The entire play is set in a public house "on the wild coast of Mayo," outside a village in Northwestern Ireland, circa 1907 (113). The public house is simple and spare, containing only a counter, barrels, jugs, table, a bench, a large, open fire and a small interior room. A window and a door are located at the back, and give the room its only open air.
It is a dark, autumn evening as Margaret Flaherty, known as Pegeen Mike, sits alone at a table, compiling a list of supplies to make a wedding dress. She intends to send to the next village for these supplies. Pegeen, age 20, is "a wild-looking but fine girl" (113). The pub owner's daughter, she runs the alehouse when her father is out.
Shawn Keogh, "a fat and fair young man," enters the pub tentatively, unsure whether it is appropriate to visit Pegeen while her father is gone (113). He confesses that he was struck by the tavern's isolation when he saw it outside in the dark, and she tells him that her father and his friends have gone off to attend a wake. Shawn remarks on the courage it must take to travel such a distance in the dark. It is clear that Shawn himself lacks such courage.
Shawn is flustered by the impropriety of speaking with Pegeen without a chaperone present, and Pegeen taunts him about being a poor girl alone in the scary night. Shawn then reveals that they will be married soon, by insisting he will protect her after the ceremony. They are waiting for Father Reilly to send his dispensation (his approval or authorization) to approve the wedding.
Pegeen doubts that Father Reilly will ever send the document, noting that all the men in the village are lame, stupid, and mad. She again teases that there is no man good enough to protect her, but Shawn is bothered by her implication of sexual impropriety, since it would offend the dictates of the Church. He offers to send the Widow Quin to keep her company if she is afraid, and notes that he had heard a terrible wailing outside, the voice of an unknown man lying in a ditch.
Pegeen asks more about this man, but Shawn confesses he had been too scared to investigate. Disgusted by his cowardice, she mockingly threatens to report Shawn to the authorities if the man ends up dying. Thunderstruck, Shawn begs her not to betray him, just as her father (Michael James), and his cohorts Philly Cullen and Jimmy Farrell enter.
Michael, Philly and Jimmy are merely stopping by to warm themselves before completing their journey to the wake. Pegeen chides her father for leaving her alone all night, and he in turn chides her for suggesting he double-back in the dark after the wake. He suggests Shawn stay the night with her, which makes Shawn tremble with anxiety - what would Father Reilly think?
Michael revels that he has also heard about a strange man in the area, and asks Shawn to stay the night in a different room. However, Shawn is too anxious about offending the church and losing the dispensation to consent. The men then contemptuously decide to lock Shawn in the west room, but Shawn runs for the door. Michael almost catches him, but Shawn eludes the older man's grasp and darts into the night. The men then continue to make fun of Shawn, but Pegeen defends him, noting that her father could have hired a pot-boy to keep her company. Unfortunately, he notes, there is no man available for such a job.
Shawn then cracks the door open, and calls out to Michael that the "queer dying fellow's" crawled out of the ditch and is trying to steal the hens (118). Suddenly, Shawn rushes back in, afraid the stranger has heard him.
They hear a cough from outside, and then watch as Christy Mahon, "a slight young man...tired, frightened and dirty," enters the pub (118).
After sharing a greeting with the men, Christy shyly pays for a porter and then sits by the fire. He inquires whether the police ever stop by this place, and Michael defensively assures him they run a licensed pub, meaning the police have no reason to bother them. But why, asks Michael, does Christy fear the police?
Without hesitation, Christy reveals that he is wanted for a crime. Michael asks whether the crime is larceny, a word Christy does not understand. He admits that he is mostly uneducated, but then proudly boasts that he and his father - a farmer - were rich enough at once time to have bought the pub. The men then assume the crime is bigger than larceny, and try to guess what it is. Jimmy suggests he "followed after" a young woman on a lonesome night, and Christy is shocked at the suggestion (119). They wonder whether he fought government officials who tried to usurp his land, and Christy dismisses the possibility as too common. They ask whether he killed a soldier, married three wives, or fought for the Boers, but Christy smugly insists he "never left [his] parish til Tuesday was a week" (120).
Fed up, Pegeen insultingly accuses him of lying for attention, but Christy counters that she herself lies. When she threatens to hit him with her broom, he recoils and cries out that he "killed [his] poor father" a week earlier for having struck him in that way (121).
The group is greatly impressed by this news, and they instantly address him with respect and affection. They press him for details about how he killed his father, but he dismisses all their guesses to explain that he brought a "loy" (a spade) onto "the ridge of his [father's] skull, and he went down at my feet like an empty sack, and never let a grunt or groan from him at all" (122).
Michael inquires how Christy avoided hanging, and whether he buried the body to conceal the evidence. After a moment's consideration, Christy affirms that he buried his father in a potato field. Thus far, Christy seems to have eluded the authorities. When pressed for more details of the murder, Christy grows reserved, which the group admits is a wise approach for him to take.
Pegeen then asks Michael to hire Christy, noting that she would have little to fear with such a man in the house. Michael agrees, and offers him the job. Shawn, heretofore silent, interrupts to suggest that hiring a murderer might pose a threat to Pegeen. She rudely shushes him. After securing Michael's promise that the pub will remain a safe haven from the police, Christy accepts the job.
The men leave for the wake, but Shawn lingers, now offering to keep Pegeen company through the night. After all, he reasons, it would no longer be considered improper since a third person is there. Exasperated, Pegeen shoves Shawn out and locks the door.
Alone now with Christy, Pegeen compliments the man's appearance, and asserts that all women must compliment him in that way. He correct her, noting that his village's women are despicable. As Pegeen prepares him a bed, Christy asks whether she is single, and she quickly denies it, asking, "What would I want wedding so young?" (125).
Christy then describes his father's hardness and drunkenness, and the quiet life he led before the murder, noting in the process that this is the first time he has ever spoken intimately with a woman. Pegeen assures him that their village will afford him a quiet life, just like he deserves. Christy swells with this praise, then cowers terribly when there's a knock at the door, assuming it is the authorities.
It's the Widow Quin, who has been sent to the pub by Shawn and Father Reilly to guard Pegeen. She describes herself as no stranger to foul deeds, and Pegeen tells how she once beat her husband so badly with a hoe that he then died of a blood infection. The widow is quite taken with Christy, openly complimenting and flirting with him. Noting the impropriety of Pegeen being alone with a man, she pulls Christy up to leave with her, describing how he will love her little home and garden. However, Pegeen pulls Christy back towards her, insulting the widow in the process. The conflict escalates until Christy finally speaks up for himself, siding with Pegeen. As the widow leaves, she chides Pegeen for her behavior, given the girl's betrothal to Shawn.
A crestfallen Christy asks whether Pegeen is in fact engaged to Shawn. Pegeen asserts she would never marry someone like Shawn, and then leaves him to sleep. As he drifts off, Christy happily reflects to himself about how two decent woman have fought over him, and wonders whether he was "a foolish fellow not to kill [his] father in the years gone by (130-131).
At the top of Act I, Synge presents a picture of a rural, coastal Ireland that aligns quite closely with a romantic, even pastoral notion of peasantry and village life. The first image on stage clearly reflects this pastoral ideal. In a roughshod village pub, notably separated from much 'civilization,' a "wild-looking but fine girl" reads through a list of wedding goods which she expects to receive via fish wagon. The rural remove of the setting is immediately beyond question, and indeed proves important towards understand the characters who inhabit it.
The initial characterizations also conform to this pastoral ideal. Pegeen's sharp tongue and strong will fits well within the folkloric archetype of an earthy, no-nonsense peasant girl. Shawn, too, fits the role of her archetypal foil. A weak-willed but good-natured man, he is clearly not the best husband for her, precisely because he is so inoffensive. The sharpness and humor with which she taunts him establishes a natural, recognizable scene that the audience easily accepts. Similarly, Michael and his cohorts are recognizable as an assembly of colorful but simple, god-fearing folk. Overall, the play is firmly rooted in naturalism at first, mostly owing to Synge's extremely credible use of language, which seems singular and yet conforms to the audience's expectation of uneducated peasantry.
However, there is an undercurrent of criticism and parody in the early scenes as well. Shawn's cowardice - which he defends as being based in fear of the Church and Father Reilly - hints at a greater cravenness that has been shaped by the Church. Shawn's fear of the dark is far less intense than his fear of navigating a moral choice: Should he stay the night at the shebeen in order to protect Pegeen from ne'er-do-wells, or should he unquestioningly follow the dictates of propriety laid out by parish clergymen? Shawn is a boy of slavish faith, lacking any subtly of thought. To recognize this is to recognize Synge's anticlerical, parodistic drive. For all the play's 'naturalness,' there is a stylized criticism at work as well. Though this drive towards parody is not the play's animating force, it does continue to manifest throughout the entire story.
Regardless, the play remains naturalistic until Christy's entrance, at which point this naturalism is replaced by a pronounced theatricality. Here, the archetypal picture of the peasant - as stalwart, loyal, and virtuous - is turned on its head, as Pegeen and company do not chide Christy for his crime, but instead reward him with their deferential appreciation. Christy's seeming willingness to flaunt morality marks him as brave and wise, as an excellent guardian for hearth and home. Not only does Michael offer the boy a job, but he also leaves him alone with his daughter! Further, after they are alone, Pegeen refers to Christy in almost storybook heroic terms, complimenting his dainty feet, noble brow and royal-sounding name.
We see that for the sake of a fine story - in this case, the story of Christy's deed - the characters suspend moral judgment. The link between words and action is of great importance in The Playboy, and Christy's own voice, his own powers of speech, grow increasingly confident and poetic as his own aspirations and poetic self-image blossoms in the face of such admiration.
Consider his transformation even within this Act. When Christy first enters the shebeen, he is dirty, frightened and starved half to death. He seems particularly simple - he does not know the word "larceny" - and can hardly defend himself against the taunts of the locals. However, halfway through the act, his language and power of speech intensify as he describes his father: "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'd put the fear of death into the banbhs and the screeching sows" (127).
This passage exemplifies Christy's still-raw terror of his father, depicting "his da" in mythical terms, as an adversary of nature and the universe. It is a remarkable irony that Christy is empowered by confessing so poetically his fear. Part of what made the play so challenging in its own day - and what makes it so unique even now - is that Synge presents a world defined by Church morality, but then reveals himself far more interested in the power of myth and story than in the limitations of that morality.
Most important to this intention are Pegeen's feelings for Christy. She notes the man's rhetorical skill even before he grows empowered, insinuating he must "have much talk and streeleen [wandering talk]...as Owen Roe O'Sullivan or the poets of Dingle Bay; and I've heard all times it's the poets are your like--fine, fiery fellows..." (128). In other words, Pegeen identifies Christy's penchant for aspirational "talk" even before he consciously attempts to evoke a mythical figure in the description of his father. And yet this fascination is hardly due simply to her love of language; instead, it is colored by her consideration of his parricide as valorous. Because he seems to have the courage to flaunt morality, she finds his self-expression through language to be remarkable. Most fascinating of all, as we later learn, the entire parricide exists only in language, since Old Mahon remains alive.
In fact, this conflation of words with actions becomes one of the play's major themes. Because Christy comes to believe his own story, he refashions himself, nourishes his self-image until he is the great figure that the village believes him to be. Over and over again, he restates, reinterprets, and revivifies the village's descriptions. In fact, these descriptions have a power in themselves, obvious when the Widow Quin arrives ready to snatch this boy up without even having laid eyes on him. The power of the story is far greater than the power of the particular individual, which Christy quickly recognizes as the ladies fight over him. They have both forgotten any sense of Catholic decorum, and are instead focused solely on having this vivacious storyteller for themselves. At the end of Act I, Christy revels in this newfound power: Speak it and it shall be. He drifts off to sleep "thinking this night wasn't I a foolish fellow not to kill my father in the years gone by" (131).
One can already recognize the play's unique power by the end of Act I. It is all the more confounding for the easy naturalism of its first few conversations, since that naturalism is so effectively transcended by the end of the Act. Synge's understanding of theatre, as a synthesis of "reality" and "joy," is wonderfully captured here. The world he creates - one limited by morality and geography, where folks are desperate for anything new to catch their attention - is recognizable, while the story he tells - where that morality is far less important than the mythic possibilities of self-definition - is full to the brim with poetic extravagance and theatrical possibility.