Authors: John Millington Synge

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

Irish playwright

April 16, 1871

Rathfarnham, Ireland

March 24, 1909

Dublin, Ireland


John Millington Synge (sihng) was long considered the greatest Irish dramatist until his eminence was challenged by Sean O’Casey, who was not the superior of the older playwright in tragic or comic power, or in beauty of language, but who exhibited far greater versatility and productive powers. Synge’s five completed plays all deal with the Irish peasant; about 1900 all literary Ireland was fascinated by the peasant and peasant culture—William Butler Yeats, Æ (George William Russell), Douglas Hyde, Padraic Colum, Lady Gregory, and others were recording stories and trying to capture the lilting poetry of peasant speech. Just before Synge died, however, he told Yeats that he was tired of the peasant on the stage and planned a play about Dublin slum life. Had he not died at such a young age, his dramatic work might have had the sweep of O’Casey’s. {$I[AN]9810001473} {$I[A]Synge, John Millington} {$I[geo]IRELAND;Synge, John Millington} {$I[tim]1871;Synge, John Millington}

John Millington Synge

(Library of Congress)

Synge was born near Dublin on April 16, 1871, the son of a barrister and grandson of the translator of Josephus. He attended private schools until he was fourteen, then studied for three years with a tutor. Later, while a student at Trinity College, Dublin, he also studied music at the Royal Irish Academy and became a more than competent pianist and violinist. After receiving his degree, he went to Germany to study music and the German language, then to Italy for further language study, and finally to Paris, where he wrote verse and studied French literature. With his small legacy he might have spent the rest of his life as a minor poet and critic if William Butler Yeats had not met him in Paris and urged him to go to Galway and the Aran Islands to study the peasants, whose rich, if primitive, life had never been treated in literature. Synge left his Latin Quarter hotel, went to Wicklow, Kerry, and the Aran Islands, and for some years lived among the peasants, carefully studying their life and speech. With his genius for companionship, this association bore rich rewards—articles in British weeklies, a book of great beauty, The Aran Islands, and finally his classic folk plays.

At the same time the Irish literary revival, which had started in the 1890’s, was advancing with spectacular success, its happiest manifestation being the famed Abbey Theater, founded in 1904 for the production of native plays. Synge’s devotion to the Abbey and his close friendship with its other literary advisers made the performance of his own plays there inevitable. Because he failed to idealize the Irish national character or concern himself with passionate nationalism, his plays provoked hostile demonstrations at the Abbey when first produced, but they were later accepted, even by the Irish, as the greatest classics of the Abbey Theater.

In the Shadow of the Glen, derived from an old folk tale, is sharp with satire and was at first resented as a slur on Irish womanhood. Riders to the Sea, considered by many critics the greatest short tragedy in modern drama, has as its themes the eternal conflict of humankind and nature and humankind’s dignified submission to fate. Every line in the play has a solemn music, rhythmical and poetic, yet with genuine folk flavor. The Well of the Saints is a sardonic comedy, a tragic farce of the flavor of Jean Anouilh’s Waltz of the Toreadors (1952). The Playboy of the Western World is one of the great modern comedies—satirical, boisterous, exquisitely beautiful in language. The crude humors of The Tinker’s Wedding are in contrast to the legendary, poetic theme of Deirdre of the Sorrows, left unfinished at Synge’s death. He died of Hodgkin’s disease in a nursing home in Dublin, March 24, 1909.

Author Works Drama: When the Moon Has Set, wr. 1900-1901, pb. 1968 Luasnad, Capa, and Laine, wr. 1902, pb. 1968 A Vernal Play, wr. 1902, pb. 1968 The Tinker’s Wedding, wr. 1903, pb. 1908 In the Shadow of the Glen, pr. 1903 (one act) Riders to the Sea, pb. 1903 (one act) The Well of the Saints, pr., pb. 1905 The Playboy of the Western World, pr., pb. 1907 Deirdre of the Sorrows, pr., pb. 1910 The Complete Plays, pb. 1981 Nonfiction: The Aran Islands, 1907 In Wicklow, 1910 The Autobiography of J. M. Synge, 1965 Letters to Molly: John Millington Synge to Máire O’Neill, 1906-1909, 1971 (Ann Saddlemyer, editor) My Wallet of Photographs, 1971 (Lilo Stephens, introducer and arranger) Some Letters of John M. Synge to Lady Gregory and W. B. Yeats, 1971 (Saddlemyer, editor) The Collected Letters of John Millington Synge, 1983–1984 (2 volumes; Saddlemyer, editor) Miscellaneous: Plays, Poems, and Prose, 1941 Collected Works, 1962–1968 (Ann Saddlemyer and Robin Skelton, editors) Bibliography Casey, Daniel J. Critical Essays on John Millington Synge. New York: G. K. Hall, 1994. These essays by Synge scholars covers topics such as Synge’s use of language, his poems, and most of his plays, including The Well of the Saints and The Tinker’s Wedding as well as the more famous The Playboy of the Western World. Includes bibliography and index. Gerstenberger, Donna Lorine. John Millington Synge. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1990. A basic biography and critical evaluation of Synge’s works. Includes bibliography. Kiely, David M. John Millington Synge: A Biography. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995. Kiely covers the life of this complex and difficult dramatist. Includes bibliography and index. Krause, Joseph. The Regeneration of Ireland: Essays. Bethesda, Md.: Academica Press, 2001. This scholarly work focuses on the intellectual life of Ireland in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, focusing on Synge’s life and works. Includes bibliography and index. McCormack, W. J. Fool of the Family: A Life of J. M. Synge. New York: New York University Press, 2000. McCormack draws on previously unpublished material in his depiction of Synge, which places the dramatist in the context of the cultural changes taking place around him. McDonald, Ronan. Tragedy and Irish Writing: Synge, O’Casey, Beckett. New York: Palgrave, 2001. McDonald examines the treatment of tragedy in Irish literature, focusing on the works of Synge, Sean O’Casey, and Samuel Beckett. Includes bibliography and index. Watson, George J. Irish Identity and the Literary Revival: Synge, Yeats, Joyce, and O’Casey. 2d ed. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1994. Watson looks at the historical and sociological developments taking place in Ireland while Synge, W. B. Yeats, James Joyce, and Sean O’Casey were writing and the influence these events had on their works. Includes bibliography and index.

Categories: Authors