The Playboy of the Western World

The Playboy of the Western World Essay Questions

  1. 1

    In his Preface to The Playboy, Synge writes that “on the stage one must have reality, and one must have joy." What does he mean by this?

    Synge went to great lengths in his program note to The Playboy - and later in his published Preface - to assure the public that he reproduces in his play the singular language of Irish villagers. By representing the poetic language of these people through his plays, he is attempting to capture reality. And yet the poetic form of this language - rendered through imagery, argot and rhythm - also reflects the depth and color of a popular folk imagination. There is myth and excitement even within this realism. For Synge, this imagination and poetic extravagance was unfathomably rich, not only in its own expression, but also through its “joyful” effect on his own creativity.

  2. 2

    One of the first compliments Pegeen pays Christy is to compare him to “the poets.” Why is this significant?

    For the sake of a fine story - in this case, the story of Christy's deed - Pegeen suspends her moral judgment. Like many other villagers, Pegeen ironically bases her admiration for Christy entirely upon the “valorous” idea of patricide, which, we learn, has only actually occurred through words. The link between words and action is of great importance in The Playboy, since Christy becomes the hero he describes only after describing it and then endeavoring to become it. This is one of the first points at which Christy discovers the power of language; Pegeen describes him as one of "the poets" to reveal that his language can in itself mark him as a hero. Eventually, Christy will fulfill Pegeen's poetic image of him, and even transcend it by the play's end.

  3. 3

    Why did The Playboy’s first-night audience grow hostile at the entrance of Old Mahon?

    Old Mahon enters in Act II, head bloodied and wrapped in a bandage. The audience found this gore to be far too “representational,” or literal. Prior to the father’s entrance, Christy’s increasingly elaborate renditions of his patricide had been limited to the province of the imagination, and to the gift of the gab. But the appearance of Old Mahon, with his “mortified scalp," reminded the audience about the truth of violence (143). This gore in many ways contradicts the comic and fanciful tone of the play up to that point, and truly stresses the moral confusion that the characters feel over Christy's vile deed. Because they were not allowed an easy answer to the nature and morality of violence, the audience grew hostile.

  4. 4

    Shawn appeals incessantly to the authority of the absent Father Reilly. Why is this significant?

    Shawn is a boy of slavish faith, devoid of subtly of thought. When we meet him, he chooses to leave Pegeen alone in the dead of night rather than risk Father Reilly’s disapprobation, since spending unchaperoned time with a girl is sinful. Shawn trembles with his own fear of the dark and the phantoms he might meet there, but his true fear comes from the specter of individual moral choice. Constant appeal to Father Reilly’s authority frees Shawn Keogh from the terrifying threat of autonomy. This is particularly significant when contrasted with Christy, who tells a story of eschewing all moral expectation in pursuit of his own freedom, and eventually discovers the strength to actually turn that story to action. Ultimately, Pegeen Mike chooses to be more like Shawn even though she despises him, because she lacks the strength to follow the "playboy" path that Christy follows.

  5. 5

    Discuss the inversion of the Cú Chulainn myth, as Synge uses it in The Playboy.

    The hero Cú Chulainn occupies a tremendously important place in Irish literature and myth. Dating from the 8th century, the stories of Cú Chulainn feature a tragic twist in which the hero slays his own son, taking him for an intruder. Where Cú Chulainn — alone, without family — possesses extraordinary strength and wisdom, surviving trials and venturing to distant lands, “hero” Christy — previously joined at the hip to his drunken father — is dull and weak-limbed, never having traveled before stumbling upon County Mayo. Cú Chulainn purposefully slays an intruder, learning afterwards the boy is his son. His tragic end comes from strength. Christy strikes haphazardly at his father, contriving afterwards to elevate the act to murder. Not only was his 'heroism' accidental, but it was also cowardly. Cú Chulainn’s grief brings him low; Christy’s lie raises him up. All told, Synge challenges assumptions about morality by inverting a myth that his audience would most certainly have recognized.

  6. 6

    Discuss the “Theory of Regeneration,” and its importance to Irish Culture at the beginning of the 20th century. How does The Playboy reflect this theory?

    The “Theory of Regeneration” was intended to revitalize contemporary Irish identity in the 20th century. Its best expression came in the form of the Abbey Theatre, which was dedicated to producing Irish plays. This need for revitalization stemmed from decades of poverty, famine and political impotence in the grip of the English crown. Political nationalism became literary nationalism, a major component of which was the celebration of Ireland’s rich literary past of hero-centered myth and saga. The Playboy of the Western World both acknowledges the importance of this regeneration - by relating stories of the Irish countryside and evoking the myth and history of the country - while also subverting some of those elements, all in an attempt to help the culture grow without repudiating its past.

  7. 7

    How are we to understand the term “Playboy” in terms of the play?

    The concept of "The Playboy" is undoubtedly central to the play, considering its prominent place in the title. What is intriguing is that the concept shifts throughout the story. The Playboy is initially understood as a flirtatious man who attracts women. This aptitude is largely based on his mastery of language. Therefore, a playboy is one who can 'play' with words. And yet Christy drives this concept into a greater place, as his language and storytelling inflate his self-image. His identity grows to match the hyperbole of his language. As a result, he becomes a sports champion, suggesting that the Playboy is also an athletic specimen. By the end of the play, when Pegeen laments losing the "playboy," we understand that she does not regret losing a libertine, but rather a master of self-identity. The Playboy has come to represent not just a master of language or athletics, but in fact a master of himself and his own identity.

  8. 8

    What was the purpose of Synge’s program note?

    Synge's program note was in essence an “apology” for, or defense of, his play. In it, he maintained that his characters’ speech was, word for word, lifted from the speech of true Irishmen. He also maintained that he modeled the action of the play upon a true event from one of the islands. What the note reveals is his anxiety that the play would be seen as a transgressive attack on Irish culture, rather than as an attempt to expand the Irish culture. He wanted to both explore a theatrical reality and pay homage to his people, but feared that the former might distract from the latter. Hence, he makes an attempt to diffuse that fear, an attempt that was futile at the time of production but which has since that time provided invaluable insight into his artistic intentions.

  9. 9

    How does Synge’s Preface to The Playboy differ from the program note?

    The difference between the published preface and the program note is that the preface functions as a theory of writing, while the program note merely serves as an apology (i.e. defense) for his play. The Preface emphasizes the creative freedom engendered by the reproduction of native Irish speech, this speech being highly poetic in nature. It provides a fascinating theory of the connection between reality and poetic extravagance. The program note, on the other hand, focuses solely on Synge's fidelity to his Island subjects. It fails to emphasize the transformative effect his subjects’ poetic imaginations had upon his own, suggesting that it was written from anxiety, whereas the later preface was a fuller expression of his artistic process.

  10. 10

    Would you describe Pegeen Mike as strong-willed or weak, or somewhere in between?

    At the top of the play, there is no question that Synge wants us to see Pegeen as smart, brave, wily, sharp-tongued and self-possessed. She finds in Christy a match to her own violent inner passions, passions that might burst the confines of her stifling, island life. Christy’s tale of patricide — a wildly unnatural act, unbounded by conventional morality — inspires her imagination. She contrives to seduce Christy into proposing to her, proving to be a woman of considerable intelligence.

    When Christy’s tale is revealed to be false, however, she turns immediately on him, arguably from fear over being ridiculed by her peers. She does not recognize the passions she shares with Christy any longer, but instead lets herself be defined by village expectation. In this way, she is more like Shawn than Christy. She ignores Christy's insistence that he did believe he had killed his father, and hence loses sight of the fact that the fantasy and storytelling are as important as action itself.

    However, she shows her weakness even more when she refuses to embrace him after he attacks Old Mahon again. Pegeen’s betrayal of Christy reveals her weakness: Pegeen thrives on the imagined emancipation that his patricide represents, but she cannot tolerate its gruesome reality. Conventional morality hems her in as surely as the sea does. Ultimately, she is neither simply weak nor strong, but instead lives in-between. She recognizes the limits of her weakness, but does not have the strength to transcend it. This contradiction is what she expresses in the play's final lament.