Although John Millington Synge's masterpiece The Playboy of the Western World may be the most famous play ever produced by the Irish National Theatre, the play owes its reputation as much to the circumstances surrounding its premiere as it does to the quality of the script. When Playboy opened in January of 1907, many Irish nationalists found it so offensive that they embarked on a semi-organized campaign to bring down the production. The week-long battle which ensued, known collectively as “The Playboy Riots,” highlighted the growing rift between the moderate cultural nationalism of the National Theatre and the increasingly radical politics of the Dublin nationalist community. Yet, while the riots themselves had an enormous impact on both Synge's career and the development of the National Theatre movement, the prominent role they are given in most discussions of Playboy often serves to obscure the merits of the play itself. Beneath the controversy, Synge's play provides an insightful and moving analysis of the ways language and community can shape the destinies of individuals for good or ill, an analysis which more than warrants consideration on its own terms.
The action of the play takes place entirely in the pub of Michael Flaherty, which is located in a remote and unnamed Mayo village. As the play opens, Michael's daughter, Pegeen Mike, is simultaneously writing orders for the pub's monthly supply of alcohol and the clothes for her wedding when she is interrupted by the arrival of her fiancée, Sean Keogh. From the dialogue between Peg and Sean, the audience quickly realizes the unsuitability of their match. Sean is mass if anxieties. While he has ostensibly come to see Peg, he barely has the courage to enter the front door for fear that Father Reilly, the parish priest, will disapprove. When he does enter, he admits that the did so mostly because he was too afraid to remain outside in the dark any longer. Peg, on the other hand, is a headstrong young girl whose personality completely dominates Sean's. Moreover, she clearly despises him. Nonetheless, the two are arranged to be married, and only await a dispensation from the church before they can do so. Shortly after Sean arrives, Michael Flaherty enters with his cronies, Philly and Jimmy. Although Michael does not possess Sean's crippling fears, the audience quickly sees that he has no more redeeming qualities than Sean does. He and his friends are on their way to a wake, having already spent the better part of the night drinking, and cannot be persuaded to stay, even after Peg tells her father that she doesn't feel safe staying in the pub all night by herself. Instead, Michael, Jimmy and Philly resolve to provide Peg with male protection by locking a protesting Sean in the house with Peg, despite the absurdity and the implied impropriety of that arrangement.
Into this scene walks Christy Mahon. Christy is a stranger to the village, having walked there from a distant county in the south of Ireland, and his journey has left him so ragged that he can barely speak when he first arrives. As the villagers interrogate him to discover why he has come, they gradually discover that he killed his father, and he has been on the run from the law ever since. The most extraordinary aspect of this situation, though, is the villagers' reaction. Upon learning of Christy's apparent patricide, they conclude that he must be a man of great courage, and they immediately offer to let him stay on as the pub's new pot boy. The only voice of objection is Sean, who reasonably feels threatened by his fiancée's infatuation with Christy. To make his case, Sean enlists the help of a neighbor woman, the Widow Quinn, who tries to convince Christy to stay at her house instead. Christy refuses, spurred in part by Pegeen Mike's insistence that, as an employee of the pub, he should remain there. As the act closes, Christy reflects on his good fortune, musing “…two fine women fighting for the likes of me – till I'm thinking this night wasn't I a foolish fellow not to kill my father in the years gone by.”
The most striking element of this first act, and the one which the play's first audiences found most offensive, is the apparent degradation of the Mayo community depicted in the play. Synge's nationalist critics insisted that, by having his characters so quickly and thoroughly embrace a complete stranger because they believed him to be a parricide, the author was presenting the Irish peasantry as essentially lawless and savage – a charge which England had leveled against the Irish for nearly 600 years. The protestors' accusations, however, overlook the deeper and, ironically, more curable sickness which Synge locates in the village. The Mayonites do not make a hero out of Christy simply because they admire murderers; they do so because they desperately need a hero, and he is the only suitable candidate. From the beginning of the play, we see that the village suffers from a lack of strong men. Before Christy arrives, Peg describes the village as “this place where you'll meet none but Red Linahan, has a squint in his eye, and Patcheen is lame in his heel, or the mad Mulrannies were driven from California and lost their wits.” Even more tellingly, Peg plans to marry Sean Keogh, even though she insists that she “wouldn't give a thraneen for a lad hadn't a mighty spirit in him and a gamy heart,” because Sean is clearly her only alternative to spinsterhood.
Yet despite her impending marriage, Peg dreams of a man who is the exact opposite of Sean: “Where now will you met the like of Daneen Sullivan knocked the eye from a peeler; or Marcus Quinn, god rest him, got six months for maiming ewes, and he a great warrant to tell stories of holy Ireland till he'd have the old women shedding down tears about their feet.” In Ireland, maiming ewes is an act commonly associated with revolutionary intimidation, and a “peeler” is a term for a British police officer sent to keep order in rural Ireland. Thus, the common thread between the two men Peg holds up as ideals is that, unlike Sean, they were willing to stand up against the forces of authority. More importantly, though, both Daneen Sullivan and Marcus Quinn committed acts against the British authorities. It is not that Peg or the other villagers admire lawlessness for its own sake, but rather that they crave a hero who will fight the laws imposed on them by England's colonial rule.
This desire for a hero explains why the villagers take Christy into their community so readily. Although patricide does not directly threaten the forces of imperialism, the sheer audacity of the crime allows them to interpret Christy's story in a way that satisfies their needs. Upon hearing Christy's confession, Philly quickly surmises that “the peelers be fearing him, and if you'd that lad in the house there isn't one of them would come smelling around if the doges itself were lapping poteen from the dung pit of the yard.” This conclusion assumes that the magnitude of Christy's crime will keep the police at bay, thereby giving the community as a whole a certain immunity from the law.
But while the villagers themselves focus on what Christy's presence will bring to them, the action of the play places a greater emphasis on what the villagers give to Christy. The few clues that Synge provides to Christy's past suggest that, in his home village, Christy resembled Sean Keogh far more than he resembled Daneen Sullivan. By his own admission, the attack on his father came only after a lifetime of abuse which Christy absorbed silently. Furthermore, when Peg asks him if he had any lovers at home, he responds rather bitterly that “I did not then. Oh, they're all bloody liars in the naked parish where I grew up,” a telling response which suggests that the women of his parish held a far less favorable view of Christy than the Mayo women do.
Nonetheless, the more time Christy spends in the Mayo village, the more he begins to resemble the “Playboy” that the villagers say he is. At the opening of Act II, three of the village girls arrive, and with their attention Christy's confidence begins to grow. As the act progresses, Christy is convinced to participate in the local games, where he sweeps every event. Finally, at the beginning of Act III, he successfully woos Pegeen Mike and wins her father's blessing for their marriage. This transformation in Christy takes place most profoundly on the level of language. When Christy enters the pub in Act I, he can barely speak at all. Indeed, the villagers have to literally force him to recall the name of his crime:
MICHAEL: […] It should be larceny, I'm thinking?
CHRISTY: [dolefully] I had it in mind it was a different word and a bigger.
PEGEEN: [with a sign to the men to be quiet] You did nothing at all. […] Would you have me knock the head of you with the butt of the broom?
CHRISTY: [twisting round on (Peg) with a sharp cry of horror] Don't strike me. I killed my poor father, Tuesday a week, for doing the like of that.
But as Christy grows to fit the role of the Playboy, he begins to match their speech patterns. When he retells his story in Act II, it takes on the tone of a heroic confrontation: “He gave a drive with the scythe, and I gave a lep to the east. Then I turned with my back to the north, and I hit a blow on the ridge of his skull, laid him stretch out, and split to the knob of his gullet.” By Act III, Christy's speech has become so refined that he wins Pegeen's heart through his words alone:
CHRISTY: It's little you'll think if my love's a poachers, or an earl's itself, when you'll feel my two hands stretched around you, and I squeezing kisses on your puckered lips, till I'd feel a kind of pity for the Lord God is all ages sitting lonesome in His golden chair.
PEGEEN: That'll be right fun, Christy Mahon, and any girl would walk her heart out before she'd meet a young man was your like for eloquence, or talk at all.
The union with Peg completes Christy's transformation into the Playboy. Not only has he taken on all the qualities that the villagers associated with him when they learned of his crime, but his marriage will tie him inextricably to the village, thus ensuring that his status as local hero will be a lasting one.
Unfortunately, Christy's myth is soon shattered by the reality of his actions. At the end of Act II, Christy's father, Old Mahon, enters the pub very much alive. He reveals to the Widow Quinn that Christy merely knocked him unconscious and ran away, and Old Mahon has been following him ever since. When the village as a whole learns of this near the end of Act III, they immediately turn on their hero, Peg among them: “It's lies you told,” she declares, “letting on you had him slit. And you nothing at all.” Christy attempts to reverse this judgment by confronting his father a second time, once again apparently killing him with a blow to the head. This action, however, only makes the situation worse. Upon seeing Christy reenact his crime in front of them, the villagers form a mob and attempt to drag Christy away to the police. They are stopped only when Old Mahon returns, once again only wounded. Impressed with his son's courage, he forgives Christy, and the two of them leave together “to go romancing through a romping lifetime” with Christy in the lead. As they leave, the audience sees that the village will remain as stricken as ever, with Michael proclaiming that they will have “peace for [their] drinks,” and Pegeen lamenting that she has “lost the only Playboy of the Western World.”
Through this ending, Synge reflects on both the power and the danger inherent in hero worship. The adulation which the village showers on Christy enacts a complete and permanent change in his character. In essence, the villagers remake Christy through their words, and the eloquence and courage they give him are so powerful that they cannot be destroyed, even by their creators. However, as the villagers' actions in the third act prove, Christy's legend cannot fix the crippling flaws in their self-image; it can only hide them temporarily. The villagers want a hero who will resist the forces of the law for them, but they choose Christy specifically because his act of lawlessness happened far away from them. Thus, they can embrace Christy without facing any of the repercussions from his actions. But when Christy commits the same crime in front of them, their old fears immediately resurface, and as one they try to expel the criminal from their community. While the villagers lionize Christy's defiance of authority, they remain unwilling to follow his example. Consequently, Christy's transformation from fearful victim to Playboy of the Western World never extends to the village as a whole.
Although Synge's play speaks to a basic human tendency to invest others with the qualities we most wish to possess ourselves, the conclusion also bears more specifically on the Ireland of Synge's time. At the turn of the twentieth century, the Irish were actively seeking a new identity that could define them as a modern, independent nation rather than a colonial property of the British Empire. Through Playboy, Synge warns his audience that the wounds inflicted on Ireland by centuries of colonial rule cannot be healed simply by abstractly championing the spirit of resistance. On a more positive note, however, Christy's transformation suggests that the sheer richness of Irish language and Irish storytelling do possess the power to turn victims of authority into champions. Synge merely warns that, for Ireland itself to progress, the Irish people must be willing to turn this power inward upon themselves.
Citation: Cusack, George. "The Playboy of the Western World". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 26 November 2004 [https://www.litencyc.com/php/sworks.php?rec=true&UID=10167, accessed 18 May 2022.]