The Playboy of the Western World – what’s the point?
This was probably an impudent first question to ask someone who had been expending blood, sweat and tears preparing for a run of the John Millington Synge’s classic at Belfast’s Lyric Theatre but in a country which arguably relies overmuch on getting out the china tea-set to remind itself of former glories, I thought it an appropriate ice-breaker to get my conversation with Conall Morrison up and running.
Did he think we’d be keen on yet another production of a play that is “a vile and inhuman story told in the foulest language we have ever listened to from a public platform” according to Sinn Féin founder Arthur Griffith?
Morrison insists the ideas wrapped up in the play are more than worth a re-visit.
“The point is the same as saying ‘what’s the point of seeing Hamlet or A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. In terms of the Irish canon, I know league tables are clumsy things but Playboy lays a very good stake of a claim to being the best Irish play of the 20th century or in the history of Irish theatre,” he suggests adding a pitch to die for.
“It is such an astonishing theatrical experience, the performance is animated, vivid and honest and vigorous and to experience it again afresh is a true joy,” he beams.
As many will know, The Playboy of the Western World tells the story of Christy Mahon, a young man who arrives at a shebeen in rural county Mayo claiming to have killed his father. He immediately becomes a local celebrity with the females of the vicinity, especially Pegeen Mike, the feisty daughter of the shebeen owner and soon there comes to the fore that Irish trait of caring for the outlaw, the idea of tearmann, the tenet of Brehon law that says, if a man is full of remorse for killing his father, then he needs to be punished no more – although it is scant remorse that Christy shows. When it becomes evident that the reality of the patricide is more in the telling rather than in any actual deed, the faith and hope invested by the peasant community in the Playboy and what he stood for begins to crumble.
As Liz Finnigan points out in her essay, Postcolonial Reading of The Playboy of the Western World, there are a number of ways of looking at the linguistic and social world Synge portrays in his plays and in Playboy in particular. For Seamus Deane, Synge was “one who creamed off the Gaelic culture in the few remaining areas where his class had failed to exterminate it, but where he could now appropriate its energies on the eve of its distinction” while Columbia University’s Gayatri Spivak sees Synge as attempting to recover the native voice of those whom he saw as the true Irish people, distanced from colonial rebellion, ignorant of empirical politics and present in plays “whose text is the living word.”
Brian Earls’ description of the Synge clann might give more credence to Deane’s assertion.
“The Synges were notable for contributing clergymen and bishops to the Church of Ireland,” he writes, “although
Synge’s own father, who died in 1872, was a barrister. One of Synge’s brothers was a rancher in Argentina; another spent his life as a foreign missionary , and a third was a land agent. “In 1885, when Synge was in his early teens ad the Land War was at its height, this last brother, Edward, was busy evicting tenants for non-payment of rent from estates in Cavan, Mayo and Wicklow.”
However, in the preface the first edition of The Well of the Saints, WB Yeats wrote of the advice he gave Synge when the two met in Paris.
“Go to the Aran Islands,” Yeats told the young writer. “Live there as if you were one of the people themselves; express a life that has never found expression.”
If this last phrase turned out to be Synge’s aim, we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.
One of the glories of The Playboy is the vernacular Synge places in the mouths of the characters and Morrison is a huge fan of the playwright’s use of language.
“The text of Playboy is so rich that, even if you think you know it, you don’t know it. It’s almost a cliche to say it is Shakespearean but it is true to a certain extent in that there are phrases coming up constantly that you haven’t focussed on. It is absolutely studded in jewels, it’s quite glorious,” he argues.
Any Gaeilgeoir will tell you that the language you hear in Playboy isn’t a direct translation from Irish, and Conall himself says that Synge “created his own language”.
“Synge made the claim that he has actually heard all every single one of these phrases at some point in his travels in the West or in Wicklow or somewhere else but the point is that he stitches them all together into a wonderfully dense, composite language. It is his own language, his own melody that he has created, but is rooted in peasant vernacular. It is heightened. It is particularly mellifluous, it is particularly image-laden, it is particularly funny,” he says.
As the playwright himself has said, “All art is a collaboration” and in The Playboy the imaginative cultural and historical space of the people of the western seaboard join with his own creativity to conjure up something that is an amalgam of the two.
“Synge took from everywhere,” says Conall, “from Pagan traditions, from Celtic traditions but he was also the writer from that movement who was most versed in contemporary European traditions. He would have seen Ubu Roi by Jarry, a precursor of the Theatre of the Absurd and Surrealism. for example.
“When he lived in France, he went to see all the new theatrical ventures that were happening at the time. So he was up-to-date with everything that was happening in contemporary theatre and he was also deeply versed in Old Testament and back and he has packed all this into the Playboy.”
Having said that, this isn’t a poetry reading, the text is used in service of the story. The language is at a high level because the story is at a high level of intensity and set as it is in the early 20th century – it was written in 1907 – there still exists the psychic landscape, a space of superstition and animism and pantheism that the Irish always inhabited, a space which Synge recognises but is cynical about in opposition to the tweer end of Yeats and Lady Gregory’s romanticism.
“He very unsentimental about it,” says Armagh-born Morrison. “He says these energies aren’t wafting through the Celtic Twilight like an all-purpose Cuchullain-esque mystery. These things are vigorous, they are the powers of violence, the powers of sex, the powers of the imagination. The power of language isn’t a thing of linguistic refinement it is a power of a linguistic potency. Linguistic violence and eroticism and glorification and they are all very animated energies, there is nothing twee about t hem. He does invoke a psychically animated world but he is not being reverential or soft-focussed about it, He is saying these are dangerous energies. You can’t tap into them but they are potentially lethal too.”
Morrison says there is no one particular message in Playboy but that “it invites you to enter the force field of your own imagination.
“If you really unleash yourself into what it is you want, your passions, your powers and your capacities be that for celebration, for love, for self-expression, the play says fully come into yourself, fully express yourself, and that is its message, move away from pieties, move away from repression, go out into the wood and embrace your own wildness.”
Sadly for Pegeen Mike, when she falls under the spell of the Playboy when she experiences that sense of freedom, she is betrayed, because of course, the Playboy isn’t who or what he says he is. He opened up her life, he opened up her heart but it was a lie and Synge is quick to point out that there are limits to what we can do, that we limit our dreams so that we can survive and that there is a cost to that degree of liberation.
In life, there is a constant struggle between so-called civilization and a wildness and like everything, the answer is in finding a balance between the two.
When the play first appeared in 1907, there were riots due ostensibly to the line in the play about “a drift of females standing in their shifts” although political forces were at play too.
There won’t be any riots outside the Lyric, we have moved on in our attitude to women’s undergarments if not to the politics – but there was the possibility that we have moved so far away from the Mayo of a century ago that, like in the play itself, the lure of the Playboy will have become illusory but having seen the production last week, I can safely say that, due to some great acting, a wonderfully evocative set and the gusto of Conall’s direction that there still is a point to The Playboy of the Western World in these celebrity-ridden, uncertain times.
The Playboy of the Western World is currently running at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast until 07 October 2012. You can book online at lyrictheatre.co.uk/book_tickets or telephone 028 9038 1081 (Monday to Saturday, 10am to 5pm) or by calling in person at the Lyric Theatre Box Office, 55 Ridgeway Street, Belfast, BT9 5FB (open Monday to Saturday, 10am to 5pm)
By the way, you can read the full text of The Playboy of the Western World at www.gutenberg.org/files/1240/1240-h/1240-h.htm