1922 Encyclopædia Britannica/Synge, John Millington
SYNGE, JOHN MILLINGTON (1871-1909), Irish dramatic author, came of an Anglo-Irish family, which had contributed several bishops to the Irish church. He was born near Dublin April 16 1871. A delicate child, he was left much to himself, and as a youthful member of the Dublin Naturalists' Field Club took long rambles over the Dublin and Wicklow hills. At Trinity College, where he graduated in 1892, he obtained prizes in Irish and Hebrew, and he knew something of several modern languages. At this period his chief interest was in music and he gained a scholarship in counterpoint and harmony in the Royal Irish Academy of Music. A sonnet, moreover, contributed to Kottabos, shows not a little of the accomplishment of verse, as well as his innate passion for primitive things. During the next few years (1893-8), Synge travelled in Germany, Austria, Italy, finally making Paris his headquarters. He managed to spend a third of the year in Paris, a third in the W. of Ireland, and a third in London or Dublin. W. B. Yeats found him in Paris (1898) preoccupied with theories of language and literature, and advised him to return to Ireland. He went to the Aran Is., where he shared the life of the islanders, and he gave an account of it in a series of sketches afterwards collected in the volume, The Aran Islands (1907). In these and other sketches of the same period he had not quite shaken off the obsession of “stylism,” and still had a wish “to do for the W. of Ireland what Pierre Loti had done for the Bretons.” Gradually, however, Ireland got hold of him, and, turning to the dramatization of incidents in the life he now knew intimately, he began to elaborate, partly from his note-books and partly from the writings of Lady Gregory and Dr. Douglas Hyde, that richly imaginative though largely artificial dialect of Anglo-Irish which he carried to its furthest capacities. The Abbey theatre was opened towards the close of 1904, with Synge as one of the directors. He had already produced two one-act plays, In the Shadow of the Glen and Riders to the Sea (1903), of which the first had acquired some notoriety for the author as an affront to Irish morals; he had also written a farcical play, The Tinker's Wedding, which proved a failure when acted (1909) after his death. The beautiful three-act play, The Well of the Saints, produced before a few dozen people in the early months of the Abbey (1905), was regarded as a new affront; and in Jan. 1907, rumour having got about of its subject matter, the performance of The Playboy of the Western World was interrupted by an organized disturbance which continued night after night for a week. This affair, when the merits of the play came to be known, made the fame of the Abbey theatre. Synge's health was now shattered, and with death in prospect he worked at his fine play Deirdre of the Sorrows, all but completing it before the end came on March 24 1909. Just before he had collected his curious Poems (1900).
Synge appeared at a peculiar moment in the development of Irish literature, which had begun to address a largely increased public, blended of the two main elements of the population. By descent and culture he was of the Anglo-Irish stock, and he really saw the Irish subject matter in the detached spirit of an artist. It was probably something like this that part of his audience detected in the Playboy, and it caused his work for a while to be rejected in his own country. Time, however, has already proved the depth of Synge's insight into the soul of peasant Ireland. The Playboy is by general consent his masterpiece. In this play, the fantastically rich imagery of his dialogue, which elsewhere has often a somewhat monotonous effect, has full dramatic justification; the play has even, like Hamlet, the supreme mark of vitality, that it conveys the suggestion of a permanent human enigma. There are good critics, however, who assign the highest place among his works to Deirdre.
A collected edition of Synge's works, in four volumes, was published in 1910. In John Millington Synge and the Irish Theatre (1913), M. Maurice Bourgeois has given, in great detail, an account of his life and writings; and there is a critical study of him by P. P. Howe (1912). (W. K. M.)