(Seán Hewitt’s article appeared in the Irish Times, 2/13; Illustration: JM Synge: For many years, his drama was too close to home.)
In the year of the dramatist’s 150th anniversary, his work continues to demonstrate the importance of wildness, resistance and imagination
The artist Jack B Yeats, a close friend and collaborator of JM Synge’s, wrote a letter to the dramatist in the wake of the riots that greeted the Abbey Theatre’s premiere of The Playboy of the Western World in late January 1907. He also drew a small cartoon.
In the first scene, a man, holding his hat behind him, his knees touched together in a posture of nervous modesty, leans against a window to talk with a young woman, a small bird perched on his arm. “Will it be mild as milk?” Yeats writes, “or will it be…”
In the second scene, a jeering audience with raised fists watch the man being tossed off a high cliff into the sea. The man is upside-down, mid-air, his hat flying off into a tall wave.
As his career had progressed among the fraught cultural conditions of the Irish Revival, Synge increasingly gravitated towards the second option. His literary output began with a bucolic Romanticism, taking a turn of experiments through Decadence and symbolism. But it was the pressures of a modernising Ireland that urged him into what the scholar Mary Burke has recently called a form of “modernist provocation”.
Synge moved to Germany as a young man, and then to Paris. The riots over the first performance of Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi (1896), an avant-garde play considered to be an assault on the audience, would certainly have come to Synge’s attention. In fact, Jarry’s collapsing of the distinction between noble and ignoble, between “primitive” and civilised, finds a striking afterlife in Synge’s own riot-inducing masterpiece just over a decade later.
Synge’s fantasy, imagination and lyric flights of poetry were the tender side of his vision; but for every sweet word there was a sharp, brutal undercurrent, a violence and earthiness that all poetry, and all life, should be rooted in. This was at the heart of his work.
Whereas some writers and audiences wanted a “purely fantastic, unmodern, ideal, spring-dayish, Cuchulanoid National Theatre”, what Synge valued most in the life of the peasantry was what he saw as their savage, ironic humour, their imaginative freedom, and their brutality. This, he saw, was their chief challenge to the homogenising tendencies of modernisation; their alterity was in their opposition to the values of the imperial project and also to the values of the middle classes, who were “an ungodly ruck of fat-faced, sweaty headed swine”. If he was to hold a mirror up to the nation, it would not be while the people were “going to Mass on a fine… Sunday morning”.
This year marks 150 years since Synge was born in Rathfarnham, Co Dublin, into a wealthy Protestant family with long-held connections to the gentry and to the Church of Ireland. Members of the Plymouth Brethren, the Synge family were led by their mother, Kathleen.
Early on, Johnny (as he was known to his relatives) was uncomfortable with the practices of his Anglo-Irish family. In 1885 his brother Edward began evicting tenants in Cavan. Johnny, at the age of just 14, argued strongly with his mother about the rights of the tenants, until she asked him: “What would become of us if our tenants… stopped paying their rents?”
He did manage some small victories, among them was convincing his mother to change the family subscription from the Daily Express to the more liberal Irish Times, which she nevertheless considered “a rebel paper”.