My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Yesterday for St. Patrick’s Day I read these two classic early 20th-century dramas by the Irish playwright J. M. Synge. The texts I used were from the first edition of the Norton Critical Modern Irish Drama, and all quotations from critical and contextual sources below come from materials in that book unless otherwise noted.
Synge was a member of the Protestant middle classes, but in the nationalist ferment leading to Irish independence, he developed a fascination with the life and culture of the Catholic peasantry in the West of Ireland, which formed the basis of his drama. Irish modernist literature, with its anti- and postcolonial themes, its meditations on nature, language, and culture, was in the vanguard of a decolonizing century’s world literature; so Synge’s plays of the primordial “West”—and their controversial reception—anticipate debates that continue to this day about the relation of culture to literature and about the censorship of representations that fall short of the one-dimensionally triumphal. Even readers indifferent to these questions, though, will revel in Synge’s explosively inventive language, which he claimed to derive from the voices he heard around him in the West:
[I]n 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 to give the reality, which is the root of all poetry, in a comprehensive and natural form. In the modern literature of towns, however, richness is found only in sonnets, or prose poems, or in one or two elaborate books that are far away from the profound and common interests of life. One has, on one side, Mallarmé and Huysmans producing this literature; and on the other, Ibsen and Zola dealing with the reality of life in joyless and pallid words. (Preface to The Playboy of the Western World)
In other words, a living oral tradition enhances literature by raising the general level of language in society nearer to poetry. Without this vital everyday language, writers seeking poetry must flee from common life, while writers of the common life must do without poetry—as the symbolist and naturalist extremes of modern European literature demonstrate in Synge’s examples. Synge associates urbanization (“the modern literature of towns”) with the loss of a modern folk language and extolls instead the rural populace, whose language and traditions might be said to come from the earth.
Readers familiar with later developments in 20th-century literature will hear a premonition in these words of writers as diverse as Wole Soyinka, Gabriel García Márquez, Toni Morrison, Seamus Heaney, and Derek Walcott, all of whom sought to preserve some form of folk orature in their literary works against an encroaching capitalist metropolitan modernity. There are dangers in this theory—when it shades into Romantic nationalism or even fascist primitivism—and I myself don’t believe in “folk art” or “folk imagination” but simply art and imagination, which may be found anywhere. Nevertheless, the point about great literature requiring a lively social language, not one determined by elites or by the petrified consensus of mass media, is probably truer than we want to admit in our time of a hopelessly mannered MFA literary culture cut off from the profligate coinages of the digital wilderness.
Here is a taste of Synge’s dramatic language, from a toast proposed about midway through The Playboy:
Drink a health to the wonders of the western world, the pirates, preachers, poteen-makers, with the jobbing jockies; parching peelers, and the juries fill their stomachs selling judgments of the English law.
Not all of these wonders appear in the play (“poteen-makers” are those who distill alcohol illicitly; “peelers” are the oppressive Royal Irish Constabulary, founded by Robert Peel), but they form its backdrop. Synge labeled the play a “comedy,” but it’s perhaps more properly seen as what the late Harold Bloom would call a “tragic farce.” It observes the Aristotelian unities of time, place, and action, set in a shebeen in County Mayo over the course of less than 48 hours.
Into this shebeen—whose owner’s daughter, Pegeen, is shortly to marry a pious milquetoast named Shawn Keogh—enters Christy Mahon, a young wanderer bearing a tale of how he murdered his father with a spade in an outdoor dispute. This feat of masculine prowess quickly wins him the affection of Pegeen and of all the other women in the neighborhood and, coupled with his sporting talents, makes him the toast of the countryside. For his part, Christy only has eyes for Pegeen, despite her own reputation as a sharp-tongued and brawling barkeep. While Shawn Keogh schemes to keep Christy from his betrothed, along with the Widow Quin, who wants the handsome parricide for herself, Christy’s supposedly dead father comes around seeking vengeance on his son for the painful (but non-fatal) clout delivered to his head.
The play is at once a celebration of and a satire on the violent ways of the West. The people’s near-unanimous celebration of parricide as an admirable and erotically appealing show of manly spirit verges on farce. But Synge exposes the error in celebrating violence as such with the nearly bestial wrestling between Christy and the people, and between Christy and his father, at the play’s conclusion. Pegeen at first rejects her cowardly Catholic beau Shawn (whom she refers to in the diminutive as “Shaneen”) with cutting words:
Aye. Wouldn’t it be a bitter thing for a girl to go marrying the like of Shaneen, and he a middling kind of a scarecrow, with no savagery or fine words in him at all?
But the previously starstruck young woman tells Christy something different after she actually witnesses him strike his father:
I’ll say, a strange man is a marvel, with his mighty talk; but what’s a squabble in your back-yard, and the blow of a loy, have taught me that there’s a great gap between a gallous story and a dirty deed.
This mock-heroic suggests proto-Joycean pacifism. As in Joyce—who admired Synge—the drama’s real hero is not violence but language, “fine words” and “mighty talk.” Christy’s lyrical flights over Pegeen’s charms are not lessened by their being, as the Widow Quin points out, rather Quixotic:
CHRISTY [in despair and grief]. Amn’t I after seeing the love-light of the star of knowledge shining from her brow, and hearing words would put you thinking on the holy Brigid speaking to the infant saints, and now she’ll be turning again, and speaking hard words to me, like an old woman with a spavindy ass she’d have, urging on a hill.
WIDOW QUIN. There’s poetry talk for a girl you’d see itching and scratching, and she with a stale stink of poteen on her from selling in the shop.
And his duets with Pegeen herself are even better as they lavish praise on each other, he with manifold reference to religious and mythical imagery:
CHRISTY [with rapture]. If the mitred bishops seen you that time, they’d be the like of the holy prophets, I’m thinking, do be straining the bars of Paradise to lay eyes on the Lady Helen of Troy, and she abroad, pacing back and forward, with a nosegay in her golden shawl.
PEGEEN [with real tenderness]. And what is it I have, Christy Mahon, to make me fitting entertainment for the like of you, that has such poet’s talking, and such bravery of heart?
According to Christy’s rather zany and possibly mad father, Christy spent his youth as a fool and a physical coward; the young man, driven out of the neighborhood, exits the play declaring himself “master of all fights from now.” But, like Odysseus before him and Leopold Bloom after him, his real prowess and gallantry lies in verbal contention.
The play’s initial audience at the Abbey Theater didn’t see it in so beautiful a light, however. They found Synge’s drama squalid and his language obscene. Nationalists hoping for a theater that would revivify Ireland’s suppressed culture with idealized portraits, especially of pure womanhood and not of amorous pub girls, they shouted the play down. As Yeats said in a debate about the controversy:
These young men made the mistake of the newly enfranchised everywhere: they fought for causes worthy in themselves with the unworthy instruments of tyranny and violence.
A judicious response to the most disgusting sight an artist qua artist can behold: a crowd rising up to quash art. I will leave the relevance of Yeats’s remark to the last decade’s worth of left-wing censoriousness in the English-speaking world to your imagination.
Synge’s one-act drama, Riders to the Sea, would not inspire such controversy, and it may be read as a riposte to Yeats’s own Romantic nationalism. The critic Robin Skelton compares it to Greek tragedy, both in form—a single-setting play with messengers reporting offstage catastrophes—and function—a ritual lament.
This play concerns the women of a fishing family on a Western island who are waiting to see if the body of the family’s next-to-last son, drowned at sea, can be recovered, even as they fear that their last son will be drowned. “There does be a power of young men floating round in the sea,” one of the sisters remarks, the matter-of-fact understatement, the vernacular comfort with elemental and existential realities, commending the stoicism of the West to the anxious metropolitan. Synge seems to want to say that these people live closer to the gods. Of the brother lost before the play’s opening, his sister cries,
Ah, Nora, isn’t it a bitter thing to think of him floating that way to the far north, and no one to keen him but the black hags that do be flying on the sea?
Skelton argues that the family’s aged matriarch serves as an image of bereft Irish motherhood less idealized than Yeats’s and Lady Gregory’s mytho-political allegory of Cathleen ni Houlihan, whose eponymous otherworldly visitor demands the young men of Ireland sacrifice themselves for her in lines Yeats himself later regretted. By contrast, Synge’s poor old woman concludes in an aphorism that looks past Joyce to Beckett, if it does not recall Sophocles, urging not political violence but cosmic quietude: “No man at all can be living for ever, and we must be satisfied.”
Synge was a sick man most of his life and died at 37. The poet John Masefield, according to Wikipedia, observed, “His relish of the savagery made me feel that he was a dying man clutching at life, and clutching most wildly at violent life, as the sick man does.” If this has been a mere praise of violence and domination—as it sometimes threatens to become in that other modern sick man, Nietzsche—it wouldn’t be worth much. But because Synge poured his longing into language that riots with memorable formulations, lush alliterations, transporting allusions, crisp aphorisms, and startling images, his plays are among the best of their century. That this achievement was met with literal riots by an uncomprehending public tells us what a fickle and false friend “the people” can be for a poet.