'Playboy of the Western World' 100 years on

 

Synge's play facilitated artistic criticism of Irish cultural life, writes Diarmaid Ferriter.

Writing to the playwright John Millington Synge on January 14th, 1907, Lady Gregory of the Abbey Theatre announced starkly: "I feel we are beginning the fight of our lives . . . we must make no mistakes". At the time, rehearsals were being held for the Abbey's production of Synge's new play, The Playboy of the Western World. The first performance was 100 years ago tonight, and so began one of the most controversial episodes in Irish theatre history.

Looking back on the events a century later, what is most striking is how many layers there were to this controversy. On the surface, this seemed to be a story of a pious nationalist audience reacting spontaneously and angrily to a play that depicted violence, the celebration of patricide and sexual frankness, most notably in the line spoken by "playboy" Christy Mahon - that he would have no other woman but Pegeen Mike, even if offered "a drift of Mayo girls standing in their shifts".

But the reality was that there was much more going on. As evidenced by Lady Gregory's letter to Synge, the Abbey management had anticipated trouble and were keen to confront it, despite the fact that neither she nor fellow Abbey director poet WB Yeats had any particular liking for the play. The disturbances lasted for nearly a week, and Yeats, who was in Aberdeen when the play opened, came back to Dublin to take charge of the defence. He eagerly grasped the opportunity to launch an attack on the protesters, who, he told the Freeman's Journal "did not have books in their houses".

Although Yeats's charge was untrue - one of those arrested was Irish language playwright Piaras Beaslaí, and many of the protesters were genuine idealists - it suited Yeats and Lady Gregory to assert their superiority in class terms. Gregory made the private admission that "I was sorry that we had ever let such a set inside the theatre", a reference to the Abbey's recent decision to introduce a limited number of six-penny seats in front of the stalls (the pit). Yeats was also keen to engage in battle with Arthur Griffith's Sinn Féin and refute the contention that an artist from an Anglo-Irish background could not legitimately explore the mysteries of native Gaelic culture. Yeats condemned the censorship imposed by "dictatorial societies, clubs and leagues".

The label "The Playboy riots" is inaccurate - what was witnessed was mostly verbal disapproval, some drunkenness and the odd scuffle, mostly outside the theatre; there was no furniture broken and no physical attacks on the cast. Yet, the police were called to the second and third performances to remove the protesters. One historian of the Irish theatre, Chris Morash, told the Synge Summer School in 1999 that "Throughout the affair, it is possible to trace a thread of drunken hilarity weaving its way through the more serious strands."

Those strands included the battle fought and won for artistic freedom, an important legacy of the disturbances. Yeats, Gregory and Synge refused to give in, and the precedent was established that the Abbey Theatre would protect its artistic independence. It needed to do this again during the civil war, when the IRA sought to close it down; when confronted with more disturbances after the opening of Seán O'Casey's The Plough and the Stars in 1926; and when under pressure from politicians in the 1930s over its repertoire.

Equally important was a stand taken to protect the integrity of Synge, whose genius for translating dialect and depicting the dignity and wildness of the west of Ireland was unparalleled and informed by direct experience. Bravely holding a mirror to Ireland in all its contradictions, he was suffering ill-health (he died two years later, at the age of 37) and had no appetite for the public confrontation that the ego of Yeats needed. Having spent several summers immersed in the west of Ireland, and observing at close hand the kind of characters he wrote about, he was unapologetic, and like all artists, recognised that a hostile response is infinitely preferable to indifference.

The great pity is that he did not live to cause more disturbances in an Ireland debating self-definition, but he did enough to secure his legacy, nationally and internationally. Although Yeats, Gregory and Synge may have formed an uneasy alliance, it was of huge benefit to Irish cultural life, highlighting the importance of facing difficult questions about language, violence, identity and sexuality.

Diarmaid Ferriter lectures in Irish history at St Patrick's College and DCU, and is an IRCHSS research fellow.