The Playboy of the Western World

The Playboy of the Western World Quotes and Analysis

In a good play every speech should be as fully flavoured as a nut or apple, and such speeches cannot be written by anyone who works among people who have shut their lips on poetry. In Ireland, for a few years more, we have a popular imagination that is fiery, and magnificent and tender...

J. M. Synge, Preface, p. 111

Synge penned this preface to The Playboy of the Western World for the 1909 publication of his Collected Works. This preface is an updated and expanded version of the note Synge attached to the program for the ill-received performances at the Abbey a year earlier. Where the program note served as a defensive justification for his work, this published preface is more profound in delivering his theory of writing.

In the preface, Synge refers to the poetry and “full flavour” of Ireland's native language and dialects. He suggests that city folk, like those in Dublin, have “shut their lips” to their heritage, while urban artists refuse to represent this poetry. What Synge wishes to capture is the “fiery, magnificent and tender” poetry, both in terms of their realistic language and the joy of their lives. Ultimately, this statement delivers Synge's unique approach to storytelling, in which he uses the native Irish language to explore his own voice.

You should have had great people in your family, I’m thinking, with the little, small feet you have, and you with a kind of quality name, the like of what you’d find on the great powers and potentates of France and Spain...and you a fine, handsome young fellow with a noble’s the poets are your like—fine, fiery fellows with great rages when their temper’s aroused.

Pegeen Mike, Act I, pp. 124-125

Pegeen Mike, alone with Christy for the first time, reveals here the vast distance between her vision of Christy and the truth about the man. Christy Mahon comes from Irish peasant stock. He was the laughingstock of his village, where women went out of their way to belittle him. He is dirty and unlearned, having done poorly at school. Before the attempted patricide, he lived a life of cringing submission to his father. However, this reality stands in stark contrast to the tale he tells, of an act so unnatural, so divorced from the stifling constraints of traditional morality, that it sets Pegeen’s imagination alight. Though she is observant enough to recognize what he truly is, she is so blinded by the potential of his tale that she blinds herself to this reality. What this reveals is that she values above all else the "fiery" nature of language and words. Through his language, Christy eventually becomes the man he pretends to be.

...he after drinking for weeks, rising up in the red dawn, or before it maybe, and going out into the yard as naked as an ash-tree in the moon of May, and shying clods against the visage of the stars till he put the fear of death into the banhbs and the screeching sows.

Christy, Act I, p. 127

In this passage from Act I, Christy draws for Pegeen a god-like image of his father. What this image does is both raise the nature of his story to a mythic struggle, and doubly stress his power in having vanquished this mythic figure. The figure he describes here possesses terrible power, triggered by weeks of binge drinking. Fortified by alcohol and rage, the father sheds his clothes to unleash his body’s true strength, and oppose the "red dawn." There is a suggestion of animism in Christy's invocation of nature, as though the natural world possessed a consciousness and strength of will, ready to meet this challenger. Though we later learn that Old Mahon is a long way from this mythic villain, Christy's imagery goes a long way towards revealing the intensity of the submission that had quashed him for so long. Ultimately, when Christy wrestles authority over his father at the end of the play, he has achieved the mythic victory he had previously only described.

Well, it’s a clean bed and soft with it, and it’s great luck and company I’ve won me in the end of time - two fine women fighting for the likes of me - till I’m thinking this night wasn’t I a foolish fellow not to kill my father in years gone by.

Christy, Act I, p. 131

Christy Mahon settles down to sleep at the end of Act I, reflecting upon the day's extraordinary reversal of fortune. Having just spent hopeless weeks living a cold, starving existence, Christy now finds himself not only welcomed, but also adored in County Mayo. He has been heralded as a hero rather than pilloried as a criminal. He here reveals that this reversal of fortune is also a huge step forward from the life he lived even before striking his father. As we continue to discover throughout the play, the contrast between his old life and this new one is stark. What Christy is discovering here is the power of language and storytelling, which functions despite morality. Swift, decisive action brings reward, regardless of the action’s moral or ethical implication. In many ways, what Christy here grapples with is a summation of what Synge is grappling with throughout the entire play.

...but I was lonesome all times, and born lonesome, I’m thinking, as the moon of heart’s scalded this day, and I going off stretching out the earth between us, the way I’ll not be waking near you another dawn of the year till the two of us arise to hope or judgment with the saints of God...

Christy, Act II, p.139

Christy, preparing to flee the pub from fear of capture by the police, summons a poetic voice to lament his loss of Pegeen. The poetry lies not so much in the imagery as in the scale of his loss, which arcs from birth to death and beyond, to judgment even. This passage marks a step along the way of Christy’s transformation: He has begun to view his own life from the outside, as a poetic artifact. Christy slowly becomes the poetic hero Pegeen imagines him to be, by listening to his own story and then endeavoring to become that figure. In this passage, he passively narrates his own life story, only later endeavoring to realize the truth of that story. By the end of the play, he will succeed at this task, by finding the strength to actively narrate his life, to become the figure he has claimed to be.

Oh, it’s a hard case to be an orphan and not to have your father that you’re used to, and you’d easily kill and make yourself a hero in the sight of all.

Shawn, Act II, p. 141

These are Shawn Keogh's self-pitying words, spoken to Widow Quin. Shawn laments being an orphan because it prohibits him from killing his father and becoming the hero that the villagers celebrate in Christy. The irony is certainly humorous, since Shawn uses his lack of family as excuse for his lack of courage, but it also touches on some main themes. First, the audience remembers that Shawn does have a surrogate father in Father Reilly, whom he refuses to counter. The stifling nature of social and religious expectations is clear in this irony. Secondly, it shows us that even Shawn is noticing the importance of storytelling towards determining an identity. One becomes a "hero" by telling stories as much as by committing action.

CHRISTY: (in despair and grief) Amn’t I after seeing the lovelight of the star of knowledge shining from her brow, and hearing words would put you thinking on the holy Brigid speaking to the infant saints...

WIDOW QUIN: There’s poetry talk for a girl you’d see itching and scratching, and she with a stale stink of poteen on her...

Christy and Widow Quin, Act III,p. 146

This exchange between Christy and Widow Quin reveals not only the disparity between their respective views of Pegeen, but also the truths on which they base those views. Their contradictory portraits exist simultaneously: Pegeen is both romantic heroine, beautiful of body and soul, and a foul-mouthed, dirty serving wench. As Christy grows to inhabit the villagers’ image of him, we see the potential for Pegeen to do the same, to rise to the level Christy has already raised her to in his poetic imagination. However, we ultimately realize that the widow is closer to the truth. At the end of the play, her “wild lamentation” reflects her inability to become what Christy does.

[in a low and intense voice] Shut your yelling, for if you’re after making a mighty man of me this day by the power of a lie, you’re setting me now to think if it’s a poor thing to be lonesome it’s worse, maybe, go mixing with the fools of the earth.

Christy, Act III, p. 162

Here, Christy turns on the crowd that has turned on him, as they taunt him over his dad's threats. Christy’s low and intense voice augurs the incarnation of the new man, the new self, that he summons by the end of the play. He recognizes for the first time that the “mighty man” he has become — the athlete, the poet, the lover — is but a reflection of crowd’s lies and stories. We may rewrite stories in an instant, just as the crowd has done. Christy wonders here whether he would be better off without his dependance on their stories, as he was at the top of the play. Ironically, by repudiating the villagers who initially gave him strength to become this great man, he becomes even stronger. Following this moment, he rejects Pegeen, marking his final step towards self-reliance in a life of heroic strength.

...a strange man is a marvel, with his mighty talk; but what’s a squabble in your back yard, and the blow of a loy, have taught me that there’s a great gap between a gallous story and a dirty deed.

Pegeen, Act III, p. 164

Pegeen Mike’s words reflect Christy’s fall from her imagination. Her adulation of him depended upon the breathtaking notion that he had killed his father. Christy, the father-murderer, was the hero of a “gallous story.” But once Mahon appeared, Christy’s resolve to murder him again placed the “dirty deed” right in her lap. For the sake of a fine story, she had suspended moral judgment and even thrived upon the attendant freedom of an artificial remove from morality. But Pegeen lacks Christy’s courage of transmutation: She cannot move story into reality. When she sees him actually strike his father, she realizes that same heroic deed can be unattractive. Christy’s “gallous story” represented an act of emancipation, embodying her own, unacknowledged desires. When the act becomes reality, however, she realizes that pushing forward into a realm of self-actualization is much more difficult to do.

[Putting her shawl over her head and breaking out into wild lamentations] Oh, my grief, I’ve lost him surely; I’ve lost the only Playboy of the Western World.

Pegeen Mike, Act III, p. 166

Pegeen’s grief closes the play. Christy may have fallen from her imagination, but she did not anticipate the effect this would have upon him - namely, that he would rise up the stronger for it. Her final rejection of him just a few moments before served to resurrect him: Christy surveys a new world with new eyes. He is a “gallant captain," while she, in the words of Widow Quin, stands “itching and scratching...with the stale stink of poteen” (166, 146). Exiting the pub and the small-minded village of County Mayo, he embodies her most poetic imagining. In effect, he truly becomes the heroic figure she imagined him to be, precisely and ironically because he repudiates that imagining. The departure of the emancipated Christy marks the departure of her own dream of liberation. She recognizes that she does not have the strength to re-make herself.