Fr Kevin Hegarty
One hundred years ago last Saturday night, the premiere of a play, set in the small Mayo village of Geesala, caused a riot in the newly-opened Abbey Theatre in Dublin. I refer, of course to John Millington Synge’s greatest drama, ‘The Playboy of the Western World’.
In 1905 Synge spent some time in Mayo. ‘The Manchester Guardian’ had commissioned him and Jack B Yeats, the painter and illustrator, to do a series of articles on communities in the west of Ireland. The articles and illustrations give a striking insight into life in the west at the turn of the 20th Century. Here is Synge on fair day in Belmullet: “There was a large market in the square, where a number of country people, with their horses and donkeys, stood about bargaining for young pigs, heather brooms, homespun flannels, second-hand clothing, blacking brushes, tinkers’ goods and many more articles. Once when I looked out the blacking brush man and the card trick man were getting up a fight in a corner of the square. A little later there was another stir, and I saw a China man wandering about, followed by a wondering crowd.”
I think it would be interesting if a newspaper or magazine would commission the writer John Waters and the painter Hughie O’Donoghue, two men with strong west of Ireland connections, to follow a similar trail today.
During his journey along the western seaboard, Synge heard many well embellished tales of murder, including stories of sons who killed their fathers. From this amalgam of colourful violence he received inspiration for the plot of the ‘Playboy’ and he used the landscape of Erris as its setting.
The play dramatises the story of Christy Mahon, who, having run away from an arranged marriage to a much older woman, arrives at a Geesala shebeen, claiming to have killed his father. Pegeen Mike, the daughter of the owner of the shebeen, a fiery, high-spirited woman, about to be married to Shawneen Keogh, a pious wimp, is captivated by Christy. Christy becomes a hero, but then his father turns up. Christy tries and fails to kill him; now stripped of the romantic aura in which he had been enfolded, Christy and his father go home.
At the end of the first production of the play, Lady Gregory, a director of the Abbey Theatre, sent a telegram to her fellow director WB Yeats, who was giving a lecture in Scotland, stating that the ‘audience broke up in disorder at the word shift’, a female undergarment. This disorder was the culmination of audience dislike of the play from the second act onwards.
The disturbances continued throughout the week-long production. Yeats, on his return to Dublin, even called the police – not his cleverest moment – and some people were arrested. Cries of ‘that’s not the west’ were a constant refrain among the protestors.
‘The Playboy of the Western World’ has now attained the respectability of being a staple on the Leaving Cert English curriculum. Why did its initial production cause such uproar?
Opposition to the play came mainly from Catholic nationalists. They perceived the play, in its seeming glorification of violence and its joyous flirtation with sexuality, as besmirching both their Nationalism and Catholicism. They feared that, if the violence in the drama was to be interpreted as realistic, it would substantiate the strong English view that the Irish were not fit for self government. Irish Catholicism, under the influence of the devotional revolution in the 19th Century, had became increasingly Romanised in its organisation and puritanical about sexuality. John Butler Yeats, the poet’s father, made the perceptive comment that ‘Synge’s offence’ consisted in showing that the characters of his plays ‘have never been moulded into the pattern that finds favour with the convent parlour and in the fashionable drawing room’.
WB Yeats and Lady Gregory believed they were fighting for freedom of speech and the separation of art and political propaganda. As Yeats said on one of the nights of the play ‘no man has the right to interfere with another man who wants to hear the play’. Under pressure they undermined the nobility of their rhetoric. They were inclined to lapse into the colonial contempt that the Anglo-Irish had for those who were not of their caste. Yeats claimed that the people who formed the opposition to the ‘Playboy’ had ‘no books in their houses’. Lady Gregory expressed her disclaim for her opponents in an imperious comment: “It is the old battle between those who use a toothbrush and those who don’t.”
The ‘Playboy’ riots are probably most usefully interpreted as an expression of the necessary tension that exists between art/literature and the establishment. Perhaps too, in the opposition to the play there was a sign of the future. Among those who protested were people who later formed the establishment of the Irish Free State and legislated for an extreme form of literary censorship.