Commemorating the anniversary of the storming of the Abbey Theatre, Simon Dobey reflects on the events of that week and why J.M. Synge’s work proved to be so controversial.
Ireland is a nation which takes great pride in its litany of literary icons. However, there are none who have received such world-renown praise without being viewed with such domestic indignation and bemusement as Irish playwright John Millington Synge. There are no statues in Dublin which adorn his genius. A crowded gravestone in Dublin’s Mount Jerome and his cottage on Inis Meain are all that remain in his honour.
This week marks the 114th anniversary of the opening of J.M. Synge's controversial play, The Playboy Of The Western World, at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. The opening night performance passed off without little incident. The crowd, however, was reportedly incensed when the parricide and playboy, Christy Mahon, used the word “shift”. A word which referred to a woman's undergarments and was commonly used when describing Kitty O’Shea, Parnell’s mistress.
The second performance of the play took place on Monday the 28th of January. This time the crowd was much smaller. From the lifting of the curtain, a small but loud group of nationalists disrupted the play at the very start. The play would become infamous, however not until the dramatic events which unfolded when it was performed for the third time.
Lady Gregory who had witnessed the disruption on the previous night enlisted the support of her nephew and his friends who attended Trinity College, where the majority of students were Protestant at the time. Lady Gregory had hoped that these students might counteract the nationalist disruptions, but the result could not have been further from her wishes.
The theatrics of the night began even before the curtain had been lifted. A drunken Galway man climbed the steps of the stage and began to play the piano, emboldened by the nationalist group which occupied the front of the theatre. Then, none other than W.B. Yeats, a close friend of Synge, pleaded with the audience to stay quiet during the performance. In fact, he went further, promising the audience an open forum debate regarding the merits of the play, an offer which was swiftly ignored.
When Christy Mahon appeared on stage, the nationalists jeered him, while the Trinity students cheered, before he had even uttered a word. The raucousness of the crowd became so unbearable that the Dublin Metropolitan Police, a symbol of the British rule, entered the theatre. They began making arrests and removed several patrons from the theatre, all while the orchestra attempted to lighten the mood with some comedic musical tones. By the end of the play, half of the crowd was singing “God Save The King”, while the other half sang “God Save Ireland”. After the play had finished the intoxicated audience poured out onto the streets where a violent riot broke out.
The play deeply offended so many at the time in Ireland and continued to do so as it was performed around the world. However, with the benefit of hindsight, critiques made society in The Playboy seem not only fair and reasonable but prophetic and the idealism of the pre-revolutionary era soon gave way to the infantile, catholic conservatism embodied by the character Shawn Keogh. At its core, the protests and riots were rooted in the belief that art was not for art’s sake but should always be performed in the national interest. The plays the Abbey predominantly displayed researched the high ideals of nationalism. Yeats’ own Cathleen Ní Houlihan draws upon a mythical heroine who embodies Ireland and the freedom apparently bestowed upon women in ancient Celtic civilization. The Playboy’s female protagonist, Pegeen, who’s name when said in a Mayo accent sounds akin to “pagan”, is also meant to embody that sense of Celtic freedom. However, she is utterly desperate for a hero, even a penniless, landless, parricide like Christy Mahon. There are several potential meanings which could explain why she is so desperate for a hero figure, however, it is often taken to symbolise the impotence of the nationalist movement in Ireland at the time.
Synge tried to highlight that war and sacrifice, particularly when placed within the context of liberation, are often viewed in terms of a dichotomy. It's hero and villain or coloniser and colony. Christy Mahon's father, Old Mahon, protects the lands of an absentee English landlord which has led many to suggest that he represents the Royal Irish Constabulary or, at the very least, the Irish people administering British rule in Ireland. Synge exemplified that attaining liberty by violence in Ireland would require the death of Irish people.
The Playboy Of The Western World, is just one of a plethora of Synge’s groundbreaking works in Irish and world literature, from the employment of Hiberno-English idioms perfected by Joyce or the portrayal of tramps and working-class life so evident in the works of O’Casey and Beckett. The Playboy perfectly satirises the Ireland in which it is set, and sadly reflects some of the pitfalls of the post-revolutionary one.