J.M. Synge wrote The Playboy of the Western World in 1907, to be produced at Ireland's Abbey Theatre, which he had helped to form. Though it is today one of the English-language drama's most widely-anthologized works, it was hardly a success at the time.
In fact, the play was in Synge's day a marked failure: the Dublin audience of 1909 jeered and disrupted each performance of the play’s one-week run at the newly minted Abbey Theatre. Indeed, for that week, the Abbey became the place for nationalistic, God-fearing Irishmen to display their outrage and indignation over Synge's unsavory portrait of rural Irish life and values. To top it all off, the play received almost uniformly terrible reviews in the papers.
Yet the details of the play's plot, which centers on a man’s personal transformation and public exaltation through his increasingly fictive account of patricide, were arguably less offensive to the audience than the play's ambiguous tone was. Though seemingly grounded in realism, the work's premise is audacious and outlandish, and it ends in a vicious climax and ironic lamentation. The audience simply had no idea how to classify and interpret what it was watching. To understand what is so enduring about the play, it is useful to consider what confused its contemporary audiences.
Was this comedy? If so, what kind? Was Synge channeling Molière in his send-up of archetypes and use of sharp-tongued wit? The 1909 audience had never seen peasant archetypes portrayed so unromantically. And unlike in the work of Molière, the characters’ wit found expression in spite of themselves, rather than through any inherent intelligence. Was this social satire, then? If so, then Synge surely meant to ridicule the foundations of the community’s moral code, linked as it was to the Church. Or perhaps it was political satire? If so, then County Mayo - as a microcosm of greater Ireland - was entirely unflattering in its brutal chaotic nature.
Was this realism, then, in the vein of Ibsen? In an ill-advised program note, Synge insisted he represented practically verbatim the language, voice and history of people he had interviewed and spied upon on the Aran Islands. If this was the case, the audience failed to recognize these same islanders. In the same program note, Synge called the play an “extravaganza.” If that was the case, why did Synge insist on the authenticity of his language and plot? Either the play was authentically “real” and therefore vile in its depiction of Irish life, or it was truly “extravagant,” akin to Cervantes’ Don Quixote, and therefore of fraudulent cultural relevance. No matter how the audience interpreted the play, there was room for offense.
Even today, though, when the play has earned a significant and cemented reputation, it is not easy to categorize. Synge’s life and vision preceded the nihilistic dramatic universe created by his countryman Samuel Beckett. Similarly, his play precedes the explosion of modernist invention that reveled in this type of formalist experimentation and ambiguity. The play continues to confound us because it is both ahead of its time and firmly of its time. Much as Christy Mahon himself is at the end of the play, The Playboy reveals itself explosive in life-force and self-individuation, honest to itself above all else. The play's exact tone eludes us today as readily as it did the critics from its own day, and for this we remain in its thrall.