Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Playboy of the Western World

Play: The Playboy of the Western World

Playwright: John Millington Synge

Life of J.M.Synge:
Birthdate: 16th April, 1871
Birthplace: Rathfarnham near Dublin
Family Tree: Father was a barrister and died one year later after J.M.Synge’s birth leaving a widow to bring up five children.

* Synge’s early education was mostly private until he entered the Trinity College, Dublin, in 1888, which was traditionally the fountainhead of Anglo-Irish culture. Here he learnt Irish and Hebrew. and also read a great deal about Irish history and Irish antiquities.
* In 1893, Synge went to Germany to study music systematically but later his interest shifted from music to literature and he moved to Paris.
* He visited Italy and learnt Italian.
* Synge had studied Gaelic (a language spoken in Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man).

Synge’s role in *Irish Dramatic Movement:
* In 1896 Synge met W.B.Yeats and thus began his long association with Yeats and later with Lady Gregory and with other members of the Irish Literary Revival.
* The Irish National Theater Society was reorganized in 1905 and Synge and Lady Gregory became director in the reorganized Society.

*The Irish Literary Revival or Irish Literary Renaissance was a movement that aimed at reviving the past literary greatness of Ireland. In 1891, Yeats founded the Irish Literary Society and later in 1899 the Irish Literary Theater was founded with its first performances in Dublin.

Demise: 24th March, 1909

Works of J.M.Synge:

Synge’s Dramatic and Non-Dramatic works:
Five of this six plays were published during his lifetime. These were:
1. The Tinker’s Wedding -1908
2. In the Shadow of the Glen -1904
3. Riders to the Sea -1904
4. The Well of the Saints -1905
5. The Playboy of the Western World -1907
6. Deirdre of the Sorrows –posthumously 1910

Non-Dramatic work: The Aran Islands -1907

Synge’s life and the affect on his works:
* Sygne’s childhood was spent among the hills and mountains to the south of Dublin. His love for nature is reflected in the images and descriptive passages in the plays.
* On the advice of W.B.Yeats, Synge visited the **Aran Islands which gave him the material for his play in terms of incidents, characters and language.

** The Aran Islands are a group of three rocky islands in the West coast of Ireland.

Close Analysis of "The Playboy of the Western World":
“The Playboy of the Western World” is a three act play and is a dark comedy or a comic tragedy play. The theme of the play is about a self-confessed patricide, glorified as a hero and encouraged as a lover by an entire community in Mayo (the place where the play is set).

Title: The “Playboy” is possibly the translation of the Gaelic phrase used in hurling or it may be the English word Playboy, a hoaxer. It is in this sense that the Widow Quin uses the complete title for Christy Mohan after discovering that the man he had boasted of killing is still very much alive.

The phrase “Western World” possibly refers to the western part of Ireland or Mayo where this play is located but could also be taken to refer to the large western world.

Play Origin: Synge visited the Aran Islands which gave him the material for his play in terms of incidents, characters and language. The germ of the play lay in a story that both W.B.Yeats and Synge heard during their respective visits to the Aran Islands. The attitude of the Islanders for a man who has killed his father and is already sick and broken with remorse, see no reason why he should be dragged away and killed by the law. The origin of the idea of the play and the attitude of the Island are an important element in making sense of the play.

Playboy Riots: The Playboy was the centre of fierce controversy when it was first staged in Dublin. This also signifies the crucial issue of an artist’s freedom of thought and expression and is an implicit recognition of the power of theater to subvert traditional morality.
There are several factors that account for the riots: The accusation of Synge for slandering Irish image, for too much usage of “bad language” in the play, also Oscar Wilde’s arrest a few years earlier had made Irishmen more sensitive to their country’s good name since the play glorified a patricide and loved by the entire community.

Act-Wise Analysis:

Setting of the Play: The action takes place near a village, on a wild coast of Mayo. The first Act passes on in an evening of autumn, the other two Acts on the following day.

Characters as Characterisations:
* Christopher Mohan (called Christy): a patricide who is glorified as a hero
* Michael James Flaherty (called Michael James): fat jovial publican
* Margaret Flaherty (called Pegeen Mike): Daughter of Michael James Flaherty
* Shawn Keogh: A fat and fair young man who is to wed Pegeen, her cousin, a young farmer
* Philly Cullen and Jimmy Farrell: Small farmers
* Widow Quin: a woman of about thirty
* Sara Tansey, Susan Brady, Honor Blake: Village girls
* Old Mohan: Christy Mohan’s father

1.Act I:
* The scene is set up in a country public-house and opens with the conversation between Pegeen and Shawn where Pegeen is complaining about her father having left her lonesome in the night and having gone out for a wake with his friends.
* When her father along with Philly Cullen and Jimmy Farrell joins them before going to a wake and hearing that Pegeen is afraid to stay alone in the night tells Shawn to stay with Pieeen, now that he is getting wedded to his daughter to which the timid, god-fearing Shawn refuses and runs away.
* After a while Shawn comes back terrified, saying there is a man in the dark night following him and then enters Christy Mohan.
* Christy’s interrogation is the key scene of this act and the interrogation takes place in two parts: to uncover the nature of the crime and to find out the instrument used to commit it and everyone calls Christy a daring fellow for the act of killing his father.
* After the departure of Michael James and his friends, there is a brief exchange between Pegeen and Shawn and Shawn is sent away and therefore Pegeen and Christy are left alone together. While Christy was boasting about his bravery, Widow Quin enters and there is a verbal exchange between Pegeen and Widow Quin when the latter tries to win him over and acts as a rival for Pegeen for Christy.
* Finally everyone goes to sleep and Christy marvels at his great luck of two women fighting for him and thinks if he wasn’t foolish not to kill his father earlier!!!

2.Act II:
* The scene opens with Christy cleaning the boots in the brilliant morning and comes Susan, Sara and Honor Blake, the village girls, all excited to see the man who killed his father. The girls give presents to Christy and welcomes him and later Widow Quin joins them and asks Christy to tell his story. Christy narrates the story of why and how he killed his father and the girls marvel at Christy for such a lovely narration.
* Enters Pegeen and chases away the girls and Widow Quin and accuses Christy of flirting with the girls and warns him to stay away from the girls lest he will be in jeopardy. When Christy is about to leave the place, Pegeen asks him to stay back and says he is safe there and on hearing this Christy is overjoyed.
* Shawn who had come with Widow Quin sees a rival in Christy for the hand of Pegeen and tries to bribe Christy to keep him away from Pegeen’s life but Christy refuses to go. On hearing this Shawn is desperate and laments for being an orphan and for not having a father since now he cannot kill his father and become a hero in the sight of all.
* Widow Quin strikes a deal with Shawn that she would wed Christy and tries to talk to Christy but he goes out to seek Pegeen and sees his supposed to be dead father coming and assuming him to be a ghost hides behind the door.
* Widow Quin enquires with the wandering man what he is looking for and misguides his direction in search of his son and after he is gone turns to Christy and ironically calls him the walking playboy of the western world and is wild at him for making up stories of him killing his father.
* Widow Quin tries to convince Christy to come with her but Christy is wanting Pegeen but is scared she might leave him if she gets to know that his father is alive, so seeks Widow Quin’s help in dismissing Old Mohan and marrying Pegeen.
* Meanwhile the village girls call Christy to participate in the mule race and he goes with the girls to seek Pegeen.

3.Act III:
* Jimmy and Philly are talking of the killing and Philly recollects his young days on how he would go to the graveyard and put the remnants of the skull and bones of a man together on hearing which Old Mohan shows his splintered skull and asks if they have seen anything like that. While Old Mohan narrates his story to the men of how his son tried to kill him , Widow Quin tries to put Old Mohan off the scent of his son and mislead Jimmy and Philly about the father’s true identity.
* The cheering of the crowd outside disrupts their talks and Jimmy, Philly, Widow Quin and Old Mohan give a running commentary as they watch Christy’s triumphs in the mule race.
* The entire community, the village girls and the men cheer for Christy’s achievement in the race and later Pegeen hustles the crowd out saying he need to rest.
* Christy prosposes Pegeen for marriage and they have a romantic talk and decide to tell her father about their love. Even before they could tell about it, Michael James announces that he has received the Pope’s permission to marry off Pegeen and Shawn.
* Pegeen has changed her mind and switched her loyalties over to Christy nad Michael James blesses the new union between Pegeen and Christy.
* Old Mohan reenters and starts beating Christy and Pegeen realizing Christy’s story to be a lie becomes hostile towards him.
* Christy strikes his father again in order to appear a real hero in Pegeen’s eyes and Widow Quin fearing the crowd would hang him asks Christy to escape in order to save him.
* Thinking Christy has killed his father, the crowd led by Pegeen rope him and pull him down to the floor but Old Mohan comes back alive whereupon he is released.
* Before going away with his father, Christy blesses the Mayo crowd for turning him into ‘a likely gaffer’ and he is a new man now with new confidence.

Critical Analysis:
One would find it puzzling, even bewildered by some of the things in the play:

* Theme of Patricide:
To us Indians, Patricide is the most dreadful of sins and it is bewildering to know how a man who has killed his father is glorified as a hero by the entire community in the play and on knowing that Christy had made up story and his father was still alive changed the views of the same community about Christy and turned hostile towards him.


Act I: The rewards of the murder are so palpable that Christy wonders why he had not killed his father earlier.
Pegeen on seeing Widow Quin as the rival to her for Christy dismisses Widow Quin’s murder of her husband as ‘sneaky’ which won a small glory with the boys when compared to Christy’s grand one-stroke muder of his father.

Act II: As against Christy’s achievement in murdering his father, Shawn laments that he has no father to kill and make himself a hero in the sight of all.

Act III: On return of Old Mohan, Christy tries to kill the father again in order to appear a real hero in Pegeen’s eyes and when Old Mohan reappears again Christy is prepared to kill him a third time.

* Reversal of roles: Traditionally it is the man who woos and pursues the female. In the play we see reversal of gender roles and Pegeen and Widow Quin is more active in wooing Christy Mohan.

* Theme of fantasy versus reality:
In The Playboy, Synge uses the “incorrigible genius for myth-making”. Christy’s lie of murder grows to heroic proportions at each telling. The growth of the lie is made clear in the extent of the split caused by the blow of the loy on the father’s anatomy.

Act I: Christy begins modestly “…I just riz the loy and let fall the edge of it on the ridge of hs skull, and he went down atmy feet like an empty sack…..”

Act II: The story expands when Christy tells it to the village girls “…I hit a blow on the ridge of his skull, laid him stretched out, and he split to the knob of his gullet”.

The split travels further down when he talks to Widow Quin in the same Act:
“…a gallant orphan cleft his father with one blow to the breeches belt…”

Whenever Christy soars too high on the wings of his imagination, Synge punctures his flight and brings him back to solid earth. For instance when Christy is boasting about his bravery to Pegeen, a knock on the door sends him cowering to Pegeen. Another instance is when Christy is at his boastful best, telling Widow Quin how he cleft his father to his breeches belt, Synge deflates him by showing him a glimpse of his unsplit father.

* Comic and Irony Strategies:
A sensitive issue like patricide and glorifying the murder by an entire community is seen through as a good humoured fun through the use of irony and comedy scenes. A great deal of humour in the play is the result of absurd situations and incidents.

Surprisingly Christy becomes a likeable character whose lies are more in the nature of his unconscious fantasies which grow with the active help of the Mayo crowd. While we are amazed at the interest he has been able to arouse in the people of Mayo and laugh at his boastfulness, we also like him and sympathize with him.

Comedy: Shawn Keogh struggling to escape and managing to flee leaving his coat in Michael James’ hand.
Irony: When Widow Quin finds Christy cowering in terror at seeing his father come back alive, bursts out laughing and says:
“Well, you’re the walking playboy of the Western World, and that’s the poor man you had divided to his breeches belt”.
This is the first instance when the phrase” The Playboy of the Western World” appears in the play.

* The Language:
The play has a strong Irish flavor. It is influenced by the native Irish language in its syntax, its vocabulary and its idiom. The resulting difference from the standard English language gives the play its charm of the unfamiliar and also accounts for the difficulty it poses to the readers.

* The Ending:
On the contrary to most traditional comedies, the last line of the play is Pegeen’s inconsolable grief of loosing her man… “I’ve lost the only Playboy of the Western World”.
There is no feasting either at the end, though Michael James invites his friend to drinks.
Christy who makes his triumphant exit from the play is unrecognizably different from the frightened runaway young man who seeks shelter from the law in a Mayo shebeen. He has finally subdued his father, has become a ‘Likely gaffer in the end of all’ and walks out with new confidence determined to be ‘master of all fights from now’.


  1. man....become a journalist....

  2. A very thorough, professional review. Very becoming of a literature Master's pursuant.

  3. sorry but i believe you are wrong. The females do not try to 'woo' Christy as much as he tries to 'woo' them. Think about his fake story and "beautiful poetry"(Pegeen) he uses. This is all to try to impress the two female protagonists. So I believe your wrong.

  4. it's really very helpful...but I think Christy's full name is Christopher Mahon not Christopher Mohan.

  5. Forgive me but calling yourself creative and then creating a near replica of extant IGNOU notes...does your conscience allow that? To replicate the work of distinguished professors under your name? Would've appreciated had you thrown in your personal insight as well in there, but oh well, I'm just sayin.. :)

  6. I was going through your writing and outlook on "The playboy of the Western World" but sadly you have copied the whole body from the IGNOU course book for M.A. First year. It would have been better if you could write it in your own language :)

  7. Hello Archana ji please help me to make the answer- I hit a blow on the ridge of his Skull, laid him stretched out, and he split to the knob of his gullet. explanation with reference to context