The Playboy of the Western World

The Playboy of the Western World Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on J. M. Synge's The Playboy of the Western World. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of J. M. Synge

J.M. Synge was born to John Hatch and Kathleen Traill Synge in a Dublin suburb. With his father dying soon after, Synge was brought up by his devoutly religious mother alongside his four siblings. He was homeschooled due to poor health. Initially wanting to be a musician, Synge studied music theory, as well as Irish history and language at Dublin’s Trinity College. In 1893, he moved to Germany for further music study, but stage fright hampered his musical ambitions. Later studying at the Sorbonne in Paris, Synge met his lifelong friend, poet W.B. Yeats, who famously instructed him to “give up Paris” and spend time on the Aran Islands off Ireland’s West Coast, in order to express a life that has never found expression. In 1897, he had a swollen gland removed back in Ireland; this was an early but undiagnosed indication of Hodgkin’s disease.  After following Yeats’ advice and studying the people of the Aran Islands, Synge began writing plays. He was heavily involved with the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, which was set up by Yeats and others to give artistic expression to specifically Irish culture. Synge’s sixth play, The Playboy of the Western World, was controversial in its attempts to portray rural Irish life and language, causing riots in its first performances due to the perception that it was unfairly degrading to the Irish people. Soon after, he was engaged to actress Molly Allgood, who played Pegeen Mike in the same play. It was during the writing of this play that Synge’s health deteriorated. He died aged 37 in a Dublin nursing home.
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Historical Context of The Playboy of the Western World

Ireland, now partitioned into the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland (the latter of which remains a part of the United Kingdom), is an island with a turbulent history. The nineteenth century saw Ireland officially absorbed into the United Kingdom, though much of it had been under English rule going as far back as the twelfth century. Accordingly, there was—and to a degree, still is—huge tensions between those who wanted to be part of the U.K. and those who fought for Irish independence. These tensions were and are intimately linked to religious divide between Catholics and Protestants, though these do not map onto the political scenario neatly and precisely. The mid-nineteenth century in Ireland saw the Great Famine, resulting in around one million deaths, mass emigration and further antagonism between Ireland and its English rulers. From the 1870s onwards, the Irish Home Rule movement sought to give Ireland autonomy within the context of the British parliament. By 1907, much of Ireland generally believed itself to be ready for self-rule and to be disassociated from the British Empire. Ultimately, there were many competing ideas and visions for Ireland’s destiny, which in part explains the desire of Yeats, Synge and their contemporaries to develop a cultural tradition specifically centered around Ireland’s history and its peoples.

Other Books Related to The Playboy of the Western World

The foremost influence on the language of The Playboy of the Western World has to be the Irish people themselves. In the preface to the play, Synge was keen to stress that there are only “one or two words” within the text that he hadn’t heard “among the country people of Ireland.” As part of the Irish Literary Revival—also known as the Irish Literary Renaissance and nicknamed the Celtic Twilight—Synge shared the ambitions of many of his peers to contribute to a specifically Irish literature allied closely to political nationalism and the Gaelic literary heritage of Ireland’s past. The revival thus had twinned purposes of bringing the mythic literature of the past into full view and giving voice to the contemporary political situation. The play’s attempt to render a realistic portrait of Irish life can also be considered part of the wider move in European theater, by playwrights such as Henrik Ibsen, away from melodrama towards a dramatic experience closer to real life. W.B. Yeats’ work was of great influence on Synge, who followed Yeats’ suggestion to spend time amongst Irish rural communities to help create a literature specific to them. Synge is now generally considered the foremost playwright of his generation, with The Playboy of the Western World looked on as his masterpiece. Brian Friel’s 1980 play Translations makes for an interesting counterpoint to The Playboy of the Western World; it too concerns an Irish village community and centers on issues of language, Irish history, and English colonialism (though technically Ireland was only ever a kingdom, not a colony). Both Antonin Artaud and Bertolt Brecht expressed that the play had a strong influence on their own work.
Key Facts about The Playboy of the Western World
  • Full Title: The Playboy of the Western World
  • When Written: 1905-1907
  • Where Written: Ireland
  • When Published: First performed in January, 1907
  • Literary Period: Irish Literary Revival
  • Genre: Drama
  • Setting: A pub on the West Coast of Ireland
  • Climax: Christy Mahon tries to kill his father, Old Mahon.
  • Antagonist: Old Mahon, Pegeen Mike
  • Point of View: Third person

Extra Credit for The Playboy of the Western World

Starting a Riot. The first performance of The Playboy of the Western World caused a riot among the audience, who objected to the principle that Irish English—the set of English dialects spoken in Ireland, in which the play is written—could ever be anything other than the language of the country’s English oppressors. They also objected what they saw as a degrading depiction of Irish rural life and its perceived sexual indecency.

True Tales. Many of the stories alluded to by characters within the play are tales that Synge had himself heard amongst the Irish people. For example, the moment in which Pegeen Mike accuses Widow Quin of having reared a black ram at her “own breast” was based on a story told to Synge by a landlord in West Kerry.