The Playboy of the Western World, by J. M. Synge: #BookReview.

First published in 1907, the text of the stage play I read is introduced by a preface from the author. Here, he talks about the language he has used, how and where he encountered it, and why he has employed such colloquial idioms in the work. I can best serve the author’s intent by quoting one sentence from that preface: ‘In a good play every speech should be as fully flavoured as a nut or apple, and such speeches cannot be written by anyone who works among people who have shut their lips on poetry.’

A play, of course, is best seen as a performance, since the actors, settings, and delivery of the words all add to the impression received by the viewer. However, it is possible, with imagination, to get a good idea of a play by reading the script.

Set in a rural pub, or ‘pot house’, in County Mayo, Ireland, the play centres on the story of one Christopher Mahon, referred to as Christy, who enters the pot-house in a state of some confusion and admits to having killed his father. For reasons unexplained but slowly becoming clear as the plot develops, this admission makes him a type of folk hero rather than the criminal most modern readers would see. I won’t attempt to precis the plot of the play; it’s readily available to those who want to know it.

The characters, vital players in any stage play, are various but definitely identifiable as a group from a specific location. Although their concerns, morals, hopes, dreams and cares are derived from their extensive knowledge of their local environment and unaffected by any knowledge of the wider world, they nevertheless represent the same feelings evident in that wider world. It is this ‘common man’ element of the play that earns it the title of a ‘classic’.

There is much idiosyncratic humour here, some of it so obtuse as to be inaccessible to the modern, non-Irish ear. But context aids the reader and provides clues as to the meaning of most of the oddly phrased expressions.

The underlying ignorance, the overbearing malign influence of the Roman Catholic church, the unending poverty and its inevitable consequences form a background to the story without ever getting in the way of it. We learn to know these people, to love them even, as they deal with circumstances over which they have little control.

Depicting a world few modern readers will ever encounter, the story provides a glimpse into past lives that have made the best of appalling circumstances, ignorance, poverty, and the narrow-mindedness of an institutionalised religion that has nothing to do with love and everything to do with power. That these simple players derive pleasure and find humour where they can is testament to the fundamental spirit of humanity. And that, I think, is what this play is about.    

[Any review is a personal opinion. No reviewer can represent the view of anyone else. The best we can manage is an honest reaction to any given book.]

5 thoughts on “The Playboy of the Western World, by J. M. Synge: #BookReview.

    1. Thank you, Lynette. Reviews of classics are always a bit difficult because they have so much history. It’s good to know another reader, an educated and sensible reader, agrees with me!

      Liked by 1 person

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