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1896 - 1907

The Journey of 'The Playboy'

Playwright and director at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, John Millington Synge (1871–1909) remains one of the most important figures in Irish drama. His most celebrated work, 'The Playboy of the Western World', caused riots when it was first performed in 1907 and has since been the subject of major revivals. Celebrating the 110th anniversary of its first performance, 'The Journey of "The Playboy"' illustrates the development of Synge’s most famous play, which follows Christy Mahon, on the run in the west of Ireland having 'murdered' his father. 

1. Synge's Western World: Aran
The west of Ireland was a key creative source for Synge. These opening sections explore his relationship with the Aran Islands, West Kerry and North Mayo.

Synge’s diary entry—in French like many of his entries in his time in Paris—recording his first meeting with W.B. Yeats on 21 December 1896 along with his current reading. Yeats and Synge would go on to become co-directors at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre. (1/2)

'Fait la connaissance de W. B. Yeates.'
[Made the acquaintance of W. B. Yeates.] (2/2)

In his introduction to the first edition of 'The Well of the Saints', Yeats gives his account of their first meeting, in which he claims to have advised Synge to visit Aran for the first time.

It is in fact unlikely that he gave this famous advice then but at a later meeting in 1899 after Synge had already been to Aran and was deciding whether to concentrate on writing about his experiences there or to continue with his literary studies in Paris.

Photograph by Synge of the cottage of Patrick McDonagh, where he stayed on visits to Inishmaan (the middle of the three Aran Islands) like many other visitors to the island, including nationalist Patrick Pearse.

This is the story of the father-killer, told to Synge on his first visit to Inishmaan in May 1898 and recorded in the first draft of his travel book 'The Aran Islands', which gave him the idea for 'The Playboy'.

Blickensderfer typewriter bought by Synge in 1900. Synge was one of the first writers to compose directly on the typewriter.

2. Synge's Western World: West Kerry
Having spent five years visiting the Aran Islands, Synge travelled to West Kerry four times between 1903 and 1906.

Philly and Margaret Harris’s cottage in Mountain Stage, Co. Kerry, where Synge stayed on his visits.

Notes of phrases heard on 1905 visit to Mountain Stage, including one—‘mule kicking the stars’—subsequently used in 'Playboy'. Synge differentiated the phrases heard from those he made up by adding the initials ‘JMS’ to the ones he coined. (1/2)

Notes of phrases heard on 1905 visit to Mountain Stage, including one—‘mule kicking the stars’—subsequently used in 'Playboy'. Synge differentiated the phrases heard from those he made up by adding the initials ‘JMS’ to the ones he coined. (2/2)

Old Mahon uses the phrase as he watches his son Christy competing in a local race. (1/2)

Old Mahon uses the phrase as he watches his son Christy competing in a local race. (2/2)

This is another story noted by Synge in his 1905 Kerry visit which he was to embroider in the dialogue of 'Playboy'. (1/2)

Woman suckles lamb in which doctor detects the elements of a Christian in Cahirciveen. (2/2)

In Pegeen’s insulting tirade to Widow Quin, the incident takes on a distinctly sacrilegious character. (1/2)

In Pegeen’s insulting tirade to Widow Quin, the incident takes on a distinctly sacrilegious character. (2/2)

3. Synge's Western World: North Mayo
In 1905, Synge was commissioned by the ‘Manchester Guardian’ to write a series of articles on the ‘Congested Disticts’, the poorest areas of the west of Ireland, including North Mayo. 'The Playboy' is set in this district, close to Belmullet.

'The general appearance of North Mayo country round Belmullet—another district of great poverty—differs curious from that of Connemara. In Mayo a waste of turf and bog takes the place of the waste of stones that is the feature of the coast of Galway. Everywhere in the building of walls and ditches and even the gables of cottages sods of turf are used instead of pieces of loose granite or limestone.'

Synge’s rough notes for his article ‘In the “Congested Districts”: The Homes of the Harvestmen’, which ends with an account of migrant labourers departing from Belmullet to work in Glasgow.

Harvesters returning with their earnings from Britain are among the threats to Pegeen Mike, who is to be left alone in the pub overnight. (1/2)

PEGEEN (Working herself up) Isn’t there the harvest boys with their tongues red for drink and the ten tinkers is camped in the east glen and the thousand militia—bad cess to them!—walking idle through the land. (2/2)

4. Building a Play
The composition of ‘Playboy’ took almost 1000 pages of drafts. This section explores some of the most important points in the play’s development.

This scenario, from a notebook used in autumn 1904, is the first extant draft of 'Playboy'. It is noticeable that here Synge envisaged a completely farcical comedy of situation. It would take another two and a half years and many different versions to bring the play to the stage.

An early draft of the opening scene of what was planned as Act II, but with the number here altered to Act I. Synge had evidently changed his mind about including the actual scene of Old Mahon's ‘murder’ in the potato field, designed as the original first act.

In this version of the opening scene, Synge appears uncertain as to the play’s title, trying out ‘The Fool of the Family’ as an alternative to ‘Murder Will Out’.

By this draft F, dated 1 January 1906, Synge has at last settled on the title of 'The Playboy of the Western World' and has had the inspiration of starting with Pegeen Mike reading aloud the letter in which she orders items for her wedding. Notice the changes where Synge had originally written ‘English heels’, then changed to ‘big’, ‘long’ before finally settling on ‘lengthy’, and altered ‘young girl’ to ‘young woman’.

Here Synge considered framing the play with a ballad-singer who would perpetuate the legend of Christy’s father-killing even when it had been exposed as a lie. In this version, Shawn Keogh ends up in the ascendant.

Synge was uncertain how his play should end. In this conclusion, Christy marries Widow Quin and Pegeen is left desolate with a version of her famous last line.

In another variant of the ending, Widow Quin offers shelter to both Old Mahon and Christy and undertakes to marry one or another of them as soon as Pegeen marries Shawn.

This was a chart Synge used at a late stage of composition, analysing the structure of the play for the purposes of revision, each scene having its ‘current’ or line of dramatic action, while in the right-hand column the genre—‘comedy’, ‘drama’, ‘Molierean climax of farce’—and style—‘Poetical’, ‘Rabelaisian’—are noted.

5. Christy: hero or anti-hero
From the beginning, the conception of the play involved the transformation of Christy, the frightened fugitive from justice, into the swaggering and eloquent playboy. In the drafts we can see Synge developing the different elements within the character, which have allowed actors to bring out one side or another. Here we see Christy, enjoying ‘the first confidential talk he has ever had with a woman’, describing his past life as ‘a quiet simple poor fellow with no man giving me heed’.

Maeliosa Stafford, playing the part opposite Mick Lally's menacing Old Mahon, well illustrates Christy the initial anti-hero.

The manuscript changes show the trouble Synge took to get the rhythm right on Christy’s most famous love speech to Pegeen, comparing her to Helen of Troy.

Cillian Murphy pleads his love to Anne-Marie Duff as Pegeen in the 2004 DruidSynge production.

6. Pegeen Mike: from village terror to vulnerable lover
If Christy is transformed from anti-hero to hero, Pegeen’s hard heart is melted by her love for this unexpected stranger.

Bríd Brennan, playing the part in the 1982 Druid production, suggests an innocent vulnerability in Pegeen.

7. From Susan to Widow Quin
In this early draft, the character who became Widow Quin was Susan, just one more of the young girls making up to Christy to Pegeen’s extreme displeasure.

Marie Mullen, playing the part of the Widow as a youthful and attractive rival to Pegeen for Christy’s love.

By this draft, the Widow is an older woman, organising Christy and the girls.

8. Realisation in the Theatre
Synge's play continued to evolve as he directed it in the theatre. This digital visualisation of the early Abbey Theatre includes a reconstruction of the 'Playboy' set.

On the opening night, 26 January 1907, the play was disrupted during Act III. Augusta Gregory sent a telegram to her and Synge’s fellow Abbey director W.B. Yeats: 'Audience broke up in disorder at the word shift'.

'Playboy' riots

The morning after the riots, Synge wrote to his fiancée Molly Allgood. In the face of a hostile reception, he was keenly aware of the value of engaging his audience. 110 years on, 'The Playboy' continues to do so. (1/2)

It is better any day to have the row we had last night, than to have your play fizzling out in half-hearted applause. Now we’ll be talked about. We’re an event in the history of the Irish stage. (2/2)

The Library of Trinity College Dublin
Credits: Exhibit

Curation: Nicholas Grene and James Little, School of English, Trinity College Dublin.

Technical assistance: Greg Sheaf, Digital Systems and Services, the Library of Trinity College Dublin.

Imaging: Sharon Sutton, Digital Resources and Imaging Services, the Library of Trinity College Dublin; Berni Metcalfe, Reprographic Services, National Library of Ireland.

We would like to express our gratitude to Paul Ferguson (the Library of Trinity College Dublin), Barry Houlihan (the James Hardiman Library), Daniel Berroteran (Noho) and Keith Pattison for their help in sourcing images for the exhibition.

We are very grateful to Ivan Birthistle for recording the 'Playboy' riots and owe a special debt of thanks to the cast: Venetia Bowe (Widow Quin and Sara); Barry Kinsella (Christy); Kevin Creedon, Paul Mescal and TJ O'Grady Peyton (rioters).

Many thanks to Angus Grundy, Magda Hejna, Stephen O’Neill and Caitlin Tyler-Richards for providing valuable feedback on beta versions of the exhibition.

Credits: All media
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