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The Playboy of the Western World Summary and Analysis

by John Millington Synge

Act III

Summary

Later that same day, Jimmy and Philly enter the pub looking for a drink, but neither Pegeen nor her father is there to serve them. The men comment on Pegeen's infatuation with Christy, who has routed every competitor on the beach. Though they acknowledge his skill as an athlete, they are annoyed by his incessant bragging over his heroic deed.

They then discuss a collection of skulls on display in Dublin. Old Mahon enters to hear their talk, and shows them his own skull injury. When he attributes it to his good-for-nothing son, the men grow suspicious and ask for more detail. Mahon promises to oblige if they feed him supper, and reveals that he has been earning bed and board in exchange for the story of his son's attack.

Widow Quin enters to find them in conversation, and she quickly separates them from one another. After giving Old Mahon a drink, she confides to Jimmy and Philly that Mahon is raving. She tells them how he had initially attributed his head fracture to a tinker's blow, but has changed his story after hearing tell of Christy's deed. Meanwhile, Mahon grows maudlin, lamenting his son's betrayal. Finding him credible, Jimmy and Philly ask for more detail about the son. However, the widow slyly interjects by asking Mahon whether his son was a great athlete. Naturally, Mahon denies that claim, insisting the boy is a mangy cur.

Suddenly, they hear the crowd roaring from the beach. Though the sound pierces Mahon's aching head, he is curious about the commotion, and joins Jimmy and Philly to watch a tremendously exciting mule race in the distance. They all exclaim over the skill of the race champion, and then note that the crowd is carrying him towards the pub.

When he recognizes this champion as Christy, Mahon cries out in shock. The widow insists his perception has been obscured by his injury, since his son could never have achieved such a victory. Confused, Mahon concedes the point, and insists he must check himself into an insane asylum, admitting that he has spent time there in the past. He exits, followed by Jimmy and Philly, who remain suspicious of the widow's story.

As he is carried in by the crowd, overcome with prizes, Christy boasts that his mule race victory is nothing compared to his heroic murder. Pegeen proudly tends to Christy as the crowd disperses to watch the final event down on the beach.

Once they are alone, Christy declares his wish to wed Pegeen in a fortnight. Pegeen hedges, insinuating he is a skirt-chaser. He rejects this suggestion, wooing her poetically and tenderly in the process. She softens, speaking tenderly in turn. Finally, Pegeen consents to marriage, noting how fortunate it is that she already has a dress.

Michael, still drunk, enters with Shawn. Death still on his mind from the wake, Michael chastises Christy for having deprived his father of a Christian burial. Shawn then announces that he has received Father Reilly's dispensation, and that Michael has consented to have him and Pegeen married today. Michael adds that he does not want to leave Pegeen alone any longer with a reprobate like Christy.

Pegeen defies her father by declaring her plan to marry Christy. Horrified his daughter would prefer a father-killer to a decent Christian, Michael urges Shawn to challenge Christy. Shawn's cowardly refusal to stand up for himself only hardens Pegeen against him. Shawn does tries to argue his case, citing the ring he has already bought, the promise he has made to give the family heifers, and the church's permission, but Pegeen remains unmoved. Christy threatens to murder Shawn if he persists, and Michael grows incensed at the suggestion, adding that he cannot allow a murder in his pub, especially since he has stocked so much illegal moonshine for the night's celebration. He encourages the men to bring their battle down to the beach, but Shawn remains steadfast in his refusal to fight.

Michael reassesses the situation: If the goal of marriage is to procreate, then better Pegeen should procreate with brave Christy than create any small replicas of the cowardly Shawn. Convinced, Michael gives his blessing to Pegeen and Christy by bringing their hands together.

They hear a hubbub outside, and then Old Mahon bursts in, followed by the crowd and Widow Quin. Mahon rushes at Christy, who cowers before his father's blows. Pegeen intervenes in the fight, and Old Mahon reveals that he is Christy's father. Pegeen immediately renounces Christy, who desperately claims that Mahon is a lunatic, and turns to Widow Quin to validate the lie. But Widow Quin can no longer hide the truth, and the crowd roars with pleasure at seeing Christy's lie unravel. Christy begs mercy for a moment, but then, in a sudden and lyrical expression of his fate, he accepts his own lowliness. Unfit for happiness, he could never endure the terrible splendor of a girl like Pegeen.

Covering her tears, Pegeen urges Mahon to take his son away before she sets the town's boys on him. Her manner is derisive and desperate. As Mahon struggles to drag Christy away, the crowd eggs on the fight, until Christy turns on them, brandishing a spade. They back away gingerly, jeering in amusement that Christy has gone mad. Mahon goads his son once again, and Christy chases him from the building, the spade raised high.

Everyone rushes out, following Christy. Offstage, there is a great yell, followed be silence. (What we soon discover is that Christy has struck his father again.) A dazed Christy stumbles back in, followed by the Widow Quin, who warns that he must leave at once since the crowd has turned on him. However, Christy refuses, hoping that Pegeen will want him again now that he has truly killed his father. The widow counters that there are woman like Pegeen all over the country, but he is unmoved.

Sara runs in and removes her petticoats, hoping Christy will wear them as a makeshift disguise. However, Christy threatens the two women with a stool, and the widow suggests they should fetch the doctor since the man has clearly gone mad. They leave him alone.

From the doorway, Michael, Philly, Shawn and Pegeen strategize how to trap Christy in a loop of rope. A frightened Shawn refuses to participate, so the others enter together and land the rope around his arms. Caught, Christy asks Pegeen how she feels about him now that he has actually committed the parricide.

Pegeen answers: "I'll say, 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" (164). In other words, the act is far less attractive in reality than it is in a story. She then instructs the men to take Christy away, lest they all go on trial for his crime.

Christy begs for mercy and release, promising to run away and live like a wild man in the rough. They pull the rope tighter, and Pegeen threatens to burn his legs in the fire. In a speech of elevated language, Christy threatens to kill them before he's hanged. As he writhes on the floor, he bites at Shawn's leg, laughing. He proudly anticipates Satan's welcome once he reaches hell, for none too many have "killed their da" in County Mayo (166).

Unnoticed, Old Mahon crawls in on all fours.

As Christy struggles, Pegeen burns his leg with a sod and they drag him along the floor until he comes face to face with his father. Christy asks his father if he has come to be a killed a third time, but Mahon merely inquires why he is tied up. Michael apologetically explains that they must bring Christy to the authorities in order to protect themselves from charges of criminal activity.

Mahon responds that he cares nothing for what happens to Michael and this crew, but that he and his son will certainly amuse themselves for years to come with stories of Mayo's villainy. Mahon loosens Christy's bonds, and order his son to leave with him.

Christy agrees, but insists that he will be the "gallant captain" and his father the "heathen slave" (166). He pushes Old Mahon, warning that he himself is the boss now, and the dazed older man wonders whether he has gone "crazy again," so strange is his son's aggressive behavior (166).

Christy thanks the assembled group, explaining that from this day forward, he will go "romancing through a romping lifetime" (166). Then, he and his father exit.

Shawn approaches Pegeen, overjoyed that they can now wed. As he complains about the bite on his leg, Pegeen boxes his ears and sends him out of her sight. In a flurry, mostly to herself, Pegeen laments Christy's departure, crying wildly, "Oh, my grief, I've lost him surely. I've lost the only Playboy of the Western World" (166).

Analysis

In 1896, Synge joined W.B. Yeats, Lady Gregory and George Russell to form the Irish National Theatre Society. The Irish National Theatre — rechristened The Abbey Theatre in 1904 — intended to provide a “Theory of Regeneration” for Irish culture. This regeneration took the form of artistic exploration intended to revitalize contemporary Irish identity following decades of poverty, famine and political impotence under the grip of the English crown. In this way, political nationalism became literary nationalism, as the public declared its identity largely by embracing Ireland’s rich literary past of hero-centered myth and saga.

One of the most famous heroes of Irish myth is Cú Chulainn (or Cuchulain), about whom writings date from the 8th century. A tragic turn of Cú Chulainn’s story is that he killed his own son, mistaking the boy for an intruder. His mistake was largely the result of not having seen his son for 8 years.

The Abbey Theatre’s audience certainly recognized the Cú Chulainn allusion within The Playboy, but also noted that Synge had inverted it, making it craven rather than heroic. Where Cú Chulainn - living alone, without family - possessed extraordinary strength and wisdom, here Christy - previously joined at the hip to his drunken father - was dull and weak-limbed, never having traveled before stumbling upon Mayo. Cú Chulainn purposefully slew an intruder, learning afterwards the boy was his son. Christy struck haphazardly at his father, contriving afterwards to elevate the act to heroic murder. Cú Chulainn’s grief brought him low; Christy’s lie raised him up.

If the inversion of the Cú Chulainn legend offended, worse still was the perceived inversion of the Biblical father-son relationship. God-the-father, beneficent and almighty, sacrifices his only son for the salvation of all mankind, but pathetic and weak Christy (note the name's similarity to Christ), smites his only father solely for his own personal good. In a further twist to the allusion, Christy “kills” his father three times, all of them metaphorical, in a fantasia of parricide. These acts lead to Christy’s rebirth at the end of the play, again evoking Christ's rebirth. Consider that Pegeen burns Christy’s leg: It is baptism by fire.

At the end of the play, one can begin to see why the play was so controversial. Synge seems to be deliberately flouting the myths and beliefs by which his audience defined themselves. He presents a country full of ironic chaos, hardly the romantic stuff of National Regeneration. By the end of the play, the villagers of County Mayo have no one left on whom to pin their hopes or to enact their dreams. Synge leaves them adrift, devoid of focus. Christy, on the other hand, rises from the ashes of his ordeal a new man with new eyes. Unfettered by love, law, morality or god, he exits the play a "gallant master with his heathen slave" (166). Christ died for everyone, and everyone was better because of it. Christy murdered for himself, and everyone but him is worse off as a result. In a sense, it is almost as is Synge is merely trying to provoke and mock, rather than to make any coherent point.

And yet one realizes with distance how the play does indeed celebrate mankind, though it does so by celebrating the power of the individual and the imagination. The shared cultural myths prove less powerful in this play than does the individual's capacity for self-creation. Christy's self-creation begins as literal fiction, one in which he is the hero of his own tall tale, but ends as fiction literalized, as Christy grows to inhabit his own lie's words. He becomes what he creates. Expression engenders desire, awakening a new capacity for action. It is not Christy's burgeoning confidence in wooing Pegeen that represents this newfound capacity for action, nor is it his unexpected athletic prowess in the beach games. It is not even his mad dash offstage to "murder" his father a second time.

Instead, it is, ironically, the failure of words - the failure of the lie - that ultimately empowers him. In the moment where Pegeen turns against him, Christy has his great epiphany: "...you're after making a mighty man of me this day by the power of a lie..." (162). By recognizing how his imagination could have such power over his actual life, Christy ensures that his change will not be temporary, but will persist.

Moreover, the lie is powerful precisely because it has no direct correlation to truth. What Christy loses when Pegeen repudiates him is a fall from her imagination. His lie has failed. However, what he does in turn shows the full capacity of human self-determination. He decides to continue believing it. By the end of the play, he has deemed her unworthy of him, rather than the other way around. If Christy has fallen from Pegeen's imagination, then he merely needs to reorder his perspective so that it is her imagination that has suffered worse. Because she can no longer accept the lie of his great heroism - whereas he decides to continue believing it - she is worse off than he is, and so is he able to leave the pub with his head held high.

Thus would the original audience has been terribly and violently confused. From their perspective, Christy seemed like a loser, a murderer, a liar. And yet from his perspective - and from the playwright's - he exits the pub a true "playboy" - a man of genuine self-confidence triumphing through imagination, language and potential. His triumph has nothing to do with the violence of patricide, but rather with the discovery of his individual power.

As Christy leaves with such power, Pegeen's loss is felt even greater. Synge's deliberate attempt to write a theatre of both "reality" and "joy" finds a great articulation in the play's final moment. His affection for the lives and language of the Mayo villagers is unmistakable throughout. They are all such colorful characters with great theatricality. And yet that joy is matched by the "reality" of their desperation, born from being so separated from the rest of the world, living a life where a vivacious girl like Pegeen will end up marrying a craven like Shawn simply from traditional expectations and a lack of options. The comedic play ends on a terribly tragic note as Pegeen realizes the reality of her life, a reality divorced from the power to create a new world as Christy has for himself. She chose the reality of her village over his imaginative potential, and thus has "lost the only Playboy in the Western World" (166).

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