John Millington Synge
BORN: 1871, County Dublin, Ireland
DIED: 1909, Dublin, Ireland
GENRE: Drama, fiction
In the Shadow of the Glen (1903)
Riders to the Sea (1904)
The Playboy of the Western World (1907)
Deirdre of the Sorrows (1910)
John Millington Synge. Synge, John Millington, drawing. Irish Tourist Board
The author of The Playboy of the Western World (1907), Edmund John Millington Synge is considered the greatest dramatist of the Irish Literary Renaissance. In his unsentimental but compassionate portrayal of Irish peasants and his highly imaginative and poetic dialogue (patterned after the vernacular spoken by the rural population in the west of Ireland), Synge attempted to capture the essence of the Irish spirit, which he described in his preface to The Playboy of the Western World as ‘‘fiery and magnificent, and tender.’’
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Reaction to Religious Upbringing. Born in 1871 in Rathfarnham, a town near Dublin, into a middle-class Protestant family, Synge was raised by his devoutly religious mother after his father’s death in 1872. Due to his poor health, he was educated at home by private tutors. Influenced by his reading of the works of Charles Darwin (who published the theory of evolution), Synge broke from his religious upbringing at the age of fourteen, and his ill feelings toward Christianity often arise in his plays. He studied Hebrew and Irish at Trinity College in Dublin and, after earning his bachelor’s degree, he traveled extensively in Germany, France, and Italy, intent on a career in music.
Focused on Writing. Eventually judging himself better suited to literary endeavors, he moved in 1895 to Paris, where he studied at the Sorbonne. The following year, he encountered two fellow expatriates, the political activist Maud Gonne and the poet and dramatist William Butler Yeats. Synge briefly joined Gonne’s Irish League, an organization dedicated to liberating Ireland from English rule, but he quickly became disillusioned with the militant tactics she advocated. Ireland had been controlled by England for hundreds of years, and the Irish generally resented English policies that took their land and denied them full legal rights. Over the years, especially in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Irish demanded home rule, if not independence, which gained them some reforms from the British government in this time period.
Yeats, the most prominent figure of the Irish Literary Renaissance, had a more lasting influence on Synge. (The Irish Literary Renaissance was a movement that sought to create a new literature out of the heritage, language, and folklore of the Irish people.)Yeats urged Synge to return to Ireland and to write about the peasants of the three small islands off the country’s western coast, known collectively as the Aran Islands or, simply, Aran. The advice appealed to Synge, and he subsequently spent many summers on the islands observing the customs and dialect of the peasants. In their Anglo-Irish dialect, in their stories and legends, and in their spiritual beliefs—which he viewed as a hybrid of Christian teachings and the stronger, more exciting element of ancient paganism— Synge discovered the inspiration for most of his dramatic works.
The Dublin Years. In 1903, Synge settled in Dublin, where the Irish National Theatre Society staged his first play, In the Shadow of the Glen (1903). Presenting the story of a suspicious husband who fakes his own death in order to determine whether his young wife is faithful, and who has his worst fears confirmed, the play shocked and revolted Irish audiences with its ironic depiction of marriage. However, it found popularity in the more liberal atmosphere of England. In 1905 Yeats and dramatist Lady Gregory produced Synge’s The Well of the Saints at the new Abbey Theatre in Dublin. Containing Synge’s most acerbic characterizations of Irish peasants in the sarcastic, feuding blind couple Martin and Mary Doul and in a saint of questionable virtue, the play greatly impressed Yeats with its colorful dialogue. Yet it, too, offended Dubliners.
The first production of The Playboy of the Western World incited a public outrage in 1907 when audiences took exception to its coarse language and what they considered an unflattering portrayal of the Irish peasantry. Attempts to disrupt performances of the drama were so hostile that police were called to the Abbey Theatre to protect the players. News of the so-called Playboy riots earned an international reputation for Synge, who defended the play against charges that no Irish citizen would behave as his characters did by insisting that the characterizations and the plot of the play were taken from actual events. Two years later, Synge died of Hodgkin’s disease (a type of cancer affecting the lymphatic system), leaving Deirdre of the Sorrows (1910) complete but only partially revised.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Synge's famous contemporaries include:
William Butler Yeats (1865-1939): Often credited with driving the Irish Literary Revival, this Irish poet and dramatist is highly regarded as one of the most prominent literary figures of the twentieth century. His works include The Tower (1928) and The Winding Stair and Other Poems (1929).
Lady Augusta Gregory (1852-1932): This Irish dramatist and folklorist cofounded the Irish Literary Theater and the Abbey Theater. Her folk-influenced books include A Book of Saints and Wonders (1906).
Maud Gonne (1866-1953): A feminist and an actress, this Irish revolutionary captured the heart of William Butler Yeats. She published her autobiography in 1938, A Servant of the Queen.
Pablo Picasso (1881-1973): This famous Spanish artist cofounded the Cubist movement. His best known works include ''Les Demoiselles d'Avignon'' (1907) and ''Guernica'' (1937).
Joseph Conrad (1866-1953): This Polish author is considered by many to be one of the most remarkable novelists to write in the English language. His most studied work is Heart of Darkness (1899).
Works in Literary Context
The stories, legends, folktales, customs, and speech Synge observed on the Aran Islands greatly influenced the content and themes of his plays. His musical training and close study of art and natural history also serve as a foundation of his attempt to bring into harmony in his writing not only the sound, meaning, colour, and rhythm of language, but a harmony of nature, myth, and passion. Synge was also greatly influenced by his life experiences, and constantly strove to distill the essence of experience into his art.
Style to Theme in Riders to the Sea. Synge is remembered primarily for his innovations as a linguistic stylist. While his dialogue, as he professed, was taken directly from the speech of Irish peasants, he used his aesthetic sensibilities to bring out the inherent poetic qualities of the Anglo-Irish dialect. As Yeats suggested, in response to objections that Synge’s dialogue was not entirely ‘‘natural,’’ ‘‘Perhaps no Irish countryman had ever that exact rhythm in his voice, but certainly if Mr. Synge had been born a countryman, he would have spoken like that.’’ Synge’s achievement, critics maintain, was the use of this style to complement the themes pervading his works: the possibilities and limitations of speech, the disparity between reality and illusion, and the painfulness of everyday existence.
Exhibiting all of these themes in a highly compressed format, Riders to the Sea is a one-act tragedy set inside an Aran cottage. The play presents vivid descriptions of the daily actions of the islanders and focuses on the danger of their custom of fishing in small boats, called curraghs. Synge renders the fatalism native to a region in which the people depend on the sea for their livelihoods and exist in constant fear of sudden and violent storms. In the course of the play, Maurya, who has already lost four of her six sons to drowning, discovers that her son Michael has also drowned. She protests in vain as her last remaining son, Bartley, subsequently sets forth on what will be another fatal expedition. She expresses her grief by keening, the ritual shrieking over a corpse, but ultimately assesses her situation in a characteristically simple and fatalistic pronouncement: ‘‘I’ve had a husband, and a husband’s father, and six sons in this house—six fine men, though it was a hard birth I had with every one of them and they coming to the world—and some of them were found and some of them were not found, but they’re gone now the lot of them.’’
Critics have compared Riders to the Sea to Greek tragedy due to its compactness of narrative and its symbolic structure, which mirrors the cyclical nature of human existence in the intertwined stories of the two deaths. Commentators also observe that the play contains numerous allusions to Greek and Irish myth, as well as the Book of Revelations. It is esteemed as Synge’s most artful and poetic work, but the bleakness of its subject matter has prevented it from being widely produced.
Influence. Synge was an important catalyst in the development of Irish drama, for in bringing Anglo-Irish dialect to the stage he greatly influenced his successors, among whom Sean O’Casey and Brendan Behan are notable examples. He remains one of the most revered figures in modern drama, and his plays had a great influenced on modern developments in the genre. In addition, his creation of a stylized language incorporating poetic imagery and vernacular speech patterns had a profound effect on such writers as William Butler Yeats and Samuel Beckett.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Synge was particularly fascinated by the possibilities opened up and the limitations imposed by speech. Synge listened to the speech of the islanders, a musical, old-fashioned, Irish-flavored dialect of English. He conversed with them in Irish and English, listened to their stories, and learned the impact that the sounds of words could have apart from their meanings. Other works that explore dialectical language include:
Absalom, Absalom! (1936), a novel by William Faulkner. This tragedy of the American Deep South reveals, as do his other novels, a gift for capturing regional and racial vernacular.
Finnegans Wake (1939), a novel by James Joyce. This Irish novelist's sprawling final novel is best known for its obscure language and complexity. Joyce developed a basically new language that many commentators term Wakese—solely for the book. Wakese has a vocabulary of composite words drawn from sixty or seventy world languages to form puns or phrases meant to convey several layers of meaning at the same time.
Tender Buttons (1914), an experimental fiction book by Gertrude Stein. This book exemplifies the high modernist style. Basing her fiction in a technique of ''automatic writing,'' she sought to access a deeper level of experience through language that was often jarring, alienating, or repetitive.
Works in Critical Context
Critics often gave mixed, if not hostile, reviews to Synge’s plays when they were originally produced, though France and Germany quickly embraced him and his European- style of thinking. Criticism of the playwright and his work have moved away from the initial controversy to be seen as masterworks of twentieth-century theater. Time has only improved critical esteem of Synge. Critics focus much of their attention on the dialogue, themes, and sources for his plays.
Playboy of the Western World. Playboy of the Western World is considered by some to be the finest play written in English during the twentieth century. Criticism of The Playboy of the Western World typically stresses the thematic opposition between reality and imagination in the drama, tracing Christy’s development toward selfrealization as an individual and as a poetic persona. The play’s portrayal of his transformation is praised for suggesting a variety of mythological and biblical archetypes. For example, Playboy is often discussed in terms of the central themes and plot structures of the legends surrounding the hero Cuchulain from Irish mythology, and the drama’s treatment of patricide is compared to that in Sophocles’ tragedy Oedipus Rex.
Some commentators, emphasizing the rejection of Christy by his former admirers in the play’s third act, have argued that Synge presents him as a Christ figure. However, comic and ironic elements in Playboy have caused critics to debate the degree of parody involved in Synge’s approach to such prototypes. Christy, for example, is also considered a mock or secularized Christ in light of the drama’s pagan themes and ironic use of religious allusions and expressions. Playboy has garnered much critical attention for eluding traditional classifications of comedy and tragedy, and is cited as an early example of the modern tragicomedy.
Synge’s use of language in Playboy was also important from the first. Writing about the play in 1908, Louis Untermeyer in Poet Lore, noted ‘‘Wild poetry itself is in his utterance, for although Mr. Synge writes entirely in prose, his sentences are so steeped in similes of the skies that his very commonplaces are filled and colored with all the nuances of rhythm. The sunlight filters through his lines and the spell of scenic splendor is over all his work.’’
Responses to Literature
1. Account for the oppressive mood, atmosphere, and tableau settings of Riders to the Sea in a paper. How does this mood affect the actions and dialogue of the characters? Is Synge’s depiction of the Aran Islands sympathetic? Hostile? Condescending?
2. Describe various types of humor and comedy in The Playboy of the Western World in an essay. Do these types of humor differ in class or along gender lines?
3. In an essay, discuss Synge’s influence on the growth of the Abbey Theater. What made the Abbey Theater so important for its era, and for Irish national consciousness generally? Examine the history of the Abbey Theater alongside other culturally important theater groups and art collectives, such as the ‘‘Lost Generation’’ of American expatriates or the art circle surrounding Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground. What role do such cultural collectives play in shifting national attitudes or social perspectives?
4. The Playboy of the Western World was considered so offensive at the time of its staging that it sparked riots. Choose two or three other twentieth-century dramas that have been denounced as obscene or offensive, and examine in a small group setting what it is that audiences have struggled so deeply with. Is there ever a good reason to ban or censor plays or works of art in general? What are the dangers of a refusal to engage with challenging or disturbing material?
Bickley, Francis Lawrance. J. M. Synge and the Irish Dramatic Movement. Norwood, Pa.: Norwood Editions, 1975.
Greene, David H., and Edward M. Stephens. J. M. Synge, 1871-1909, rev. ed. New York: New York University Press, 1989.
Kiely, David M. John Millington Synge: A Biography. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995.
Masefield, John. John M. Synge: A Few Personal Recollections with Biographical Note. Norwood, Pa.: Norwood Editions, 1978.
Mikhail, E. H. J. M. Synge: Interviews and Recollections. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1977.
Stephens, Edward M. My Uncle John: Edward Stephens’s life of J. M. Synge. London: Oxford University Press, 1974.
Untermeyer, Louis. ‘‘J. M. Synge and the Playboy of the Western World.’’ Poet Lore: vol. 19, no. 3: 364-67.