In 1904 the Great Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw used a character in his new play John Bull’s Other Island to comment on his fellow Irishmen’s character:
Oh, the dreaming! the dreaming! the torturing, heart scalding, never satisfying dreaming, dreaming, dreaming, dreaming! [Savagely] No debauchery that ever coarsened and brutalized an Englishman can take the worth and usefulness out of him like that dreaming. An Irishman’s imagination never lets him alone, never convinces him, never satisfies him; but it makes him that he can’t face reality nor deal with it nor handle it nor conquer it: he can only sneer at them that do… It’s all dreaming, all imagination. He can’t be religious. The inspired Churchman that teaches him the sanctity of life and the importance of conduct is sent away empty; while the poor village priest that gives him a miracle or a sentimental story of a saint, has cathedrals built for him out of the pennies of the poor. He can’t be intelligently political; he dreams of what the Shan Van Vocht said in ninety- eight. If you want to interest him in Ireland you’ve got to call the unfortunate island Kathleen ni Hoolihan and pretend she’s a little old woman. It saves thinking. It saves working. It saves everything except imagination, imagination, imagination; and imagination’s such a torture that you can’t bear it without whisky. At last you get that you can bear nothing real at all: you’d rather starve than cook a meal; you’d rather go shabby and dirty than set your mind to take care of your clothes and wash yourself; you nag and squabble at home because your wife isn’t an angel, and she despises you because you’re not a hero; and you hate the whole lot round you because they’re only poor slovenly useless devils like yourself. And all the while there goes on a horrible, senseless, mischievous laughter.”[i]
Shaw merely wrote about the Irish disposition. John Millington Synge, however, dramatized it in his masterpiece The Playboy of the Western World.
In County Mayo, the term “western world” did not refer to Western Civilization, but rather to that part of Ireland distinct from the eastern world. And by using the world “playboy, Synge did not imply a Gaelic Hugh Heffner, but rather chose a term from Irish hurling , similar to our sports term “playmaker”.
Nevertheless, regardless of the meanings, at first, the locals were not pleased with the play.
When it premiered in 1907, about forty local youths, sitting in the front rows, strenuously objected to the unromanticized, satiric portrayal they saw on the stage. Stomping, shouting and blowing trumpets, they were stirred by Arthur Griffith (1871-1922) the extreme Nationalist editor of the United Irishman seeking to turn every occasion into a political rally.
In time the play was seen as the playwright intended – as a loving tribute to his people, based on phrases he heard “through a chink in the floor of the old house where I was staying, that let me hear what was being said by the servant girls in the kitchen.”
Synge maintained that ‘an old man on the Aran Islands told me the very tale on which “The Playboy” is founded, beginning with the word, “If any gentleman has done a crime we’ll hide him. There was a gentle man that killed his father, and I had him in my own house six months till he got away to America.”[ii]
H.L. Mencken believed that the play was written in “a dialect that stands incomparably above the tight English of the grammarians – a dialect so naif, so pliant, so expressive, and adeptly managed, so beautiful that even purists have begun to succumb to it.”[iii]
The lyrical language bubbles amid the stew of Hibernian peasant violence, sexuality, and humor. Eric Bentley believed that the playwright, “despite his own remarks, seems to have invented an Irish dialect which no Irishman ever spoke. If he is a naturalistic playwright, the Naturalism contains a delightful element of blarney.”[iv]
At its core Synge’s play has a classical foundation. The situation is a farcical parody of that of Oedipus Rex. With Synge, however, the hero is not a king, but rather a farcical alazon, an imposter, pretending to be more than he is. Northrop Frye calls Christy an Irish miles gloriosus, a braggart.[v]
The Playboy of the Western World recounts the humorous take of a “spiritual rebirth”, in the words of Albert Bermel.[vi] Timid young Christy Mahon believes he has killed his father – a tough domineering old peasant with a shovel blow to the head, because “it was a bitter life he led me till I did up a Tuesday and halve his skull.” The Mayo village – where Christy hides from the police -the Peelers – welcomes him as the Thebans did Oedipus.
He heads to the local “shebeen” -Irish for low pothouse- where he encounters Pegeen Mike, the lively daughter of the shebeener, Michael James, about to be forcibly married to Shawn Keogh. Shawn represents the “average shoneen, a striking example of the hopeless condition to which rural Ireland is being gradually reduced by emigration which, drawing all the good elements away to foreign parts, acts as an inverted form of natural selection resulting in the survival of the unfittest. He is an exceedingly prudish, pusillanimous, spiritless bumpkin, weakly in body and mind, who has a farm and cattle, but no intelligence, character, or vice, and whose one outstanding trait is a maddening terror of father Reilly.”[vii]
Compared to the wimpy young men in the village, Christy is a heroic sort. He has done something remarkable with savagery and romance, because his father would have him marry a girl he hates. This has obvious appeal to Pegeen. The village girls see him as quite the catch, and set about competing for him, until his father shows up.
Christy brains him on the head once again, but to no avail. The disappointed villagers, seeing that attempted murder is no way as admirable as they had thought, turn on Christy. Pegeen Mike summarizes the disappointment, “ There is a great gap between a gallous story and a dirty deed.” They tie him up and torture him, even his recently won fiancé, Pegeen Mike, angry that her hero now seems no better that her old fiancé, the weakling Shawn Keogh, burns his leg and tortures him.
Christy’s father rescues him from the townspeople and the father and son leave reconciled. Pegeen Mike has regrets about the way things have turned out: “Oh, my grief, I’ve lost him surely. I’ve lost the only playboy of the Western world.”[viii]
The first production of the classic comedy was seen in Chicago not long after the first production at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre. On April 11,1909, the students of the American Conservatory School of Acting presented the comedy at the Illinois Theatre.
Three years later the Abbey Theatre itself arrived in Chicago to present The Playboy of the Western World on a double bill with Synge’s Kathleen-ni-Houlihan at the Grand Opera House at 546 N. Clark Street (119 N. Clark Street today). Sarah Allgood played the Widow Quin, Eithne Magee played Pegeen Mike, Fred O’Donavan the Playboy Christy Mahon, and Sidney J. Morgan Old Mahon. The Chicago “swells” were out in full force, including Mrs. Harold F. McCormick, Mr. and Mrs. Cyrus McCormick, Mrs. Samuel Insull, Mrs. W.C. Pullman, Mr. and Mrs. Potter Palmer, Junior. Critic Percy Hammond weighed in in his own inimical manner:
The Playboy of the Western World will, no doubt, be regarded as an enjoyably unusual and different comedy, though not the masterpiece its traducers would have us believe. Everyone has read it, or parts of it, like the mayor, and has found it stupid or inspiring, the divergence of opinion being much like that about Scotch whiskey. One likes it or one likes it not, according to one’s taste and disposition. To me it is the real acting, because, strictly speaking, it is not “acting”. There is charm in the naivete of their method; they merely come and go, speak and deport themselves, in quick, soft “matter-of-fact undertones”, as if they were living their play, rather than giving a performance of it. They seem to be so much themselves.”[ix]
Every so often major revivals of Synge’s play have graced Chicago’s stages. In 1933 the Abbey Theatre itself played the play at the Harris Theater. Arthur Shields, later famous as a John Ford film actor, played Christy Mahon, Eileen Crowe his would-be bride Pegeen Mike, and Barry Fitzgerald, her father the bar keep. Critic Charles Collins found that “the new generation of Irish players could interpret Synge’s rich folk idiom and mellow fantasy as ably as their forerunners.”[x]
Chicago’s own Body Politic Theatre offered the play in 1983 with James O’Reilly acting and directing. Richard Christensen noted that “Tom Amandes and Mary Ernster are precisely the beautiful, wild young things that Pegeen Mike and Christy should be. Their Irish accents are not always as musical as they might be, but they play with immense zest and grand charm”[xi]
Douglas Hughes brought his production of The Playboy of the Western World to the Steppenwolf Theatre in 1998 prior to taking it to the Long Wharf Theatre. Richard Christiansen found it a mixed bag:
“Some of what you hear at Steppenwolf sound like the worst kind of stage Irish, with overplayed, manufactured brogues. But Jim True as Christy McMahon and Martha Plimpton as Pegeen Mike, the vibrant young woman he loves, Have the real thing in their delivery. Their scenes together pulse with the humor and vitality of Synge’s writing.”[xii]
In 2004 The Abbey Theatre returned to Chicago to present Playboy once again, this time at Chicago Shakespeare.. Tribune Critic Michael Phillips was disappointed:
“The supremely harsh satiric comedy by John Millington Synge, premiering at the Abbey to raucous controversy in 1907, is taken here at a dirge like pace. Director Ben Barnes is so nervous about letting theatrical antics and caricatures take over, he steers the material in the opposite direction and then sails clean off the map. The actors, several of them brimming with talent, stand around like waxworks, facing each other in profile, delivering those gorgeously wrought similes and flights of rough-house poetic fancy.”[xiiii
The City Lit production announces its approach to the play with the William Butler Yeats quotation emblazoned on the program’s title page:
“The Irishman sustains himself during brief periods of joy by the knowledge that tragedy is just around the corner.”
Director Brian Pastor has wisely found those moments in the play when tragic despair rears its inevitable head. Those dark notes of the dramatic score give radiance to the moments of ebullient joy. Underneath all the play’s myriad emotion, lurks the madness of ecstasy or hopelessness, which seems to animate the town’s characters. In Pastor’s interpretation Synge’s play becomes a thrilling tapestry of a classic of the world dramatic repertory.
Pastor’s cast is uniformly excellent. Synge’s very difficult dialect has been coached to perfection by Carrie Hardin. So fine is the dialect that it presents no problem with comprehension. Josh Servantez’s interprets Christy as an Irish “Holy Fool” enthralled by devotion to Saint Bridget. He gives the character a wide developmental arc, from terrified outlaw to master of his new domain. Michaela Volt’s Pegeen Mike is delightful as she reluctantly falls for her fool, and breaks our heart as she is forced to let him go at plays end. Only a few problems with enunciation and articulation of final consonants mar her stellar performance. Brandon Beach works hard to find all the redeeming qualities he can in the loser beau Shawn Keogh. Matt Rosin gives Michael Flaherty the appropriate demeanor for a father and barkeep looking out for both property and family. Brenda Wlazo’s Widow Quin is the vehicle through which Pastor finds some darkness in Mayo life. She handles her hopes and frustration s with great plomb. Linsey Falls and Kyle Burch add variety and spice as tavern regulars, while Sophia Vitello, Mary Margaret McCormack, Greta Mae Geiser, and Sara Tansey give the local love-starved girls a variety of ways to flirt and taunt the men they encounter.
Traditionally the last main character to enter a drama is the dominant one and the tradition hold with the performance by Adam Bitterman as Old Mahon. His energy, passion, dreams and fears summarize the spirit of the place and time. He moves brilliantly from recurring victim of a foolish son to heroic savior of his suddenly not-so-foolish son.
The setting and properties by Jeremiah Barr magnificently capture the 1907 place in profound detail. His bar holds religious statues for St. Patrick, St. Bridget, St. Therese of Lisieux, and the Blessed Virgin Mary, and ta portrait of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. A large crucifix hangs above the fireplace. Where holy items are lacking, St. Bridget rushes- symbols of her protection – keep the pub safe from danger. Only the Widow Quin’s stainless steel flask seems out of place in this world.
Liz Cooper’s lighting and kClare McKellaston’s costumes do what fine designs are supposed to do -remain in the background, supporting the characters, place, and action as needed. (Only a few bad wigs stick out as failing to do that.)
Synge’s Playboy of the Western World is a very difficult play to produce well. The City Lit Theater has made it look easy. And that is the final mark of great artistry.
[i] John Bull’s Other Island, in The Complete Works of George Bernard Shaw New York: Barnes and Noble, 2020.
[ii] Yeats, William Butler. Synge and the Ireland of his Time. Ireland: Irish Academic Press, 1970.
[iii] H.L. Mencken. The American Language, New York; Alfred A. Knopf, 1967.
[iv] Eric Bentley, The Life of the Drama
[v] Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1957, p. 39.
[vi] Albert Bermel, Farce. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1900.
[vii] Maurice Bourgeois. John Millington Synge and the Irish Theatre. New York: Benjamin Blom,1913, p. 195.
Chicago Daily Tribune, February 7, 1912, p. 13.
[x] Chicago Daily Tribune, March 3, 1933, p. 17.
[xi] Chicago Tribune, February 24, 1983, p. C2.
[xii] Chicago Tribune, July 13, 1998, p. B1.
[xiii] Chicago Tribune, 30 November 2004, Section 5, page 1
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