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JOHN MILLINGTON SYNGE (1871-1909)

The following biography was originally published in European Theories of the Drama. Cincinnati: Stewart & Kidd Company, 1918.

BORN in Dublin in 1871, Synge studied music before going to Paris to write. There he was saved for his native ireland by William Butler Yeats in 1899 and persuaded that he must write about his own land. He went off on a second trip to the isolated Aran Islands, where he studied the local dialects, characters, and folklore. He began to write plays of peasant life, employing the natural speech which he had learned. His first play, In the Shadow of the Glen, was performed in 1903 by the Irish National Theatre, of which Yeats and Lady Gregory were co-founders. In 1904, Synge's brief peasant tragedy, Riders to the Sea, was staged at this company's new home, the Abbey Theatre, and Synge became the Abbey's literary adviser. Other folk plays followed, including his comedy about a mock-hero, The Playboy of the Western World (1907), which caused patriots to riot at the theatre. Synge died in 1909.

The following biography was originally published in The British and American Drama of Today. Barrett H. Clark. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1915. pp. 188-9.

John Millington Synge was born at Newtown Little, in the vicinity of Dublin, in 1871. Not much is known of his early life, except that he lived at home until he was nearly twenty, that he entered Trinity College, Dublin, in 1888, and was graduated four years later. His predilection was for languages and music, although he was ever an ardent nature-lover. For many years he wandered about the Continent, writing a little and allowing impressions of men and nature to gather in his receptive mind. He went first to Germany, with the intention of pursuing his musical studies; after a year, he abandoned the idea and went to Paris, in order to do literary criticism. Still uncertain of his true calling, he made various though unsuccessful attempts to write poetry and essays. He did not "find himself" until he was discovered by another young enthusiast from Ireland, W.B. Yeats, who, in 1898, induced him to leave Paris and return to Ireland and devote himself to a study of the people, and write real Irish plays for the recently-founded Irish Theater. In the Aran Islands, in Wicklow and Kerry and Connemara, Synge found the necessary material and inspiration for his plays. He died of cancer at Dublin in 1909.

Synge was quiet, introspective, reticent, yet he allowed his true temperament -- with all its wild vagarious longings, its furious exultations -- to find expression in his plays. "He loves," said Yeats, "all that has edge, all that is salt in the mouth, all that is rough to the hand, all that heightens the emotions by contest, all that stings into life the sense of tragedy.... The food of the spiritual-minded is sweet, an Indian scripture says, but passionate minds love bitter food." His interest was in humanity, in everyday life, especially in those manifestations of primitive life which he knew so well how to seek out and use to advantage.


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