How 110-year-old Playboy caused a riot

On January 26th, 1907, Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World premiered at the Abbey, ending in a riot. A major new online exhibition tells its story

What does everybody know about The Playboy of the Western World? It caused riots when premiered in the Abbey Theatre on January 26th, 1907, just 110 years ago. And you can hear an audio version of what those riots might have sounded like as the climax of this online exhibition playing over the computer-generated visualisation of the interior of the old Abbey, a project designed by Hugh Denard and created by Noho. But where did that event come from? How did JM Synge come to write that explosive play? That is the journey of The Playboy that this exhibition puts up online for everyone to follow.

The story begins with the first meeting of Synge with WB Yeats in Paris, recorded in Synge’s diary entry for December 21st, 1896 in characteristically laconic form – and in French: “Fait la connaissance de W.B. Yeates” (Spelling was never Synge’s strong point though he was not as extravagantly dyslectic as Yeats himself.)

Whether or not Yeats gave Synge the dramatic advice at this point – “Go to the Aran Islands. Live there as if you were one of the people themselves” – Synge did go to Aran in May 1898 and there heard the story of the man who killed his father sheltered by the islanders, which gave him the germ of the play. But that germ took time to germinate, and Synge visited other parts of the country in that time.

After regular visits to Aran over five years, west Kerry became his favourite summer destination, staying at the home of Philly and Margaret Harris in Mountain Stage, west Kerry. It was there he picked up phrases later used in The Playboy. “Woman suckles lamb in which doctor detects elements of a Christian in Cahirciveen,” he noted down in his notebook.


This becomes one of Pegeen’s more lurid insults hurled against her rival Widow Quin: “Doesn’t the world know you suckled a black ram at your own breast, so that the Lord Bishop of Connaught felt the elements of a Christian and he eating it after in a kidney stew?”

It was in north Mayo, however, that Synge found the setting for his play, on the Belmullet peninsula where he travelled in July 1905 on a journalistic assignment, with Jack B Yeats contributing pen and ink drawings to his articles. And it is here, having walked “wild eleven days” all the way up from Kerry (presumably), that Christy Mahon finds himself the surprise hero of the local community. In the first scenario, the play was entitled “The Murderer: a Farce” and it was the farcical comedy of situation that was to be highlighted, Christy “killing” his father in a potato field, lionised in Mayo until his undead father returns to deflate him once again.

However, over the two and a half years that the play took to create and the multiple versions amounting to almost 1,000 pages of manuscript, Synge’s conception of his work kept developing. He played around with different titles: “Murder Will Out”, “The Fool of the Family” before coming up with the brilliantly resonant Playboy of the Western World. He considered framing the play with a ballad-singer who would perpetuate the legend of Christy’s father-killing even when it had been exposed as a lie. In this version, Shawn Keogh ends up in the ascendant. He remained uncertain how the play should end. In one version, Christy marries Widow Quin and Pegeen is left desolate with a version of her famous last line.

What sort of hero is the playboy of the western world that Pegeen laments losing? The richness of the characterisation of Christy means that there are many different ways of playing the part. From what we can make out Willie Fay who created the role in 1907, a short comic actor of 35 at the time, must have been pretty much of an anti-hero. And similarly Maeliosa Stafford, cowering under the violent hands of the towering Mick Lally as Old Mahon, in the 1982-83 Druid production is hardly a heroic figure. Whereas Cillian Murphy, playing Christy again for Druid in 2004, with those devastating blue eyes, would have melted any woman’s heart, whether he had or hadn’t killed his father.

There are similar possibilities with the other characters also. Widow Quin was originally Susan, just another of the young girls who come by to ogle Christy and swoon at the story of his father-killing achievement, before she developed into the canny, worldly-wise older widow woman who “has buried her children and destroyed her man”. But that change can be reversed, as it was when a youthful Marie Mullen played the part in 1982 as an attractive rival to Bríd Brennan’s Pegeen. Brennan, however, on her side brought out the innocence and vulnerability of Pegeen, rather than the harsh virago that she has sometime been made to seem.

“There are, it may be hinted, several sides to The Playboy”, Synge wrote in a very cautious letter to The Irish Times in the wake of the riots. Indeed there were, as he himself was very aware in the late stages of drafting the play. We can see this in the scene analysis he drew up as a guide to the changing mode of The Playboy. Here he is analysing the structure of the play for the purposes of revision, each scene having its “current” or line of dramatic action, while in the right-hand column the genre – “comedy”, “drama”, “Molierean climax of farce” – and style – “Poetical”, “Rabelaisian” – are noted. This is a playwright very self-consciously crafting an experimental mixed style of modernist drama.

And how did he react to the row his great play provoked? The day after, he wrote to his fiancée Molly Allgood who, acting under her stage name of Maire O’Neill, had created the part of Pegeen Mike, just weeks after her 21st birthday. “It is better any day to have the row we had last night, than to have your play fizzling out in half-hearted applause. Now we’ll be talked about. We’re an event in the history of the Irish stage”. They were and 110 years on, they still are.