John Millington Synge
This year marks one hundred and fifty years since the birth of playwright and poet, John Millington Synge who was born on the 16th of April 1871. When we remember Synge, instinctively one is drawn as if by temptation, to launch into the preordained ritual of attacking his perceived rebuke on the people of the soil, the peasant farmer of his time. This is immediately followed by tails of riots and unholy scenes at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, the scene of the staging of the Playboy of the Western World. Thus will he always be remembered it seems. Owing to ill-health his pen would fall silent after a mere thirty eight years on this earth. He nevertheless left a legacy; it is that that we peruse but briefly in this overview.
He is recognized as being a member of the Irish literary revival movement and is credited with forming the Abbey Theatre along with Lady Gregory and William Butler Yeats. Coming from a privileged background himself probably didn’t lend to an acceptance by the ordinary mortals of the day. The landed gentry would perhaps be instilled in the Irish psyche as being for ever connected with British domination, the absentee landlord and the Famine (An Gorta Mor) the Great Hunger. In Ireland at the close of the 19th century and with the advent of the 20th, the theatre emerged as a conduit for the consciousness of Irish Nationalism. On this bedrock was the National Theatre of Ireland established, the Abbey Theatre. Drama critics can determine the fortunes of an aspiring playwright and the public can vent their displeasure in the portrayal of the land of their origins which they deem unworthy as in this case. A slight on their sensitivities be it from a religious perspective or a nationalistic fervour is a bridge too far. Onto the stage stepped Synge to tear at the threadbare of acceptability albeit with no slight on nationalism intended perhaps.
His mother was the overriding influence on the young boy his father having died when he was a but a year old. Like many from his background a career in the established professions was the well-trodden path to a congenial existence. As a boy he had had to endure life under the constant constraints of bad health. This had enforced a life surrounded by the silence of solitude that brought him into the natural world of country living. His parents had spent their summers in Wicklow where the young Synge was later introduced to the great outdoors. He was prone to rambling in solitude and it appears enjoyed his own company. His health would determine that he often missed classes from school thus his educational foundations were provided for by private tuition it appears.
His earlier promise in the world of music didn’t materialise so he determined that the study of literature might give him the inspiration that he sought. He had indeed journeyed to Berlin in pursuit of his musical allegiances but found no gratification there, according to Grene (2015). He had graduated from Trinity College in Dublin in 1892 during which time he also found the gumption to retain his musical pursuits in the regal rooms of the Royal Irish Academy of Music. Coming from an affluent background allowed Synge to seek direction like many of his class in Paris where he attended the Sorbonne. It was in Paris that he initially met with W.B.Yeats. From this encounter and on the advice of the maestro, his literary compass pointed him to return to Ireland and to the people of the plough and the Western stars. He would spend the next four summers on the islands of extremities, The Arans, listening to and gathering an insight into the lifes of the less well off.
Living among the islanders and revisiting the tongue of the Gael brought him perhaps more in harmony with the language of the ordinary people, the farming and fishing communities who eked out a meagre living there. It is said that he based his literary creations on his interactions with the locals creating in the process a dialogue of dreams that were of honest intent perhaps to their creator but would prove prone to misinterpretation by a hoped for captive audience. Perhaps it was a flirtation of fantasy to expect an island nation seeking to exert a degree of self-awareness to accept its capacity for self-criticism under the spotlight of the other. Is that not the chains of shame still rattling in the corridors of conquest that the conquered must endure?
Nicholas Grene (2015) in his paper John Millington Synge gives perhaps a more rounded view when he reflects on the perceived nationalist slant of the play which viewed it as an attack on country people particularly in the West of Ireland which he posits was the least anglicised part of the country. Yeats it was who appears to have been the rod of direction that Synge would follow but Synge moulded his own creation from the canvass of island life as he experienced it, irrespective of the barbs and the controversy that would follow. Grene (2015) speculates as to what was the attraction for Synge that the Aran islands offered? It was perhaps a throw back to his summers spent in Wicklow.
I knew the stars, the flowers, and the birds,
The gray and wintry sides of many glens
And did but half remember human words
In converse with the mountains, moors, and fens.
John Millington Synge
Synge and the Playboy of the Western World
The reaction that the play received after its initial outgoing at the Abbey Theatre was described by Arthur Griffith, president of Sinn Fein “as a vile and inhuman story told in the foulest language we have ever listened to from a public platform”. He also pointed to the fact that there was reference made to a ladies undergarment which he considered insulting to Irish femininity, according to Farrell (2021). Objects were also flung at the stage. Farrell (2021) alludes to the fact that sensitivities were aroused by an offence to public morals and as a consequence was presented as an insult to Ireland, helped as he suggests by some among the audience whose sentiments were of a nationalist persuasion.
The play centres on the actions of one Christy Mahon who having killed his father has to flee his farm. This portrayal of human imperfections didn’t perhaps fit the narrative that people like Gregory and Yeats were portraying. However, Yeats was quick to denounce the actions of the protesters when asserting; “We shall have to establish a society for the preservation of Irish humour” according to Farrell (2021). Interestingly Synge’s first production was ‘In the Shadow of the Glen’ wherein of the controversial topics if you would touched on in this play was the issue of idolatry, according to Robinson (1974). Apparently this was another story that Synge acquired from the Aran Islands. Emanating from his travails while ensconced in the Abbey project he made the acquaintance of one Molly Allgood. She played Pegeen Mike Flaherty in the Playboy and would form a close bond with the playwright.
One might be forgiven if one deduced that this in essence was Synge’s retort to the doubters and cynics who baulked at his upper-crust credentials. Contextually Synge didn’t follow his mother’s religious persuasions and likewise in terms of social standing didn’t succumb to the expected social etiquette of the time. O’Brien (2019) paints a picture of romance conquering the societal traditions of the day. Synge and Allgood would later become engaged. The reality of the relationship between the two was according to O’Brien (2019) one of unrequited love.She became a celebrity in her own right with her performance in Synge’s final work, Deirdre of the Sorrows, a year after the playwright’s death in 1909. She didn’t attend his funeral at Mount Jerome cemetery, much to the approval of Synge’s family, O’Brien (2019) opines. Molly would go on to achieve fame both in London’s West End and on Broadway. Apparently Synge in his many correspondences to her always referred to her as his”changeling” and he as her “Tramp”. It appears that Synge's pursuit of social equality with his beloved didn't meet with his mother;s approval.
Picture shows Molly Allgood as hostess to the 1928 Tailteann Games. (Wikipedia)
With the passage of time Synge has acquired a large degree of acceptability and is honoured in the roll-call of great Irish dramatists. His poetry likewise leaves one to reflect on the tragedy of a life ended too soon. Controversy is constant in the modern world that we inhabit. The fact that Synge is remembered as being perhaps cynical in his interpretation of life in the rural Ireland of yesteryear is perhaps unjust. Indeed it could be argued that he found a degree of commonality with the people he is accused of offending. Others can and will adjudicate on that. Hodgkin’s disease would bring his literary creativity to an abrupt end. Fittingly his last unfinished work was taken from Irish mythology; Deirdre of the Sorrows’ . He died on the 24th March 1909 but his work and its significance would achieve acclaim. A quote attributable to him might be a fitting way to end:
"There is no language like the Irish for soothing and quieting".
Antoin O Lochraigh.
Bard & Soloist
Farrell.B. (2021) John Millington Synge: Irish playwright, poet and rebel. Irish Central.
Grene.N. (2015) John Millington Synge. (1871-1909) www.tcd.ie/ trinitywriters.
Kiberd. D. (2011) The riotous history of The Playboy of the Western World. The Guardian Newspaper.UK.
Moran.S. (2013) Great Irish People. Liberties Press, Terenure, Dublin, Ireland.
National Gallery of Ireland.
O’Brien, G. (2019) Tramp and changeling: The love story of JM Synge and Molly Allgood. The Irish Times, Dublin Ireland.
Robinson.P.N (1974) The Peasant Play as Allegory: J.M. Synge’s The Shadow of the Glen.Vol36.No.4, pp. 36-38. John Hopkins University
Wikipedia. Pictures courtesy of. (accessed April 2021)