The Playboy of the Western World is a play of competing authorities. On the one hand, the villagers connected to Michael Flaherty’s pub seem to have their own sense of “what’s right.” But there is also the suggestion of religious authority in the background, coupled with a general suspicion of the police—the “peelers.” The relationship between Christy Mahon and his father, Old Mahon, also reveals a type of authority based on family (and one that Christy is eager to escape). Perhaps, then, this is why Christy wins over the hearts and minds of the community—because, in claiming to have murdered his father, he temporarily represents an authority on its own terms.
It’s fair to say that there is no single source of authority in the play. Synge shows the way in which different authorities compete with one another, without one in particular truly taking hold. The church authority, for example, is best exemplified by Shawn Keogh, who is god-fearing and won’t spend the night alone with his fiancé, Pegeen Mike, because the local priest, Father Reilly, might not approve. The other characters, though, are not like Shawn. They speak with a religiously informed vernacular—for example, through the common greeting “god save you”—but other than that don’t show any particular deference to Christian authority. Furthermore, in celebrating Christy’s patricide (the killing of a father by his child), they portray a distinctly un-Christian sense of morality, which also applies to their heavy drinking. The church, then, is more a kind of symbolic presence in the villagers’ life, informing its traditions and language but not expressly exerting a definitive authority.
The characters are unified, however, by a disregard for the authority of the police. Such collective irreverence appears when the villagers take pride in sheltering Christy from the law. Ireland, at the time of the play’s setting, was a place of great tension. There were clashes between those that wanted to maintain the status quo as a part of the United Kingdom and those that willed Ireland to become independent. The police were known as the “peelers”—named after the English politician, Robert Peel—and represented English authority. By harboring Christy, the community around Michael Flaherty’s pub engages in a willful act of rebellion against what they see as the false authority of English rule. Furthermore, they see Christy’s willingness to take justice into his own hands as a symbol of their own disregard for the peelers.
Though this works out well for Christy initially, adding to his aura of heroism, it has grave consequences when it turns out that he hasn’t actually killed Old Mahon. Both to save face and to cling onto the promise of his new life, Christy then tries to kill his father again. At that point, the villagers, feeling that they have been deceived, take the issue of authority into their own hands and attempt to hang Christy. They are afraid that having the murder of Old Mahon take place in their own village will attract the peelers and ultimately land all them in trouble. Their attempt to hang Christy, then, represents their effort impose their own authority to sidestep the police.
But Christy is not hanged because, even on this second attempt, Old Mahon is not dead. Ironically, he crawls back into the pub and saves his son from the wrath of the villagers, his paternal authority taking precedence. Though Christy had temporarily escaped Old Mahon’s paternal authority and seemed to have much better prospects for life—a steady job at the pub, marriage to Pegeen, the respect of his community—Old Mahon’s reappearance in turn undermines Christy’s newfound status. Old Mahon’s authority, then, wins this particular battle, as Mahon both prevents his son’s hanging—thus denying the villagers their authority—and reinstates his wandering life with his son. That said, when the father and son leave, Christy insists that he will now be the dominant of the two men, leaving the specific dynamic between them unresolved.
This Irish rural community, then, is shown to be a place of unstable authority. It’s not that the people aren’t looking to uphold social and moral standards, but that no source seems to be able to appropriately take control. While some critics see this as an implicit challenge to English authority, perhaps it’s more accurate to say that Synge shows the complex challenges involved in questions of authority and independence, particularly in relation to Ireland in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The extreme reaction to the play’s first performance should also be noted. When first shown in Dublin in 1907, the audience rioted. Though part of this was a reaction to the perceived indecency of the play, it was largely down to the nationalist view that the play in fact supported British dominance by attempting to demonstrate the power of Irish English as opposed to the Irish language itself (this was a line of criticism leveled more widely at the work Synge and Yeats more generally). The Playboy of the Western World thus became a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, attempting to give a faithful representation of competing authority in Ireland and accordingly feeling the consequences of that very same instability.
Authority Quotes in The Playboy of the Western World
PEGEEN. Where now will you meet the like of Daneen Sullivan knocked the eye from a peeler, or Marcus Quin, God rest him, got six months for maiming ewes, and he a great warrant to tell stories of holy Ireland till he’d have the old women shedding down tears about their feet. Where will you find the like of them. I’m saying?
SHAWN (timidly). If you don’t, it’s a good job, maybe; for (with peculiar emphasis on the words) Father Reilly has small conceit to have that kind walking around and talking to the girls.
PEGEEN (impatiently, throwing water from basin out of the door). Stop tormenting me with Father Reilly (imitating his voice) when I’m asking only what way I’ll pass these twelve hours of dark, and not take my death with the fear.
SHAWN (going to her, soothingly). Then I’m thinking himself will stop along with you when he sees you taking on, for it’ll be a long night-time with great darkness, and I’m after feeling a kind of fellow above in the furzy ditch, groaning wicked like a maddening dog, the way it’s good cause you have, maybe, to be fearing now.
PEGEEN (turning on him sharply). What’s that? Is it a man you seen?
SHAWN (retreating). I couldn’t see him at all; but I heard him groaning out, and breaking his heart. It should have been a young man from his words speaking.
PEGEEN (going after him). And you never went near to see was he hurted or what ailed him at all?
SHAWN: I did not, Pegeen Mike. It was a dark, lonesome place to be hearing the like of him.
PEGEEN (with a sign to the men to be quiet). You’re only saying it. You did nothing at all. A soft lad the like of you wouldn’t slit the windpipe of a screeching sow.
CHRISTY (offended). You’re not speaking the truth.
PEGEEN (in mock rage). Not speaking the truth, is it? Would you have me knock the head of you with the butt of the broom?
CHRISTY (twisting round on her with a sharp cry of horror). Don’t strike me. I killed my poor father, Tuesday was a week, for doing the like of that.
PEGEEN (with blank amazement). Is it killed your father?
CHRISTY (subsiding). With the help of God I did surely, and that the Holy Immaculate Mother may intercede for his soul.
PHILLY (retreating with Jimmy). There’s a daring fellow.
JIMMY. Oh, glory be to God!
MICHAEL (with great respect). That was a hanging crime, mister honey. You should have had good reason for doing the like of that.
CHRISTY. […] Well, it’s a clean bed and soft with it, and it’s great luck and company I’ve won me in the end of time— two fine women fighting for the likes of me— till I’m thinking this night wasn’t I a foolish fellow not to kill my father in the years gone by.
CHRISTY. From this out I’ll have no want of company when all sorts is bringing me their food and clothing (he swaggers to the door, tightening his belt), the way they’d set their eyes upon a gallant orphan cleft his father with one blow to the breeches belt. (He opens door, then staggers back.) Saints of glory! Holy angels from the throne of light!
WIDOW QUIN (going over). What ails you?
CHRISTY. It’s the walking spirit of my murdered da!
MAHON. I’d take a mighty oath you didn’t surely, and wasn’t he the laughing joke of every female woman where four baronies meet, the way the girls would stop their weeding if they seen him coming the road to let a roar at him, and call him the looney of Mahon’s.
MICHAEL. It’s many would be in dread to bring your like into their house for to end them, maybe, with a sudden end; but I’m a decent man of Ireland, and I liefer face the grave untimely and I seeing a score of grandsons growing up little gallant swearers by the name of God, than go peopling my bedside with puny weeds the like of what you’d breed, I’m thinking, out of Shaneen Keogh. (He joins their hands.) A daring fellow is the jewel of the world, and a man did split his father’s middle with a single clout, should have the bravery of ten, so may God and Mary and St. Patrick bless you, and increase you from this mortal day.
CHRISTY (in low and intense voice). Shut your yelling, for if you’re after making a mighty man of me this day by the power of a lie, you’re setting me now to think if it’s a poor thing to be lonesome, it’s worse maybe to go mixing with the fools of earth.
[Mahon makes a movement towards him.]
CHRISTY (almost shouting). Keep off…lest I do show a blow unto the lot of you would set the guardian angels winking in the clouds above.
[He swings round with a sudden rapid movement and picks up a loy.]
CROWD (half frightened, half amused). He’s going mad! Mind yourselves! Run from the idiot!
CHRISTY. If I am an idiot, I’m after hearing my voice this day saying words would raise the topknot on a poet in a merchant’s town.
PEGEEN. I’ll say, a strange man is a marvel, with his mighty talk; but what’s a squabble in your back-yard, and the blow of a loy, have taught me that there’s a great gap between a gallous story and a dirty deed. (To Men.) Take him on from this, or the lot of us will be likely put on trial for his deed to-day.
CHRISTY (with horror in his voice). And it’s yourself will send me off, to have a horny-fingered hangman hitching his bloody slip-knots at the butt of my ear.
CHRISTY. Ten thousand blessings upon all that’s here, for you’ve turned me a likely gaffer in the end of all, the way I’ll go romancing through a romping lifetime from this hour to the dawning of the judgment day.
[He goes out.]
MICHAEL. By the will of God, we’ll have peace now for our drinks. Will you draw the porter, Pegeen?
SHAWN (going up to her). It’s a miracle Father Reilly can wed us in the end of all, and we’ll have none to trouble us when his vicious bite is healed.
PEGEEN (hitting him a box on the ear). Quit my sight. (Putting her shawl over her head and breaking out into wild lamentations.) Oh my grief, I’ve lost him surely. I’ve lost the only Playboy of the Western World.