The following analysis of The Playboy of the Western World was originally published in The British and American Drama of Today. Barrett H. Clark. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1915. pp. 194-7.
In the preface to The Playboy of the Western World, John Millington Synge wrote: "... in countries where the imagination of the people, and the language they use, is rich and living, it is possible for a writer to be rich and copious in his words, and at the same time give the reality, which is the root of all poetry, in a comprehensive and natural form." This play is the living embodiment of Synge's ideas on the combination of reality and poetry in the drama. The Playboy of the Western World -- indeed, all of Synge's plays -- is outside the realm of literary "movements" and coteries; his plays are not plays of ideas. Theses and problems die. Ideas are for a generation, or for a few generations. Again the dramatist expounds (in the preface to The Tinker's Wedding): "The drama is made serious -- in the French sense of the word -- not by the degree in which it is taken up with problems that are serious in themselves, but by the degree in which it gives the nourishment, not very easy to define, on which our imaginations live.... The drama, like the symphony, does not teach or prove anything...."
In his travel-book, The Aran Islands, we find the following passage: "... He often tells me about a Connaught man who killed his father with a blow of a spade when he was in a passion, and then fled to this island and threw himself on the mercy of some of the natives.... They hid him in a hole ... and kept him safe for weeks, though the police came and searched for him, and he could hear their boots grinding on the stones over his head. In spite of a reward which was offered, the island was incorruptible, and after much trouble the man was safely shipped to America.
"This impulse to protect the criminal is universal in the west. It seems partly due to the association between justice and the hated English jurisdiction, but more directly to the primitive feeling of these people, who are never criminals yet always capable of crime, that a man will not do wrong unless he is under the influence of a passion which is as irresistible as a storm on the sea. If a man has killed his father, and is already sick and broken with remorse, they can see no reason why he should be dragged away and killed by the law.
"Such a man, they say, will be quiet all the rest of his life, and if you suggest that punishment is needed as an example, they ask, 'Would any one kill his father if he was able to help it?'"
Out of his sympathy and enthusiasm for life, its humor, its bite, its contradictions, its exhilaration, Synge wrote this play. The dramatist's end was "reality" and "joy." He was little concerned with technique, he had no purpose but that of allowing his living creatures to revel in life, to revel in rich idioms. Still, this apparently spontaneous comedy was the result of arduous labor: George Moore relates that the last act was rewritten thirteen times.
Many plays, of all ages and periods, have contained first acts with very little in them but the exposition of a few facts and the creation of the environment or milieu. The opening of The Playboy of the Western World is full of atmosphere, and strikes the keynote of the action which is to follow; but there is no such conscious preparation as there is in the expository act of Pinero's Thunderbolt. Pegeen Mike, in Synge's play, opens the act with: "Six yards of stuff for to make a yellow gown. A pair of lace boots with lengthy heels on them and brassy eyes. A hat is suited for a wedding-day. A fine tooth comb. To be sent with three barrels of porter in Jimmy Farrell's creel cart on the evening of the coming Fair to Mister Michael James Flaherty. With the best compliments of this season. Margaret Flaherty." Compare this simple paragraph with the elaborate preparatory openings of The Second Mrs. Tanqueray and Iris.
Throughout the play the development of the plot, such as it is, goes hand in hand with the development of Christy's character. Beginning with Christy's "I had it in my mind it was a different word and bigger" (just after his entrance in the first act), trace, by reference to his speeches, how, in his own estimation and in that of his audience, he grows from "a slight young man ... very tired and frightened and dirty" to a "likely gaffer in the end of all." There is a certain similarity between the growth of Hamlet's character and Christy's.
The Playboy of the Western World is literary in the dramatic sense of the word. Can the same be said of Stephen Phillips's Paolo and Francesca.
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