Analysis of John Millington Synge’s Plays

When, in 1893, John Millington Synge (16 April 1871 – 24 March 1909) was choosing between musical and literary careers, two seminal documents were published that would profoundly affect his decision and form the character of his subsequent work. These were Stopford Brooke’s lecture “The Need of Use of Getting Irish Literature into the English Tongue,” and Douglas Hyde’s Love Songs of Connaucht (1893). Brooke’s lecture identified four tasks essential to the development of an Irish national literature: the translation of ancient Irish texts, the molding of the various mythological and historical cycles into an imaginative unity, the treatment in verse of selected episodes from these materials, and the collection of folk stories surviving in the Irish countryside. Some of these tasks had already been undertaken, but none had an impact on the developing revival to equal that of Hyde’s slim volume of the same year. He showed that the living song tradition in the Irish Gaelic-speaking areas was rich, complex, and sensitive; that a strong link with an ancient cultural tradition still persisted; and that a translation of these songs into Hiberno-English opened new avenues of expression to the literary artist.


By the early 1890’s, Yeats was already committed to some of the tasks outlined by Brooke, and he also greeted Hyde’s work enthusiastically. Yeats wrote in an 1893 issue of The Bookman: “These poor peasants lived in a beautiful if somewhat inhospitable world, where little has changed since Adam delved and Eve span. Everything was so old that it was steeped in the heart, and every powerful emotion found at once noble types and symbols for its expression.” When Yeats encountered Synge in Paris three years later, it was with these principles and sentiments that he persuaded him to abandon the French capital for the Aran Islands. The plays that resulted do indeed constitute a distinguished translation of folk and heroic materials to the modern stage.

Synge set himself not only against the mystical excesses of the Irish writers of his time but also against the intellectual drama of Henrik Ibsen and George Bernard Shaw and produced works of narrow but intense passion. Synge’s plays realize, more successfully than those of any of his contemporaries, Yeats’s dictum that Irish writers should seek their form among the classical writers, but their language at home.


Clare O’Malley and Jennifer McVey star in Riders to the Sea, part of Three Small Irish Masterpieces at the Irish Repertory Theatre

Riders to the Sea

Riders to the Sea was the first play Synge wrote, and it draws most heavily and directly on his experience of life on the Aran Islands; many of the details, along with the main incident on which the play is based, can be found in the journals Synge kept during his visits there. It was Synge’s first successful use of Hiberno-English to serve his own dramatic and poetic purposes, and it is regarded by most commentators as one of the finest short plays in that literature.

The action of the play is simple and highly compressed. An old woman of the Aran Islands, Maurya, has lost her husband, father-in-law, and four sons to the sea. She now awaits news of the fate of Michael, another son, as her last and youngest son, Bartley, prepares to make the crossing to Galway with two horses. Maurya’s two daughters have just received a bundle of clothes which they identify as those of Michael. As the young women attempt to keep the news from her, she attempts to dissuade Bartley from the hazardous journey—in vain, for just as Bartley must play the provider’s part, Maurya’s timeworn experience has taught her to anticipate the truth. While her daughters find confirmation of Michael’s death in the bundle of clothes, Maurya sees a vision of what is about to happen: Bartley’s drowning. As the daughters tell Maurya of Michael’s death, the neighbors carry in Bartley’s body. The play climaxes with Maurya’s lament for these and all her menfolk, ending with a prayer for all the living and the dead.

Although it requires less than thirty minutes to perform, the play encompasses a succession of moods and a universe of action. By contrasting the young women’s particular, objective attitudes (their preoccupation with the physical evidence of Michael’s death) with Maurya’s subjective, universal, even mystical, consciousness (her forgetting the blessing and the nails, and her visionary experience), Synge establishes a pattern of dramatic ironies. Maurya’s feelings in regard to the external action of the play, moreover, are seen to evolve from a subdued disquiet, to a higher anxiety, to a visionary sympathy with her last two sons, and finally to a threnody of disinterested compassion for the mothers and sons of all humankind. Maurya is, therefore, not only a credible individual character but also an archetypal figure: She is cast among domestic details yet is inattentive to them because her awareness of commonality and community eventually obscures particular concerns. Only her indomitable attitude in those eloquent, passionate speeches offers a nearly adequate human response to the implacable antagonist, the sea.

The sea that surrounds the bare islands is both the islanders’ source of sustenance and their principal natural enemy; in the play, it insistently reminds the characters that, contend with it or not, they are doomed. Synge has carefully selected the domestic details to develop his themes—the bread, the nets, boards, knife, rope, and knot— details which establish a practical and symbolic relationship between the smaller and larger worlds of action, onstage and offstage, practical and moral. Other elements in the play act as religious or mystical allusions: the apocalyptic horses, the fateful dropped stitches, the ineffectual young priest, the omens in the sky and in the holy well. Many aspects of the setting—the door, the colors, the blessing—repeat and reverse themselves as images of the life-and-death ritual that sets Maurya and the sea against each other again and again. Maurya’s maternal mysticism is solemnly expressed by her prayers, blessings, gestures, litanies, and pitiful elegy for the cavalcade of death.

Although Maurya’s speeches are interlaced with Christian invocation, her response to the catastrophe does not, at its most profound depths, derive from conventional Christian feelings. Maurya confronts a system of natural elements that confounds all human aspirations, and her response is in the tradition of characters from grand tragedy. Thus Synge has written a play that combines elements from Greek tragedy (it reminded Yeats of the plays of Aeschylus), the attitudes of primitive Gaelic society (its fatalism and impersonality), and the modern world, with its nihilism and cultivation of a sense of the absurd. There has been considerable argument over the compatibility of these ethics with one another, but there is no disagreement over the intensity and complexity of the emotions engendered by the play, whether read or staged.

In the Shadow of the Glen

Synge’s second produced play, In the Shadow of the Glen (written under the title The Shadow of the Glen) is set in the Wicklow Mountains south of Dublin, a remote area familiar to Synge, in which he had a cottage and about which he had written several essays gathered under the title In Wicklow (1910). The play shows the influence of Ibsen’s Et dukkehjem (pr., pb. 1879; A Doll’s House, 1880), but its direct source is “An Old Man’s Story,” which Synge had heard from the Aran Island storyteller Pat Dirane; it is found in Synge’s prose work The Aran Islands. The question of the play’s origin is significant because it was immediately attacked for its depiction of an unfaithful wife and its unfair portrayal of Irishwomen. Synge unquestionably took considerable liberty with his raw materials—drawing, for example, on an episode from Petronius’s Satyricon (c. 60 c.e.; The Satyricon, 1694), “The Widow of Ephesus”—and the result was an original, concise, complex comedy. A “Tramp” is admitted to a lonely cottage by one Nora Burke, whose husband is laid out as if for a wake. Conversation between the two reveals that Nora has been living unhappily with her relatively well-off but aged husband, a situation that has led to a number of dalliances with other men, including the now deceased Patch Darcy. Nora then exits to rendezvous with another young man, Michael Dara, leaving the Tramp to maintain the wake. The Tramp, however, is soon shocked to find that Nora’s husband, Dan Burke, is feigning death in order to trap his wife and either bring her to heel or eject her from his house. No sooner has the Tramp agreed to cooperate with Dan’s scheme than Nora returns with Michael Dara. The pair discuss their prospects of marriage now that Nora is apparently free. Suddenly Dan springs from the bed to confront the pair. Michael Dara backs off immediately, and Nora is left to face her husband alone; at this point, the Tramp reintroduces himself with renewed eloquence, offering Nora a romantic life with him outside material security. This appeal finally releases Nora’s imaginative energies, and she departs with him, leaving Dan Burke and Michael Dara to share a bottle of whiskey.

In the Shadow of the Glen offered the first explicit treatment of sexual frustration on the modern Irish stage; at the same time, the play’s symbolic setting and the rich imagery of its language enlarge its reference to register a protest against the constraints of time and space (represented by the mists moving up and down the Wicklow glen). Synge sympathizes with Nora and identifies with the Tramp, the two developing characters in the play, in opposition to their static counterparts, Dan Burke and Michael Dara. The Tramp’s sympathetic nature and colorful talk awaken hitherto untapped imaginative reserves in Nora, so that the surroundings of mountain mist and road become reinvested with their primary magic. The play thus dramatizes Synge’s central preoccupations: the conflict between actuality and human aspirations, the awareness of human mutability, and human beings’ intimate relation with the natural world.

In the Shadow of the Glen dramatizes life-and-death issues in many ways, both literally and metaphorically, and on different levels of seriousness and comedy: Daniel Burke appears dead but rises twice. His ploy is to test the convention of life (his wife’s fidelity) with the perspective of death, and he succeeds in exposing it as illusory. The audience begins with a conventional view of death; proceeds, after Dan’s first resurrection (through the sharing of his vantage point, but not his point of view), to a seriocomic view of life; and ends, after his second resurrection, with a romantic sharing of the Tramp’s vantage point and point of view on both life and death. As its sympathies shift, the audience proceeds from an ironic view of Nora’s infidelity to an ironic view of Dan’s righteousness. The first revelation is that the conventional phenomena of death are deceptive; the final revelation is that the conventional phenomena of life are equally deceptive. The playgoer begins by believing Dan to be dead in body and ends by believing him dead in soul. These ambiguities and shifts in the plot are reflected in the language and imagery of the play, which propose states of animality, madness, and age as relative conditions between life and death.

It is clear, for example, that Nora’s memories of Patch Darcy condition her response to the Tramp, and as the play progresses, the connections between these two male figures multiply, as do the associations of the Tramp with death. Thus, as the image of Patch Darcy (his life-in-death counterpart), the Tramp is at once the antagonist of Dan and Michael, death-in-life counterparts. The Tramp is, in an important sense, the ghost of Patch Darcy, for he is the counterpart, in Nora’s consciousness, of her dead lover. She seems to recognize the affinity, at first dimly but with sufficient clarity at the end to follow her Patch into the mists on the mountainside to romance, and probably to madness and death. Thus, the Tramp, as Patch Darcy revenant, is Nora’s shadow of the Wicklow glen. By a combination of poetic language, naturalistic action, and farce, the play transforms its source into a small triumph, preparing the way for Synge’s greatest achievement, The Playboy of the Western World.

The Playboy of the Western World

The Playboy of the Western World originated in a story, recorded in 1898, about a man named Lynchenaun “who killed his father with the blow of a spade when he was in a passion” and, with the aid of the people of Inishmaan, evaded the police to escape eventually to the United States. When later (1903-1905) Synge visited Counties Kerry and Mayo, he gathered further materials for this work: observations of the lonely landscapes of the western seaboard, the moodiness and rebellious temperament of the people, and their religiosity, alcoholism, and fanciful language. For the next two years, he worked steadily on the play under five successive titles, almost twenty scenarios, and a dozen complete drafts, before it was finally produced on January 26, 1907.

The play develops the Lynchenaun story into that of Christy Mahon, a timorous Kerry farmboy who has fled north from the scene of his parricide to a lonely stretch of the coastline of Mayo. There he happens on a remote public house where he tells his story. The villagers give him refuge, and as he is called on to retell his story to a succession of curious neighbors, his embellishments become more colorful, and his selfconfidence grows in proportion to the hyperbole. The villagers respond to these accounts with increasing admiration, so that Christy is soon regarded as a hero for his passionate deed. He strikes fear in the men and desire in the women, especially in the daughter of the house, Pegeen Mike. She rejects her fiancé, the pious Shawn Keogh, for Christy’s attentions, which she seeks to retain against the competition of the village women, especially the Widow Quin. All this attention drives Christy to further heights of eloquence—especially in the love scene with Pegeen—and to feats of athletic skill at the village sports.

These triumphs, however, are rudely deflated by the appearance of another, older Kerryman, with a bandaged head: Christy’s father, very much alive. He exposes Christy as a coward and a liar, and the crowd, Pegeen included, immediately rejects their erstwhile champion. Christy has been changed, however, and to prove his father wrong and regain his reputation and Pegeen’s affections, he attacks his father again, this time laying him low “in the sight of all.” Christy, however, has misjudged the effect of such an action on the villagers, who distinguish between the admirable “gallous story” and the shocking “dirty deed,” and they capture Christy to bring him to justice. He is disillusioned with all of them and threatens indiscriminate vengeance, whereupon his father again revives, recognizes Christy’s newfound character, and invites him back to Kerry as master of the house. Christy agrees, and they depart, casting aspersions on the “villainy of Mayo and the fools in here.” Too late, Pegeen realizes that she has lost a true champion.

The play provoked immediate outrage among the Dublin audiences: They considered it an insult to national pride, to Roman Catholicism, and to common decency. Among a people hoping for a fair, if not positive, treatment in support of their longstanding grievance against British rule, the play was a cruel disappointment. For his part, Synge refused to tone down the play’s oaths and irreverent allusions, even when appealed to privately by the actors and by his fellow Protestants Yeats and Lady Gregory. The protests, in fact, turned into a full-scale riot with Christy’s reference to “a drift of chosen females standing in their shifts,” which was considered an intolerable obscenity. In the week that followed, the police protected the stage and players from nightly attack, Yeats defended the freedom of the stage in public debate, Synge himself granted an unfortunate interview to the press, and the newspapers were full of acrimonious argument. In retrospect, it is not difficult to understand why a Dublin audience, sensitive to signs of religious and ethnic derogation, should react so vehemently to the work of a son of the landed class produced at the “national” theater and composed of such an original blend of Rabelaisian humor, lyricism, romance, and exaggeration.

In his preface to the play, Synge anticipates a hostile reaction by praising the “popular imagination that is fiery and magnificent, and tender” that he found among the people of the remote regions. He proposes that the language and images are authentic, “that the wildest sayings and ideas in this play are tame indeed compared with the fancies one may hear in any little hillside cabin.” Although it is true that Synge’s sources— in plot, language, and characterization—are sound, the combination here, more than in his other works, is uniquely his own. Just as the action and characterization lack normal constraints, so, too, is the language compressed and heightened.

The distinctive language of The Playboy of the Western World derives from several sources: the Hiberno-English dialects of theWest of Ireland, vestiges of Tudor English still found in Ireland, popular sermons, and Synge’s own penchant for musical, rhythmic prose. Chief among these is the influence of Irish Gaelic syntax, vocabulary, and idiom, with its rich lode of religious and natural imagery. This convention is particularly effective at the romantic climax in act 3, although it can sound parodic in scenes of less excitement. Even so, Synge’s particular artistic use of local dialect is considerably more flexible and expressive than the comparable experiments of Lady Gregory or Yeats.

In this dialect, Synge found an ideal vehicle for his own passionate vision of the lonely outsider. Christy is the poet whose creative gifts are only superficially appreciated by a convention-bound society; Christy not only invests the language with new zest and daring but also unknowingly transforms himself, by the same process of imaginative energy, from a cowering lout into a master of his destiny. His transformation begins as the people of Mayo trust his story and continues as he realizes his own narrative skills; it is completed when, with full moral awareness, he strikes his father down a second time. His father is the first to recognize the new Christy; Pegeen Mike does so, too, but for her it is too late; for the rest, the episode is no more than a subject for gossip.

Christy’s path to his apotheosis comes only after an erratic journey of surges and reversals; The Playboy of the Western World is exuberant comedy in its action as well as in its language and characterization. It contains moments of farce, satire, tragicomedy, and the mock heroic. As Ann Saddlemyer’s standard edition shows, Synge’s revisions were vigorous and meticulous, act 3 giving him the most difficulties; some of these difficulties— Pegeen’s motivations and the resolution of the Widow Quin’s role—arguably remain unresolved. For all of its difficulties, however, this act achieves brilliant closure and includes perhaps the finest dramatic writing to come from the Irish theater.

The power of The Playboy of the Western World rests on more than its verbal pyrotechnics and comic structure; as many critics have argued, it exhibits features of the scapegoat archetype, the Oedipus myth, and the Messiah theme. It has relationships with Irish folk legend, with the early Irish Ulster cycle of heroic tales, and with Ibsen’s Peer Gynt (1867). Whatever the relevance of these sources or analogues to an appreciation of this great play, the play’s qualities derive from the happy collaboration of Synge’s instinctive sense of the dramatic and the quality of his material. He describes it thus to an admirer: “The wildness and, if you will, the vices of the Irish peasantry are due, like their extraordinary good points of all kinds, to the richness of their nature—a thing that is priceless beyond words.”

Deirdre of the Sorrows

In his unfinished last play, Deirdre of the Sorrows, Synge was in the process of making a new departure. He found that the challenge of writing on a heroic theme from the Ulster cycle presented fresh difficulties, which he took satisfaction in solving. It is generally conceded that his version humanizes the legend: It is more realistic than the versions by Æ (George William Russell) and Yeats, with which it is often compared.

Principal Drama
When the Moon Has Set, wr. 1900-1901, pb. 1968; Luasnad, Capa, and Laine, wr. 1902, pb. 1968; A Vernal Play, wr. 1902, pb. 1968; The Tinker’s Wedding, wr. 1903, pb. 1908, pr. 1909; In the Shadow of the Glen, pr. 1903, pb. 1904 (one act); Riders to the Sea, pb. 1903, pr. 1904 (one act); The Well of the Saints, pr., pb. 1905; The Playboy of the Western World, pr., pb. 1907; Deirdre of the Sorrows, pr., pb. 1910; The Complete Plays, pb. 1981.

Other major works
Nonfiction: The Aran Islands, 1907; In Wicklow, 1910; The Autobiography of J. M. Synge, 1965; Letters to Molly: John Millington Synge to Máire O’Neill, 1906-1909, 1971 (Ann Saddlemyer, editor); My Wallet of Photographs, 1971 (Lilo Stephens, introducer and arranger); Some Letters of John M. Synge to Lady Gregory and W. B. Yeats, 1971 (Saddlemyer, editor); The Collected Letters of John Millington Synge, 1983-1984 (2 volumes; Saddlemyer, editor).
Miscellaneous: Plays, Poems, and Prose, 1941; Collected Works, 1962-1968 (Ann Saddlemyer and Robin Skelton, editors).

Casey, Daniel J. Critical Essays on John Millington Synge. New York: G. K. Hall, 1994.
Gerstenberger, Donna Lorine. John Millington Synge. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1990.
Kiely, David M. John Millington Synge: A Biography. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995.
Krause, Joseph. The Regeneration of Ireland: Essays. Bethesda, Md.: Academica Press, 2001.
McCormack,W. J. Fool of the Family: A Life of J. M. Synge. New York: New York University Press, 2000.
McDonald, Ronan. Tragedy and Irish Writing: Synge, O’Casey, Beckett. New York: Palgrave, 2001.
Watson, George J. Irish Identity and the Literary Revival: Synge, Yeats, Joyce, and O’Casey. 2d ed.Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1994.

Categories: Drama Criticism, Literature

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