John Synge – The Playboy of the Western World (A theatre review)

I went to see this production a few days ago at the Old Vic so I thought I’d write up what I thought of it… It was good. Having neither read the play nor seen any other productions, I’ll assume that play and production are one and the same for the sake of this review…

This is a fascinating piece of drama for the complexity of feeling it arouses. You can see why the first productions started riots: beneath the virile, musical dialogue and flamboyant performances and stagecraft, lies a moral and philosophical discourse that is deeply unsettling even to an audience today – we could describe it as nihilistic pastoral. The protagonist, Christie Mahon, arrives in a rural Irish pub claiming he’s killed his father. The story enthrals the villagers, and turns Mahon from self-effacing social outcast to a ‘playboy of the western world’.

When it comes to light that his father is in fact still alive and chasing after him, the villagers turn against Mahon and hand him over to his father. Christie’s second attempted parricide, far from bringing the renewed devotion of the villagers, causes a vindictive disgust amongst them, and they prepare to hand him over to be hung. When Christie’s father reveals himself to still be alive and seeks to make reparations with him, Christie rejects everyone and leaves to seek a new life, this time armed with a true story that will bring him fortune elsewhere.

What this summary perhaps draws attention to is the play’s complete lack of faith in the idea of natural human sympathy, human kindness and principles. Contemporary audiences saw the play as a slight on the Irish character, and certainly the portrayal of rural Irish community is fairly unsympathetic. One exception is found in the character of Pegeen – a role very attentively performed by whoever performed it – who we as an audience attach to from the very first scene. Her pride, scepticism and seriousness are attractive in contrast with the foolery of her father and suitor at the start of the play. The way her own vindictive ignorance is revealed at the end seems almost a comment on us: Synge is making us aware that no one escapes this dark conception of human character.

The change in Christie’s character, brilliantly acted in this production, suggests that human character is governed by forces far less permanent than personality and morality. Rather, we are at the whim of chance and the erratic affections and hatreds of others – the play seems to reject the idea of ‘soul’ and ‘being’ and replace it with the far more contingent ‘story’.

It is this value placed on the idea of ‘story’ that inspires the absorbing, beautiful dialogue of the play – its richness seeming to jar against the nihilistic characterization. By so consciously enjoying its own language, the play seems to offer a hope of escape or alternative in language itself, offering perhaps something more fixed and trustworthy in language than can be found in humankind.

A really enjoyable production, I’d strongly recommend it. It’s hilarious at times and absorbing from start to finish, but the dark current of meaning leaves a very bitter taste in the mouth.


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