The first argues the extent and ways in which John Millington Synge self-consciously undertook to become the founding playwright of an Irish national theatre. Synge’s rapid development as a playwright is examined in relation to Yeats and Joyce. His love affair with Abbey Theatre actress Máire O’Neill (Molly Allgood) is treated in depth, both in terms of their troubled life together and the vibrant roles he wrote for her.
The book’s second narrative moves from Synge’s historical time to the present day, to consider what subsequent Irish playwrights have made of his dramatic legacy. Samuel Beckett, asked by his biographer to name the dramatists whose plays had meant the most to him, uttered only the name of Synge in reply. This study also traces in illuminating detail the impact of Synge’s revolutionary plays on a range of contemporary playwrights: Brian Friel, Stewart Parker, Marina Carr and Martin McDonagh, to examine how this influence and recent productions of Synge’s work have enabled him to remain our contemporary. It will be of considerable interest to students of Irish drama both in Ireland and worldwide.
Table Of Contents
- About the book
- This eBook can be cited
- 1 | J.M. Synge: Christianity versus Paganism
- 2 | Synge and Germany: Drama as Translation
- 3 | Yeats, Synge and an Emerging Irish Drama
- 4 | Joyce, Synge and the Irish Theatre Movement
- 5 | Ghosts in Irish Drama: Synge’s Riders to the Sea, Yeats’s The Only Jealousy of Emer and Stewart Parker’s Pentecost
- 6 | Woman on the Threshold: Synge’s The Shadow of the Glen, Teresa Deevy’s Katie Roche and Marina Carr’s The Mai
- 7 | Marginal Zones and Liminality: Synge’s The Well of the Saints and Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot
- 8 | Postmodern Playboy: Synge in the Twenty-First Century
- 9 | J.M. Synge and Molly Allgood: The Woman and the Tramp
- 10 | Brian Friel and Synge: Towards a Theatrical Language
- Select Bibliography
- Series index
Grateful acknowledgement is made to editors and publishers for permission to reprint material: Edward A. Kopper, Junior, and Greenwood Press for ‘J.M. Synge: Christianity versus Paganism’ from A J.M. Synge Literary Companion (New York, Westport, Ct., London: Greenwood Press, 1988): 106-134; The Hungarian Journal of English and American Studies and its editor, Donald E. Morse, for ‘Synge, Brecht and the Hiberno-German Connection’, Hungarian Journal of English and American Studies, 10:1-2 (Spring/Fall 2004): 9-32; James W. Flannery and Yeats: An Annual of Critical and Textual Studies for ‘Yeats, Synge and an Emerging Irish Drama’ from Yeats: An Annual of Critical and Textual Studies, editor Richard J. Finneran, X: 1992; Yeats and the Theater, guest editor James W. Flannery (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1992): 32-55; editors Donald E. Morse and Csilla Bertha and Greenwood Press for ‘Ghosts in Irish Drama’ from More Real Than Reality: The Fantastic in Irish Literature and the Arts (New York, Westport, Ct., London: Greenwood Press, 1991): 41-66; editor Christopher Murray and the Irish University Review for ‘Woman on the Threshold’ from the Irish University Review 25:1 (Spring/Summer 1995), Silver Jubilee Issue: Teresa Deevy and Irish Women Playwrights: 143-162; editor Nicholas Grene and Lilliput Press for ‘J.M. Synge and Molly Allgood: The Woman and the Tramp’ from Interpreting Synge: Essays from the Synge Summer School 1991-2000 (Dublin: Lilliput Press, 2000): 163-176; editor Anthony Roche and the Irish University Review for ‘Friel and Synge: Towards a Theatrical Language’ from the Irish University Review 29:1 (Spring/Summer 1999), Special Issue: Brian Friel: 145-161.
Three of the essays are published here for the first time: ‘Joyce, Synge and the Irish Theatre Movement’; ‘Marginal Zones and Liminality: Synge’s The Well of the Saints and Samuel Beckett’s ← vi | vii → Waiting for Godot’; and ‘Postmodern Playboy’. Earlier drafts or portions thereof were tried out at various summer schools and conferences. I would like, therefore, to thank the James Joyce Summer School (Dublin) and its director, Anne Fogarty, for inviting me to lecture on Synge and Joyce in 1997; Irene Gilsenan Nordin and the University of Dalarna, Sweden, for the invitation to give a plenary lecture on Beckett and Synge at a Conference on Liminality and Irish Literature in 2004. I would particularly like to thank the Synge Summer School, Rathdrum, County Wicklow, its former directors, Nicholas Grene and Adrian Frazier, and the School’s wonderful organizing committee, for opportunities to talk about Synge for many years. I owe a great debt to three valued friends and great scholars – Nicholas Grene, Declan Kiberd and Richard Pine – for sharing so many ideas over the years on matters Syngean. Eamonn Jordan, Lilian Chambers, and Dan Farrelly of Carysfort Press have been immensely helpful in seeing this book into publication. My greatest debt, as ever, is to my wife, Katy Hayes, and our sons, Merlin and Louis.
I wish to acknowledge and to thank the National University of Ireland for a grant-in-aid towards the publication of this book.
The following abbreviations are used for the texts of Synge cited throughout the book:
IJ.M. Synge, Collected Works, Volume I: Poems, edited by Robin Skelton (London: Oxford University Press, 1962); reprinted Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe, 1982).
IIJ.M. Synge, Collected Works, Volume II: Prose, edited by Alan Price (London: Oxford University Press, 1966; reprinted Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe, 1982).
IIIJ.M. Synge, Collected Works, Volume III; Plays Book I, edited by Ann Saddlemyer (London: Oxford University Press, 1968; reprinted Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe, 1982)
IVJ.M. Synge, Collected Works, Volume IV: Plays Book II, edited by Ann Saddlemyer (London: Oxford University Press. 1968; reprinted Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe, 1982).
CL IThe Collected Letters of John Millington Synge, Volume One: 1871-1907, edited by Ann Saddlemyer (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983).
CL IIThe Collected Letters of John Millington Synge, Volume Two: 1907-1909, edited by Ann Saddlemyer (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984).
At the end of 2009 Irish Times theatre critic Peter Crawley surveyed not only the year’s theatrical offerings but those of the previous decade, the first of the twenty-first century, and concluded that the ‘defining play’ of this most theatrically experimental and diverse of decades was first produced in 1907. He backed up his claim by looking at the range of theatrical approaches that had been taken towards John Millington Synge’s masterpiece, The Playboy of the Western World, by some of the most cutting edge companies.1 Pan Pan Theatre Company, for example, produced a resolutely contemporary Playboy set in a Shanghai dressing salon doubling as a brothel, with Synge’s lines spoken in Mandarin; the production played first in China, then in Dublin. The first to note the ability of Synge’s play to translate to another culture was Mustafa Matura, who in 1985 produced a Playboy of the West Indies which found Caribbean equivalents to Synge’s West of Ireland characters, and a local patois version of Synge’s Hiberno-English dialect. Something similar was done in 2007 at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, Ireland’s National Theatre, where Synge’s original had premiered ninety years earlier, when Dubliner Roddy Doyle and Nigerian Bisi Adigun co-authored a version which moved Synge’s play to a contemporary West Dublin setting.
But the most important Synge production of the decade was by the Druid Theatre Company from Galway. This was the case for two reasons. Co-founder and director Garry Hynes brought a wealth of experience to her productions of The Playboy of the Western World in 2004 and 2005, having first engaged with Synge and his drama in the 1970s, the first decade of the founding of Druid with actors Marie Mullen (who was to briefly play Pegeen Mike and many times the Widow Quin) and Mick Lally (who progressed from Christy to Old ← 1 | 2 → Mahon). In 1975, Druid was the first professional theatre in the Republic of Ireland to open outside Dublin, premiering productions in Galway and undertaking an increasingly ambitious programme of touring, both in Ireland and abroad. From the first, Synge became what Hynes was to describe on more than one occasion as the ‘house playwright’ of Druid.2 The association was an important one for a revisioning of Synge, so often accused of being an interloper from the east coast of Ireland, an urbanite and a Protestant, misrepresenting the people of the West in his writings. Hynes and company staked a claim for the authenticity of Synge and did so by stressing the realism of his writing. This reached some kind of apogée in the 1982 production of The Playboy at the company’s small, intimate theatre in Garter Lane, Galway. The setting stressed the poverty of the inhabitants with their bare feet and a muddy shebeen. But what Hynes really restored was the violence in the play, which its frequent productions had muted, so the arrival of a bloody-pated Mick Lally as Old Mahon posed a real threat. This realism became the hallmark of Druid productions, with Marie Mullen presenting a young and sexy Widow Quin rather than the traditional playing of the part as an older grotesque.
In 2005, Hynes and Druid realized a long-time ambition when they staged the six canonical plays together as DruidSynge. In the years just before that, they had staged independent productions of individual plays before the culminating cycle of six. What impressed me most about this ambitious and bravura staging of Synge was how Garry Hynes did not set about achieving an ever more perfect reproduction of a certain kind of approach to the plays. Rather, there was sometimes a sharp variation to the same play: Anne-Marie Duff, for example, in the 2004 production, was more of a petit bourgeois Pegeen Mike; whereas Catherine Walsh in 2005 was much more earthy in her portrayal; and the film star fine-boned features of Cillian Murphy as Christy Mahon had given way to the comic quicksilver metamorphoses of Aaron Monaghan. This suggested that Hynes did not set her productions in stone but continued to work on and evolve her approach, keeping them theatrically live. The settings of the individual plays were simplified and stylized for the joint production of all six. Most strikingly, the white boards of a coffin which lay against the wall for the drowned son in Riders to the Sea (1903) remained there throughout the next five plays and were still available to help bury the dead lovers at the close of Deirdre of the Sorrows (1910). Synge’s entire dramatic oeuvre was revealed as a coherent and singular body of work, stylistically dizzying in its range but focusing on central concerns of language, identity and ← 2 | 3 → issues of power and powerlessness. If it was fascinating to see how Garry Hynes reworked the more familiar plays, the DruidSynge cycle offered a rarer opportunity to view The Tinker’s Wedding (1971) and Deirdre of the Sorrows, the two plays unproduced in Synge’s lifetime and receiving only a rare production since. It was moving to hear and see Druid’s founding members Mick Lally and Marie Mullen thirty years on as the aged High King Conchubor and Deirdre’s nurse Lavarcham; and the violence of the Ulster Sagas now given a contemporary staging in the style of Martin McDonagh, whose work Hynes had brought to the world. The Tinker’s Wedding was the only one to receive a contemporary staging: to witness Marie Mullen in her outlandish mix of cast-off modern clothing was to behold a member of the travelling community rather than a ‘tinker’.3
The DruidSynge is placed at the head of this Introduction because of its individual theatrical and historical importance in relation to the playwright but also because the success of Hynes’s project underscores the two core beliefs on which this book of inter-connected essays is constructed. The first is that Synge was a deliberate and self-conscious artist rather than a naïf who stumbled into being a great playwright. Accordingly, his career will be assessed in toto and not just from the moment he decided to leave Paris and return to Ireland. It will be read as a series of ‘moves’ in both the sense of artistic strategy and of physical relocation (it is no accident he identified with tramps and wanderers). Synge trained as a musician and, when he made the decision to turn from music to literature, it was not undertaken lightly. That life-altering decision (and its profound consequences for the development of a distinctly Irish drama with strong European associations) was made in Germany, where Synge appears to have attended the theatre for the first time, the place where he read the work of Henrik Ibsen and drafted his first play. On the Continent, Synge first encountered the model of a National Theatre, and he was therefore best equipped and placed to be a national playwright for Ireland when W.B. Yeats and Lady Gregory began to bend their energies in that direction. W.J. McCormack’s 2000 biography, Fool of the Family, makes clear how important were Synge’s first two years in Germany, away from Dublin and home for the first time.4 But McCormack displays a hankering for Synge to stay on the continent and has no great grá for the decision to go to the Aran Islands. This book argues that the famous advice offered by W.B. Yeats – ‘Go to the Aran Islands and express there a life which has never found expression’ – is not so much in need of demythologizing (of that there has been a good deal) as somewhat ← 3 | 4 → beside the point. The writing Yeats intended to inspire in Synge with his advice was a prose volume which eventually emerged in 1902 as The Aran Islands. Despite Yeats’s active promotion and the volume’s considerable merit, Synge’s book was not published for a further five years and then only on the back of his plays’ success. An arguably more fruitful and necessary conjunction, conducted during the same years as his five annual visits to the Aran Islands, was Synge’s active involvement with the three-year experiment of the Irish Literary Theatre initiated by Yeats and Gregory. (This does not merit a single mention in McCormack’s biography.) Synge attended the opening productions of Yeats’s The Countess Cathleen and Edward Martyn’s The Heather Field in Dublin in 1899 and wrote about them (in French) for L’Européen (II, 378-372). The riots which attended the staging of Yeats’s play in 1899 are eerily prophetic of those which would greet the staging of The Playboy of the Western World eight years later. Synge did not attend the second season of the ILT in 1900 but was present the following year for the full season. He came to it from an important meeting with Yeats and Gregory at Coole, where he had shown them two pieces of original work: the manuscript of The Aran Islands and a draft of his first play, When the Moon Has Set, situated among his own landlord class in Wicklow. The first was approved, the second rejected. From this charged encounter, Synge went directly to Dublin and a viewing of the Irish Literary Theatre’s third and final programme of plays. He was particularly drawn to and (after his Aran immersion) had the knowledge of Irish to follow carefully Douglas Hyde’s one-act play, Casadh an tSúgáin/The Twisting of the Rope (1901). Synge later wrote that Hyde’s play was the only one which ‘gave a new direction and impulse to Irish drama’5: set in a peasant cottage in the west of Ireland, a marriage is disrupted by the arrival of a romantic outsider, who is finally sent on his way by the community. This ‘germ of a new dramatic form’, which Nicholas Grene has termed the ‘stranger in the house’ motif,6 was to be developed dramatically by Synge, as became evident in the two one-act plays he presented to Yeats and Gregory the following year, Riders to the Sea and The Shadow of the Glen. Both were immediately accepted and scheduled for production by the new Irish National Theatre.
These plays focused on what Lady Gregory was to term ‘the people’, peasant characters of a different class and religion from the Abbey’s directors. When Synge most fully developed Hyde’s ‘germ’ into the full-blown achievement of The Playboy of the Western World, he countered the outrage it provoked by the claims of its linguistic and ← 4 | 5 → representational authenticity, writing in his Preface to the published play:
In writing The Playboy […], as in my other plays, I have used one or two words only that I have not heard among the country people of Ireland […]. A certain number of the phrases I employ I have heard also from herds and fishermen along the coast from Kerry to Mayo, or from beggar-women and ballad-singers nearer Dublin; and I am glad to acknowledge how much I owe to the folk-imagination of these fine people’. (III, 53)
Similarly, the DruidSynge production of 2005 staked its own primary claim on Synge’s authenticity. In the tour of Ireland they undertook after the Galway premiere, the company staged the plays in the various locales named in the play. Druid had been the first to bring Synge’s theatre to the Aran Islands and the 2005 tour culminated in the day-long presentation of all six on Inishmaan, the central island on which Synge had stayed. On the one hand, in their sensitive delivery of Synge’s complex language and their grounding of his plays in a realistically rendered sense of place, Druid have done a great deal to validate and vindicate the claims Synge (and Yeats) made about the authenticity of his work in relation to the Irish people he represented, their behaviour and manner of speaking. But it could also be said that in doing so they endorsed and deepened the mythologizing which surrounded Synge from the start, particularly the view (first floated by Yeats) that Synge found his artistic identity and became a great artist by going to and writing about the West of Ireland.
The ‘authenticity’ debate has bedeviled the perception of Synge in Ireland ever since. What it overlooks is that his plays are not an unmediated reflection of social reality but a self-consciously constructed dramatic artifact. Synge himself may be said not only to have contributed to but to have initiated this debate. In an interview he gave to the Dublin Evening Mail in January 1907 during the first week of The Playboy’s production and a week after he had penned his Preface to the play, he contrarily stated: ‘I don’t care a rap how the people take it. I never bother whether my plots are typical Irish or not; but my methods are typical. […] It is a comedy, an extravaganza, made to amuse.’ It is worth bearing in mind that, when it came to the genre of drama, there was virtually nothing in the native tradition for the Irish Literary Revival to revive. The closest to such a form, Douglas Hyde argued, lay in the dialogues between Saint Patrick and Oisín, a dialectical development of two radically juxtaposed world views: those of the bringer of Christianity to Ireland and those of the last pagan revenant.7 I argue in the first chapter that Synge drew on this material ← 5 | 6 → for the writing of The Well of the Saints. But Synge also verbally claimed that he drew for his play on a pre-Molière French farce, which his notes revealed to be André de la Vigne’s medieval morality play, La Moralité de l’Aveugle et du Boiteux [The Morality of the Blind Man and the Lame Man] (1496). Yeats may have said that he told Synge to give up Paris and Racine and go to the Aran Islands; but as contemporary Irish playwright Frank McGuinness astutely remarked, what if he did so with Racine in his back pocket?8 The evidence of Riders to the Sea, with its profound awareness of ancient Greek and eighteenth century French tragedy, certainly suggests that he did. Those years on the Continent, as Synge criticism has increasingly shown, are not to be so readily dismissed. The Germany period gave Synge his first notion of being a playwright; the French sojourn, and his studies at the Sorbonne, turned him into a deeply read student of comparative literature. His course with Professor Henri d’Arbois de Jubainville was a comparative course aligning Celtic literature with that of Homer. When Synge came across the story of the Lady O’Conor on the Aran Islands he would have recognized the same folk narrative that informed Shakespeare’s Cymbeline.9
With the development of a nascent Irish national theatre, Synge was uniquely placed and well equipped to lay out a template for its plays, securely Irish in their sources, in their language and their folklore, informed by his acute observation and his musical ear, yet nourished by an awareness of parallels with world culture. As a result, it increasingly seems to me that the charges brought against Synge and his work by Irish nationalists at the time on the score of foreign influence were all true. As a student of comparative literature, Synge would only have been too well aware of the debt the story of the Unfaithful Wife dramatized in The Shadow of the Glen owed to the Widow of Ephesus story as well as to that which he heard on Inishmaan from Pat Dirane; but he had to remain silent on that score in the face of Arthur Griffith’s charge and refer only to the Aran source. The answer was not either/or but both/and. In productions of his plays, there have been two comparable strains to the authenticity/foreignness debate vying with each other throughout. If the DruidSynge staging epitomizes the ‘authenticity’ approach (which is not to deny the level of theatrical sophistication on display), the first decade of the twenty-first century also saw a line of Syngean productions of The Playboy of the Western World foregrounding the self-consciously theatrical, the meta-dramatic impulse running through all of Synge’s plays. This was especially the case in the National Theatre which premiered the play a century earlier. ← 6 | 7 → One of these, Roddy Doyle and Bisi Adigun’s version, which moved the play to contemporary Dublin and translated Christy Mahon into a Nigerian immigrant, has already been referred to. But there were two important productions of Playboy at the National Theatre earlier in the decade. Ben Barnes’ production of 2004 is dismissed as conservative by Peter Crawley,10 and did not fare well with US critics when it toured there.11 I think this is unfair to a production which genuinely sought to liberate Synge’s play from some of the constraints which could be seen as continuing to confine it. One was that of the internal setting; in the Barnes, the set opened up on key occasions (such as the mule race on the strand). But the production also recognized the extent of the play’s self-conscious artifice by introducing a character called the Bellman who formally commenced each scene by handing out the necessary props to a central character. The list of props kept by the Abbey for the play when it toured the United Kingdom in 1907 is extraordinary.12 At the beginning of Act II, the three girls bring Christy Mahon a brace of gifts and he is only done enumerating the contents of the shebeen when they arrive (as well as holding a mirror to wash himself). The dizzying array of props shows the extent to which Synge’s world is a constructed theatrical artifact, something ‘made’; and yet for all of the putting in place of a solid world, these are not enough to hold Christy Mahon in place or provide him or Synge with an abiding home. The set is struck each night.
If Crawley is critical of Barnes’s production, we are as one in our reaction to Niall Henry’s extraordinary production of Playboy at the Peacock Theatre in 2001. This production provides the cover of the book and is discussed in detail in the ‘Postmodern Synge’ chapter. Henry had laid the groundwork for this production by tackling Synge’s play several years earlier in a production for his Blue Raincoat Theatre Company in Sligo, where Synge’s text had received a ‘mumblecore’ approach. At the Peacock, the text was restored to pristine audibility; but the other postmodern features of the Blue Raincoat production were still in place. Gifted mime Mikel Murfi played Christy with an unprecedented level of physical expressivity. Curled in a foetus-like position for much of Act One, he increasingly came to life as he told his story; and while the mule race on the strand remained offstage, there was a stunning moment when Murfi traversed the stage in mid-air clad in his jockey’s outfit, like the Jack B. Yeats illustration come to life. Where Druid have shown considerable freedom with regard to the age of the actor playing the Widow Quin, Pegeen Mike has consistently been represented in their productions as in her late teens/early twenties. In ← 7 | 8 → the Henry, Pegeen was cast older than the Widow, with the forty-something Olwen Fouéré pacing the shebeen like a character out of a Beckett play. The two old bachelors became young punks, something akin to Reservoir Dogs of the Western World. The meta-theatric implications of Christy’s self-scrutiny in the mirror were for once realized when the young women did not appear; instead, Christy performed all the parts and improvised the dialogue, replacing the young women with conjurings of his own theatrical imagination.
What the Henry approach has done even more than all of the other approaches of the twenty-first century is to show how theatrically alive and fertile The Playboy of the Western World remains. What DruidSynge has done is draw spectacular attention to the whole of Synge’s dramatic oeuvre, to draw the less produced plays into the spotlight, and to underscore how seminal his dramatic creations are to the century of Irish drama which followed. These two beliefs underwrite the following book. The first, already referred to, is to provide a sustained analysis of Synge’s six plays as they try out possibilities for an Irish theatre. This will involve a rereading and contextualization of Yeats’s legendary advice to show that Synge became a dramatist despite rather than because of it; but to establish equally that the two writers still had a great deal to offer each other when it came to the creation of a national drama. The context of Joyce will argue that, far from his rude dismissal of Riders to the Sea when he was twenty-one, Joyce’s subsequent career shows his awareness (however tinged with jealousy) of Synge’s prophetic importance and the originality of his writing. The persistence of the past into the present in the country’s experience will be seen to demand a different dramatic handling of ghosts in Irish theatre from the example of Ibsen. Synge’s positioning of his Nora on the threshold of the peasant cottage is taken up and developed by subsequent Irish women playwrights. Synge cast The Well of the Saints in the form of a parable which worked at one remove from its own time and centred on two talkative tramps. Samuel Beckett was to do the same almost a half century later in his first staged play, En Attendant Godot/Waiting for Godot (1953). The possibilities for a postmodern Playboy of the Western World are raised in relation to various interpretations of the play, not least by reading it in the light of the Martin McDonagh phenomenon. Synge’s last unfinished play, Deirdre of the Sorrows, though apparently his most remote, is also his most autobiographical and revealing.
The second impulse which underlies this volume is the profound effect which Synge has had on many of the Irish playwrights who ← 8 | 9 → followed him. This book may be seen as a two-way Syngean dialogue: synchronically, with the artists and theatrical collaborators of his time; diachronically, with many of those Irish playwrights who have drawn most powerfully on him since: Samuel Beckett, Brian Friel, Stewart Parker, Marina Carr, Martin McDonagh.13 When his official biographer James Knowlson asked Beckett whose work had most influenced his, the octogenarian playwright murmured only one name in response: ‘Synge.’14 When Brian Friel spoke at the re-opening of the Synge cottage on Inishmaan in 1999, he acknowledged Synge’s influence not only on his own formidable body of work but on that of every other Irish dramatist: ‘On this occasion, on this island, it is very important to me to acknowledge the great master of Irish theatre, the man who made Irish theatre, the man who reshaped it and refashioned it, and the man before whom we all genuflect.’15 As Friel openly acknowledged, Synge laid out the template of what an Irish theatre might be. The situations he developed in his scenarios, the language he fashioned for his characters, the issues he raised in his works, have in turn been taken on and responded to by the playwrights who came after him in a century-long dialogue which shows no signs of ending.
- XII, 308
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- Publication date
- 2019 (October)
- Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2013. XII, 308 pp.