In a short preface to his play, J. M. Synge focuses almost entirely on his appreciation for and use of genuine Irish village-speak. He attributes the vernacular, with its unique phrases, to coastal herders and fishermen from Ireland's West Coast, and to ballad singers and beggars from the East Coast.
Synge postulates that Elizabethan dramatists worked in the same way he did, by transcribing actual phrases they heard on the street or at the dinner table. Synge emphasizes a link between the imagination of the country people, whose words he profits by, and their speech itself, "rich and living" (111). Synge then contrasts this natural, living use of language with the way his day's most celebrated writers - like Mallarmé, Huysmans, Ibsen and Zola - use language. Mallarmé and Huysmans rely on forms that are abstracted from the "common interests of life," such as sonnets or prose poems, while Ibsen and Zola cleave to a description of reality that is "joyless and pallid." In other words, these writers distinguish between 'reality' and joy. Synge asserts that these features - abstraction and joylessness - mark the failure of "intellectual modern drama" (112).
He goes on to assert that "In a good play every speech should be as fully flavoured as a nut or apple." He again links this "flavour" to the "popular imagination" of a people who are "fiery" and "magnificent." Essentially, Synge credits rural Ireland for providing such people, and further credits himself for having the presence of mind and poetic vision to recognize them for their value. "On the stage," he writes, "one must have reality, and one must have joy" (112).
The first two sentences of the Preface come directly from Synge's program note for the premiere of The Playboy of the Western World, which took place at Dublin's Abbey Theatre in early January, 1907. During the rehearsal process for The Playboy, the Abbey's inner circle - Lady Gregory, W.B. Yeats and William Fay - had harshly criticized Synge over the coarseness of his language, plot and imagery. To proactively ward off similar criticisms from his audience, Synge included this note in the program. As further discussed in the "Additional Content" section of this ClassicsNote, his strategy was wholly unsuccessful, since it invited criticism rather than thwarted it. During its two-week Dublin run, the play inspired riots that required upward of 50 policemen to control.
Synge's assertion that the theater must contain both reality and joy provides a useful guidepost for navigating the extraordinarily unique and thorny universe of The Playboy. First, he focuses on the question of "reality," especially in terms of language. The language, Synge tells us, derives from the empirical, the witnessed, the overheard, i.e. the "chink in the floor of the old Wicklow house where I was staying, that let me hear what was being said..." In this sense, "reality" may be interpreted as the communication of a prose-based naturalism. He merely wants to recount the singular way of speaking that he has heard and appreciated.
But what does Synge mean by "joy," and how does it contrast with "reality?" Conducting an ill-advised interview with the Evening Mail several days after the play's debut (and several days into the riots), Synge insisted the work was not "to represent Irish life as it is lived." Rather, the play was "a comedy, an extravaganza..." In other words, he tried to emphasize that the play was a theatrical fantasy, rather than a realistic depiction of life. Synge later tried to retract the extravaganza angle, insisting again that the play was grounded in realism, and citing a famous case of rural murder that he'd used for its inspiration.
His letters, however, suggest a tenuous relationship between the murder case and the action of his play. In these letters, he admits that he cited the case merely to fend off allegations of having written a preposterously vile and utterly improbable scenario. Yet the peculiar strangle-hold of the story lies precisely in its outlandish, phantasmagorical, violent and surreal nature. The prose-based naturalism of the characters' speech is only one aspect of the play, a vehicle meant to transport more stylized observations on the grotesque, outlandish and desperate potential of the human heart. In this way, prose-based naturalism allows for the poetic transmission of what is truly extravagant.
The "joy" Synge requires of the stage may therefore be understood as "poetic extravagance." Certainly, this is a useful definition for understanding the play. The difficulty in correctly understanding the intent and style of The Playboy of the Western World often comes from a confusion between the "reality" and the "joy," while a proper understanding of Synge's worldview involves recognizing that those qualities are not antithetical to one another, but are in fact dependent.