Last reviewed: June 2018
April 16, 1871
March 24, 1909
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. John Millington Synge
John Millington Synge
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.