It’s amazing to think that literature once caused riots. When John Millington Synge‘s play, The Playboy of the Western World, was performed in January of 1907 in Dublin, riots broke out.
The reasons were complex. It wasn’t just the play itself, but the whole build up of Irish nationalism and various factions that were in the mix at the time. The kindling and the bigger wood were everywhere. All that was needed was the right match. W. B. Yeats, the prime mover for the Abbey Theater, and one of the main forces behind the Irish Renaissance, had pushed hard for a nationalist literary movement for years prior to the riots. He had pushed hard for it but wanted it to be more about literature than politics, and got more than he bargained for.
A young Sinn Fein carried that match. Arthur Griffith’s Sinn Fein. They wanted the plays Yeats and company put on to be far more political and nationalistic in the sense that they portrayed Ireland in a patriotic glow at all times. The Playboy, with its language, its story of a patricide, and its depiction of Irish women in their shifts, was too much for them.
But the language of the play is the remarkable thing. Because Synge and Yeats and other prominent writers of the Irish Renaissance could speak little or no Irish, they tried to compensate by making their English as Irish as possible. Many thought the best way to do that was to listen to the cadence of the Irish peasantry, especially in the west. Synge spent several summers on the Aran Islands collecting folk stories and listening carefully to their dialect. Yeats and Lady Gregory had previously collected folks tales for similar reasons, along with wanting to preserve them for posterity and for the Celtic Twilight. Ironically, neither Synge nor Yeats thought Irish was the proper vehicle for Irish literature. James Joyce, unlike many of his contemporaries, could speak Irish but chose to write in a foreign tongue. Another native speaker, Flann O’Brien, would later write one of his best novels in Irish, An Béal Bocht. More recently, there has been a new renaissance of Irish writers writing in Irish, which is a wonderful sign and a rather obvious evolution.
But, back to the language of the play itself. Here’s the main character, Christy Mahon:
“It’s well you know what call I have. It’s well you know it’s a lonesome thing to be passing small towns with the lights shining sideways when the night is down, or going in strange places with a dog noising before you and a dog noising behind, or drawn to the cities where you’d hear a voice kissing and talking deep love in every shadow of the ditch, and you passing on with an empty, hungry stomach failing from your heart.”
And one of the village girls, Sarah Tansey:
“Drink a health to the wonders of the western world, the pirates, preachers, poteen-makers, with the jobbing jockies; parching peelers, and the juries fill their stomachs selling judgments of the English law.”
The lilt, the rhythm, the flow. It’s poetry and it’s just what Yeats wanted for the Abbey Theater.
Synge was castigated for portraying the Irish peasantry in a bad light, for not idealizing them enough. Later critics thought he idealized them too much. I think they all miss the beauty of the language itself. Missed it for the punches thrown and the chairs smashed. Missed what was right in front of their bloody noses.