Famously WB Yeats was giving a lecture in Aberdeen on Saturday evening January 26 1907, the opening night of the Playboy of the Western World at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. Just before his lecture started he received a telegraph from Lady Gregory to say the first act was well received.
Yeats was the guest of the Scottish literary scholar Professor Herbert Grierson, and stayed with the Griersons that night. He was awoken in the small hours of the morning by the arrival of a second telegraph from Lady Gregory: ‘Audience broke up in disorder at the word ‘shift’’.
Even before John M Synge’s play was first performed, there were doubts among the cast on the use of some words, and the harshness of the lead female character Pegeen Mike. Changes were made here and there, but the essential storyline was kept.
Yeats loved the Playboy. While his own plays were very good, and had gone down well, they did not set the world on fire. He believed that Synge’s play was genius, written in wild and beautiful language, and was exactly the incendiary message the Abbey needed to send out to the world.
Synge was a different playwright to WB Yeats and Lady Gregory. Whereas they had skilfully explored Celtic dreams and folk stories for their revival of Irish literature, Synge looked hard at the reality of life among the Irish Catholic peasant, and presented it using, to powerful effect, their English speech still with its Gaelic syntax.
In his small, but brilliant library of plays and writings, two of his plays had already caused particular interest. Riders to the Sea was universally admired for its depiction of a small island community off the West of Ireland, caught in the hopeless struggle against the cruelty of the sea.
But in The Shadow of the Glen, where a strong, young woman caught in a loveless marriage, is tricked by her husband into revealing her true feelings, she walks away from their life together.
It was greeted with scorn by the nationalist community, whose voice was becoming more influential at the time. Arthur Griffiths, founder of Sinn Féin, and editor of The United Irishman, wrote that the play ‘was a slur on Irish womanhood.’
The Mad Mulrannies
Synge’s Playboy is about a young woman with a fiery temper, who in the most unlikely of circumstances, lets the man who wins her heart walk in and out of her life. She bitterly laments her future loneliness.
It evolves from a gentle beginning. A Rabelaisian Pegeen Mike is minding her father’s pub in a small village in Co Mayo when a young man, who was heard ‘groaning wicked like a maddening dog’, some time previously, comes in. It is revealed that he killed his father, who had given him a miserable and a lonely life, and had run away.
In a village where the only people you were likely to meet were ‘Red Linahan, has a squint in his eye, and Pacheen is lame in his heel, or the mad Mulrannies were driven from California and they lost their wits’, young Christy Mahon was a breath of fresh air. Such a daring lad to have killed his father was greeted by Pegeen Mike and the village girls, and some drunken men, as a hero. The more he told his 'gallous' story the more he exaggerated the deed, and the more the wonder grew.
After an evening of love-talk, and planning a life together, Christy and Pegeen are totally in love. The Widow Quinn tries to tempt him from her, but he swears that even if she offered him ‘a drift of chosen females, standing in their shifts itself’, he would only want Pegeen.
To everyone’s bewilderment Christy’s father turns up with a bloody bandage. There is more confusion and more blows during which Pegeen Mike, disillusioned and angry at being deceived, scalds Christy’s foot with a burning turf, as he desperately clings to the furniture to avoid being hanged for his crime. The villagers have now turned savage.
Even a second blow fails to kill his father. Again he reappears more battered and blooded. There is a moment of hiatus, and we are wondering if the romance between Christy and Pegeen can be rekindled. But this time, however, Christy becomes the man events have made him. He tells the villagers: ‘Shut yer yelling for if you’re after making a mighty man of me this day by the power of a lie, you’re setting me out now to think if it’s a poor thing to be lonesome, it’s worst maybe to go mixing with the fools of earth.’
Ignoring Pegeen he leaves with his father, as she watches them ‘crossing the strands’ below. She is left destitute.
Lady Gregory was right to say the first act had gone down well. The audience enjoyed the comedy of the opening scenes, and laughed as church and law were banished from a world eager for a hero. But at the word ‘shift’ (a woman’s undergarment ) it erupted. Yeats, who appeared on the second night, and anxious to champion the rights of the author and artist, exacerbated matters by calling the police. To the delight of Dublin’s literary circle, and to the amazement of much of the world, the riots continued for a week, and the play continued as a dumb show.
But the criticisms from the nationalists were much more serious. Arthur Griffith again succinctly summarised the plot as a story of ‘unnatural murder and unnatural lust….a vile and inhuman story told in the foulest language we have ever listened to from a public platform’.
Padraic Pearse thundered through the columns of An Claidheamh Solius: ‘a play to be left severely alone by all who did not care to listen to it…The Anglo Irish dramatic movement has now been in existence for 10 years. Its net result has been the spoiling of a noble poet in Mr Yeats, and the generation of a sort of Evil Spirit in the shape of M J Synge’.
Joseph Holloway, an indefatigable chronicler of the national theatre, returned every night to shout his denunciations, wrote: ‘…and as to the plot it was too absurd for words. The influence of Gorky must be upon him…* (Synge ) is the dramatist of the dungheap’!
Five years later Lady Gregory led the Abbey Theatre’s first tour to America. The words of the Dublin nationalists had found fertile ground among the powerful Irish American societies, and would present her with some of the greatest challenges of her eventful life.
Next week: The Abbey American tour 1911, and its reception.
NOTES: * Synge enjoyed long walking tours in Wicklow, Kerry and Connemara, and lived on the Aran Islands for six summers. When criticised for the extravagant use of language in the Playboy, he insisted that with the exception of one or two words, the rest he heard directly from the Irish peasant.
He also lived for a period in Paris, and absorbed the literature of the continent, which undoubtedly influenced his stories. Maxim Gorky was a revolutionary Russian writer, a loyal friend of the Bolsheviks.
As for the word ‘shift’ Synge pointed out that it was used without offence in Love Songs of Connacht, edited by the President of the Gaelic League, Douglas Hyde.
Correction: I am reliably informed Ashford Castle is in Co Galway.