As frequently mentioned throughout this ClassicNote, the original production of The Playboy of the Western World inspired significant controversy, nearly causing riots on every night of its short run. It is useful to understand the nature of that 'hell week' to properly understand what makes the play so unique.
On Saturday night, January 26, 1907, J.M. Synge debuted his play The Playboy of the Western World at Dublin's Abbey Theatre in Dublin. The opening drew an audience of distinguished patrons, those supportive of a new Irish theater and its potential complement to a Nationalist agenda. This Nationalist agenda held at its center a celebration and reclamation of Irish cultural life, distinct from English cultural dominance.
Nonetheless, the opening night audience would have read the terrible notice Synge’s former play In the Shadow of the Glen had received. Foremost in the critique of Shadow was that, as an adaptation of the old Greek tale of the widow Ephesus, Synge’s story was both un-Irish and, paradoxically, uncharitable to Irish women. Furthermore, rumor had already spread that this new play, The Playboy, contained violent, un-Christian language.
Indeed, dramatist Lady Gregory and poet/dramatist W.B. Yeats — the Abbey Theater’s co-founders — had advised Synge to clean up a few phrases and strike a few “objectionable” actions from his script. Synge made very few edits to his script, which he had already revised ten times over the years.
Leading up to the opening, Synge was suffering a terrible cold. In the fog of sickness, he penned a program note intending to deflect the anticipated charge of “un-Irish-ness” his language and story might garner: “Nearly always when some friendly or angry critic tells me that such or such a phrase could not have been spoken by a peasant, he singles out some expression that I have heard, word for word, from some old woman or child, and the same is true also, to some extent, of the actions and incidents I work with.” (Greene and Stephens 236).
The audience was quiet that opening night, so much so that, following the second act, Lady Gregory telegrammed Yeats that the play was a great success. But she spoke too soon. In the third act, the audience erupted into hissing, hoots and boos, outraged by the play’s heterodoxical spirit and language.
The line that tipped the balance was Christy’s assertion that he’d prefer Pegeen to “drifts of chosen females standing in their shifts.” Anticipating outrage, the actor playing Christy had substituted the phrase “Mayo Girls” for “chosen females.” The reference to legions of women parading in their underwear, however, remained too unchaste, too un-Christian, especially following other images, like that of the black ram Widow Quin had reared at her breast, of that of the men of Mayo laid out upon the holy stones of a cemetery, retching from the alcohol they’d drunk at a wake.
During Act III, Lady Gregory telegrammed Yeats once again: “Audience broke up in disorder at the word shift.” Joseph Holloway, a devotee of The Abbey Theatre and an avid diary-keeper, described the play as an exercise in blackguardism: “What did Synge mean by such filth...Synge is the evil genius of the Abbey and Yeats his able lieutenant.” (Greene and Stephens 238).
The newspaper notices were no better. The Freeman’s Journal described the play as an "unmitigated, protracted libel upon Irish peasant men and, worse still upon Irish peasant girlhood. The blood boils with indignation as one recalls the incidents, expressions, ideas of this squalid, offensive production, incongruously styled a comedy in three acts.” From the Evening Mail: “If a man is stupid enough to suggest that the Irish people are cannibals or gorillas, my hand will not fumble for the sword-hilt.” Responses were so vitriolic that Lady Gregory suggested The Abbey recruit the police for the second performance.
Despite two policeman standing at the door for Monday night’s performance, the audience jeered throughout the show. The players, amid the din, performed entirely dumb show, but bowed confrontationally after each act. The curtain fell in the middle of an act when the jeering grew too great, and police surrounded the offending audience members until a semblance of quiet prevailed. The leading actor, Willie May, advised the hissing public to withdraw and seek a refund.
Yeats arrived in time for Tuesday’s performance. He suspected his Nationalist associates of organizing the opposition to the play, and retaliated by organizing an opposition to the opposition. Distributing free tickets to undergraduate students from Trinity College, he peppered Tuesday night’s house with audience expected to support the play.
Students being students, however, many of them were drunk and disorderly, eager to start a fight with the play’s detractors. Chaos ensued until the students were standing on their seats chanting the English National Anthem, while the opposition bellowed more local tunes. The police — more numerous this evening — arrested the offending detractors.
The next morning, Yeats went to the police court to testify against the rioters of the previous night. By Wednesday night, a huge crowd consisting of objectors and defenders waited at the pit door for entry to the theater. The police presence was massive, with upward of 70 officers on site. During the performance, Yeats prowled the crowd and the lead actor broke the fourth wall to shout at his opponents.
Yeats continued his morning visits to the court for the next three days, to testify against the rioters. Thursday’s show saw only two arrests, but things were not looking up. The newspaper reported that the “police-protected drama by the dramatist of the dung heap...got a fair hearing...and was voted...very poor dramatic stuff” (Greene and Stephens 245). Synge’s health worsened. Between his sickness and the uproar, he could not even find time to visit with his girlfriend Molly Allgood, the actress playing Pegeen Mike.
On Friday, the popular Irish dramatist William Boyle published a letter in the paper dissociating himself from The Abbey Theatre, and withdrawing his plays from their season. Yet Friday night saw a more subdued audience and only one arrest. Unfortunately, the head of the Nationalist party published an attack of the play in his paper Sinn Fein Saturday morning, writing that it was a “vile and inhuman story told in the foulest language...ever listened to from a public platform” (Greene and Stephens 245).
Anticipating a major disturbance for Saturday night’s closing performance, The Abbey brought in the thickest police presence yet. Holloway’s diary describes an audience of frustrated, drunken louts released from the music halls, forced to listen quietly, against their wills, to a play that they had come to disrupt. Synge, miserable, went home with a fever, likely without any sense that he had penned a play destined to be declared a classic.