The Playboy of the Western World is a study on the nature of heroism and hero worship, as rough-and-tumble stranger Christy Mahon arrives in a small village in rural Ireland and is quickly deemed a hero, only to lose his status in a matter of hours. The play examines the way in which a hero is created—part myth, part reality—but also questions this process, showing it to be ultimately unstable and arguably quite fickle, at least within this particular rural Irish community. The play asks what constitutes a hero, considering the community’s capacity to buy into heroism and, by turn, to reject it when it no longer satisfies their standards.
The entirety of the play is set in a quiet country pub somewhere in a small village on the West Coast of Ireland. Synge uses the play’s opening to create a sense that this is a place crying out for a hero. The country pub is deserted, and the darkness of the approaching night is looming. Pegeen Mike, Michael Flaherty’s daughter, is scared of being left in the pub alone: “I’m asking only what way I’ll pass these twelve hours of dark, and not take my death with the fear.” This creates an imposing sense of fear that particularly emphasizes the isolation of the location. None of the men are willing to stay with Pegeen that night. Her father is going to a rowdy funeral wake nearby with the pub regulars, while her fiancé, the cowardly Shawn Keogh, is too afraid of the judgment of the local priest, Father Reilly, should he dare to be alone Pegeen before they are wed. To make matters worse, Shawn thinks he heard a “fellow” in a nearby ditch, “groaning wicked like a maddening dog”; he was too afraid to investigate. Through this set-up, Synge creates a kind of vacuum based on a lack of bravery into which a hero could enter.
The man outside turns out to be Christy Mahon, who comes into the pub and explains that he has been on the run for eleven days since “killing” his father, Old Mahon. The sense of mystery and danger, combined with his growing self-confidence based on the villagers’ attentions, fashions him into a hero. When Christy comes in, the pub’s elders—Michael Flaherty, Philly O’Cullen, and Jimmy Farrell—quiz him on why he’s on the run. They gleefully consider what sort of crime he might have committed, and, on learning that he killed his father with a loy, are impressed. Christy justifies the patricide on the grounds that his father was an immoral and oppressive figure. Michael subsequently offers Christy a job in the pub and asks him to stay the night to ease Pegeen’s fears of being alone.
Christy quickly wins the affections of Pegeen and Widow Quin, a woman who Shawn and Father Reilly send to the pub to try and lead Christy away, concerned that he will tempt Pegeen and put her engagement to Shawn at risk. The two women admire Christy, both for his physical appearance and what they see as his brave ability to mete out justice as he sees fit. Christy, emboldened by this veneration, takes part in the village games the following day, winning everything and securing his status as the titular “playboy of the western world.” This quick transition from outsider to hero suggests that the community has a latent longing for a figurehead, somebody who embodies their values of independence, justice, and bravado.
However, Christy’s heroic status is short-lived, punctured by the arrival of his father—injured, but very much still alive. The community swiftly turns on Christy, angered by what they see as a betrayal. Synge therefore shows the village folk to be a fickle bunch, highlighting the instability of Christy’s heroic identity. Old Mahon comes looking for Christy, proving Christy’s story to be (accidentally) untrue. He paints his son as a distinctly unheroic figure—foolish, fearful of confrontation and too shy to talk to women.
Despite Christy’s attempts, with the help of Widow Quin, to pretend that his father is just a mad stranger, the village folk quickly change their mind about him (Pegeen included, who has since agreed to marry him instead of Shawn). Ironically, Christy then strikes another blow on his father’s head, again with a loy; this too fails to kill him. In resorting to violence for the second time, he demonstrates the exact behavior that had so impressed the village community. But this doesn’t bring opinion back around in his favor, suggesting that their initial hero worship was in part based on the mythical quality of Christy’s story—that it was removed from their own reality.
The play draws to a conclusion with the villagers trying to hang Christy, angered at his inauthenticity, though Old Mahon, again defying death, shields him from their wrath. As the father and son leave, Pegeen laments Christy’s departure—even though she has participated in the attempted hanging. Synge, then, presents her affections for him as being tied deeply to his air of mystery—now that he is leaving her world forever, his mystery is restored. In just twenty-four hours or so, Christy both acquires and loses hero status. Synge implies that heroism needs an element of fiction and mystery—unknowability—to function strongly, and that when these unravel so too does the hero’s status. Perhaps, then, heroism is a kind of paradox—the hero must seem like he can answer the community’s desires but never become too real; and there is certainly no room for doubt or inauthenticity in the hero’s story.
Heroism 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.
PEGEEN (standing beside him, watching him with delight). You should have had great people in your family, I’m thinking, with the little, small feet you have, and you with a kind of a quality name, the like of what you’d find on the great powers and potentates of France and Spain.
CHRISTY (going over to her, gradually raising his voice). I’ve said it nowhere till this night, I’m telling you, for I’ve seen none the like of you the eleven long days I am walking the world, looking over a low ditch or a high ditch on my north or my south, into stony scattered fields, or scribes of bog, where you’d see young, limber girls, and fine prancing women making laughter with the men.
PEGEEN. If you weren’t destroyed travelling, you’d have as much talk and streeleen, I’m thinking, as Owen Roe O’Sullivan or the poets of the Dingle Bay, and I’ve heard all times it’s the poets are your like, fine fiery fellows with great rages when their temper’s roused.
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 (impressively). With that the sun came out between the cloud and the hill, and it shining green in my face. “God have mercy on your soul,” says he, lifting a scythe; “or on your own,” says I, raising the loy.
SUSAN. That’s a grand story.
HONOR. He tells it lovely.
CHRISTY (flattered and confident, waving bone). He gave a drive with the scythe, and I gave a lep to the east. Then I turned around with my back to the north, and I hit a blow on the ridge of his skull, laid him stretched out, and he split to the knob of his gullet.
[He raises the chicken bone to his Adam’s apple.]
GIRLS (together). Well, you’re a marvel! Oh, God bless you! You’re the lad surely!
CHRISTY. I wish to God I was letting on; but I was lonesome all times, and born lonesome, I’m thinking, as the moon of dawn.
[Going to door.]
PEGEEN (puzzled by his talk). Well, it’s a story I’m not understanding at all why you’d be worse than another, Christy Mahon, and you a fine lad with the great savagery to destroy your da.
CHRISTY. It’s little I’m understanding myself, saving only that my heart’s scalded this day, and I going off stretching out the earth between us, the way I’ll not be waking near you another dawn of the year till the two of us do arise to hope or judgment with the saints of God.
WIDOW QUIN (jeeringly). It’s true all girls are fond of courage and do hate the like of you.
SHAWN (walking about in desperation). Oh, Widow Quin, what’ll I be doing now? I’d inform again him, but he’d burst from Kilmainham and he’d be sure and certain to destroy me. If I wasn’t so God-fearing, I’d near have courage to come behind him and run a pike into his side. Oh, it’s a hard case to be an orphan and not to have your father that you’re used to, and you’d easy kill and make yourself a hero in the sight of all.
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.
WIDOW QUIN (taking men to the right stealthily). Do you know what? That mans raving from his wound to-day, for I met him a while since telling a rambling tale of a tinker had him destroyed. Then he heard of Christy’s deed, and he up and says it was his son had cracked his skull. O isn’t madness a fright, for he’ll go killing someone yet, and he thinking it’s the man has struck him so?
JIMMY (entirely convinced). It’s a fright, surely. I knew a party was kicked in the head by a red mare, and he went killing horses a great while, till he eat the insides of a clock and died after.
PHILLY (with suspicion). Did he see Christy?
MAHON (putting his hands to his ears). What in the name of God do they want roaring below?
WIDOW QUIN (with the shade of a smile). They’re cheering a young lad, the champion Playboy of the Western World.
MAHON (going to window). It’d split my heart to hear them, and I with pulses in my brain-pan for a week gone by. Is it racing they are?
JIMMY (looking from door). It is then. They are mounting him for the mule race will be run upon the sands. That’s the playboy on the winkered mule.
MAHON (puzzled). That lad, is it? If you said it was a fool he was, I’d have laid a mighty oath he was the likeness of my wandering son (uneasily, putting his hand to his head).
CHRISTY. It’s little you’ll think if my love’s a poachers, or an earl’s itself, when you’ll feel my two hands stretched around you, and I squeezing kisses on your puckered lips, till I’d feel a kind of pity for the Lord God is all ages sitting lonesome in his golden chair.
PEGEEN. That’ll be right fun, Christy Mahon, and any girl would walk her heart out before she’d meet a young man was your like for eloquence, or talk, at all.
CHRISTY (encouraged). Let you wait, to hear me talking, till we’re astray in Erris, when Good Friday’s by, drinking a sup from a well, and making mighty kisses with our wetted mouths, or gaming in a gap or sunshine, with yourself stretched back unto your necklace, in the flowers of the earth.
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.