism, Anglo and Irish, Celtic and Saxon - all those bedevilling abstractions and circumstances. Admittedly, Nationalist Catholic Ireland would wince and whinge at his presentation of western womanhood in The Playboy of the Western World, but that was ignorance and prejudice pattering weakly as rain on the strong tegument of his integrity. That was stock reaction by the round-tower and shamrock crowd. Synge rested secure in his sense of having penetrated the real Gaelic soul, of having translated into a work of art in the English language the fundamental attitudes and structures of feeling that he discerned in the Irish language culture of the west. And Synge’s achievement was buttressed by the subsequent appearance in Irish and English of an indigenous western literature, notably works by natives of the Blasket Islands such as Tomas O’Criomthain, Maurice O’Sullivan and Peig Sayers, whose autobiographies confirmed an image [9] of the native stock as tragic, noble, simple, stoical, poetic. And Synge’s certitude transfused Yeats also [… ].’ (pp.9-10; see further under Seamus Heaney, Quotations, infra.)

[ top ]

Seamus Heaney, ‘The Sense of Place’ (1977; rep. in Preoccupations, 1988, pp.131-49): quotes Synge’s Preface to Tinker’s Wedding: “The drama [135] is made serious [… ] not by the degree in which it is taken up with problems that are serious in themselves, but by the degree in which it gives the nourishment, not very easy for us to define, on which our imaginations live. [… ]”. That nourishment, it seems to me, became available more abundantly to us as a result of the achievements of the Irish Literary Revival, and much of its imaginative protein was extracted from the sense of place. [… /] However, we have to understand also that this nourishment which springs from knowing and belonging to a certain place and a certain mode of life is not just an Irish obsession, nor is the relationship between a literature and a locale with its common language a particularly Irish phenomenon. [...]’ (pp.135-36.)

[ top ]

Seamus Deane, on Synge’s plays (Celtic Revivals, London: Faber 1985): ‘[each] story of fantasy [… ] is, first, rebuked by fact and then, in the next instant, legitimised as belonging or contributing to a higher truth than mere fact could ever reach’ (p.57.) ‘Mesmerised by an eloquence which begins in illusion but which continues after the destruction of illusion, we are forced to concede to the imagination a radical autonomy. It insists on its own truth not by ignoring fact but by including it and going beyond it. The imaginary, overtaken by the real, becomes the imaginative. The dynamic force which makes this possible is language.’ (Ibid., pp.57-58; both cited in Donald E. Morse, et al. A Small Nation’s Contribution to the World, Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe, 1993, p.36.)

Seamus Deane, ‘Yeats and the Idea of Revolution’, in Celtic Revivals, London: Faber 1985; rep. in Jonathan Allison, ed., Yeats’s Political Identities (Michigan UP 1996), pp.133-44: ‘[…] National identity is a concept often occasioned by the belief, on the part of the conqueror as much as on the part of the conquered, that there is some identifiable, genetic or cultural “difference” between the two groups. Matthew Arnold, after all, had said this often enough about England and Ireland in his Irish essays. There are more recent examples. V. S. Naipaul writes in An Area of Darkness of how the English left behind in their twentieth - century colonies one of their most enduring inventions - a concept of Englishness. One of its affectations was that “of being very English, of knowing nothing at all about India, of eschewing Indian words and customs” (An Area of Darkness, 1964, p.210.). If we substitute Ireland there for India, we can easily recognize the symptoms. The whole Irish revival is a reaction against this attitude, a movement towards the colony and away from the mother - country, a replacement of “Englishness” by “Irishness”. Yet we must remember that for Yeats and Synge in particular the Irish maintained their especial quality precisely to the degree that they had remained loyal to those old beliefs and that old eloquence which had formerly characterized the seventeenth - century English. This is the Coleridgean notion of the English community rephrased in an Hibernian idiom. The colony, Ireland, has now become the motherland of historical memory. The actual motherland, England, has become degraded past recognition. We thus discover in Yeats the process of a complex act of colonial repossession, linguistic symptoms of which are to be heard also in Synge’s Preface to The Playboy of the Western World when he says: “It is probable that when the Elizabethan dramatist took his ink-horn and sat down to his work he used many phrases that he had just heard, as he sat at dinner, from his mother or his children. In Ireland, those of us who know the people have the same privilege”. “Those of us who know the people” ­ a perfect colonial phrase. Yeats considered himself to be one of those too; he wasn’t, in that sense, one of “the people”. His so-called fascism is, in fact, an almost pure specimen of the colonialist mentality.’ (Jonathan Allison, ed., Yeats’s Political Identities, 1996, p.142.)

[ top ]

Mary C. King, The Drama of J. M. Synge (Syracuse UP 1985): ‘The question which Nora poses, “What way would I live?”, is central to the play [In The Shadow of the Glen]. Its corollary must be the extent to which either Daniel Burke or Michael Dara might be said to be living men, men who can offer life. For Michael, about coconut out the stocking of money left by Dan, life is equated with possessions and cash. His counting of Dan's money emphasises that for him Nora, too, is a commodity: his proposal of marriage invites her to sell herself once more. As she watches the young man counting the gold, her dreary existence passes before her as a static (grammatically stative) procession. She sees herself deprived of agency, become merely an observer of the passing years. Her lament rises, in a cumulative crescendo of non-finite verb forms, until she sees herself as a fixed and tormented point at the centre of a moving, whirling cosmos, trapped in the nightmare of her own stasis. What life can there be, she asks, [here sets out the following speech as a chart: “when you do be sitting / looking out from a door the like of / that door, and seeing nothing / but the mists rolling down the bog, / and the mists again, and they rolling up the bog, / and hearing nothering / but the wind crying out in the bits of [74] broken trees / were left from the great storm, / and the streams / roaring with rain? (III, 49.) / Nora's “seeing nothing”, “hearing nothing”, “Isn't it a great while I am”, “Isn't it a long while I am”, (III, 49, passim) build up into a negative threnody for the barren negation of her life. As her keening continues, she sees herself divorced from activity, eternally “sitting here in the winter, and the summer, and the fine spring, with the young growing behind me and the old passing” (III, 49). Her cosmic pity and terror are given a local habitation and a name as she remembers young Mary Brien “with two children, and another coming on her in three months or four” (III, 51) and old Peggy Cavanagh, “with no teeth in her mouth, and no sense, and no more hair than you'd see on a bit of a hill and they after burning the furze from it” (III, 51). Outside and inside environment, macrocosm and microcosm, are pressed into contiguity as she envisages the universe itself caught up in a relentless and necessary process of birth and decay, but leaving her morbidly isolated from generation to generation.’ (pp.74-75.)

Ulick O’Connor (on Synge’s dialect), ‘A language untouched by nineteenth century commercial usage and capable in its English expression of bringing a new melody and imagery into dramatic verse [sic]. His Riders to the Sea has been called the finest one act play in the English language and The Playboy of the Western World is in the classical repertoire of world theatre.’ (The Yeats Companion, London: Mandarin 1991, p.18.)

Luke Gibbons, ‘Synge, Country and Western: The Myth of the West in Irish and American Culture’, chap. in Transformations in Irish Culture (Field Day/Cork UP 1996), pp.23-35: ‘In its American form, the western is a hymn to individualism, a celebration of self-interest and personal liberty evoked in visual terms by the limitless expanse of the great plains and the vast open prairies. In marked contrast, the image of the west of Ireland elaborated in the Anglo-Irish contribution to the Literary Revival represents the precise opposite: an escape from individualism and the fragmentation of community which Synge believed to be endemic in the modernising process. [… T]he appeal of the west of Ireland for writers like Synge and Yeats lay precisely in the fact that it offered a refuge from such a puritan ethos, from the suffocating moral and atmosphere of an Ireland dominated by the emergent bourgeoisie, both Catholic and Protestant. This gives a radically different inflection to the animosity towards [24] law and order which we find in both idealisations of the west. (pp.23-24.)

[ top ]

Nicholas Grene, ‘Synge in Wicklow’, in Ken Hannigan & William Nolan, Wicklow, History and Society (Dublin: Geography Publications 1995), an essay giving an account inter al. of Synge’s mother’s anxiety about him and her anti-Catholic snobberies [‘as the house was owned by Roman Catholics it would not be free from fleas’].]

Robert Welch, The Abbey Theatre, 1899-1999: Form and Pressure (OUP 1999): ‘Synge’s play [Riders to the Sea ] is a masterpiece of concentration and structure. Its language, with its strong emphasis on the particularity and physicality of the island world this play evokes, has the felt reality of concrete experience. Synge achieves this strength through an adaptation into English of features of Gaelic grammar and syntax, filtered through his accurate ear for Hiberno-English speech. This language, often parodied and frequently misunderstood, is a perfect dramatic vehicle for registering shocks or realisation, horror, grief. […] The terrible primal horror of folk tale is united with the spare artistry of tragic writing at its finest. This was undoubtedly, the Abbey’s first masterpiece; Yeats’s dramatist had arrived.’ (p.30.)

Robert Welch, ‘Afterword’, The Playboy of the Western World and Other Plays, introduced by Edna O’Brien (Signet Classics 2006): ‘[…] Yeats wrote of the paradisal quality of these songs [i.e., Love Songs of Connacht ], as they seemed to him, and of how he closed Hyde’s book with sadness. And there was, in construction at that time, an idyll of the “western world,” of an Edenic place, beyond the Shannon or in the Irish countryside, where life was simpler, closer to nature, more authentic. The fact that we have now cynical about these allurements, should not lead us to underestimate their (to some extent enduring) power. / This construction of “the west” (and of Irish rural life in general) was part of a nationalist impulse to restore Irish “dignity’;(a word, by the way, to which Lady Gregory, with Yeats and Synge one of the Directors of the Abbey, was greatly attached). So a reevaluation of traditional Ireland was, in effect, an important part of a modernizing process by of which Ireland could position herself as a state free from the centuries-old dominion of Britain. The idealization of Irish rural life therefore, while attractive symbolically, was also a major element the forging of a mind-set ready to challenge British control. The imagination, in other words, had a political context that gave evocations of “the west” extra charge, all the more exciting for being a a little obscured, more inferred than asserted openly. / In the Shadow of the Glen (that was its original title; now it is frequently given the briefer, less satisfying, title The Shadow of the Glen ) was first staged with [128] Yeats’s The King’s Threshold at Molesworth Hall on 8 October 1903 by the Irish National Theatre Society. This was well before the Abbey, the name later given to the Irish National Theatre, opened its doors in Abbey Street in the old Mechanics Institute on 27 December 1904.’ (p.192.)

Robert Welch, ‘Afterword’, The Playboy of the Western World and Other Plays, introduced by Edna O’Brien (Signet Classics 2006) - cont.: ‘The Irish National Theatre Society had a Reading Committee, which included Yeats, of course, along with the poet-theosophist George Russell (“AE”), the brothers William. and Frank Fay (who were actors in the Society), and Padraic Colum, the poet. In approving the play, Yeats either overruled the committee or acted unilaterally, for Hyde and Maud Gonne left the Society, in part because of their objections. Gonne was Yeats’s beloved, whom he had adored for many years, and who had taken the lead part in Yeats’s and Lady Gregory’s powerful nationalist play, Kathleen Ni Houlihan, in 1902. / On the one hand, there were avid nationalists, in the tradition of the Fenian Brotherhood and ultimately the IRA, who were not going to be easy to conciliate; and on the other hand, there were the likes of Hyde, peaceful and constitutional nationalists but people easy to offend by an unflattering view of the Irish peasant. And unflattering of Irish rural values In the Shadow certainly was: Maud Gonne wrote in a letter, “from all I hear I think [the play] is horrid and I will have no responsibility for it - it was forced on the company by a trick” - the trickster being of course the person to whom this letter was addressed, Yeats himself. (The Gonne-Yeats Letters , ed. MacBride & Jeffares, 1992, p.174.) / Although In the Shadow may not be “horrid,” it is, in many ways, very shocking and perhaps even a bit horrifying if you were a militarily inclined republican or a modernizing nationalist in 1903. The people in [129] this play are a light-million years from the idealised paradisical Gaelic pastoral entertained by Hyde and necessary for revolutionary propaganda. These people are narrow, greedy, deceitful, adulterous, violent, and drunken. […]’. (pp.128-30; and see similar remarks about The Playboy of the Western World, ibid., pp.135-36, viz: ‘No wonder The Playboy caused a riot. To many on the opening night it seemed as if Synge (suspect anyway because of his Anglo-Irish and Protestant clerical background) had gone out of his way to be offensive to Ireland and the Irish, and especially to the people of the west. Hist characters are priest-ridden, hypocritical, violent, drunken, ready at one moment to idealise a killer and at the next to reject him […]’; p.136.)

[ top ]

Benedict Kiely, ‘Dialectic and Culture’, in A Raid into Dark Corners and Other Essays (Cork UP 1999), ppp.23-39: ‘The ignorant absurdity, say, of the attack made on the langauge of Synge by St John Ervine and others, who tried to argue that it was a mode of speech never heard on sea or land, was never so clearly brought home to me as on a day on a road in Tyrone when I heard to countrymen talking in a language as rhythmical and stylised as John Synge ever offered to the stage.’ (p.238.) Further: ’For what Synge did was to rationalise dialect and idiom with a melodic line, and to enrich an orderly English by the use of dialect. O’Casey did something similar for Dublin speech all through his autoobiographical volumes the rhythms and intonations of Dublin speech are clearly discernible. Yet there is nothing there to halt, by pedantry or affectation, any normal intelligent reader of English.’ (p.239.)

Richard Murphy, reviewing Robin Skelton, ed., Collected Works, Vol 1: Poetry (1962), in The Irish Times (q.d. 1962): ‘The bleakness, the spare-wordedness of Synge’s best poems, which Yeats appreciated even to imitation were in his day obscured behind behind the celebrated style of speech he invented for his plays. Now in a new volume af Synge’s poems, most intelligently edited and introduced by Robin Skelton, we have a complete collection of the original poems side by side with the prose-poem translations ‘mainly from Petrarch’, for which he used his peculiar ‘folk’ style./This style, based on the trick of translating not only the metaphor of Irish but its word order into English, is marellously effective in the plays, but let nobody think that people ever spoke the language that Synge wrote. His genius lay in imagining that they did, and getting his audience to accept this. The Laura Sonnets have an even more curious flavour. Imagine an Anglo-Irishman translating Italian into English and while he is doing so actually thinking in Irish, and you you have it./I prefer the straight, stark poems, some in ballad form, such as ‘The Mergency Man’ or ‘Danny,’ where the verse is strong and you feel that Synge is meaning every word he uses. There are some bad poems in the book, soft-centred or dated in their style. Synge died in 1909 at the age of 38 but had he never written ‘Riders to the Sea ‘ or ‘The Playboy,’ this volume would have been worth the meticulous care devoted to it by Mr. Skelton for the sake of the handful of good poems it contains./These in their grey and gritty quality, their holding down of a cruel energy which now and then smashes through; their wit, their sense of history and death, seem to me as embedded in - the western Irish landscape as the Tower at Ballylee.’

Conor Farrington: ‘The Language of Drama’, in The Dubliner (July-Aug. 1962): ‘[…] There is one dramatist, Synge, whom Eliot discusses briefly in his essay and dismisses as a special case since Synge’s plays are “based upon the idiom of a rural people whose speech is naturally poetic”. This will not quite do; it might have been a valid dismissal if Synge had been writing for a closed society, if his audience had also been that rural people. But the people of Galway, Mayo, and the Western Islands are not and were not his audience. His audience was first the Dublin public-complete with houses, motor cars, and telephones, to whom the idiom was comparatively strange-and later the public of most civilised [37] cities of the world. Synge succeeded not because he wrote in a style attuned to the car of his audience, but because the rural idiom provided a convention within which they could accept language more expressive than their own. / It is worth noting too that Synge is the only modern poetic dramatist whose style grows richer and more highly wrought from play to play. Unfortunately this rural idiom, together with Synge’s own defensive modesty, has obscured the significance of his development to the extent that critics can say, like Ronald Peacock, that he is an isolated figure of no universal significance. At the risk of seeming chauvinist, I suggest his example is of great significance indeed. True, in his first play The Shadow of the Glen he could write sentences like: “It’s proud and happy you’d be if I was getting my death the day I was shut of yourself.” Now this is almost a word for word transliteration from Gaelic; in writing thus he was awkwardly following rural idiom, the slave of dialect. But soon, in The Playboy of the Western World his speech has developed the carriage of a thoroughbred wherever we sample it; for instance, “He’d beat Dan Davies’ circus, or the holy missioners making sermons on the villainy of man!” Already the specifically native idiom is fading, and in the tragic peak of his last play, Deirdre of the Sorrows, it is barely perceptible: “I see the flames of Emain starting upward in the dark night and because of me there will be weasels and wild cats crying on a lonely wall where there were queens and armies and red gold, the way there will be a story told of a ruined city and a raving king and a woman will be young for ever.” This is not local speech at all but universal. This “idiom of a rural people” was nothing more than a liberating convention.’ (pp.37-38.)

[ top ]

Stanley Sultan, ‘A Joycean Look at The Playboy of the Western World ’ (1969): ‘The incoherent outrage felt by early audiences of The Playboy of the Western World; Synge’s drastic alteration of his historical source; and the relationship between the comedy which is the dramatic line of the play and the new element at the end with its totally different thematic implications; all three curiosities are explained by the fact that the Playboy presents a carefully developed analogue to the ministry and crucifixion of Jesus.’ (In Maurice Harmon, ed., The Celtic Master, Dolmen Press 1969, p.50.

David Edgar, ‘What’s Coming’, reviewing of Fool of the Family: A Life of J. M. Synge, in London Review of Books (22 March 2001), writes: ‘Until recently, most great playwrights of Irish origin have wished to write neither in nor about the land of their birth. [...] There are two exceptions. Although he spent the second half of his life in London, Sean O’Casey’s great plays about revolutionary Dublin in the 1910s and 1920s were written in Ireland. And John Millington Synge was persuaded by Yeats (a better poet than dramatist) to return from Paris to study the Irish peasantry of the western islands and to make plays out of what he found there. […] Despite his metropolitan upbringing and Protestant heritage, all of his finished plays concerned the Catholic peasantry of rural Ireland. Their sources are the stories and myths Synge found in County Wicklow and on the Aran Islands, and they form a gateway, however, not only to the development of Irish writing in the 20th century, but also to the playwriting of the modern world.’ (pp.34-35; p.34.)

Kevin Barry, review of Nicholas Grene, ed., Interpreting Synge: Essays from the Synge Summer School, 1991-2000 (Lilliput Press 2000), in The Irish Times, 12 Aug. 2000 [Weekend] - writes of Grene’s introduction: ‘Synge’s drama is associated with a late romantic cult of the peasant, a pastoral kitsch particularly distasteful in a country bent on establishing its credentials as a fully modernised urban society. The mist that does be on the bogs can stay there. And so, though lip-service is paid to Synge’s genius and the canonical status of his work is accepted, there has been no critical monograph on Synge in fifteen years and books published on Synge in Ireland have been particularly rare.’ Further: ‘Through all these essays there is evidence of Synge’s demand for joy [that] has been reduced in much present-day Irish theatre to a bleak parody of the formal artificiality of Synge’s language that leaves the audience no response other than shame-filled laughter.’

(Participants in the Synge Summer School 2000 incl. Lynne Parker, Stephen Rea, Olwen Fouere, Tom Murphy, Fiona Shaw, Jocelyn Clarke and Anne Enright. Lecturers incl. Ann Saddlemyer, George Watson, Philips Edwards, Lucy McDiarmid, Anna McMullan and Adrian Frazier. Other contribs. incl. Roy Foster, Angela Bourke, Christopher Morash, and Frank McGuinness, with poems by Brendan Kennelly, Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill, Seamus Heaney and Gerald Dawe. The school was opened by Cyril Cusack in 1991 and Seamus Heaney in 2000. )

[ top ]

C. L. Dallat, reviewing of J. W. McCormack, Fool of the Family: A Life of J. M. Synge (Weidenfeld & Nicholson), in Times Literary Supplement (21 April 2000), writes: ‘The biographer’s method is not merely to identify Synge’s particular social stratum but to look closely at the financial condition of his family and the financial condition of his family and their complex and shifting relationshps with business and property interests. In so doing, he finds images not of permanence and financial stability as the rewards of colonial exploitation but of dispossession, disinheritance and vain struggles to recapture a birthright; condistions which found their way into Synge’s first play, When the Moon Has Set. The family’s situation, in fact, resembles at a different financial level - genteel poverty being barely recognisable as such by the victims of actual poverty - the depredations his family themselves and his class felt justified in making on thie own unpaying tenants in places like Belmullet and the Aran Island which Synge visited as a half-convinced Celticist, Rousseauean (as in either Jean-Jacques or Henri) idealist, light-weight social anthropologists and, at times, Guardian journalist.’ McCormack explores Synge’s rejection of Church of Ireland and the effects of his mother Kathleen’s ‘sectarianism’; investigates Synge’s attitude to parricide in the context of his disbelief in and repudiation of religious and civil authority; Joyce gave credence to rumour that Synge was syphilitic; McCormack believes that, despite intense relationship with several women including Molly Allgood, sex ‘at least in the form longed for by avid biographers, did not raise its lovely head’. (q.p.)

[ top ]

Terence Brown, reviewing of W. J. McCormack, Fool of the Family (Weidenfeld & Nicholson), in The Irish Times (18 March 2000) [Weekend], writes: ‘The biographer of John Millington Synge, is confronted by two considerable problems. One, which W. J. Mc Cormack admits early in his text, through appropriate Biblical allusion to “making bricks without straw”, is the paucity of materials - letters, papers - which, combined with familial reticence, ‘self-censorship” and destruction of crucial elements, in the documentary record, make the act of biographical portraiture difficult indeed. The other other- is the degree to which Synge’s life,and achievement has been so sedulously entered, not in the comparatively straightforward annals of literary history, but as crucial icon in the coloured tapestry woven by cultural nationalism to represent the rebirth of the Irish nation in the first two decades of the 20th century. / In this Synge plays a major role as the scoion of an Ascendancy family who, obeying the Yeatsian exhortation, escaped the cultural banality of his Victorian Protestant background and the Parisian decadence which tempted him, through immersion in the pristine waters of Gaelic civilisation in the Irish western isles.’

Terence Brown (reviewing of W. J. McCormack, Fool of the Family, in The Irish Times, 18 March 2000) - further: ‘For McCormack the life and work of Synge is a narrative which involves, in all its local particularities, the crisis of the European bourgoisie in the period between the the 1890s and the outbreak of the first World War. […T]he world McCormack brings before our minds in his curiously accretive text (he eschews the biographer’s resolute attachment to plodding chronology) is reminiscent of le Fanu’s tale of cursed inheritances, of hauntings posed between metaphysical and psychological realities, of Swedenbourgian correspondences. […] fascinating about the social nexus of Wicklow Brethrenism within which Mrs Kathleen Synge, the dramatist’s widowed mother, lived, moved and, had her being, with Greystones as a kind of spiritual epicentre, situated as it was between country and suburb. […] a keen eye for nuance, class gradation and the strange blend of arcane system-building and obscurantist philistinism [that] such a background constituted for the all-too-soon unbelieving son of a possessively pious mother.’ Brown judges that Mc Cormack might have explores more fully the ‘kind of prophetic religion the brethern and sisters spoke about among themselves’ and suggests that this world view was adapted to the ‘crisis of decline and eventual disintegration to which Le Fanu had, perhaps unconsciously, responded earlier in the 19th century’, while adding that that ‘the sense of life lived under imminent judgement which Synge’s writings suggest, may in part derive from it.’ Brown concludes by calling the biography Mc Cormack’s best book to date.

[ top ]

Rob Doggett, ‘In the Shadow of the Glen: Gender, Nationalism, and “A Woman Only”’, in ELH, 67, 4 (Winter 2000), pp.1011-34 - abstract: ‘All nations depend on powerful constructions of gender. Despite many nationalists’ ideological investment in the idea of popular unity, nations have historically amounted to the sanctioned institutionalization of gender difference. No nation in the world gives women and men the same access to the rights and resources of the nation-state. Rather than expressing the flowering into time of the organic essence of a timeless people, nations are contested systems of cultural representation that limit and legitimize peoples’ access to the resources of the nation-state. Yet, with the notable exception of Frantz Fanon, male theorists have seldom felt moved to explore how nationalism is implicated in gender power. As a result, as Cynthia Enloe remarks, nationalisms have “typically sprung from masculinized memory, masculinized humiliation and masculinized hope.”’ (Includes quotations from Synge and from Arthur Griffith; available at JSTOR - online.)

Nelson Ó Ceallaigh Ritschel, ‘In the Shadow of the Glen: Synge, Ostrovsky, and Marital Separation’, in New Hibernia Review, 7, 4 (Winter 2004): ‘[...] It is intriguing that the contemporary detractors of Synge’s play, who accused it of foreign moral influence, did not cite Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House as proof. Ibsen’s play had been staged in Dublin by Edward Martyn’s Players Club four months prior to the premiere of In the Shadow of the Glen; certainly a few of those who objected to Synge’s play witnessed the production. Ibsen’s protagonist, of course, leaves her husband at play’s end and is named Nora. Is it possible that Synge’s detractors realized the difference between Ibsen’s and Synge’s Noras? Ibsen’s play is focused on the need for the individual to achieve self-identity, regardless of gender. The radicalness of A Doll’s House for late nineteenth-century Protestant Norway and Europe, with its many movements for women’s suffrage, was the notion that a woman could identify herself as a person, not as a man’s wife, mother, daughter, or widow. If In the Shadow of the Glen is an “Irishing”; of Ibsen’s play, then a major part of the alteration is its revolutionary nature - one that lies more in the area of culture than gender. Clearly the detractors, as quoted above [viz., Arthur Griffth and Maud Gonne, et al.], attacked Synge’s play on the grounds of cultural morality: an Irish wife would not leave her husband. What In the Shadow of the Glen specifically attacked in 1903 Ireland was the prohibition of marital separation - and it did so within an extremely Irish context. / This interpretation is certainly consistent with John B. Yeats’s reaction. After witnessing a rehearsal, he wrote, “Mr. Synge has attacked our Irish institution, the loveless marriage,” adding that the play’s “lesson enforced [the idea] that rent contracts are not the only ones that stand in need of revision.”’ [J. B. Yeats, ‘Ireland Out of the Dock,“ The United Irishman, 10 Oct. 1903, p. 2; Ritschel, p.89.]

Note that John B. Yeats returned to the fray with a riposte to Maud Gonne: ‘The outcry against Mr. Synge’s play seems to me largely dishonest; the objection not being that it misrepresents Irishwomen, but it is a very effective attack on loveless marriages-this most miserable institution. My complaint... is that it did not make it quite clear that the wife will not return to the house into which she should never have entered, a view of the play I would earnestly recommend to Mrs. MacBride,’ ([30 Oct. 1903]; Ritschel gives no date bt see his remarks: ’s note‘It is worth noting that J. B. Yeats wrote two defenses of In the Shadow of the Glen and both were published by Griffith in The United Irishman. Perhaps Griffith recognized, despite his own opinions, that Synge’s work was part of the nationalist debate; he too published a defense of The Playboy in Sinn Féin in 1907. For more on Griffith’s Synge defenses see the author’s essay ‘Arthur Griffith’s Debate on Synge ’ in Literature, Interpretation, Theory, Summer 1999.

[ top ]

Nicholas Grene, ‘Reality Check: Authenticity from Synge to McDonagh’, in Munira H. Mutran & Laura P. Z. Izarra, eds., Irish Studies in Brazil [Pesquisa e Crítica, 1] (Associação Editorial Humanitas 2005), on Synge’s Playboy: ‘If we try to find a source for this preoccupation with reality and authenticity at the time of the literary revival, the colonial context is no doubt important. A colonised people is forced to accept forms [75] of identity from elsewhere. They are the mimic men, to use the title of an early novel by V. S. Naipaul: their culture, their behaviour, their very being is derived from the colonising centre. Always cited to illustrate this idea in an Irish context is the famous passage in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young man where Stephen Dedalus reflects on his knowledge of English as against that of the English Dean of Studies: “The language in which we are speaking […, &c.] acquired speech.” Given the insecurity of a long colonised country, the lack of self-belief that we are our own people, it may be understandable that reality should be so important to us. Somewhere, at some time in Ireland , there must be or must have been a reality that is not merely mimic culture shipped in off the mailbotat. Synge in writing his plays believed he was in touch with such a reality; his opponents vehemently insisted they knew better. But both claimed privileged knowledge of the “real spirit of the island”. And this reality was something other than the actuality of what went on day by day in the accidental life of the here and now.’ (pp.75-76.)

James Pethica, ‘“A Young Man’s Ghost”: Lady Gregory and J. M. Synge’, in Irish University Review, 34, 1 (Spring/Summer 2004): ‘Contributing to and complicating this hostile trend, of course, was Synge’s relationship with Molly Allgood. Their liaison, as W. J. McCormack has observed, violated “boundaries of class, religion and age”’ at the Abbey; but it also violated the sharp line of authority Gregory and Yeats had sought to draw between Directors and actors. While Lady Gregory refrained from criticising the relationship directly in her letters to Yeats, he in return emphasised that Synge would require “drastic treatment” and might need to be kept away from the Abbey “for a good long time” lest the scandal ruin the theatre. Conscious of their disapproving scrutiny, when Synge went to Coole for a Directors’ meeting in July 1906, expecting to stay for a week, he warned Molly not to send him any postcards, “to avoid gossip”, but she ignored or forgot the injunction. His annoyed next letter to her from Coole also tells of hearing (presumably from Yeats or Gregory) that she had recently been seen arm-in-arm with a young (male) fellow-Abbey actor, with the story having come out “at a moment and in a way that was peculiarly painful and humiliating to me”. Whether or not these events were a precipitating factor, Synge left Coole after just two days, not returning during the final two-and-a-half years of his life.’ (p.14.)

Michael Billington, ‘Decadent Age’, review of Marina Carr & Mustapha Matura, in Guardian Weekly (17-23 Dec. 2004): Every 10 years Nicolas Kent revives Playboy of the Western World, Mustapha Matura’s famous Trinidadian transposition of Synge’s Irish tragicomedy. On its third outing at the Tricycle the show remains as lively, ebullient and funny as ever. If anything, it is a shade too genial, missing some of the sombre undertorm of Synge’s masterpiece. / It is astonishing, though, how closely Matura follows Synge’s plot. We may be in a Trinidad rum shop rather than a Mayo shebeen, but the hero, Ken, is a fugitive who finds that his presumed parricide endows him with an unexpected sexual charisma. Local girls ply him with freshwater oysters and molasses, and an antique voodoo woman sinks her claws into him. But the heart of the play lies in the joint transformation of Ken from nervous wimp to conquering hero and of Peggy, who runs her father’s rum shop, from sharp-tongued sourpuss to adoring lover. / As comedy Matura’s version is hard to fault: he keeps all of Synge’s surprise entrances and adds to them his own 1950s period texture and joyous creole dialogue, with its references to “washicongs” (pumps), “totie” (penis) and “Basil de Boobalee” (a dummy). The main difference between Matura and Synge is that in the latter you feel women are perennial victims and that Pegeen, after her moment of self-discovery, is doomed to derelict solitude, but that itself may be a comment on the cultural gap between County Mayo and life-loving Trinidad. / Even if the tragedy is short-changed, the performances in Kent’s revival are a delight. Sharon Duncan-Brewster, salaciously licking the sweat from her hero’s bare torso, captures the blossoming sensuality of the oppressed Pegeen. And Kobna, Holdbrook-Smith’s Ken has such beguiling innocence that even when he tells Peggy he feels closer to her than anybody (“man, woman or dog”) he makes it sound like a compliment. / Two supporting performances also have abundant, extra-textual life. Joy Richardson turns Mama Benin, the old obeah woman, into a figure of quivering concupiscence as she hitches up her skirts to reveal an amplitude of thigh. And Ben Bennett makes Peggys intended fiancée a wonderfully nerdish figure for ever hovering on the fringes of the action like a scutting, bespectacled mouse.’ (See full-text version in RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, via index, or direct.)

[ top ]

Roy Foster, ‘A Troubled House’, in The Guardian (4 Feb. 2004): ‘Yeats had also found a new dramatic genius: John Millington Synge, who died tragically young but left a handful of masterpieces, notably Riders to the Sea and The Playboy of the Western World . Yeats championed this astonishing new voice all the more strongly because Synge’s representation of Irish rural life outraged pious nationalists. As the audience rioted on the opening night of Playboy, in January 26 1907, Yeats later recalled: “I stood there watching, knowing well that I saw the dissolution of a school of patriotism that held sway over my youth.” The intervention of the police to restore order was deeply resented, and remembered for years.’

J. W. Foster, Irish Novels 1890-1940: New Bearings in Culture and Fiction (Oxford: OUP 2008): ‘Hyde’s firm grim on the peasant in his folk-collections and translations, strengthened by his scholarship, was loosened with extraordinary results by J. M. Synge who burst through the other side with what could be described as “higher condescension” to the peasantry but one that disarmed readers and theatregoers with flambouyant eloquent comedy or magnificently eloquent tragedy. Here was the Irish peasant’s apotheosis, though it met token resistance from Catholic culutral nationalists of a more earnest and realistic hue. All the while, the peasant held centre stage.’ (Introduction, p.3.)

[ top ]

Fintan O’Toole, ‘How Darwin Helped Shape Irish Writing’, in The Irish Times (21 Feb. 2009), Weekend Review, p.8: ‘How Darwin Helped Shape Irish Writing’, in The Irish Times (21 Feb. 2009), Weekend Review, p.8: ‘When John Millington Synge was 14, he got hold of a copy of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species. He opened it at random on a passage in which Darwin points up the similarity between a human hand and the wing of a bird or bat, and asks how this can be explained other than through evolution. Having already developed a keen interest in natural science, Synge recognised the overwhelming force of Darwin’s argument. He also recognised the implications of that argument for the Protestant faith in which he had a deep and implicit belief. / As he read Darwin’s words, Synge flung the book aside and rushed out of the house. “The sky seemed to have lost its blue and the grass its green. I lay down and writhed in an agony of doubt. My studies showed me the force of what I read, and the more I put it from me, the more it rushed back with new instances and power.” / He lay on the ground a long time, then went back into the house, got the book and hid it outdoors. But what had been read could not be unread. A crucial step had been taken towards the creation of Ireland’s greatest playwright. [...]’. (See full-text version in RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, via index, or direct.)

Fintan O’Toole, ‘How Darwin Helped Shape Irish Writing’ (The Irish Times, 21 Feb. 2009) - cont.: ‘Synge recalled the process of alienation that followed his reading of Darwin as a “terrible experience”. Becoming an atheist cut him off from history, family and community: “By it, I laid a chasm between my present and my past and between myself and my kindred and friends.” His only release lay in art (music and poetry) and in nature. And, eventually, in Ireland. / “Soon after I relinquished the Kingdom of God,” Synge recalled, “I began to take a real interest in the kingdom of Ireland. My politics went round from a vigorous and unreasoning loyalty to a temperate Nationalism. Everything Irish became sacred ...” From that flowed Synge’s wanderings in Wicklow and Kerry, his stays on the Aran Islands, and his great plays. By stealing his inherited certainties, Darwin pushed him, and subsequently much of Irish 20th century culture, into a whole new imaginative space.’

[ top ]

Rebecca Lynn Stout, ‘“In Dreams Begins Responsibility”: The Role of Irish Drama and the Abbey Theatre in the Formation of Post-colonial Irish Identity’ (Texas A&M University 2006) - on the nationalist audience’s reaction to the Playboy]: ‘Folklorist Carolyn Brown has written that a lie in folklore is “a fictional story which is told in the form of a personal narrative or anecdote, which challenges the listener’s credulity with comic outlandishness, and which performs different social functions depending on whether it is [131] heard as true or fictional.” (Carolyn S. Brown, The Tall Tale in American Folklore and Literature, Tennessee UP 1987, p.11.) The key element to this definition is “whether it is heard as true or fictional.” As an audience composed primarily of political nationalists, sitting in a theatre which identified itself as Ireland’s national theatre, immediately after viewing a play that adhered to all the tenets of theatrical realism, now viewing a play that used exactly the same set and in the program proclaimed itself to be an artistic manifestation of the pursuit of truth, it is understandable that the audience might believe itself expected to perceive the staged lie as “true.” Yet the lie or “tall tale is double-edged, as it both manipulates the boundary between reality and fiction and depends upon the audience’s ability to discriminate between the two, thereby creating a tension between skepticism and belief” (Marcia Peoples Halio, ‘Proud Lady: Yeats’s Countess Cathleen,’ in The Journal of Irish Literature, 20, 1, Jan. 1991, p.95.) In other words, if the audience is unable to properly negotiate these boundaries, it is left believing a lie to be the truth, or vice versa. It is left out of the joke and, consequently, becomes the butt of that joke.’ (pp.131-32.) [Cont.]

[ top ]

Rebecca Lynn Stout (“‘In Dreams Begins Responsibility’ [... &c.] 2006) - cont.: ‘The night of the Playboy’s premier, the audience was treated to the spectacle not only of Christie’s conspicuous lie, but also to the theatrical form itself as a particularly Irish form of the folkloric lie. The result was incendiary. It is not a reach to say that the audience at the Abbey felt that they had been lied to, not by themselves or by the nationalist propaganda that had made the Irish peasant icon sacrosanct, but instead by Synge and the Abbey Theatre’. Further: ‘The Abbey audience, primarily composed of Dublin’s urban middle-class, artistic elite, and political leadership, shared very few, if any, characteristics with the idealized western rural farmer, and therefore they were mystified that their system of morality could be as tenuous and delicate as their own. When faced with a picture of their idealized national icon that was less than idyllic, that was, in fact, far more brutal and painful than their own supposedly “heroic” public lives, their instinct was to resist the idea that the depiction was based on any “truth.” / Yet that brutality was exactly what Synge thought was most precious in the western rural experience, and most essential to a depiction of Irish character. In a letter written soon after the riots he states “the wildness and, if you will, vices of the Irish peasantry are due, like their extraordinary good points, to the richness of their nature, a thing that is priceless beyond words.” (Collected Letters, Vol. 1: 1871–1907, ed. Ann Saddlemyer, OUP, 1983, p.297. The brutality of their lives provided the individuals with the powerful language and poetry of their experience, and it was that essential combination of qualities Synge found most valuable. At the same time, their brutal existence outside of what was considered conventional morality could easily be attributed to the harsh conditions under which the British forced them to live. Like those nationalists in Ireland who broke the law in order to change it, Pegeen and her village need their brutality in order to survive. But this is not their fault, and through their very survival, they embody a political statement of resistance and revolution.’ (p.137.)

[ top ]

Alan Titley, ‘The Irish Language and Synge’, Nailing Theses: Selected Essays (Belfast: Lagan Press 2011): ‘Synge [...] knew his older litrature as we as the contemporary spoken tongue. Knowing how to speak argot English does not give you access to The Tale of the Green Knight or the medieval Arthur. And yet, it is not as simple as that. He recognised the connection ebtween the folk tales he hears on Aran and the great stories of Europe. And becaue o his study at Trinity College and his attendance at the lectures of Renan and de Jubainville at the Collège de France in 1898 “more than any figure of his generation Synge was aware of the bearing, not to say overbearing, of Herder, Renan, the Revue Celtique, and Zeitschrift fur Celtische Philologie on the local endeavours of Douglas Hyde, Tomas Ó Críomhtháin, and others” [W. J. McCormack, From Burke to Beckett: Ascendancy Tradition and Betrayal in Literary History, Cork UP 1994, p.228]. In other words, he did realise that there was a connetion between the writings of the past, the scholarship of the present and the living language He did not want to admit it. To admit it would be to accede to the cultural arguents of the time and to their wilder shores. Synge wished to keep a division betwween the life of the western peastant and the reality of modern life. Irish was fine as a peasant language, but any sense of its broader cultural and political significance, he was suspicous of. The Aran Island and the west of Ireland and the Irish languge were a cultural resoucce. Their reality was the present past and not the present future.’ (p.136.)

[ top ]