Offends Irish Audiences

The first audiences to see John Millington Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World were offended by the play’s language and depiction of Irish peasants, especially women, and they hissed and rioted throughout its weeklong run.

Summary of Event

By the time The Playboy of the Western World opened at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre on January 26, 1907, the young Irish National Theatre Society Irish National Theatre Society already had staged three of John Millington Synge’s plays, two of which provoked hostile reactions that foreshadowed the troubles that would beset his fourth work. In 1903, his first play, the one-act In the Shadow of the Glen, In the Shadow of the Glen (Synge) was denounced as being libelous of women and for having been derived from pagan, anti-Christian works, although it was essentially a dramatization of a story Synge had heard in the Aran Islands. The following year, Riders to the Sea (pb. 1903), Riders to the Sea (Synge) also a one-act work, was the only Synge play not subjected to audience attacks during his lifetime; its 1904 opening was uneventful, probably because the play does not deal with the conflicting demands of individuals and society. Irish nationalists were offended, however, by his third play, The Well of the Saints (pr. 1905), Well of the Saints, The (Synge) which was damned as un-Irish. Playboy of the Western World, The (Synge)
Celtic Revival
Abbey Theatre
[kw]Playboy of the Western World Offends Irish Audiences, The (Jan. 26, 1907)
[kw]Irish Audiences, The Playboy of the Western World Offends (Jan. 26, 1907)
Playboy of the Western World, The (Synge)
Celtic Revival
Abbey Theatre
[g]Ireland;Jan. 26, 1907: The Playboy of the Western World Offends Irish Audiences[01870]
[c]Theater;Jan. 26, 1907: The Playboy of the Western World Offends Irish Audiences[01870]
Synge, John Millington
Fay, William George
Yeats, William Butler
Gregory, Lady Augusta

Annoyed by the attacks on his work, Synge decided to retaliate; he reportedly remarked to a friend, “Very well, then, the next play I write I will make sure will annoy them.” Actually, he had been trying for seven years to fashion a drama out of another Aran story, writing at least ten drafts and revising each many times; he went through thirteen rewrites of the third act alone before finally completing The Playboy of the Western World. When William George Fay, an Abbey Theatre director and actor, read the finished manuscript, he thought audiences would be offended, particularly because of the depiction of women, but the play was staged as written.

The action spans twenty-four hours at Michael James Flaherty’s pub (or “shebeen”) in western Ireland’s rural Country Mayo. Pegeen Mike, Flaherty’s daughter and publican in his absence, is attractive, quick-witted, and independent. Betrothed to her cousin Shawn Keogh, a boorish farmer, she is planning her trousseau, but she treats Shawn scornfully while they await a church dispensation to marry. Just before Flaherty and others leave for an all-night wake, a stranger arrives, “a slight young man . . . very tired and frightened and dirty.” The man, named Christy Mahon, claims to be a fugitive fleeing the authorities after having murdered his father, “a dirty man . . . old and crusty,” by hitting him over the head with a club. Instead of turning on Christy, the men praise his bravery and fearlessness; they leave him with Pegeen and go to the wake, confident that she is safe “with a man killed his father holding danger from the door.”

Flaherty decides that Christy’s success in eluding the police is evidence that the authorities must fear him, so he hires Christy, ostensibly as “pot-boy” but really in hopes that his presence may deter the police from snooping into the publican’s illegal operations. Left alone, Christy and Pegeen are attracted to each other, but the Widow Quin unexpectedly appears; she is a nosy harridan of about thirty who is believed to have murdered her husband. The widow wants to take Christy home, ostensibly because of the impropriety of the young people being alone, but really because she has designs on him. Christy decides to remain at the pub, so Pegeen forces the widow out and then tells him she “wouldn’t wed [Shawn] if a bishop came walking for to join us here.” Settling in for the night, an increasingly confident Christy marvels about “two fine women fighting for the likes of me” and tells himself “wasn’t I a foolish fellow not to kill my father in the years gone by.”

In the morning, girls bearing gifts come to the pub to meet the “man killed his father,” and they are joined by the Widow Quin, who asks Christy how he came to murder his father. Savoring the attention, he tells how his father wanted him to marry “a woman of noted misbehavior,” a “walking terror” of “two score and five years.” When he refused, the older man threatened him with a scythe, and Christy raised a club and “hit a blow on the ridge of his skull, laid him stretched out, and he split to the knob of his gullet.” The credulous women bless him, call him a marvel, and drink to him, one of “the wonders of the western world.” Obviously smitten with the newcomer, Pegeen warns Christy against bragging about the murder and reveals that the authorities have no report of it. Shawn attempts to get rid of his rival by bribing Christy with a ticket to America and sundry articles of clothing. Making no commitment, Christy borrows the clothes for the sporting events of the day and is delighted with himself, preening and strutting, and convinced he has found an ideal new home.

He is then staggered by what appears to be “the walking spirit of my murdered da.” Old Mahon, his head swathed in bandages and plaster and very much alive, tells the Widow Quin about his son, the very antithesis of the swaggering ladies’ man Christy has become. She does not betray Christy but sends Old Mahon on a wild-goose chase. Although scandalized by Christy’s unforgiving attitude toward his father, she again woos the youth, but he is determined to win Pegeen, so Quin promises her silence for a small payoff.

Later, when some of the men return from Kate Cassidy’s wake, Old Mahon also comes back to the shebeen and tells his tale, but cheers for “the champion Playboy of the Western World” interrupt him. His son, it seems, is victor in the beach mule race; the others convince Christy’s father that he is mad and send him away. Christy comes in, and, when the crowd leaves, he proposes to Pegeen. A drunk Flaherty, supported by Shawn, finally comes home from the wake, with news that the dispensation has come from Rome. When Pegeen says she intends to wed Christy, Shawn—prodded by Flaherty—pleads his case, which provokes Christy to threaten: “Take yourself from this, young fellow, or I’ll maybe add a murder to my deeds to-day.” Shawn flees, and Flaherty decides that perhaps Christy would be a better son-in-law; after all, he says, a “daring fellow is the jewel of the world.”

This celebration ends with Old Mahon’s return, followed by a crowd of supporters; in the ensuing turmoil, Christy chases his father outside, club in hand. He returns alone, in a daze, and the men confirm that Old Mahon has been killed. Pegeen, her father, and a newly emboldened Shawn tie up Christy and secure him to a table; when he protests and threatens, Pegeen tortures him with burning sod. Into this melee crawls Old Mahon, again back from the dead. He unties his wayward son, and the reconciled pair leave together, Christy pausing for a valediction: “Ten thousand blessings upon all that’s here, for you’ve turned me a likely gaffer in the end of all, the way I’ll go romancing through a romping lifetime from this hour to the dawning of the judgment day.” The last words of the play, however, are Pegeen’s; after dismissing Shawn (who assumes they now will marry), she breaks into wild lamentations: “Oh my grief, I’ve lost him surely. I’ve lost the only Playboy of the Western World.”

Among the play’s characters, only Christy and Pegeen are dynamic, fundamentally changed by their experiences; the others are static. When he first arrives, Christy is shy, a frightened young man in a strange place; pressed into telling his story of patricide, he becomes a hero to the country folk, who admire, indeed envy, his daring. This first heroic pose, to be sure, is a sham, convincing though it is to the crowd; but his successive triumphs—athletic and amorous—unify appearance and reality, and when he leaves with his father at the end, Christy is a different person. He is the “gallant captain,” Old Mahon “his heathen slave”; the son is “master of all fights from now.” Pegeen, materialistic and realistic, is the only one of the shebeen group who appreciates the dimensions of their experiences. She sees that just as Christy’s arrival brought a measure of needed romance to a depressed community, so his departure causes the debilitating despair to return. In other words, her enlightenment presages gloom, whereas Christy’s circular journey from home and back is one of self-discovery and concomitant growth.

As for the others, they first embrace Christy as a wayward adventurer whose story of far-off heroism is enticing, but they turn on him when he tries to kill his father again on their turf, for such a deadly reality in their midst is more than they can accept. Once he is gone, his story will be part of the local myth, a twenty-four-hour interlude to sustain their imagination but the significance of which they do not understand.


“Play great success” read the telegram sent to William Butler Yeats (an Abbey director and defender of Synge’s works) after the first act of The Playboy of the Western World on its opening night, for the audience had applauded at the first curtain. The judgment was premature, however, because during the third act there was hissing, and a wire to Yeats later that night reported: “Audience broke up in disorder at the word shift.” The play was scheduled for a week, and the Abbey was determined to meet its commitment; according to Lady Augusta Gregory, another director, “It was a definite fight for freedom from mob censorship.” Indeed, there were mobs the rest of the week.

At the second performance, an organized group of forty men with tin trumpets drowned out the actors beginning with the second act (the cast continued, unheard). Police had been called, but they merely stood by and watched. On subsequent evenings, however, supporters of the play (mainly from Trinity College) tangled with the trumpet-bearing protesters, so the police intervened, and newspapers reported each day of trials before magistrates who invariably were unfamiliar with Synge’s provocative play. The Dublin press clearly fanned the flames of the controversy, with one newspaper review calling the play an “unmitigated, protracted libel upon Irish peasant men and, worse still upon Irish peasant girlhood. . . . No adequate idea can be given of the barbarous jargon, the elaborate and incessant cursing of these repulsive creatures.”

The audience had many problems with the play. They did not like the Widow Quin, a murderer of a different sort from Christy, although his seemingly coldhearted second attempt to kill Old Mahon was difficult for them to accept. They also objected to Christy’s biting of Shawn’s leg in the third act. Pegeen’s burning of Christy also bothered spectators, who considered the act a meanness unbecoming a woman (and inconsistent with her character). What most provoked the audience, however, was Christy’s comment that he would not“care if you brought me a drift of chosen females, standing in their shifts itself.” The offensive word here is “shifts”; this reference to women’s undergarments was viewed as demeaning the traditional, idealized view of Irish womanhood. It also recalled the use of a shift as a symbol years earlier to mock Charles Stewart Parnell, the Irish nationalist leader whose political career was destroyed because of his adultery.

Such objections to characterizations, language, and actions are perhaps more clearly understood in the light of this statement from the manifesto of the Irish National Theatre Society: “We will show that Ireland is not the home of buffoonery and of easy sentiment, as it has been represented, but the home of an ancient idealism.” Synge seemed to challenge this credo in The Playboy of the Western World, and fiercely nationalistic theatergoers were so offended that they failed to see beneath the surface to the substantive dramatic greatness of his work.

Synge was not discouraged by his masterpiece’s hostile reception, however. In a letter to his fiancé after the play’s tumultuous opening night, he wrote, “It is better any day to have the row we had last night, than to have your play fizzling out in half-hearted applause.” Playboy of the Western World, The (Synge)
Celtic Revival
Abbey Theatre

Further Reading

  • Bloom, Harold, ed. John Millington Synge’s “The Playboy of the Western World.” New York: Chelsea House, 1988. Eight studies of the play follow the editor’s introductory essay on the relationship between Christy’s self-transformation and his language. The varied pieces are far-ranging in their approaches to character, meaning, and genre.
  • Gerstenberger, Donna. John Millington Synge. Rev. ed. New York: Twayne, 1990. A thorough evaluation and analysis of the full range of Synge’s work, including his poetry and prose as well as his drama. Also functions as a sound biography. The chapter on The Playboy of the Western World discusses the play’s genesis, the first performances, later productions, and its U.S. reception.
  • Gonzalez, Alexander G., ed. Assessing the Achievement of J. M. Synge. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1996. Collection of fourteen essays on Synge’s plays reaffirms their relevance for contemporary audiences and readers.
  • Gregory, Lady Augusta. Our Irish Theatre. New York: Capricorn, 1965. First published in 1913, these reminiscences by a leader of the Irish national theater movement are useful for chapters on Synge and The Playboy of the Western World, including one on the 1911-1912 American performances. Of special interest is an appendix that reprints U.S. newspaper accounts of the controversial American tour.
  • Grene, Nicholas. Synge: A Critical Study of the Plays. Totowa, N.J.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1975. Introductory chapters on Ireland in general and the Aran Islands in particular provide useful background and place Synge’s plays in their proper context. The chapter on The Playboy of the Western World is unusually frank about ambiguities of meaning that confront a critic while at the same time being thorough and balanced.
  • McCormack, W. J. Fool of the Family: A Life of J. M. Synge. New York: New York University Press, 2001. Biography of Synge draws in large part on previously unpublished material. Places Synge and his work in the context of the complex religious and social environment in which he wrote.
  • Skelton, Robin. J. M. Synge. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1972. By the general editor of Synge’s collected works. This brief book, which begins with a short biographical sketch, has a helpful chapter in which The Playboy of the Western World is compared with other Synge plays.
  • Whitaker, Thomas R., comp. Twentieth Century Interpretations of “The Playboy of the Western World.” Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1969. Beginning with classic studies of Synge and his plays by William Butler Yeats and Una Ellis-Fermor as background, this collection reprints essays that present varied views of Christy, Synge’s idiom, and his themes. Of special interest is the piece by Cyril Cusack, the Abbey Theatre director and actor.

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