Notes on The Playboy of the Western World

Written in 1907 by the great Irish playwright J. M. Synge, The Playboy of the Western World is now one of the all-time classic plays of a nation that at first resoundingly rejected it. Its first performances were greeted by such massive rioting that the authorities dispatched hundreds of police officers to keep order in the streets. Viewing the colorful language as blasphemous and the vibrant characters as caricature, the audience took the play as an affront to the honor and dignity of the Irish and missed Synge’s subtle ironies, masterful interweaving of tone and plot, and beautiful re-workings of traditional imagery. With language as rich and poetic in its way as Shakespeare’s, Synge and his playboy gradually build a romantic dream out of the impoverished surroundings that have contrived to stifle such aspiration. Whether to follow the playboy or turn against him is as much a choice for us the audience as it is for the characters on stage.

J. M. Synge, in a sketch by Jack B. Yeats (Source: Project Gutenberg).


The playwright on drama:

“Anyone who has lived in real intimacy with the Irish peasantry will know that the wildest sayings and ideas in this play are tame indeed, compared with the fancies one may hear in any little hillside cabin in Geesala, or Carraroe, or Dingle Bay. All art is a collaboration; and there is little doubt that in the happy ages of literature, striking and beautiful phrases were as ready to the story-teller’s or the playwright’s hand, as the rich cloaks and dresses of his time…for in 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 Ireland, for a few years more, we have a popular imagination that is fiery and magnificent, and tender; so that those of us who wish to write start with a chance that is not given to writers in places where the springtime of the local life has been forgotten, and the harvest is a memory only, and the straw has been turned into bricks.” – from Synge’s preface to The Playboy of the Western World (1907)

“…what is highest in poetry is always reached where the dreamer is leaning out to reality or where the man of real life is lifted out of it, and in all the poets the greatest have both these elements, that is they are supremely engrossed with life, and yet with the wildness of their fancy they are passing out of what is simple and plain.” – from the notebooks of J. M. Synge (1908)

“ ‘The Playboy of the Western World’ is not a play with ‘a purpose’ in the modern sense of the word, but although parts of it are, or are meant to be, extravagant comedy, still a great deal more that is behind it, is perfectly serious when looked at in a certain light. That is often the case, I think, with comedy, and no one is quite sure to-day whether ‘Shylock’ and ‘Alceste’ should be played seriously or not. There are, it may be hinted, several sides to ‘The Playboy.’ ” – from a letter to the press (1907)

W. B. Yeats on Synge:

“[The Playboy] is the strangest, the most beautiful expression in drama of that Irish fantasy, which overflowing through all Irish Literature that has come out of Ireland itself...is the unbroken character of Irish genius.”  – from “J. M. Synge and the Ireland of His Time” (1910)

“Picturesque, poetical, fantastical, a masterpiece of style and of music, the supreme work of our dialect theatre, it roused the populace to fury. …It is never played before any Irish audience for the first time without something or other being flung at the players. …The Dublin audience has, however, long since accepted the play. It has noticed, I think, that everyone upon the stage is somehow lovable and companionable, and that Synge described, through an exaggerated symbolism, a reality which he loved precisely because he loved all reality.” – from Yeats’s Nobel Lecture, “The Irish Dramatic Movement” (1923)

Synge drew heavily on the peasant speech he heard during his visits to the Aran Islands, the Congested Districts, and other rural parts of Ireland, as he developed the poetic but earthy folk language of his plays. Infused as his writing is with Irish Gaelic and local references, many of the words will be unfamiliar to modern American audiences. Here is a brief glossary:

banns – public notice of intention to marry
bona fide – a person living more than three miles away and therefore entitled under the
licensing laws to obtain a drink as a traveler outside normal hours
cnuceen – a little hill
curragh – light boat made of wicker work covered with hide or canvas
furzy ditch – bank overgrown with furze or gorse
gallous – mischievous, spirited, plucky
loy – long narrow spade used for digging potatoes
pandied – beaten
peeler – policeman (of the Irish Constabulary founded by Sir Robert Peel)
perch – a rod of definite length for measuring land
poteen – illegally distilled whiskey
shebeen – a small country pub, or an unlicensed house selling poteen
skelping – thrashing, beating
streeleen – gossip
supeen – little sip
turbary – the right to cut turf (peat) from a stretch of bog

For more information on the play and its historical context, view the “Know-the-Show” audience guide from our website at www.shakespearenj.org/PlayboyKTS.