The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Playboy of the Western World, The
PLAYBOY OF THE WESTERN WORLD, The, in three acts, by John Millington Synge, is a singularly arresting play by reason of its extraordinary combination of qualities that are ordinarily deemed contradictory. It is a comedy of Irish peasant life, extravagant, even boisterous at moments, yet based on the tragic theme of the murder of a father by his son; it is illuminated not only by the richest of humor but by poetic touches of poignant beauty, and all told in language so vivid and picturesque, so full of the zest and color of life, as to make ordinary English seem pale and tame, — “that vivid speech which has been shaped through some generations of English speaking by those who still think in Gælic” (W. B. Yeats).
Christy Mahon comes to a lonely public house foot-weary, a stranger and a fugitive. The kindly curiosity of the tavern keeper, his daughter, Pegeen, and others, wrings from him the confession that he has killed his overbearing father in a fit of anger with a blow from a spade. This evidence of courage and overmastering passion in a seemingly gentle lad so impresses his hearers that they talk themselves, and him, into the conviction that he is a hero. Inspired by his new-found confidence he makes love to Pegeen in one of the most delightful love scenes ever written, and Pegeen is quite prepared to throw over her prosaic husband-elect for Christy. When Christy's old father turns up, at this juncture, not much the worse for his broken pate, it is quite natural that there should be a sudden revulsion of feeling against Christy. He has lost his hold on their imaginations, and poor Pegeen, her romance shattered, leads the pack against him. The ultra-Nationalists professed to regard the play as an attack on Irish morals and character and organized hostile demonstrations when ‘The Playboy’ was first produced at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin in 1907, and later in London, and in the United States. In reality Synge has done the highest service to the Irish cause by creating dramas of artistic distinction and originality from purely Irish material. In his preface to the play Synge says, “I have used only one or two words that I have not heard among the country people of Ireland or spoken in my nursery.” Another quotation from Synge furnishes a most significant commentary on ‘The Playboy.’ “On the stage one must have reality and one must have joy; . . . the rich joy found only in what is superb and wild in reality. . . . In a good play every speech should be as fully flavored as nut or apple, and such speeches cannot be written by any one who works among people who have shut their lips on poetry.” ‘The Playboy’ is based on a story Synge heard in the Aran Islands; its language, its humor, its poetry, its flavor, its “reality,” its “joy,” are all drawn from Irish country folk and transmuted by the hand of the artist into an enduring work of art that is very human and very beautiful. For special references see article, Riders to the Sea.