Last weekend I attended The Synge Festival at Quintessence Theatre Group. In one day, I saw all of John Millington Synge’s plays, with the exception of the unfinished Diedre of the Sorrows. Synge died at age 37, having published five plays and some poetry. Synge was so controversial that riots broke out after some early performances. In Philadelphia, authorities arrested actors and served an injunction against Playboy of the Western World in 1912, after Synge was dead.
Why was Synge controversial? Many of his characters are immoral or at least conniving, but Synge portrays them as comical and often sympathetic, not necessarily detestable. And Synge was wildly anti-clerical. His priests are clownish. Catholics and others found this offensive.
Synge’s best known work is Playboy of the Western World. It’s a sardonic comedy. The young farmer Christopher Mahon assaults his father and leaves him for dead. After more than a week on the run, he stops in a tavern, begging for shelter. The locals (especially the young women) are impressed and begin to compete for Christopher’s attention. Suddenly, his father turns up, unexpectedly alive, complicating the action. Soon father and son flee the outraged community.
The other plays were also comedy, except for Riders to the Sea, one of his first dramas. It is a snapshot of loss and grief, as if someone had told Synge to write the saddest play he could imagine. An old woman loses her last surviving son to the violent ocean. It’s a brief one-act play. Perhaps it would have engaged me more if we learned more about the characters, especially the sons.
Synge set his works in rural Ireland and wrote in an old fashioned rural northern Irish dialect which is almost incomprehensible to the modern, English speaking ear. The theatre program contained an extensive glossary of terms, but it’s helpful to follow a printed script if possible or to see each play more than once.
Synge loved the unrefined language of rural Ireland. In the theatre program he is quoted as follows:
When I was writing The Shadow of the Glen…I got more aid than any learning could have given me from a chink in the floor of the old Wicklow house where I was staying, that let me hear what was being said by the servant girls in the kitchen.
Listening to Synge is a challenge, but, like listening to Shakespear, it’s well worth the effort.