By Ann Saddlemyer
There had been rumours for months. When Dublin’s Abbey Theatre announced that John Millington Synge’s new play The Playboy of the Western World would be produced on Saturday, 26 January 1907, all were on alert. Controversy had followed Synge since the production of his first Wicklow play, The Shadow of the Glen, in which a bold, young, and lonely woman leaves a loveless May/December marriage to go off with a fine-talking Tramp who rhapsodizes over the freedom of the roads. Irish women wouldn’t do that!
In The Playboy the action takes place in a public house on the wild coast of Mayo, when a travel-stained stranger enters and is persuaded to tell his story. Impressed, the admiring on-stage audience thinks he must be very brave indeed to have killed his father, and in turn the young tramp blossoms into the daring rollicking hero they believe him to be – winning all the prizes at the races and the love of the publican’s daughter. But then his father, with a bandaged head, turns up seeking his worthless son who is not the courageous father-slayer after all. Disillusioned and angry at the loss of their hero, the onstage crowd turns brutally on Christy, who tries to prove that he is indeed capable of savage deeds, even attempting unsuccessfully to kill his father a third time. The play ends with father and son leaving together, dismissing the onstage audience with the words “Shut yer yelling for if you’re after making a mighty man of me this day by the power of a lie, you’re setting me now to think if it’s a poor thing to be lonesome, it’s worse maybe to go mixing with the fools of earth”.The offstage audience, thrown off guard by the comedy of the opening scenes, erupted at the word “shifts” (a woman’s chemise) in the third act. Some were outraged by the intimation that not all Irish girls were pure or holy, others were shocked by the strong (and strange) language. All were doubtless bewildered by finding themselves laughing as church and the law are banished from a world eager for a hero, charmed by the language and the love story, then challenged again when the tale threatens to invade reality. Synge and his colleagues were in turn accused of “playing” with a nation’s ideals. The riots continued for almost a week. Yeats, eager to champion the rights of the artist, exacerbated matters by calling in the local police, and Dublin and beyond were agog with press reports of the playacting on stage at night and in the courts by day. The actors loyally performed in dumb show until the play at last had a full hearing. But even they were not always comfortable with the control exerted by the playwright through language and gesture, sometimes in their confusion making matters worse by causing their actions and speeches to be more realistic. And who could blame them?
Yet the playwright does not seem to have been aware of the response his play would cause, insisting that it was merely a comedy, an “extravaganza”, meant to entertain, and that “the story — in its ESSENCE — is probable, given the psychic state of the locality.” Not to this audience, who charged him with immorality, obscenity and blasphemy, “a sordid, squalid and repulsive picture of Irish life and character”, making a hero of “a foul-mouthed scoundrel and parricide”.
For three years Synge had painstakingly developed his original idea, producing more than a thousand typescript pages, drafts and scenarios, all the way to draft “K” before he finally hit on the brilliantly ambiguous final form. For a “playboy” may be an athlete, performer, seducer, trickster, manipulator, creator, hero, or all of the above; while “the western world” might refer to County Mayo, to the United States, or to this world as contrasted with that “eastern world” of folk and fairy tales — or to all. “What a blessing you did not go to version L, if Version K had such a disastrous effect!” a friend commented in the turbulent months that followed.
Like Christy’s own tale of slaying his Da, the story of his injuries to Ireland’s good name continued to grow with the years. When the Abbey theatre took the play on tour to the United States, the clash between the idea of a pure nationhood cherished by Irish immigrants and what they saw on stage was even more pronounced. In New York missiles were thrown on the stage, and a hundred police attempted to keep order. Lady Gregory, who led the tour, received death threats; Theodore Roosevelt’s presence at the second performance ensured a more sedate reception. But when the company arrived in Philadelphia all hell broke loose, and the players were hauled into court by an Irish-American patriot who accused the company and the play of indecency. The case was dismissed when the judge learned that the accusers had not read the text.
In the theatre individual response to what is clearly not real can quickly become an excuse for objecting to what is perceived to be real. Audiences have always felt justified in expressing their disapproval of what is staged, or attempted to be staged. In 18th century London theatre managers petitioned the King for a guard of soldiers; one manager engaged thirty prize-fighters as well. Destruction of scenery, benches and even musical instruments was all too common when the audience felt cheated; often foreign performers were pelted with rotten fruit and other missiles (and told to go home).
Patriotism was perhaps the most frequent cause, especially in Ireland where the stage Irishman, created by English dramatists, was a subject of mockery and ridicule, and where class, nationalism, and religion were inextricably entwined. In 1907 however the disturbance was premeditated, with members of the audience carrying in stink bombs, rotten vegetables, trumpets, whistles, and other paraphernalia. There was clearly an organized cabal determined to silence a work which is now considered a masterpiece of comedy, performed throughout the world and recently the centrepiece of a world tour.
Would such events happen today? We are much more accustomed to onstage violence; but censorship is still very much with us. Synge suggests that to hold a dream is better than to live with caution; the outsider serves to perpetuate the myth-making process while at the same time challenging it, introducing a heightened self-awareness which embraces community on both sides of the footlights. Thus the audience is caught off-guard, encouraged to enter the world of fantasy, then betrayed by a reality of a different sort — the dream itself can threaten if fulfilled; we are briefly dangled above two worlds at once.
Ann Saddlemyer has published extensively on Irish and Canadian theatre and edited the plays of Lady Gregory and the letters between the founding Directors of the Abbey Theatre. Her book Becoming George: The Life of Mrs W.B. Yeats was shortlisted for the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Biography. She has most recently edited W.B. Yeats and George Yeats: The Letters. She is the editor of the Oxford World’s Classics edition of Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World and Other Plays.
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Image credit: From the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Archive, Boston [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons