Happy Birthday, John Millington Synge

Today is the birthday of Irish playwright John Millington Synge – born on this day in 1871. He was author of The Playboy of the Western World, Riders to the Sea, and more – not to mention his wonderful book about his time on the Aran Islands, called, coincidentally, The Aran Islands. Playboy is now in the history books, not only for being a wonderful play, and part of the theatrical revolution going on in Ireland at the time (the creation of the Abbey Theatre, etc.) – but also because of the riots that broke out when it opened (they are now known as “The Playboy Riots”). Things got so out of hand that a police squad had to stand along the edge of the stage during the performance, so that the actors wouldn’t get hurt or mobbed. If I had a time machine, I would LOVE to go back and be there on the opening night of that play.

Synge wrote:

Ireland, for a few years more, we have a popular imagination that is fiery and magnificent, and tender; so that those of us who wish to write start with a chance that is not given to writers in places where the springtime of the local life has been forgotten, and the harvest is a memory only, and the straw has been turned into bricks.

Synge’s time out on the Aran Islands, off the wild west coast of Ireland, gave him the nuggets of inspiration for many of his plays. Out there the “native language” was still spoken, out there he could encounter the real Ireland.

Synge had spent a lot of time in Europe, taking courses in French literature, immersing himself in different cultures, reading Baudelaire, writing poems, chasing girls … You know, all La Boheme stuff. He remained interested in his own country, his own heritage – but there wasn’t really a place for him there. (Interesting: NOW it’s hard to imagine Ireland without Synge, but he had to TAKE that ground, he had to claim it – it didn’t exist before he came along.) Yeats’ whole nationalistic literary (and theatrical) movement (in broader terms – the Irish literary revival) drew Synge back to his home country – the Abbey Theatre was formed – things were HAPPENING in Ireland. In retrospect, it all seems inevitable. Of course Synge would not only come back to be part of that movement, but he would end up defining that movement.

Yeats gave Synge a piece of now legendary advice (and this is a direct quote):

Give up Paris, you will never create anything by reading Racine, and Arthur Symons will always be a better critic of French literature. Go to the Arran Islands. Live there as if you were one of the people themselves; express a life that has never found expression.

In the middle of what was, essentially, an Irish cultural revival, Yeats (having been out to the Aran Islands) recognized that there was something untouched out there, a primitive life, Irish language still spoken, the culture not corrupted. Yet. It was a race against time.

The leaders of the cultural movement in Ireland at that time all had the same idea: Inspiration lay in the West of Ireland. Go west. Go west to find the real Ireland. (Interesting, to think of the final paragraphs of Joyce’s The Dead (excerpt here).

So Synge took Yeats’ advice and went west.

The story of his four trips out to the Islands make up his book The Aran Islands, a wonderful rich travelogue, a classic of the genre. I highly recommend it!! He sits around turf fires with the various storytellers, and listens, and writes the folktales and anecdotes down later. These stories contain the germs of Playboy, the germs of Shadow of the Glen, the germs of Riders. Yeats was right. With all of Yeats’ airy-fairy Celtic frippery, he understood that a powerful culture lay beneath the surface, a culture that had never been shown to the world, never been expressed.

Not surprising, then, that Playboy of the Western World would cause such an uproar.

Here is an excerpt from Máire Nic Shiubhlaigh’s marvelous book The Splendid Years: Recollections of Máire Shiubhlaigh as told to Edwa, which is the story of the Irish National Theatre. Máire was an actress, highly involved with the cultural revival of the time, and a member of the Abbey Theatre. Her memories of Synge (and also her memories of the “Playboy riots”) are fascinating. Here she speaks of Synge:

John M. Synge who came to us with his play direct from the Aran Islands, where the material for most of his later works was gathered, was born near Dublin in 1871, graduated at Trinity College, and shortly afterwards left Ireland for the Continent, living alternately in Germany and France, where he made a rather precarious livelihood as a violinist and contributor to literary magazines. Yeats had discovered him in Paris in about 1897 and, recognizing the quality of his writings, had brought him back to Ireland, where he introduced him to Aran, prophesying that in the beautiful lyrical prose of the western peasant he would find an original vehicle for dramatic composition. He was right. Synge went to Aran for a month, and stayed there, on and off, for a matter of years. He drew his inspiration from the hearths of the tiny whitewashed cabins and the harsh rocks of the western seaboard, gathering tales and expressions from the old and the young of the most picturesque portion of Ireland. In a short life — he died at the early age of 38 — he wove them into sombre dramatic tapestries, embroidered with the rhythmic language of the Irish peasant. His prose, highly musical and enriched with flashes of the most beautiful poetry, he devised simly by transcribing direct from the Gaelic of the islands. It is most difficult for an actor to master; most effective if delivered correctly.

She’s got that right. I did a scene from Playboy in a class in graduate school, and while my scene partner and I had a hell of a lot of fun working on it, it was DAMN difficult to get that language right. Not just the language, but the rhythm, the tone. It doesn’t matter if you get the words all correct, and remember all your lines, if you say them in the wrong rhythm. Rhythm is everything.

Back to Synge.

He was a gentle fellow, shy, with that deep sense of humour that is sometimes found in the quietest people. His bulky figure and heavy black moustache gave him a rather austere appearance — an impression quickly dispelled when he spoke. His voice was mellow, low; he seldom raised it. But for his quiet personality he might have passed unnoticed at any gathering. During rehearsals of his play, he would sit quietly in the background, endlessly rolling cigarettes. This was a typical gesture, born more of habit than of any desire for tobacco — he gave away more cigarettes than he smoked. At the first opportunity, he would lever his huge frame out of a chair and come up on to the stage, a half-rolled cigarette in eaach hand. Then he would look enquiringly round and thrust the little paper cylinders forward towards whoever was going to smoke them. In later years he became the terror of fire-conscious Abbey stage-managers. He used to sit timidly in the wings during plays, rolling cigarettes and handing them to the players as they made their exits.

He didn’t set out to revolutionize Irish theatre. He didn’t set out to be a genius, or to write great plays. He just wrote down what he knew. That was the ONLY way this guy could write. And it turned everything upside down.

Here is Máire’s description of some of the objections to Shadow, just to give you an idea of what was going on, and to also set the stage for the “Playboy riots”. Synge was, indeed, ahead of his time. The world is rarely kind to those born ahead of their time.

The piece was “un-Irish” wrote some reviewers, an “insult” in fact to the peasant women of Ireland whom Nora Burke was taken to typify. There was an immense verbal furore about it. A number of writers claiming that Synge was slyly attacking the institution known as the “made marriage”, and attributing it solely to Ireland, raised all sorts of objections. Others wrote of the character of Nora Burke: “Nora Burke is a lie”. Of the play they said: “It is no more Irish than the Decameron. It is a staging of the old-world libel on womankind — the Widow of Ephesus.”

Now, I do not propose to analyse the extraordinary attitude adopted towards the play. Indeed, the attacks were launched so suddenly that few of us were even able to gather what they were all about. Perhaps it was that the Irish play-going public of that time was so used to the “genteel” comedy of the established theatre which I mentioned earlier — the entertaining but not very realistic stuff that was time and again put before it — that it couldn’t swallow a credible satire. In those days if an actress played an unpleasant part, then it followed that she was an unpleasant person. Similarly, if a dramatist wrote a nasty play he was a nasty fellow. Then, of course, there was the fact that Ireland was on the threshold of a renaissance. Everybody, writer, politician, artist, was at pains to eulogise over the beauty of the Irish character. The advent of a comparatively unknown writer who painted an unpleasant if realistic picture of the peasantry at such a time was, to say the least, unwelcome. The Dubliners who raised the loudest objections could not accept In the Shadow of the Glen as a play. They refused to be entertained.

In 1907, the Abbey Theatre produced Playboy of the Western World. Máire, who was there, writes:

The “Playboy Riots”, as they came to be known, indicate very clearly some of the difficulties that the Abbey was called upon to face during its first years — and they show how the theatre, under Yeats, managed to surmount them. When this play is produced in Dublin now it is recognised and enjoyed as a work of art. In 1907 it drove a number of people into such a frenzy that they nearly wrecked the Abbey. I am in rather a good position to describe the riots because I was in the audience during some of them. Curiosity had taken me into the theatre, as it had taken many another person that week.

It was about the end of 1906 that Synge finished the Playboy … Yeats later mentioned that Synge took considerable trouble over the piece and scrapped a number of earlier versions before he fixed on the one which was eventually produced…Yeats never tired of recounting the care which Synge lavished on the piece. This, indeed, may have been indirectly responsible for the reception accorded the play by some sections of the public, whose main argument against it was that it was “a slander on the peasantry of Ireland”. As in the case of The Shadow of the Glen, its realism gave offence. The only differnce between it and any other play that did not take was that the public, instead of showing its lack of interest in the accepted way — by its non-attendance — displayed its disapproval by rioting in the theatre throughout the play’s run. The most unusual feature of the affair was that although the players appeared on the stage and acted their parts for a whole week, the uproar caused by the audience was so great that the play was never really heard on any night but the first, and those who took part in the demonstrations on subsequent occasions were dependent on opinions of the firstnight audience and a few rather hysterical newspaper reports. As the week progressed, the trouble instead of lessening, increased, and before the run of the play was half over, the management felt compelled to call for the assistance of the police to preserve order.

The explanations put forward by the rioters during the week were many and varied and it is worth remarking that no two people appeared to base their objections on exactly the same thing. Some objected to the piece because “it made a hero out of a murderer” (the play deals in part with the welcome accorded by a West of Ireland village to a weak-willed boy who believes he has just killed his father); others claimed that the language used was too strong; more contented themselves by saying that the play was “vicious, untrue, and uncalled for” — a “hideous caricature” in fact; while a considerable number based their objections on the assumption that the piece was a deliberate attack by Synge on Ireland in retaliation for the manner in which The Shadow of the Glen and The Well of the Saints had been received.

(All of this makes me think of what Joyce said, when it became apparent that no Irish publisher would go near The Dubliners and he would have to look outside his own country for a publisher: “It is not my fault that the odour of ashpits and old weeds and offal hangs round my stories. I seriously believe that you will retard the course of civilization in Ireland by preventing the Irish people from having one good look at themselves in my nicely polished looking-glass.”

Máire describes what it was like in the theatre, on the opening night of Playboy of the Western World, January 26, 1907.

The first act went well. There was laughter at the right places and the correct degree of solemnity was maintained when it was demanded. But during the second act I began to feel a tenseness in the air around me — I was sitting in the pit — and there were murmurs from the stalls and parts of the gallery. Before the curtain fell it was obvious that there was going to be some sort of trouble. Faint calls and ejaculations like “Oh, no! Take it off!” came from various parts of the house and the atmosphere gradually grew taut. In the third act things really came to a head and those around began to stamp the floor and shout towards the stage, the noise gradually increasing until the voices of the players were drowned. People stood up in their seats and demanded the withdrawal of the play, and when it became clear that the cast was determined to see the thing out to the end, tempers began to fray. The auditorium became a mass of people pulling and pushing in all directions. By the time the curtain fell on the last act, the crowd was arguing and fighting with itself. People in front leaned over the back of seats and demanded quiet — a lot of people seemed to be doing this — and those at the back responded by shouting and hissing loudly. The crowd which eventually emerged into the street was in an ugly mood.

Despite vicious and hysterical reviews the play went on. One of the objections was that the word “shift” appeared in the play (meaning: “chemise”, or “slip”, whatever you want to call it). Christy – the lead character in the play – says – in what is now acknowledged to be a fine piece of dramatic literature, and one of the classic monologues of the stage: “It’s Pegeen I’m seeking only, and what’d I care if you brought me a drift of chosen females, standing in their shifts itself, maybe, from this place to the eastern world?” This was seen as a shock and an outrage.

The Press and the public called for the play to be closed, the hysteria mounted, but the Abbey refused to capitulate. Obviously, Synge had struck a nerve. But things were getting out of hand, it was a violent atmosphere in the audience … and so Yeats tried to quell this fire. Máire describes:

On the third night Yeats addressed the audience before the curtain rose. If anyone had anything to say against the piece they would be welcomed at a debate which he would be glad to arrange in the theatre at some other time. He was interrupted several times. He asked the interrupters to at least listen to the play so that they would know what it was they were objecting to.

It is just like those idiots who protested Scorsese’s Last Temptation without even seeing it. I have no patience and no tolerance for people like that. I’m pretty open-minded, you know “live and let live”, but everyone has their limits, everyone has their thing that they cannot endure – and I cannot bear people like that. I don’t want to listen, or try to “understand where they’re coming from”. That’s the thing. I DO understand where they are coming from, and that is why I have contempt for them. My contempt comes directly FROM understanding. Their sense of themselves is so fragile that it’s a house of cards. Even the fact that Scorsese’s movie EXISTED threatened their entire world view. Fine. Go home then and read only the Bible and close the blinds and don’t let the big bad nasty world touch your precious house of cards, and let those of us who actually want to SEE the movie decide for ourselves.

Such people have always existed. Their complaints are always the same. As a matter of fact, without the idiots, there would have been no such thing as “The Playboy Riots” – which catapulted Irish theatre onto an international stage. So I suppose we should be grateful in a way! Nothing like someone screaming, “NO ONE SHOULD SEE THIS” to make something into a big giant hit.

Back to the Playboy Riots:

As on the first night, the opening passages were listened to quietly, and even evoked a little laughter. Halfway through the second act, however, a murmur arose in the pit and a man a few rows away stood up and, without any apparent reason, hit the person beside him. A gasp ran around the whole house and the lights went up. All around him the crowd was breaking into disorder.

Within minutes, the audience in the pit and stalls was completely disorganised, and the crowd in thte back and side galleries was almost as bad. Almost everyone was standing. The noise was deafening. Yeats appeared on the stage and pleaded with the sensible members of the audience to remain quiet. His voice was drowned by catcalls, cheers, much stamping of feet, and from somewhere at the back ,the notes of a toy trumpet which came from the centre of a group of young men who looked like university students. He continued to speak, but his words were apparently objected to by those in front, for a howl of protest went up from the stalls and parts of the side gallery, which increased in volume as those behind joined in or tried to cheer the protest down. On the stage the players stood in little knots, discussing the occurrences amongst themselves.

As the noise increased and several arguments broke out around the theatre, Yeats left his place on the stage. A few minutes later the doors into the auditorium opened and to the horror and surprise of most of those present, a body of police entered. At the same time the curtain came down and a semblance of order was restored — partly due to the sight of the uniforms …

After a brief speech by Yeats, and the ejection of the more truculent members of the audience, peace was partially restored, and everyone sat down again. At this stage it would have been impossible for anyone to get out. After everyone had been quietened and the greater part of the audience reseated, it would have been dangerous for anyone to stand up. Those who did so were immediately surrounded by hefty policement and shepherded, not too gently, in the direction of the vestibule.

Meanwhile, the orchestra, a recent addition to the theatre, began to play. The music seemed to help matters somewhat, and things almost returned to what they were before the play began. There was much discussion and gesticulation going on however. The affair was still far from settled.

After some time the orchestra retired, the lights were lowered and the curtain went up. Almost immediately the audience reverted to what it had been before the arrival of the police. Not a word of the play could be heard. The cast eventually gave up speaking altogether and went through the piece in pantomime. [Note from Sheila: God, I wish I had been there to see this. It must have been extraordinary.] As the play progressed the noise increased. Men and women stamped the floor, banged the backs of their seats with their fists, shouted and sang alternately. On the stairs from the stalls a man stood, dramatically addressing no one in particular.

The players courageously went through the whole piece. During this time several arrests were made and the police were kept busy operating between the doors and the hall. Just before the play ended I saw an opportunity to escape and took it. Almost everyone in the row where I had been sitting had vanished. I was able to make a dash for the door at the rear of the pit while the police were busy in the front of the house. My last impression of the scene was the sight of a figure standing on a seat somewhere about the centre of the stalls and the sound of a few bars of God Save the King, which were quickly stifled as someone pulled the singer down.

Amazing. The play continued to be performed, and continued to generate riots and protests, garnering the attention of the world. “What is going on over in Ireland right now? What exactly are they protesting??”

Synge died an early death, in 1909, but he left an indelible mark – not only on Ireland, but on theatre as a whole.

I’ll end this post now, with a quote from Synge’s beautiful book The Aran Islands (and I will post a photo, too, of Synge staring out into the Atlantic, from one of the Islands).

In the following excerpt, he describes leaving the Arans after a couple months’ stay … and returning to the bustle of Galway:

I have come out of an hotel full of tourists and commercial travellers, to stroll along the edge of Galway Bay, and look out in the direction of the islands. The sort of yearning I feel towards those lonely rocks is indescribably acute. This town, that is usually so full of wild human interest, seems in my present mood a tawdry medley of all that is crudest in modern life. The nullity of the rich and the squalor of the poor give me the same pang of wondering disgust; yet the islands are fading already and I can hardly realize that the smell of the seaweed and the drone of the Atlantic are still moving round them.

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