Celtic drama: Ballad of an Irish playboy

A hundred years ago, 'The Playboy of the Western World' opened to riotous scenes in Dublin. Today the tiny Aran island that inspired the play has become a literary shrine. By David McKittrick

Thursday 25 January 2007 01:00 GMT

It was a play which had not so much an opening as a detonation, exactly a century ago, with many of those in the seats of Dublin's Abbey theatre rising in fury against it.

It generated what are remembered in Ireland as the "Playboy Riots" with the police called in to restore order and heated debate on what should and should not be seen on the Dublin stage. There was as much drama in the stalls as on the stage.

The leading actor William Fay reported, perhaps slightly histrionically, that a stage-hand kept the audience at bay only "by arming himself with a big axe, swearing by all the saints in the calendar that he would chop the head off the first lad who came over the footlights".

The production was denounced by, among others, Arthur Griffith, a founding father of the modern Irish state, as "a vile and inhuman story told in the foulest language we have ever listened to from a public platform".

Ireland's national poet WB Yeats strode on to the stage to defend it, lecturing the audience: "You have disgraced yourself again - is this to be the recurring celebration of the arrival of Irish genius?"

In the intervening years it went on to generate controversy in the United States and even in China. In New York in the 1930s Irish-Americans pelted the cast with carrots, eggs and, appropriately, potatoes. Yet over the course of a century The Playboy of the Western World has shaken off its original notoriety to join the canon of classic Irish and international drama.

The play is an extraordinary mixture of comedy and tragedy, tenderness and violence, of brutal reality and preposterous fantasy. It is still performed often in Ireland and elsewhere, where the play itself is regarded as inseparable from its tumultuous opening nights.

These caused its author, John Millington Synge, to write defensively to the newspapers: "Although parts of it are, or are meant to be, extravagant comedy, still a great deal that is in it, and a great deal more that is behind it, is perfectly serious, when looked at in a certain light."

The irony is that Synge, a middle-class Anglo-Irish Protestant, saw the play as shedding an affectionate light on the isolated existence of poverty-stricken Catholics in the remote west of Ireland.

But his brand of realism did not find favour with those whose vision of the Irish peasant was one of stoic peoples living a hard life with dignity. Many took offence at a work which included violence, lack of respect for the Catholic church and a frank sexuality.

It was the sexuality which last year caused some upset in China - although not quite on the scale of the "Playboy Riots" - when a Mandarin-language version performed in Beijing featured an actress wearing a particularly short skirt. This gave rise to the notable tabloid headline, more Joycean than Syngean, "Peking at your knickers".

The most celebrated of Synge's half-a-dozen dramatic works, Playboy is the tale of Christy Mahon, a young man who arrives in a remote County Mayo village and enlivens the lives of the locals.

He enthralls them by relating how he has killed his domineering father and gone on the run from the law. Far from being appalled by this, the villagers are fascinated and come to regard him as something of a hero.

Several local women set their caps at him and he becomes a sought-after celebrity. Unexpectedly, however, his father turns up - not dead, but only wounded, and the plot thickens.

Christy immediately goes down in the village's estimation, but tries to restore his lethal reputation by once again trying to kill his father. The villagers, thinking he has this time succeeded, threaten to torture and lynch him, but once again his father appears, and this time they go off together.

This bald recital of some of the facts of the plot does not of course begin to capture the impact of the play which, while featuring both violence and highly unconventional morality, is also marked by excellent jokes and funny lines.

Set entirely in the village pub, it includes characters propping up the bar, a widow whose wiles include demands for "a right-of-way, a mountainy ram and a load of dung at Michaelmas" as well as an unseen but forbidding Catholic priest.

But one of the play's outstanding features is the way Synge rooted it in the far west of Ireland, building into it both local folklore and the inherently poetic language of Ireland's Atlantic coast.

Ironically, he had a deeply evangelical mother who urged him to shun strong language and exaggeration, advice which he ignored while also dropping Protestantism in favour of atheism, not a welcome move in a family studded with clergymen.

He studied Irish and Hebrew and knew he wanted to write. He moved to Paris but was lost for a subject until he received some life-changing advice from Yeats, who told him: "Give up Paris. You will never create anything by reading Racine. Go to the Aran Islands. Live there as if you were one of the people themselves; express a life that has never found expression."

Synge did exactly that, in a move which would define the rest of his short life and leave a lasting mark on Irish drama.

Over a period of years he spent many months on Inishmaan, the largest of the Aran islands, a barren, windswept place off the west coast offering ruggedly beautiful landscapes and seascapes. He wrote of it, in the lilting cadences so often found in his plays: "With this limestone Inishmaan I am in love."

The island gave him enormous inspiration, its people fascinating a man who had lived his life in cosmopolitan Dublin and Paris. He wrote of them: "These people seemed to be moved by strange archaic sympathies with the world.

"Their mood accorded itself with the wonderful fineness to the suggestions of the day, and their ancient Gaelic seemed so full of divine simplicity that I would have liked to turn the prow to the west and row with them forever."

Today Inishmaan is the least visited of the Aran islands but still attracts some travellers anxious to see the place which inspired Synge so much. They can be seen, book in hand, walking past the Padraic Flaherty's thatched pub, where he would stop to have a drink.

They call at the recently restored "Synge's cottage," where so many literary scholars stayed that it became known as the 'The University' to which, he felt, had "a certain psychic memory".

Then they make a pilgrimage to "Synge's chair," a cairn of stones by a 300ft cliff where he would sit gazing at the Atlantic, making copious notes. The plays that came from these cover different themes: one is a relentless dirge depicting the effects on the island of deaths at sea following the sinking of a local fishing boat.

But in each one Synge depicted the islanders with respectful affection, capturing their humanity and their harsh lifestyles. He also captured the cadences of their everyday language, writing lines which still flow today.

He drew on Aran myth and legend, in particular noting, and building into Playboy, one tale which captured the innate local lack of support for the forces of law and order.

An old man told Synge the story of a Connaught man who had killed his father in a crime of passion, then fled to the island and threw himself to the mercy of the natives.

Synge recounted that the old man showed him a hole where the fugitive had been hidden "and kept safe for weeks, although the police came and searched for him, and he could hear their boots grinding on the stones over his head".

Synge marvelled: "This impulse to protect the criminal is universal in the west. If a man has killed his father and is already sick and broken with remorse, they can see no reason why he should be dragged away and killed by the law."

This was a phenomenon that was familiar enough but it was rarely aired in polite society and was never going to go down well with sections of the theatre-going Dublin public when proclaimed from the Abbey stage.

Nor was it the only point to scandalise the objectors. In an echo of the later Chinese controversy, the more puritanical in the audience took particular exception to a line about "a drift of females standing in their shifts". This reference to petticoats was deemed unacceptable.

A related problem was that Playboy showed country-dwellers as real people with faults and foibles, an image completely at odds with the conventional depiction of rustic virtue and rural dignity.

One critic stormed that the whole thing was "an unmitigated, protracted libel upon Irish peasant men and, worse still, upon Irish peasant girlhood".

Synge did not take this well, railing against the petit-bourgeoisie, saying: "The groggy patriot-publican general-shop man who is married to the priest's half-sister and is second-cousin once-removed of the dispensary doctor."

He died at the age of 37, leaving behind six Inishmaan-inspired plays which he wrote within a few years in a great burst of creativity. He is regularly counted among the dozen greatest literary figures produced by Ireland. Today he is remembered with affection, while his one-time critics are mockingly dismissed.

And the Abbey theatre, scene of the drama which spilled over from the stage to the stalls, still performs his works, attracting enthusiastic audiences which no longer have to be fended off by stagehands with axes.

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