It has been said by more than one Irish writer that the first duty of an artist is to insult rather than flatter his fellow-countrymen. J M Synge incurred the wrath of Irish nationalists for his healthy refusal to idolise the peasant at a time when most native politicians were demanding a drama which would depict a long-suffering but heroic community ready to shoulder the responsibilities of self-government.
The pattern is not unfamiliar to the student of modern literature. If Stalin and Zhdhanov believed that literary creation could be planned like sugar production, then the leaders of Sinn Fein and the Gaelic League were no less dogmatic in their demands on Irish writers for a heroic self-image. So in the 1930s, while the apostles of socialist realism mapped out earnest scenarios on the deathless theme of ‘Girl Meets Tractor’, Eamon de Valera issued a famous radio broadcast to the Irish people in which he sketched a vision of stoic frugality, a landscape filled with athletic youths, comely maidens, wise old pensioners and white old cottages. It was, in short, a political version of the pastoral, and the plays of Synge had already shown just how little basis it had in reality.
Synge’s honest depiction of the brutality, as well as the beauty, at the heart of rural life was as unpalatable to Irish nation-builders (who saw only the beauty) as it was to Marxists (who saw only the brutality). Marx had promised to rescue humanity from ‘the idiocy of rural life’, whereas de Valera wanted to rescue his nation from ‘the squalor of industrial towns’, from ‘Cockney cornerboys and factory chimneys’. The many excellent essays in Sunshine and the Moon’s Delight show just how difficult the followers of nationalism and communism have found it to come to terms with the master-work of J M Synge.
The first production of The Playboy of the Western World in Dublin caused a riot, mainly because of Synge’s insistence on the grotesque and brutal aspects of his play. ‘Slander’, cried the patriots, ‘the Irish are not a violent people,’ and hurled themselves at the actors to prove the point. It is scarcely an accident that in all subsequent productions the Abbey Theatre has chosen to stress the beauty of the play’s idiom rather than the brutality of its action. In other words, The Playboy has been taken prisoner by the state theatre (itself the prisoner of a government subsidy) and made to conform to de Valera’s vision. Old Mahon’s bandage has never been quite as bloody as it was in that first production, nor is the burning of Christy’s leg made to seem quite so real. The realities of physical violence have been concealed, as always, beneath an idiom of surpassing beauty. The gallous story has all but obscured the dirty deed and Synge’s own intentions as playwright and director are either forgotten or ignored.
The Irish, however, are the least of offenders in this infidelity to the original text, as many of the essays in Sunshine and the Moon’s Delight now show. This paperback reissue of the centenary tribute is most valuable for its accounts of how Synge has been received in the eastern as well as the western world. The playwright who claimed that ‘the drama does not teach or prove anything’ would certainly be amused to learn of an East German production of his masterpiece under the title Der Held der westlichen Welt. The play was used to convey the idea that only in the West, which still groans under the yoke of capitalism, are people admired and celebrated for killing other humans. A programme note informs the audience that Christy Mahon is just one in a long series of killers stretching from Ernst Junger to Mickey Spillane. That melodramatic final lament of Pegeen Mike acquires an unexpected subtlety of meaning. ‘O my grief, I’ve lost him surely. I’ve lost the only Playboy of the Western World’ cries the heroine and the unsuspecting western audience is filled with sympathy for this young woman who could perceive greatness but not rise to it. ‘She lost the only man whom she could ever hope to love’ they whisper to each other at the Abbey nowadays, as the curtain drops and the audience heads out into the Dublin streets, no longer angry with the author but deeply moved by his convincing portrait of trapped Irish womanhood.
Not so in East Berlin where that curtain-line is employed to drive the comrades into a frenzy of anti-capitalist fervour. ‘O Jammer, ich hab ihn verloren, den Ietzen Heiden des AbendIands’ laments a rather more liberated woman. ‘Abendland’ is the ‘West’ and we are to understand that Christy Mahon is the last Western hero to be glorified and that the time of universal brotherhood is at hand. The translator and perpetrator of this divertissement is the aptly-named Peter Hacks. He is supported in this reading by Klaus Volker who asserts that Synge was a politically committed writer who took the part of the rebel poor and rejected his own class. Volker believes that in the career of Christy Mahon Synge showed how patriotism may harden into downright fascism. If not exactly a nondescript housepainter, Christy is as near as makes no difference – a shabby, low fellow who becomes mighty ‘by the power of a lie’ and is mistakenly worshipped as a hero by a bunch of confused and downtrodden villagers. Synge himself said that there were ‘many sides to The Playboy’, but this may be an aspect of the play which escaped even his sharp and sceptical mind.
Nevertheless, the show goes on all over the world and, as ever, the critical response tells us far more about the audience than about the play. It is, perhaps, a classic confirmation of Dr Johnson’s dictum that it is not we who sit in judgement on great literature, but great literature which sits in judgement over us. Peter Hacks has seized upon The Playboy in order to make certain points about Synge, only to find that through the prismatic medium of his play Synge has managed to tell us everything about comrade Hacks. The Irish were driven into a frenzy of outrage at the mention of some Mayo girls in ‘shifts’, but the French, long inured to such quaint properties on their national stage, were merely bored or bewildered by such ponderous irony. They complained that the work ‘contains too much natural richness, not enough literary clarity’, yet that was precisely the quality sought by Synge in his work, ‘the rich joy which is found only in what is superb and wild in reality’.
When Albert Camus played the part of Christy in an exquisite French version, local newspapers attacked the play as alien to French sensibility and sophistication. The irony of this will not be lost on those who have read the Sinn Fein denunciation of Synge as a flaneur who had been inspired by the cynicism and decadence of the Latin Quarter. The French disliked Camus’ production for its Irish spontaneity and primitivism – the Irish denounced the first Abbey production for its French-inspired unwholesomeness.
Not all were so carping, however. It took a poet, Guillaume Apollinaire, to grasp Synge’s point. ‘There has been nothing so realistic and so perfect on the stage since Moliere and Gogol’, he remarked in Soirees de Paris and went on to explain the incomprehension of his fellow citizens: ‘in Paris, all were indifferent except poets… Poets have always tried more or less to murder their fathers, but it is not an easy thing and looking at the house on the first night I thought: too many fathers, too few sons’.
Not so in Japan and the Arab world, however, where Synge’s plays have delighted vast audiences and been repeatedly broadcast on national television. Sunshine and the Moon’s Delight is never less than entertaining and has been imaginatively edited by the distinguished Jordanian scholar, S B Bushrui. His compendium of essays confirms one of Synge’s few self-admiring observations. In his twenties he had the misfortune to fall in love with one Cherry Matheson, a member of the Plymouth Brethren who refused his proposal of marriage on the grounds of his unbelief. Synge replied with uncharacteristic self-assertion: ‘I am a poor man, but I feel there is that in me which may be of value to the world’. Cherry Matheson, like most of her compatriots at that time, rejected the slow, meditative man, but the world has not.
Weldon Thornton has produced his own reading of Synge’s ‘western mind’, a mind which he finds to be far more philosophical in its preoccupations than other critics have been willing to concede. His book is a competent study of Synge’s personal beliefs and it offers persuasive evidence that the dramatist was, like Joyce, deeply influenced by the Christian religion which he came finally to reject. Even more welcome is Thornton’s emphasis on Synge’s political thinking, a subject which has never been properly investigated as a result of Yeats’s unfortunate remark that ‘Synge was unfitted to think a political thought’.
Synge was certainly too sophisticated to be a party man, but his writings on western Ireland reveal him to have been a keen observer of political conditions. He had scrupulously worked his way through Capital in his mid-twenties and many of his comments on the division of labour and the working day in The Aran Islands are clearly the outcome of that experience. Most of his political predictions came true, unlike those of Yeats and other contemporaries. Synge foresaw how the British would always try to retain control of Irish ports even after independence; and he predicted that the final reunification of Ireland would be achieved not by military force but by the spread of socialist ideas in England. It is good to see his ideas being taken seriously for their own sake, though the experience would have been even more rewarding had Professor Thornton managed to avoid philosophical jargon. Where previous critics have investigated Synge the dramatist, Thornton offers us a study of Synge the intellectual. This is a refreshingly new approach and one hopes that further studies will reveal more of Synge the pacificist and socialist. Then perhaps we shall finally be in a position to offer a political reading of his plays somewhat more sensible than that propounded by Comrade Hacks.