The Playboy of the Western World

The Playboy of the Western World Summary and Analysis of Act II


Act II begins the following morning, as Christy, alone, counts the pub's crockery and glassware. He decides this would be a fine place to call home, and then looks into the wall mirror to confirm that he is indeed a handsome man, as others have recently described him. He notes that he seemed ugly in his home mirror. When he hears some women outside, he quickly hides.

Four village girls - Susan Brady, Sara Tansey, Nelly, and Honor Blake - enter. They have heard about Christy, and want to see him for themselves. They soon enough find him hiding, and then shyly offer some presents: duck eggs, butter, cake and a chicken. They flirt with him a bit, and then Widow Quin enters, announcing that she has registered Christy for the sports competition happening down on the beach. The women expect that he will prove a peerless athlete.

As the girls and the widow prepare breakfast for him, Christy fleshes out the story of the murder. His father had ordered Christy to marry a fat, ugly widow-woman twice his age. When Christy refused, his father threatened him with a scythe, and Christy in turn threatened his father with a spade. When his father struck at him, Christy feinted and then delivered the fatal blow to the older man's skull.

Susan teases that the Lord God has sent Christy to their village to wed the Widow Quin. The widow and Christy link arms, and drink a toast "to the wonders of the western world" (136).

Pegeen enters to see the toast, and kicks the women out. She then accuses Christy of flirting, which he denies. He grabs a spade and holds it out to remind her of his great, heroic deed, but she scoffs at him. When he counters that the women were interested in his story, she insinuates that they will gossip about him and hence increase his chances of being apprehended. She then describes in detail a story she read in the paper, about a man recently hanged. The description completely unnerves Christy, who prepares to flee. However, Pegeen calms him down, insisting she was only mocking him, and that she has found no mention of his crime in the paper. He is safe with her. Pegeen and Christy then exchange kind, tender fantasies about the future they might share together.

Shawn Keogh runs in with the Widow Quin. Shawn warns Pegeen that her family's sheep are eating cabbage in a neighbor's field, and hence might burst their stomachs. Pegeen runs out to collect her sheep, at which point Shawn offers Christy a one-way ticket to the "Western States" (the U.S.), his new hat, his excellent breeches, his new coat, and his blessing if Christy will agree to leave the village. Christy rejects this offer. However, the widow exhorts him to try on the new clothes so he will have something nice to wear for the competition, and Christy accepts. He leaves the room to change clothing.

While Christy is gone, Shawn promises Widow Quin a ewe if she can interrupt the burgeoning relationship between Pegeen and the stranger. The widow asks what Shawn would pay if she could get Christy to marry her, and Shawn names just about everything he owns. The deal is struck.

Christy parades back in, now wearing Shawn's clothes. After giving his compliments, Shawn races out. Christy continues to prance about, imagining a future of fine clothes and gifts celebrating his triumphant deed. Suddenly, he staggers back, aghast, saying he has seen "the walking spirit of [his] murdered da" out the window (142). Christy hides just as Old Mahon enters.

Old Mahon immediately inquires whether the widow has seen a young fellow, whom he has been tracking for ten days. He removes his hat to reveal a vicious, semi-bandaged wound, and then describes the young fellow as his stupid, useless, and dirty son. He further describes the son - Christy, of course - as too weak to drink or smoke a pipe, and as absurdly fearful of women. In fact, Christy is the butt of his own townswomen's jokes. The widow asserts that she has seen a young man who meets the description, but that he has traveled over the hills to catch a steamer. Mahon exits abruptly to chase after this lead.

His father gone, Christy wonders why the man pretended to be dead, and wishes a violent death for him now. His venom shocks the widow. Christy then grows suddenly tearful as he imagines losing the new life with Pegeen that he was on the verge of beginning. The widow softly suggests that she and Christy are alike in character, each with a melancholy side that accompanies having killed a close relation. She begins to paint a picture of a tender future they might share together, but Christy hardly hears her, as the sound of the approaching girls interrupts them.

Christy begs the widow to help him win Pegeen. She names her terms - "a right of way I want, and a mountainy ram, and a load of dung at Michaelmas" - and he agrees (146). Just like that, Widow Quin relinquishes her own design on Christy, and agrees to keep his secret. If Old Mahon should return, she will swear he is a lunatic.

Sarah, Honor and Susan enter to lead Christy down to the beach so he can compete in the sports. Once they leave, Widow Quin reflects that even if his secret is revealed, she will end up with him as husband as consolation, since he will have nobody else to turn to.


Padraic Colum — Synge’s friend and fellow dramatist — reported that The Playboy’s audience grew hostile from the moment Old Mahon entered, wearing his bloodied bandage. According to Colum, the scene was “too representational.” By “representational,” Colum meant literal. Prior to his father’s entrance, Christy’s increasingly elaborate renditions of his parricide had been limited to the province of the imagination, and to the gift of gab.

But the appearance of Old Mahon, with his “mortified scalp," introduces a faithful representation of violence's gruesome reality (143). The depiction of blood and gore challenges the comic tone Synge has set, mostly through the guilelessness of the bumbling Christy. In other words, for Synge's audience - and for us today - Christy comes off as essentially harmless, a lad seduced by the acclaim of his increasingly tall tale. As we laugh at his elaborate seduction, the grim reality — whatever it may be — of Christy’s past deed recedes from our minds in direct proportion to its import for the characters on stage. In other words, the more taken the villagers are by Christy, the less does the violent reality seem to matter. When Old Mahon enters with a gaping brainpan, the distance closes.

Even before Old Mahon's entrance, The Playboy continually explores the gap between the subjective experience the villagers have with Christy's story, and the objective reality of a violent murder. Consider this exchange between Christy and the Widow Quin, each painting an image of Pegeen:

Christy: [In despair and grief] Amn’t I [crying] after seeing the lovelight of the star of knowledge shining from her [Pegeen’s] brow, and hearing words would put you thinking on the holy Brigid speaking to the infant saints, and now she’ll be turning again, and speaking hard words to me...

Widow Quin: There’s poetry talk for a girl you’d see itching and scratching, and she with the stale stink of poteen on her from selling in the shop. (146)

In this exchange, Pegeen is presented in two utterly distinct fashions. Where Christy sees her in almost holy terms, the widow frames her simply as a dirty shop wench. The portraits exist simultaneously, speaking to language's power to inform reality. It is striking that both Christy and the Widow Quin refer to the transformative power inherent in the hearing of language —whether “that of Holy Brigid speaking” or simply “poetry-talk.”

In other words, language has the power to obliviate objective reality, to transform it into something greater. Christy's eloquent speech, his heightened language, reflects his burgeoning awareness that he can achieve a dignified life through his words. Heroes emerge in the place of nobodies, enlivened by language and its conflation with action.

The link between language and action is the imagination. Throughout the play, Christy’s power of speech blossoms in direct relation to his newfound vision of his own life’s potential. This newfound vision is an expression of the imagination, an imagination spurring him to woo Pegeen and to enter the sports competition on the beach. His language and storytelling give him license to imagine a greater life, which is turn heightens his language even more. As a foil to Christy, Shawn further reflects this idea, absurdly lamenting that he was an orphan and hence never had the chance to "kill" his father and "make [himself] a hero in the sight of all" (141). He does not recognize the power of the imagination to transform reality; he is obsessed with objective reality, and hence does not take the license for falsehood that Christy so easily embraces. What Christy realizes, and that Shawn does not, is that anything is possible through language.

Except that reality has an ugly way of intruding on the imagination, as Old Mahon's return indicates. What Synge's audience reacted against, and what modern audiences have the opportunity to relish, is how the play constantly veers between "reality" and "joy." Everything Christy achieves through his powerful and poetic imagination is decimated in an instant when the reality returns. It is not only that his father is alive, but that he is reminded of his true character, as a coward and a nobody. It is telling that Widow Quin buys him a momentary reprieve, and then promises to help him, through the use of further stories. She tells Old Mahon a lie, and then promises to lie about the old man if he returns again. She and Christy are now allied in crafting an imaginative tale to transcend reality. Of course, the audience can probably recognize that this too will flourish only until reality rears its ugly head yet again.