Synge's opening night to remember

Dramatic debut: The Playboy and the Tomboy by Thomas Fitzpatrick
from a 1907 issue of the Lepracaun (sic).

Dramatic debut: The Playboy and the Tomboy by Thomas Fitzpatrick from a 1907 issue of the Lepracaun (sic).


With its Woody Allen-type star and girls in shifts, what really happened when 'Playboy' opened 100 years ago today, asks Declan Kiberd.

'Whenever a country produces a man of genius", observed WB Yeats, "he is never like that country's idea of itself."

No better illustration could be found than his friend and fellow director of the Abbey Theatre, John Millington Synge. His masterpiece, The Playboy of the Western World, was hooted from the stage 100 years ago today by irate nationalists. In their view, a national theatre should have been showing a proud, dignified people, ready to accept the responsibilities of self-government. Instead, Synge had written a stage-Irish farce in which Mayo women deify "a man who killed his own father", while the menfolk drink themselves silly at a local wake.

But was there a "riot" - or just a ritualised set of scuffles? Nobody seems to have been seriously hurt during any of the disturbances. So what exactly happened? The play opened on Saturday January 26th, 1907, amid rumours that the womanhood of Ireland would be slandered in the text. Lady Gregory, another Abbey director, secretly disliked the work, but kept her views to herself.

Synge was jumpy and sick with influenza. Yeats was away lecturing in Scotland. The curtain-raiser, Synge's one-act tragedy Riders to the Sea, was warmly applauded; and at the start of The Playboy, despite tension among the actors, things went well enough for Gregory to send a telegram to Yeats: "Play great success".

She wired too soon. Hisses greeted the entry of Christy Mahon's father, revived but with his head covered in a bloody bandage. The hisses erupted into outrage when a defiant Christy said "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?"

The rest of the play was inaudible and Gregory sent a second telegram: "Audiences broke up in disorder at the word shift." The crowd went back into the street in an ugly mood. "Blasphemy" and "blackguardism" were among the more polite terms used by male playgoers who agreed that it was fortunate that they had left their wives at home. But Synge was strangely elated, for he had always held that a writer's first duty might be to insult rather than flatter his people.

It was hugely ironic that Christy's offensive lines were a modest enough remoulding of a great scene in the life of Cúchulain. In that epic, after hostilities, the hero suffered from a kind of "battle rage", which so terrified the men of Ulster that they would not allow him back into Emain Macha. They hit upon the novel solution of sending 30 virgins in serried ranks across the Plain of Macha. Being a bashful Irish lad, say the storytellers, our Cúchulain blushed and bowed his head low at this amazing sight; and "with that his battle-rage left him".

Synge had clad his Mayo maidens demurely in "shifts", probably to appease prudish members of the Abbey audiences - but to no avail. Perhaps he was among the first to discover what Hugh Hefner (also of Playboy notoriety) would later turn into a million-dollar business: that a scantily-clad maiden can be even more inflammatory to the jaded male puritan imagination than one who is wholly naked.

It was, of course, Synge's wider mockery of "Cúchulainoid" heroism which jarred on the nerves of his mostly male audiences. The National Theatre, after all, was supposed to be one of the few liberated spaces in an occupied Ireland; and most of its actors and crew, as well as a large section of its audience, had been drawn from such patriotic societies as the Gaelic League.

Many of these people were committed to the fabrication of male heroism, through plays such as the "Cúchulain Cycle" of Yeats, which would provide a fitting antidote to the triumphant militarism of the British army. But Synge chose to mock the Cúchulain cult in his play, finding in it less spur to heroism than a confession of impotence. Christy, it turns out, is all talk and hasn't killed his father. The actor who played the part was the Woody Allen of the cast, all of five feet and three inches in stature, and often noted in the role of comic buffoon; and it is a mark of the sexual desperation of the Mayo women that they can install such a figure as hunky hero.

No wonder that some men in the audience felt that their very virility was being put into question. After all, the male lead in the play is rather womanly - his tiny feet are fetishised by adoring women who themselves seem far more muscular and macho.

Christy's beloved Pegeen "would knock the heads of any two men in this place" and the widow Quin has already slaughtered her own man. When the village girls catch Christy preening himself in the shedeen mirror, it is as if Synge is inverting that ancient pictorial tradition whereby a male artist placed a mirror in the hand of a naked female (who held it to her face or breasts) and then presumed to titled the painting Vanity. Now, it is Christy who is tokenised as a sex object and toyboy by the village girls. As he holds the mirror shyly behind his back (effectively placing it against his ass), Synge's inversion of gender roles is complete and they giggle "Them that kills their fathers is a vain lot surely."

Psychologists agree that the feeling of masculinity is much less rooted in males than that of femininity in females. Such gender-bending by Synge must have unsettled that audience (Mary Colum, present on the opening night, noted how few women were there). And some men proceeded to vindicate themselves in the time-honoured way by throwing punches or emitting loud roars. The situation was layered in ironies, with the protesters insisting that the Irish were not violent, and then threatening to box anyone who disagreed in order to prove their point.

On Monday January 28th, the Freeman's Journal called the play "an unmitigated, protracted libel"; but the directors held firm and the drama went on to a full house. The police were summoned, but then quietly dismissed. Amid cries in Irish and shouts of "kill the author!", Synge sat motionless. His play was virtually inaudible from start to finish, but Gregory showed her sangfroid by handing out slices of barm-brack to supporters at the interval.

On Tuesday morning, Yeats returned in high dudgeon to denounce the previous evening's "riot". He and Gregory gave free tickets for that night to some "hearties" from TCD, who arrived rather the worse for wear. Yeats made a speech calling for artistic freedom and announcing a debate for the following Monday. But the noise was so great among rival groups that he called the Dublin Metropolitan Police, thereby giving rise to an immortal Dublin couplet:

"Know I would accounted be
True brother of the DMP."

The police were urged by some wits to arrest Christy Mahon but instead arrested protesters, all intellectuals whose names were known to Yeats. Outside the building, the young Sean O'Casey, who couldn't afford the shilling entrance fee but was filled with awe at the proceedings, was pushed back and forth "by Gaelic Leaguers foaming at the mouth". By way of contrast, Wednesday and Thursday were fairly quiet.

In an interview with a reporter for the Evening Mail, Synge described his play as "an extravagance", to be seen less as documentary realism than as semi-abstract art, an account of the psychology of the west. A word like "shift" was used without offence in Love Songs of Connacht (as published by the Gaelic League's President, Douglas Hyde); but then maybe, he darkly hinted, you could take liberties in Irish that were not possible in English.

At the subsequent trials, Piaras Béaslaoi (a writer whom Yeats admired) testified that there was no organised protest - and Patrick Columb (father of the playwrights and poet) insisted that, faced with the TCD claque, the protesters simply wished to record their different view. In the following days, many local councils, especially in the west, passed motions denouncing the Abbey and praising the protesters; but the official policy of the Gaelic League was that the play should have been given a fair hearing. "If you don't like it," said Patrick Pearse, "stop away."

Understandably, parts of the script upset devout Catholics. When Christy says "With the help of God, I killed him surely, and may the Holy Immaculate Mother intercede for his soul", they felt that their faith was being mocked by a contemptuous Protestant gentleman. A modern analogy might be the furore which greeted The Satanic Verses, the 1988 novel in which Salman Rushdie describes the prophet Mohammed consorting with loose women.

But outrage travels much faster in today's electronic world than it did in Synge's time. When he came down to breakfast on the morning after the "riots", his mother did not even deign to mention the newspaper accounts, for she thoroughly disapproved of his entire involvement with theatre.

Had the row occurred in our time, the voices of Gregory, Yeats and the protesters would have been booming over the airwave on Newstalk and Morning Ireland, with a consequent inflammation of feeling on all sides.

When the play was finally staged in the west, audiences were bored rather than annoyed, complaining that you could see such carry-on any day in any shebeen. That dismissive view has had some surprising overseas adherents. The poet Philip Larkin downed a second gin-and-tonic during the interval of The Playboy at the Oxford Playhouse, decided that it was "all balls", and didn't go back in for the second half.

But the general global response was more positive. A play about parricide, appearing just years after Freud defined the Oedipus Complex, cast a wide and growing spell. Antoin Artaud saw it as the progenitor of the Theatre of Cruelty. The young Jean-Paul Sartre courted Simone de Beauvoir by bringing her for repeated viewings. For him, the Christy who "erases" his father was an early existentialist, committed to "deriving only from himself". In the Soviet Bloc, for many years Christy was treated as a proletarian insurgent against a corrupt feudal order. In Thailand, just two decades ago, Mustafa Matura rewrote it as The Playboy of the West Indies. And in the past year, the Chinese have taken it to their hearts. There's nothing quite like a "riot" to launch a play into orbit right around the earth.

Declan Kiberd is professor of Anglo-Irish Literature and Drama at UCD and author of Synge and the Irish Language (Macmillan)

Playboy 100 Commemorating the premiere

• At the Abbey Theatre tonight Dr Eibhear Walshe presents The Unmentionable Shift: The Abbey Theatre and the Playboy Riots, examining what made the audience furious in 1907. 6.30pm; free but booking advised (01-8787222)

• Tomorrow, RTÉ has a night of programming for the anniversary. Playboys and Rebels (9pm) looks at the background of that night of rioting. It also discusses Stuart Carolan's Empress of India, which caused controversy in the Abbey last year, and includes an interview with Gary Mitchell, currently in hiding as a result of his depiction of the loyalist community on stage.

• At 9.35 is the TV premiere of the Druid production of The Playboy of the Western World, right. At 11.40pm, there is another chance to see MightyTalk: A Journey with DruidSynge, the Arts Lives documentary which followed Garry Hynes' production of Synge's plays from Galway rehearsal room to Dublin, Edinburgh, New York and the Aran Islands.