John Millington Synge: Commentary

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Contemporary reviews

D. J. O’Donoghue
Arthur Griffith
Lady Gregory
W. B. Yeats
George Moore
James Joyce
St. John Ervine
Francis Bickley
Violet Martin
Patrick Pearse
G. B. Shaw
Thomas MacDonagh
Daniel Corkery
Lord Dunsany
Conrad Arensberg
Louis MacNeice
Stepen Spender
Patrick Kavanagh
Edward Stephens
Greene & Stephens
Robin Skelton
Robin Flower
Seán Ó Tuama
Alan Price
Frank Tuohy
Declan Kiberd
Seán McMahon
Andrew Carpenter
Seamus Heaney
Seamus Deane
Mary C. King
Ulick OConnor
Luke Gibbons
Nicholas Grene
Robert Welch
Benedict Kiely
Richard Murphy
Conor Farrington
Stanley Sultan
David Edgar
Kevin Barry
C. L. Dallat
Terence Brown
Nicholas Grene
Rob Doggett
Nelson Ó C. Ritschel
James Pethica
Michael Billington
Roy Foster
J. W. Foster
Fintan O’Toole
Rebecca Stout
Alan Titley

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Contemporary & later reviews

THE FREEMAN’S JOURNAL (1907) [on Playboy ] - I: ‘unmitigated, protracted libel upon Irish peasant man, and worse still upon Irish peasant girlhood’, continuing: ‘The blood boils with indignation as one recalls the incidents, expressions, ideas of this squalid, offensive production, incongruously styled a comedy in three acts […] no adequate idea can be given of the barbarous jargon, the elaborate and incessant cursings of these repulsive creatures.’ (Quoted in David H. Greene and Edward M. Stephens, J. M. Synge 1871-1909, NY: Macmillan 1959, p.239; 1961 [London Edn.] p.242). Further, ‘calumny gone raving mad’ (quoted in Francis Bickley, 1912 [infra].

THE FREEMAN’S JOURNAL (1907) [on Playboy ] - II: complains that the Abbey Theatre directors “were expected to fulfill the true purpose of playing - ‘to hold as ’twere the, mirror up to Nature,’ to banish the meretricious stage, and give, for the first time, true pictures of Irish life and fulfillment of that pledge.” (Anon, Freeman’s Journal , 29 Jan. 1907; rep. in James Kilroy, ed., The Playboy Riots, Dolmen Press 1971, p.20; quoted in Gregory.)

THE IRISH TIMES (q.d. 1907): [A]lthough parts of it are, or are meant to be, extravagant comedy, still agreat deal that is in it and a great deal more that is behind it is perectly serious when locked at in a certain light […] There are, it may be hinted, several sides to The Playboy .’ (Quoted in Stanley Sultan, ‘A Joycean Look at The Playboy of the Western World ’, in Maurice Harmon, ed., The Celtic Master, Dolmen Press 1969, p.48.)

SUNDAY PRESS (Letter of 1969): ‘When are [we] going to stop disgracing Ireland before the world by showing her up on such philistine light. I am thinking just at present of The Playboy of the Western World, with its murderers, semi-drunken kitchen-inhabiting cursing crowd of uneducated peasants, a cinema showing of which I witnessed last week.’ (7 Dec. 1969; quoted in Paul Levitt, J. M. Synge: Bibliography of Published Criticism, 1974, p.6.)

See elegy entitled "Synge's Grave" under Winifred M. Letts - as attached.]
Synge’s Grave  

My grief! that they have laid you in the town
Within the moidher of its thousand wheels
And busy feet that travel up and down.

They had a right to choose a better bed
Far off among the hills where silence steals
In on the soul with comfort-bringing tread.

The curlew would have keened for you all day,
The wind across the heather cried Ochone
For sorrow of his brother gone away.

In Glenmalure, far off from town-born men,
Why would they not have let you sleep alone
At peace there in the shadow of the glen ?

To tend your grave you should have had the sun,
The fraughan and the moss, the heather brown
And gorse turned gold for joy of Spring begun.


Cont. as attached.]


D. J. O’Donoghue: ‘The continuous ferocity of the language, the consistent shamelessness of all the characters (without exception), and the persistent allusions to sacred things make the play even more inexcusable as an extravaganza than as a serious play.’ [Cited in Thomas Kilroy, The ‘Playboy’ Riots, p.76.]

Arthur Griffith, in United Ireland, review-article on In the Shadow of the Glen: ‘Mr. Synge’s mode of attack is not one to be commended [...] Man and woman in rural Ireland, according to Mr. Synge, marry lacking love, and, as a consequence, the women proves unfaithful. Mr. Synge never found that in Irish life. Men and women in Ireland marry lacking love, and mostly live in a dull level of amity. Sometimes they do not - sometimes the woman lives in bitterness - sometimes she dies of a broken heart - but she does not go away with a tramp.’ (Quoted in Rob Doggett, ‘In the Shadow of the Glen: Gender, Nationalism, and “A Woman Only”’, in ELH, Winter 2000, pp.1011-34 [available at JSTOR - online; cited in Salome Houston, PG Dip. Essay, UUC 2012.)

Cf. ‘[T]his play of his [Synge’s] shows him to be as utterly a stranger to Irish char acter as any Englishman who has yet dissected us for the enlightenment of his country men ... [Some] men and women in Ireland marry lacking love, and live mostly in a dull level of amity. Sometimes they do not? Sometimes the woman lives in bitterness? Sometimes she dies of a broken heart - but she does not go away with the Tramp ... It is not by staging a lie we can serve Ireland.’ (Arthur Griffith, ‘All Ireland’ The United Irishman, 17 October 1903, p.1; quoted in Nelson Ó Ceallaigh Ritschel, ‘In the Shadow of the Glen: Synge, Ostrovsky, and Marital Separation’, in New Hibernia Review, 7, 4 (Winter 2004), pp.85-102 [available at JSTOR - online].

Arthur Griffith, writing in Sinn Féin, called The Playboy ‘a vile and inhuman story told in the foulest language we have ever listened to from a public platform’ (idem.) Greene and Edwards remark: ‘The Playboy ’s self-liberation from parental tyranny and from the loveless marriage imposed on him by peasant custom was a symbol of their own deep-seated urge to reject the tyranny in their own lives exemplified by Pegeen’s forthcoming marriage to an oafish and spineless kinsman, dictated by her father and with the endorsement of Father Reilly’s dispensation.’ (Quoted in Greene and Stephens, op. cit., 1961 Edn., p.252.) [See also remarks on Griffith’ reaction in Peadar Kearney [Ó Cearnaigh], “The Abbey Theatre” - infra.]


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Lady Gregory (I): ‘I first saw J. M. Synge in the North Island of Aran. I was staying there gathering folk-lore, talking to the people, and felt quite angry when I passed another outsider walking here and there, talking also to the people. I was jealous of not being alone on the island among the fishers and seaweed gatherers. I did not speak to the stranger, nor was he inclined to speak to me; he also looked on me as an intruder, I only heard his name.’ (Our Irish Theatre, Gerards Cross: Colin Smythe 1973, p.73.) See also Synge’s admission of feeling ‘galling jealousy’ of other scholars visiting the island; cited in James Pethica, ‘Lady Gregory and J. M. Synge, Irish University Review, Spring/Summer 2004, p.18 [ftn.].)

Lady Gregory (II): Lady Gregory wrote to Synge on receipt of his MS of The Aran Islands calling it ‘an imaginative & at the same time convincing impression of the people, & of their life’ adding that, ‘being so solid & detailed as it is, would lose nothing but would rather gain, by the actual names of the islands, or of Galway, not being given [and would be] greatly improved by the addition of some more fairy belief.’ (See in Ann Saddlemyer, ed., Theatre Business; The Correspondence of the First Abbey Directors, Colin Smythe 1982, p.30; quoted in Pethica, op. cit., 2004, p.5.)

Lady Gregory to Synge, letter of 14 Jan. 1907: ‘I feel we are beginning the fight of our lives ... we must make no mistakes.’ (Quoted in Diarmaid Ferriter, ‘Playboy of the Western World 100 years on’, in The Irish Times, 27 Jan. 2007 - online.)

Lady Gregory (III) - letter to W. B. Yeats, on his suggesting she write something about Synge to accompany his “J. M. Synge and the Ireland of His Time”: ‘As to writing about Synge, I should not like to do it. I have nothing to say that you are not saying, we knew him together so much […] Also, one doesn’t want a series of panegyrics, & one can’t say, & doesn’t want to say what was true, he was ungracious to Iiis fellow workers - authors & actors - ready in accepting praise, grudging in giving it. I wonder if he ever felt a moment’s gratitude for all we went through fighting his battle over the Playboy? On tour he thought of his own plays always, gave no help to ours - if he repeated compliments sometimes, they were to his own.’ (?12 April 1910; Berg Collection; quoted in James Pethica, ‘“A Young Man’s Ghost”: Lady Gregory and J. M. Synge’, in Irish University Review, 34, 1, Spring/Summer 2004, p.17.) Pethica notes that for Lady Gregory the guardianship of Yeats’s creative output remained her principal concern (idem.). Note: Lady Gregory wrote of the Playboy: ‘it was a definite fight for freedom from mob censorship.’ (Our Irish Theatre: A Chapter of Autobiography, NY: PUtnam 1913, p.115; quoted in Aaron Kelly, Twentieth-Century Literature in Ireland: A Reader’s Guide to Essential Criticism, London: Palgrave Macmillan 2008, p.19.)

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W. B. Yeats (Autobiographies, 1955): ‘When a country produces a man of genius he never is what it wants or believes it wants; he is always unlike its idea of itself. In the eighteenth century Scotland believed itself religious, moral and gloomy, and its national poet Burns came not to speak of these things but to speak of lust and drink and drunken gaiety. Ireland, since the Young Irelanders, has given itself up to apologetics. Every impression of life or impulse or imagination has been examined to see if it helped or hurt the glory of Ireland or the political claim of Ireland. A sincere impression of life became at last impossible, all was apologetics. There was no longer an impartial imagination, delighting in watever is naturally exciting. Synge was the rushing up of the buried fire, an explosion of all that had been denied or refused, a furious impariality, an indifferent turbulent sorrow. His work, like that of Burns, was to say all the people did not want to have said. He was able to do this because nature had made him incapable of a political idea.’ (“Death of Synge”; Autobiographies, p.520.)

W. B. Yeats: ‘And here’s John Synge, that rooted man, / “Forgetting human words”, a grave deep face.’ (“Municipal Gallery Revisited”, Collected Poems, NY: Macmillan Edn. 1951, p.318.)

W. B. Yeats ( Bounty of Sweden’), ‘I had met John Synge in Paris in 1896. Somebody had said, “There is an Irishman living on the top floor of your hotel; I will introduce you.’ I was very poor, but he was much poorer. He belonged to a very old Irish family and, though a simple courteous man, remembered it and was haughty and lonely. with just enough to keep him from starvation and not always from half-starvation, he had wandered about Europe, travelling third-class or upon foot, playing his fiddle to poor men on the road or in their cottages. He was the man that we needed, because he was the only man I have ever known incapable of a political thought or a humanitarian purpose. He could walk the roads all day with some poor man without any desire to do him good or for any reason except that he liked him. He was to do for Ireland, though more by his influence on other dramatists than by his direct influence, what Robert Burns did for Scotland. When Scotland thought herself gloomy and religious, Providence restored her imaginative spontaneity by raising up Robert Burns to commend drink and the Devil. I did not, however, see what was to come when I advised John Synge to [567] go to a wild island off the Galway coast and study its life because that life “had never been expressed in literature”. He had learned Gaelic at College and I told him that, as I would have told it to any young man who had learned Gaelic and wanted to write. When he found that wild island he became happy for the first time, escaping, as he said “from the nullity of the rich and the squalor of the poor”. He had bad health, he could not stand the island hardship long, but he would go to and fro between there and Dublin.’ (Autobiographies, pp.567-78.) Further, ‘When your King gave me a medal and diploma, two forms should have stood, one at either side of me, an old woman sinking into the infirmity of age, and a young man’s ghost. I think when Lady Gregory and John Synge’s names are spoken by future generations, my name, if remembered, will come up in the talk, and that if my name is spoken first their names will come in their turn because of the years we worked together …’ (J. M. Hone, W. B. Yeats 1865-1939, London: Macmillan 1942, p.356.)

W. B. Yeats once described Synge’s work as ‘that strange, violent, laughable thing’ (T. R. Henn, The Lonely Tower, 1950, p.79). Note also, Yeats: ‘Synge thought that he had reintroduced sex into Irish literature, and that the Playboy riot was occasioned by the fact that all the audience could see the sex only (Letter to Stephen MacKenna [n.d.], given in Irish Renaissance, A Gathering of Essays, Memoirs, and Letters from the ‘Massechusetts Review’, ed. Robin Skelton & David R. Clarke (1965), p.66; cited in A. N. Jeffares, W. B. Yeats, A New Biography (Macmillan 1988), p.257 & n. See also Synge’s remarks to MacKenna in a letter of 1903 - under Quotations, infra.

W. B. Yeats on the ‘Playboy riot’: ‘On the second performance of The Playboy of the Western World, about forty men who sat in the middle of the pit succeeded in making the play entirely inaudible. Some of them brought tin trumpets, and the noise began immediately upon the rise of the curtain. For days articles in the Press called for the withdrawal of the play, but we played for the seven nights we had announced; and before the week’s end opinion had turned in our favour. There were, however, nightly disturbances and a good deal of rioting in the surrounding streets. On the last night of the play there were, I believe, five hundred police keeping order in the theatre and in its neighbourhood.’ (Explorations, p.226.)

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W. B. Yeats on Synge’s early work: ‘I have but a vague impression as of a man trying to look out of a window and blurring all that he sees by breathing upon the window.’ (Autobiographies, ?344.) Further, on Deirdre of the Sorrows : ‘Synge was reworking the play at the time of his death with a view to adjusting the roles of minor characters such as Lavarcham and Fergus, in order to add - as Yeats reported in a preface to the first edition (1910) - ‘a grotesque element [to] its lyrical melancholy to give contrast and create an impression of solidity.’ Further, ‘He was a drifting, silent man full of hidden passion, and loved the wild islands, because there, set out in the light of day, he saw what lay hidden in himself.’ (“J. M. Synge and the Ireland of his Time”, in Essays and Introductions, 1961 [& edns.], p.330.

W. B. Yeats on Synge’s conception of style: ‘“[I]s not style”, as Synge once said to me, “born out of the shock of new material?”.’ (‘The Bounty of Sweden’, Autobiographies, 1955, p.531; quoted in Declan Kiberd, Inventing Ireland, 1995, p.120 [var. 169].) Further, on dialectic in Synge: ‘[T]he first use of Irish dialect, rich, abundant, and correct, for the purpose of creative art was in J. M. Synge’s Riders to the Sea and Lady Gregory’s Spreading of the News .’ (Plays in Prose and Verse Written for an Irish Theatre, London: Macmillan 1922, p.430.)

W. B. Yeats, Synge and the Ireland of His Time (Cuala Press 1911): ‘[I]n Ireland he loved only what was wild in its people, and in “the grey and wintry sides of many glens”. All the rest, all tha tone reasoned over, fought for, read of in leading articles, all that came from education, all that came down from Young Ireland - though for this he had not lacked a little sympathy - first wakened in him perhaps that irony which runs through all he wrote; but once awakened, he made it turn its face upon the whole world.’ (Essays and Introductions, p.320; quoted in Terence Brown, Life of W. B. Yeats, 1999 [2001 pb. edn.], p.189.)

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W. B. Yeats (J. M. Synge and the Ireland of his Time’ [1912]) - cont.: ‘He [Synge] was a reserved man, and wished no doubt by a vague date to hide, while still living, what he felt and thought, from those about him. I asked one of the nursed in the hospital where he died if he knew he was dying, and she said, “He may have known it for months, but he would not have spoken of it to anyone.” Even the translations of poems that he has made his own by putting them into that melancholic dialect of his, seem to express his emotion at the memory of poverty and the approach of death …’ (Rep. in Essays & Introductions, 1961, p.307.) ‘[Synge] was but the more hated because he gave his country what it needed, an unmoved mind where there is a perpetual Last Day, a trumpeting, and coming up in Judgement.’ (formerly in The Cutting of an Agate [NY 1912] London 1919, pp.130-76; rep. in Essays & Introductions, Macmillan 1961; p.310.) [Cont.]

W. B. Yeats (J. M. Synge and the Ireland of his Time’ [1912]) - cont.: Yeats speaks of Irish political oratory and J. M. Synge’s ‘capricious imagination’ as ‘the enemy of all it would have young men believe.’ (p.311); further, ‘Some spontaneous dislike had been but natural, for genius like his can but slowly, amid what it has of harsh and strange, set forth the nobility of its beauty, and the depth of its compassion; but the frenzy that would have silenced his master-work was, like most violent things, artificial, that defence of virtue by those who have but little, which is the pomp and gallantry of journalism and its right to govern the world. / As I stood there watching, knowing well that I saw the dissolution of a school of patriotism that held sway over my youth, Synge came and stood beside me, and said, “A young doctor has just told me that he can hardly keep himself from jumping on to a seat, and pointing out in that howling mob those whom he is treating for Venereal disease.”’ (Ibid., p.311-12; quoted in Barry Montgomery, ‘Yeats’s Occult Philosophy of Art’, UUC MA Diss. 2003.) ‘They speak to us that we may give them certainty, by seeing what they have seen; and so it is that enlargement of experience does not come from those oratorical thinkers, or from those decisive rhythms that move large numbers of men, but from the writers that seem by contrast as feminine as the soul when it explores in Blake’s picture the recesses of the grave, carrying its faint lamp trembling and astonished.’ (Ibid., 317.)

W. B. Yeats (J. M. Synge and the Ireland of his Time’ [1912]) - cont.: ‘Synge seemed by nature unfitted to think a political thought, and with the exception of one sentence, spoken when I first met him in Paris, that implied some sort of Nationalist conviction, I cannot remember that he spoke of politics or showed any interest, in men in the mass, or in any subject that is studied through abstractions and statistics […] Unlike those whose habit of mind fits them to judge men in the mass, he was wise in judging individual men.’ (Ibid., 319.) ‘Not that Synge brought out of the struggle with himself any definite philosophy, for philosophy in the common meaning of the word is created out of an anxiety for sympathy or obedience, and he was that rare, that distinguished, that most noble thing, which of all things still of the world is nearest to being sufficient to itself, the pure artist.’ (Ibid., 323.) ‘As I read the Aran Islands right through for the first time since he showed it to me in manuscript, I come to understand how much knowledge of the real life of Ireland went to the creation of a world which is yet as fantastic as the Spain of Cervantes […]’ (Ibid., p.326.)

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W. B. Yeats (J. M. Synge and the Ireland of his Time’ [1912]) - cont.: ‘I had defended the burning of Christy Mahon’s leg on the ground that an artist need but make his characters self-consistent, and yet that too was observation, for “although these people are kindly towards each other and their children, they have no sympathy for the suffering of animals, and little sympathy for pain when the person who feels it is not in danger.” I had thought it was in the wantonness of fancy Martin Doul accused the smith of plucking his living ducks, but a few lines farther on, in this book where moral indignation is unknown, I read, “Sometimes when Igo into a cottage, I find all the women of the place down on their knees plucking the feathers from live ducks and geese.” He loves all that has edge, all that is salt in the mouth, all that is rough to the hand, all that heightens the emotions by contest, all that stings into life the sense of tragedy; and in this book, unlike the plays where nearness to his audience moves him to mischief, he shows it without thought of other taste than his. It is so constant, it is all set out so simply, so naturally, that it suggests a correspondence between a a lasting mood of the soul and this life that shares the harshness of rocks and wind.’ (Ibid., p.3326-27; quoted in Barry Montgomery, ‘Yeats’s Occult Philosophy of Art’, MA Diss., UUC 2003.)

W. B. Yeats, (Autobiographies, 1955) - recalling his first encounter with Synge: ‘I met John Synge for the first time in the autumn of 1896 when I was one-and-thirty and he four-and-twenty. [..]. Some one, whose name I forget, told me there was a poor Irishman at the top of the house, and presently introduced us. Synge had come lately from Italy, and had played his fiddle to peasants in the Black Forest - six months of travel upon fifty pounds - and was now reading French literature and writing morbid and melancholy verse. / He told me that he had learned Irish at Trinity College, so I urged him to go to the Aran Islands and find a life that had never been expressed in literature, instead of a life where all had been expressed. [See Preface to Well of the Saints, infra.] I did not divine his genius, but I felt he needed something to take him out of his morbidity and melancholy. Perhaps I would have given the same advice to any young Irish writer who knew Irish, for I had been that summer upon Inishmaan and Inishmore, and was full of the subject. my friends and I had landed from a fishing-boat to find outselves among a group of islanders, one of whome said he would bring us to the oldest man upon Inishmaan. This old man, speaking very slowly, but with laughing eyes, had said, “If [343] any gentleman has done a crime, we’ll hide him. There was a gentleman that killed his father, and I had him in my own house six months till he got away to America.’ [p.343; cont.]

W. B. Yeats, (Autobiographies, 1955) ‘From that on I saw much of Synge, and brought him to Maud Gonne’s, under whose persuasion, perhaps, he joined the “Young Ireland society of Paris”, the name we gave to half a dozen Parisian Irish, but resigned after a few months because “it wanted to stir up Continental nations against England, and England will never give us freedom until she feels she is safe, the one political sentence I ever heard him speak. Over a year was to pass before he took my advice and settled for a while in an Aran cottage, and became very happy, having escaped at last, as he wrote, “from the squalor of the poor and the nullity of the rich”. I almost forget the prose and verse he showed me in Paris […].’ Yeats goes on to place Synge in the 23rd phase of his own ‘Lunar parable.’ (Autobiographies, pp.343-44; cited in part in P. J. Kavanagh, Voices in Ireland, 1994, p.213.) Further: Yeats found Synge ‘timid, too shy for general conversation, an invalid full of moral scruple, and he was to create now some ranting braggadocio, now some tipsy hag full of poetical speech, and now some young man or girl full of the most abounding health. He never spoke an unkind word, had admirable manners, and yet his art was to fill the streets with rioters, and to bring upon his dearest friends enemies that may last their lifetime.’ (Autobiographies, p.345)

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W. B. Yeats recalls meeting Synge (Preface, The Well of the Saints ): ‘Six years ago I was staying in a students’ hotel in the Latin quarter, and somebody whose name I cannot recollect introduced me to an Irishman, whot even poorer than myself, had taken a room at the top of the house. It was J. M. Synge, and I, who thought I knew the name of every Irishman who was working at literature, had never heard of him. He was a graduate of Trinity College, Dublin, too, and Trinity College does not as a rule produce artistic minds. He told me that he had been living in France and Germany, reading French and German literature, and that he wished to become a writer. He had, however, nothing to show but one or two poems and impressionistic essays, full of that kind of morbidity that has its root in too much brooding over methods of expression, and ways of looking upon life, which come, not out of life but out of literature, images reflected from mirror to mirror. He had wandered among people whose life is as picturesque as the middle ages, playing his fiddle to Italian sailors, and listening to stories in Bavarian woods, but life had cast no light into his writings. He had learned Irish years ago, but had begun to forget it, for the only language that interested him was that conventional language of modern poetry which has begun to make us all weary […]. I said, “Give up Paris, you will never create anything by reading Racine, and Arthur Symons will always be a better critic of French literature. Go to the Aran Islands. Live there as if you were one of the people themselves; express a life that has never found expression.” [cf., Autobiographies, supra.] I had just come from Arran and my imagination was full of those gray islands, where men must reap with knives because of the stones.’ (Preface to The Well of the Saints, 1905, pp.v-vii; cited in David Greene & Edward Stephens, J. M. Synge, 1959, p.61, with remarks to the effect that Yeats placed the events two years after its actual occurrence - ‘a mistake which he later corrected’ [idem]; also cited in Robin Skelton, The Writings of J. M. Synge, London: Thames & Hudson, 1971, p.24, and in Ann Saddlemyer, Collected Writings, Vol. III, OUP 1968; also in Tuohy, W. B. Yeats, 1976, p.122.) Further, on Synge’s dream vision: ‘It makes the people of his imagination a little disembodied; it gives them a kind of innocence in their anger and their cursing. It is part of its maker’s attitude towards the world, for while it makes the clash of wills among his persons indirect and dreamy, it helps him to see the subject matter of his art with wise, clear-seeing, unreflecting eyes; to preserve the integrity of art in an age of reason and purpose. […] word and phrase dancing to a very strange rhythm […] it perfectly fits the drifting emotion, the dreaminess, the vague, yet measureless desire, for which he would create a dramatic form.’ (Preface to The Well of the Saints ; Collected Works, IV, p.54.) Yeats also talked of Synge’s characters as passing by ‘as before an open window, murmuring strange, exciting words’ (see Collected Works, II, p.400).

W. B. Yeats (“Journal”); ‘He was no nearer when we walked and talked than now while I read these unarranged, unspeculating pages, wherein the only life he loved with his whole heart reflects itself as in the still waters of a pool. Thought comes to him slowly, and only after long seemingly unmeditative watching, and when it comes, it is spoken without hesitation and never changed.’ (Ibid., 328.)

Further, ‘Synge sought for the race, not through the eyes or in history, or even in the future, but where those monks found God, in the depths of the mind, and in all art like his, although it does not command - indeed because it does not - may lie the roots of far-branching events. Only that which does not teach, which does not cry out, which does not explain, is irresistible. It is made by men who expressed themselves to the full, and it words through the best minds.’ (Ibid., 341.) [Mostly cited in Mark Patrick Hederman, ‘The Playboy versus the Western World : Synge’s political role as artist’, in The Crane Bag Book of Irish Studies, 1982, pp.59-65.) See also remarks on Synge’s temperament: ‘a drifting silent man, full of hidden passions who loved the islands and their wild people as embodiments of his dreams.’ rep. as Memoirs, ed. Denis Donoghue, 1972, p.203.)

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George Moore - “Mr. Synge’s New Play”: ‘Mr. Synge has discovered great literature in barbarous idiom as gold is discovered in quartz, and to do such a thing is a great literary achievement.’ (letter to The Irish Times, 27 Feb. 1904, p.6.)

George Moore (Hail and Farewell ): ‘[…] a few days later Synge wrote that he had been fortunate enough to fall in with a band of tinkers. He had heard a tall lean man cry after a screaming girl: Black hell to your soul! You’ve followed me to far, you’ll follow me to the end! And driving their shaggy ponies and lean horses up a hillside, the tinkers made for their annual assemblages, exchanging their wives and arranging the roads they were to take, the signs to be left at the cross roads, the fairs they were to attend and the meeting places for the following year. But this was not all the good news. Synge had gained the good-will of a certain tinker and his wife, and was learning their life and language as they trolled along the lanes, cadging and stealing as they went, squatting at eventide on the side of a dry ditch. Like a hare in a gap he listened, and when he had mastered every turn of their speech he left the tinker joining a little later another group of tinkers accompanied by a servant-girl who had suddenly wearied of scrubbing and mangling, boiling for pigs, cooking, and working dough and making beds in the evening. It would be better, she had thought, to lie under the hedgerow; and in telling me of this girl, Synge seemed to be telling me his own story. He, too, disliked the regular life of his mother’s house, and preferred to wander with the tinkers, and when tired of them to lie abed smoking with a peasant, and awake amid the smells of shag and potato-skins in the sieve in the room. In answer to an enquiry how the day passed in the cottage, he told me that after breakfast he scrambled over a low wall out of which grew a single blackthorn, and looked round for a place where he might loosen his strap, and when that job was done he kept on walking ahead thinking out the dialogue of his plays, modifying it at every style after a gossip with some herdsman or pig-jobber, whomever he might meet, returning through the cold spring evening, when the stars shine brightly through the naked trees, licking his lips, appreciating the fine flavour of some drunkard’s oath or blasphemy.’ (Vale, pp.134-35.)

Further [Moore, Hail and Farewell]: ‘As I write this line I can see Synge, whom I shall never see again with my physical eyes, sitting thick and straight in my armchair, his large uncouth head, and flat, ashen-coloured face with two brown eyes looking at me, not unsympathetically. A thick stubbly growth of hair starts out of a strip of forehead like black twigs out of the head of a broom. I see a ragged moustache, and he sits bolt upright in my chair, his legs crossed, his great country shoe spreading over the carpet. The conversation about us is of literature, but he looks as bored as Jack Yeats does in the National Gallery […] Synge and Jack Yeats are like each other in this, neither takes the slightest interest in anything except life, and in their own deductions from life; educated men, both of them, but without aesthetics, and Yeats’s stories that Synge read the classics and was a close student of Racine is a piece of Yeat’s own academic mind […] .’ (Vale, 140-41.)

Further, Moore called Synge ‘a man of genius ... born unto Ireland’, and ‘a man inspired by Ireland, a country that had not inspired any art since the tenth or twelfth century, a county to which is it fatal to return’ (Hail and Farewell, III, pp.202, pp.203; quoted in Ronald Schleifer, ‘George Moore’s Turning Mind: Digression and Autobiographical Art in Hail and Farewell ’, in Schleifer, ed., The Genres of Irish Literary Revival, Wolfhound 1980, p.73.)

St. John Ervine: ‘[Synge] has shot his bolt when he wrote The Playboy of the Western World, the chief value of which lay in the fact that it ripped up the smugness of the Irish People, than whom there are no other people in the world so pleased with themselves on such slender grounds.’ (Query source.)

Francis Bickley, J. M. Synge and the Irish Dramatic Movement (London: Constable; NY: Houghton Mifflin 1912), Chap. I - “Synge’s Career”: Synge’s entry of the theatrical world of Dublin was by no means triumphant. Even the superb Riders to the Sea failed at first to attract audiences. The Shadow of the Glen, his first play to be acted (October 1903), was received not with indifference, but with hostility. Satires on Irish life, such as Mr. George Moore’s The Bending of the Bough, could be tolerated, but satire on the Irish peasantry - the time-honoured idol of sentimentalists [15] was in no wise to be borne. The favourable comparison between Irish women and the women of England or Scotland in the matter of chastity, was a trump card in the hands of the Nationalists. Here was a writer who seemed to call it in question; such a thing was impolitic, if no worse. It goes without saying that Synge had no desire to lower his compatriots in the eyes of the world. But if he had only found one unchaste woman in the four provinces and had thought her the right stuff for drama he would have dramatised her; or if he had found none, he would have invented one had his purpose required it. For he was an artist before he was a Nationalist, and a very long way before. The political question did not exist for the dramatist. But to the majority of Irishmen art still means a political pamphlet. / This prompt enmity to Synge’s work persisted. It was manifested against The Well of the Saints, first performed in February 1905, and culminated just two years later in the demonstration against The Playboy of the Western World, in which [16] a man who is supposed to have killed his father is admired as a hero. The ethics of this play will be briefly discussed anon. According to The Freeman’s Journal it was “calumny gone raving mad”. That active body of extreme Nationalists, Sinn Féin, declared war, and at the second performance there was an organised interruption. A number of men in the pit, some of whom were provided with trumpets, raised such a shindy that the actors were reduced to dumb show. Outside the Abbey Theatre also the police were kept busy, and the press demanded the play’s withdrawal. But the players went doggedly through the seven performances billed, and by the end of the week opinion had veered considerably in their favour. Opposition was not at an end, however; there were demonstrations when the play was produced in London and America, and there were domestic dissensions which resulted in at least one able dramatist’s temporary withdrawal from the National Theatre Society. / But the leaders, concerned only for good drama, stood by Synge. The supreme importance of their discovery had at once dawned on them, and from the opening of the Abbey Theatre until his death, Synge was coequal with Mr. Yeats and Lady Gregory in the responsibility of choosing the plays to be performed.’  (pp.145-48; for longer extract, go to RICORSO Library, “Criticism” via index or direct.)

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James Joyce (letter of ?1 Feb. 1907 - from Rome): ‘I read in the D.M. under the heading “Riot in a Dublin theatre” that a “clerk” named Patrick Columb and someone else were put up at the Police Courts for disorderly conduct in the Abbey Theatre at a performance of Synge’s new play The Playboy of the Western World. The story, I believe, is of a self-accused parracide with whom all the girls of a district FALL IN LOVE. The clerk P.C. said (he was fined 40s. or 14 days) that nothing would deter him from protesting against such a slander on Ireland. There was also booing at certain strong expressions in the play. The evening ended in confusion. A [143] Trinity college youth created another row by singing “God Save the King.” W. B. Y. gave evidence and said he could not hear one word of the play. They had decided, on account of the organised opposition, to run the play for a week longer than they had first intended. He would send free tickets to any who had been prevented from hearing the play. It was Synge’s masterpiece, he said: an example of the exaggeration of art (I am glad he has got a phrase to add to that priceless one of Saint Boooooof about style) Synge was interviewed and said he claimed the right as an artist, to choose whatever subject he wished! I am waiting for the Dublin papers.[...]’ (pp.140-43; see longer extract under Joyce, Quotations, supra.)

James Joyce (letter from Rome , 11 Feb. 1907): ‘I sent you yesterday copies of the F[reeman’s] J[ournal]. containing fuller [146] accounts of the Abbey Riots. The debates [at the Abbey Th. on 4 Feb.] must have been very funny. Our old friends Skeff. and Dick Sheehy seem to have just been taking a walk round themselves since October 1904.- I read Sheehan’s with pleasure and surprise. I would like, however, to hear the phrases which drove out the ladies with expressions of pain on their facers The pulpit Irishman is a good fellow to the stage Irishman. I see that Synge uses the word “bloody” frequently, and the great phrase was “if all the girls in Mayo were standing before me in their shifts”, wonderful vision. Yeats is a tiresome idiot; he is quite out of touch with the Irish people, to whom he appeals as the author of “Countess Cathleen”. Synge is better at least he can set them by the ears. One writer speaks of Synge and his master Zola(!) so I suppose when Dubliners appears they will speak of me and my master Synge. [...]’ (see longer extracts under Joyce, Quotations, supra.)

James Joyce: (as recounted in Arthur Power, Conversations with James Joyce, 1974): ‘Joyce knew him when he was living in rue d’Assas and found him very difficult to get on with. / - He was so excitable, Joyce told me.’ […] ‘I do not care for it […] for I thnk that he wrote a kind of fabricated language as unreal as his characters were unreal. Also in my experience the peasants of irteland are a very different people from what he made them to be, a hard, crafty adn matter-of-fact lot, and I never heard any of them using the language which Synge puts into their mouths. […] one of the things I could never get accustomed to in my youth was the difference I found between life and literature. I remember a friend of mine going down to stay in the west, who, when he came back, was bitterly disappointed - “I did not hear one phrase of Synge all the time I was done there”, he told me. Those characters only exist on the Abbey stage. But take a man like Ibsen - there is a fine playwright for you. He wrote serious plays about the problems that concern our generation.’ (Power, op. cit., London: Millington Ltd., pp.33-34.) Note that Power holds a contrary opinion and cites remarks from an Irish peasant that strikes him as ‘pure Synge’ ((Selected Letters, ed. Richard Ellmann, Faber 1976 pp.140-43.)

James Joyce: According to Herbert Gorman, Joyce described Synge as ‘a dark tramper of a man’ (James Joyce, Bodley Head 1941, p.101; quoted in Anne Gallagher, ‘Tramps, Tinkers and Beggars in the Plays of J. M. Synge’, UUC UG Diss., 2010.) See also Patrick Kavanagh's verdict on Synge's and Joyce's renderings of Irish speech, infra.

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Violet Martin (of “Somerville & Ross”), to Lady Gregory, on reading script of The Well of the Saints: ‘This is cast in a form so simple as to be at times too simple as far as mere reading goes. I suppose the dialect is of the nature of a literal translation of Irish, but it seems to me to lack fire and spontaneity - you know, and no one better, what the power of repartee and argument is among such as these. It is inimitable in my opinion, I mean that no one who is not one of them themselves can invent it - and it is so much a part of themselves that to present them without it makes an artificial and unreal picture [… ]’ (Quoted in Gifford, Somerville and Ross, 1987, p.104; cited in Declan Kiberd, Inventing Ireland, 1995, p.70.)

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Patrick Pearse: ‘Ireland, in our day as in the past, has excommunicated some of those who have served her best, and has canonised some of those who have served her worst […] When a man like Synge, a man in whose sad heart there glowed a true love of Ireland, one of the two or three men who have in our time made Ireland considerable in the eyes of the world, uses strange symbols which we do not understand, we cry out that he has blasphemed and we proceed to crucify him. When a sleek lawyer, rising step by step through the most ignoble of all professions, attains to a Lord Chancellorship or an Attorney General, we confer upon him the freedom of our cities. This is really a very terrible symptom of contemporary Ireland.’ (“From a Hermitage”, 1913; Political Writings and Speeches, Dublin 1924, pp.145-6; Kiberd, pp.167-68.)

Patrick Pearse: ‘The Playboy of the Western World was not a play to be howled down by a little mob. It was a play to be left severely alone by all who did not care to listen to it. […] The Anglo-Irish [Literary revival] has now been in existence for ten years. Its net result has been the spoiling of a noble poet in Mr. Yeats, and the generation of a sort of Evil Spirit in the shape of Mr. Synge. “By the fruits ye shall know them.”’ (Quoted in Irwin Thompson, The Imagination of an Insurrection, 1967, p.71; quoted in Neil Campbell, ‘The Abbey Theatre: The Plays and Politics’, UG Diss., UUC [2001]).

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Thomas MacDonagh, Literature in Ireland: Studies in Irish and Anglo-Irish [1916] (Nenagh: Relay Books 1996), ‘One of the most powerful writers of recent years, the late J,. M. Synge, was very often merely “Celtic” in his phraseology, though far more rich and right. His fault in the matter was that he crammed his language too full of rich phrases. He said that he used no form of words that he had not actually heard. But this probably means that he took note only of the striking things, neglecting the common stuff of speech. / In another matter Synge compares very favourably with his Irish contemporaries, his respect for the Irish language. not so many of the best known Anglo-Irish writers, who treat Irish words as W. S. Gilbert and such writers for comic purposes used to treat French. [… &c.]’. (p.34; see further under Mahaffy, RX.)

George Bernard Shaw: ‘The truth is that all the Nationalist inventions that catch on now are not Irish at all. For instance, the admirable comedies of Synge, who, having escaped from Ireland to France, drew mankind in the manner of Molière, and, discreetly asured the public that this was merely the human nature of the Blasket Islands, and that, of course, civilised people never admired boastful criminals nor esteemed them according to the atrocities they pretended to commit. The Playboy ’s real name was Synge; and the famous libel on Ireland (and who is Ireland that she should not be libelled as other countries by their great comedians?) was the truth about the world.’ ( from Stanley Weintraub, ed., [Composite] Autobiography of G. B. Shaw, 1969; rep. in Field Day anthology of Irish Writing, 199, Vol. , 499[?].)

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Daniel Corkery, Synge & Anglo-Irish Literature (1931): ‘[I]t is necessary to state, that he, an Ascendancy man, went into thehuts of the people and lived with them.’ (Mercier Edn. 1966, p.27.) ‘His [Synge’s] whole life long he despised cleverness. Would that his mantle had fallen on a school of writers that since his death has arisen in Dublin’ (p.34.; ‘In the years to come, nothing else was to befall him so significant as this skipping over London.’ (p.34; q. critical source.) Further, It was contact with Europe kept open the channels through which both Synge and Goldsmith conveyed to us the beatings of their impusleive [35] hearts. In Goldsmith’s case, as has been said, it permitted him to use up the memories of his youthful Irish days. In Synge’s case it acted differently, for he had not had the good, fortune to be born and reared in rural Ireland - land of homeliness and freedom - and so could not draw, in the same way, on his boyish recollections. Yet that which contact with Europe did for him may have been greater: to a large degree it purged his eyes of Ascendancy prejudices; it taught him that rural Ireland, strange and unruly land as it was, derided, despised, impoverished, unkempt, ignorant, was not, for all that, abnormal, was instead, a natural sort of place, with many features in it that compensated for the regulated comfortableness of English life, the ideal of all his class. There was then no reason for thinking that hearts that beat in the Irish way were not as sterling as those other hearts that beat in another way. It is not that there are not many differences between Irish life and European life, but these differences are not unexpected in places so far apart, places speaking different languages and living under different suns. What stultifies the Protestant Ascendancy man who for the first time leaves Ireland for England is that the two schemes of life should be at once so similar and dissimilar. He has been always taught that one was the norm: and on acquaintance he confesses that such indeed it is for him. What can he do with his youthful perceptions of life? He had better forget them! What wonder then if people, like Mr. St. John Ervine become so much more British than the British themselves? [rems. on St. John Ervine]. He who goes to Europe is as conscious of change; but, as [36] hinted, he expects it; and then if he travel off the Europe he begins to discover, beneath the fundamental resemblances, which fact sets in a new way on Irish history. Not Ireland itself, under its alien Ascenciancy, has been more war ravaged than parts of of Europe: indeed there is hardly a spot of Eurupean ground that has not in this regard more resemblance to Ireland than to England - England fattening and refattening its haunts of ancient peace, century after century, while its soldiers campaigned abroad. We recollect that in the early stages of the Great War a writer in an English review mentioned how struck he was with the resemblance he noted between the small towns and villages of Poland and those of Ireland: he did not, however, bethink himself of untoward circumstances that had brought the similarity about.’ [Cont.]

Daniel Corkery (Synge & Anglo-Irish Literature, 1931) - cont.: ‘In Europe, then, the Ascendancy man may come on such instruction as enables him to read the map of Ireland anew. If that map show unkemptness in the landscape, that unkemptness is not without cause, nor does it prove the people freakish or inept; for those other countries whose stories are similar are not different. There is also, of course, the vast teaching he may come upon in the Catholic portions of Europe. He may note many differences between Euro[eam and Irish Catholicism. The probability is, of course, that has never been in an Irish Catholic church in his life, however great the differences he must at least be led question which of the two religions he knows of in Ireland is the more European. If he plunge, as Synge did, not or into the literature, the art, the music, but also into the life of the common people in such countries, his instruction will of course be bettered immensely. It is unthinkable thereafter that an Ascendancy man after coming thus in liberal conto with European life would not come back to a reading of Irish life with clearer vision. Yet we find M. Bourgeois writi this extraordinary sentence: “His (Synge’s) Europe learning did not hamper his perceptions of Aran life, or of [37] Irish life at large.” But M. Bourgeois [J. M. Synge ], though learned in Ireland and its ways, is for all that a foreigner, and so is to be forgiven. Of course it was Synge’s European learning enabled him to look at Irish life without the prejudices of the Ascendancy class in his way. […] It was Europea cleared his eyes of the fogs of prejudice, not entirely of course. It was Natinalism however that lit the flame of love within them; and the second change could never have taken place only for the first.’ (Mercier Edn. 1966, pp.35-38.) [Cont.]

Daniel Corkery (Synge and Anglo-Irish Literature, 1931) - cont.: ‘Now conversion to nationalism in Ireland is a very different thing from conversion to nationalism elsewhere. [52; …] Such a force therefore is not to be reckoned according to the extent of territory after which it is named; it is of course a quasi-spiritual essence. Now, the conversion of one of Synge’s type to Irish nationalism means really the winning over of one who would in the natural way of things hate everything really Gaelic so bitterly as to be ready and eager to debauch the national tradition, the very pulse of which is the desire for freedom, wherever and whenever opportunity offered. For Synge would certainly have had affinities with that class of which Standish O’Grady - himself one of them - wrote such bitter words: “At Ireland and all things Irish you girded till, like the doomed suitors, you are forced to laugh with foreign jaws as this beggar nation, ragged and mendicant, whose substance you devoured and whose house dishonoured, springs like the revealed demi-god of yore upon the threshold and twangs the new-strung bow.” [Ftn. ref., Ireland and the Hour: To the Landlords of Ireland, &c., by Standish O’Grady.] I [We] do not know how Englishmen, Frenchmen, or Germans can intimately understand such words: they lack the local instance. No Englishman knows what it is to be so actively anti-English as to be ready to debauch the national tradition that others too may be brought to disrespect it. He may deem himself a citizen of the world; even so, he is not more set against English nationalism than against any other. He can never understand how provincial, how protestant a creed the Ascendancy folk in Ireland developed in themselves after the Union. / Enough has perhaps been said to give the outsider to understand that conversion to nationalism in the case of an Ascendancy man in Ireland means far more than the giving of one set of opinions for another. It becomes a change more of hear than of head. It is a rebirth. A nation with its memories is a fount of inspiration; to come ot drink of the waters of tha fountain is an experience little less than mystical. We do not say that any outsider, such as Synge was, every succeeds incoming into perfect communion with the race mind: this he suspectd himself; it was a trouble to him. We do say, however, tha Synge came at moments into surprisingly intimate communion with it; of this his play Riders to the Sea makes us certain.’ (Synge and Anglo-Irish Literature, 1931; Mercier Edn., 1996, pp.53-54.)

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Stephen MacKenna: ‘I judged Synge intensely, though not practically, national. He couldn’t endure the lies that gathered round all the political movement, flamed or rather turned a filthy yellow with rage over them, gently hated Miss Gonne for those she launched or tolerated, loathed the Gaelic League for ever on the score of one pamphlet in which someone, speaking really a half truth, had urged the youth of Ireland to learn modern Irish because it would give them access to the grand old saga literature: I have never forgotten the bale in his eyes when he read this and told me, “That’s a bloody lie: long after they know modern Irish, which they’ll never know, they’ll still be miles and years from any power over the saga.” (Quoted in R. F. Foster, ‘Thinking from Hand to Mouth: Anglo-Irish Liteature, Gaelic Nationalism and Irish Politics in the 1890s’ [Chap. 13], in Paddy and Mr. Punch: Connections in Irish and English History Allen Lane 1993, Notes, p.367.

Lord Dunsany (My Ireland, London: Jerrold’s 1937): ‘His material was the talk of the Irish peasantry, and one does not have to examine his plays very closely to find three prominent ingredients; poetry, humour, rather grim, and satire. The first two of these are so inherent in the diction of the Irish people that one cannot at once distinguish between raw material and workmanship, as sometimes in jewellery the curve of a large pearl will be used untouched, by a jeweller, for the shape of a figure of which it forms apart. As for the satire, when first a Dublin audience saw Synge’s Playboy of the Western World, instead of regarding satire as one of the spices in a work of art, they concentrated their attention on it and booed the play. It was rather as though you offered a plate of roast beef, with all necessary vegetables and condiments, to someone not quite familiar with them, and as though he started his meal on the mustard, and were sick. But in course of time Irish audiences got over the bitter taste, and came to enjoy the play. This play was followed by Riders to the Sea, The Shadow of the Glen, and others; and, when we lost Synge in 1908, he had left dramatic work that blew fresh on the theatre, as though someone in a scene in a drawing-room comedy had opened the window to air blowing fresh over cornfields. This breeze affected to some extent the whole contemporary theatre, and, for the Abbey theatre, remained an inspiration; but too soon the inspiration wore a groove, and the grim mood of Synge turned towards sordidness, when his pen was in other hands; and many subsequent plays were written, not only for the Abbey, with Synge’s material but without his inspiration. This was forced on my attention some ten years after Synge’s death, when I saw a play in a theatre in Londonderry and was introduced afterwards to the manager; and, heing more critical than tactful [261], said something about the play being “Synge and water”, to which the manager answered, “Who is Synge?” (pp.261-62; note that his version of the chronology of Synge’s plays is erroneous.) ]

Conrad M. Arensberg, The Irish Countryman: An Anthropological Study (Macmillan 1937): Yet within a system of values in which the old represent the nexus of kinship and bear honour within the community, the young people do not see the issue so clearly. There is as much respect as there is antagonism in their verbal assessment of the old people. In the non-verbal behaviour of daily conduct, deference is uppermost. This fact sobers their group egocentricity. In their position there is a necessary balance between subordination and compensatory vauntings and distates. If you remember Synge’s Playboy, you remember how reality broke in upon the playboy when the community say his father still very much alive. / So, within this framework [viz., ‘a system of values about age status’] the young men can recognise themselves as a distinct group - an age grade, to use the technical language. They have [177] their own interests and sentiments, opposed in the scheme of rural life to those of their elders. Various places, pursuits and forms of activity are their own preserve. They greet the suggestion that they should take their place in the gatherings of the old men with something of a derision they reserve for women. But the ambivalence of their attitude makes general expression difficult. Their position imposes silence, except among themselves.’ (p.119.)

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Louis MacNeice (on Yeats’s relation to Synge): ‘Yeats had previously been fascinated by the Irish peasant because he was a person who knew the fairies. It was Synge who brought home to him the value of this brute vitality, of, in Yeats’s words “all that has edge, all that is salt in the mouth, all that is rough in the hand, all that heightens the emotions by contest, all that stings into life the sense of tragedy.” […] From time of meeting Synge, Yeats’s poetry shows far more recognition of physical man.’ (The Poetry of W. B. Yeats, OUP 1944, p.40; and see longer extract under Yeats, supra.)

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Stephen Spender [on J. M. Synge], ‘Books and the War - VII’, in The Penguin New Writing, ed. John Lehmann (London: 1945), pp.120-34: ‘[...] Synge’s life reflects two opposing tendencies which tugged at the Irish writers of his time, which one finds also in the lives of George Moore, W. B. Yeats, A.E., and other writers of the Irish Movement. One tendency was to leave Ireland, which they felt to be provincial and behind the times, and to plunge into the main stream of the European and modern tradition. The opposing tendency took the the form of a desire to return to their cultural roots and create a nationalist Irish Literature.’ (p.120.) [Cont.]

Stephen Spender (‘Books and the War - VII’, Penguin New Writing, 1945) - cont.: ‘Now Synge was not theorizing in his preface to The Playboy of the Western World. He was a craftsman speaking, directly from his own working experience about his job. He had gone to Paris to search for inspiration, by studying the French classics and. coming into contact with the most advanced aesthetic ideas. He had failed to find an inspiration. Then he had, found a clue by going to the places in his own country which were furthest from classical influences and advanced ideas, but where the most ordinary people spoke the language of rich poetry. / This was Synge’s own experience. More than this, his observations are correct.’ (p.122.) [Cont.]

Stephen Spender (in The Penguin New Writing, 1945) - cont.: ‘Brutalize verse, said Synge, he did not say mechanize it. He went back to the lives of the people who live nearest to animals, he did not go to the people who tend machines. In reacting from Zola and Ibsen, Mallarmé and Huysmans, he did, not offer any better solution of their problem. He simply turned his back on that civilization, much as D. H. Lawrence did twenty years later, implying that this could not be written about, because where there is no literature (by which he also meant no joy) in the language of everyday speech, there can be no literature in poems or on the stage, which should be rooted in the language of ordinary life. (p.123.) [Cont.]

Stephen Spender (in The Penguin New Writing, 1945) - cont.: Spender quotes from scene where Bartley goes out [‘I’ll have half an hour to go down ...’; &c.]: ‘This language with strongly marked biblical rhythms, its precise concrete visual imagery and its rapid transitions form the particular to the vast generalized implications of death and love, is obviously poetic, and yet, even to the reader, who is astonished to believe that Irish peasants still talk in this way, it has about it the ring of reality which no purely literary use of language can ever have.’ (p.124.)

Stephen Spender (in The Penguin New Writing, 1945) - cont.: Compares passage from The Playboy [Christy: ‘If I wasn’t a good Christian ...’; &c.] with a passage from Eliot’s play The Family Reunion where Harry asks Agatha who his parents really were [‘There was no ecstasy’]. ’There, is a deliberate flatness and lack of poetry here, where there is joy and richness in Synge. [...] “There was no ecstasy”, put, characteristically enough, in a negative form, is the poetry missing from his parents’ life which he is discussing. It is a remark that could not possibly be made of the characters in a play of Synge.’ (p.128.)

Stephen Spender (in The Penguin New Writing, 1945) - cont.: ‘Synge was an artist with a very objective impulse, and his criticism of modern life is simply that it failed to provide him with the stimulus which he required. The world is the more fortunate that he at last found that experience. But one cannot generalize from his original failure and ultimate success, as he himself generalized in his prefaces. Since he does criticize his fellow poets, novelists and playwrights, they might well reply that if the artist is certain in his own mind that his feeling for art is the feeling life, then there is always a level in human society at which that life - with all that it implies - can be tapped. Life never becomes entirely mechanical, entirely, external, entirely to be judged by the values of scientific progress and money-making. If it did, the human race would be an automaton - and perhaps happier. Since it doesn’t, it is essential that there should be artists who constantly warn the men of their own time, that they are alive and that they have human needs and fears. For if they are unwarned, there is the danger of which we are very aware at this moment, that the need for ecstasy amidst surroundings of boredom may take the demonic form of violence and catastrophe and destruction for their own sake.’ (p.134; end.) [For full text, see RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, via index, or direct.)

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Patrick Kavanagh (‘Paris in Aran’, Kavanagh’s Weekly [Vol. 1, No. 9], 7 June 1952, p.7): ‘What is the dominant note in Synge? I would say bitterly non-Irish. It all came from the basic insincerity upon which he built. A man should be true to himself first of all, for unless a man is true to himself the mould is false. / Synge never asked himself the fundamental question: where do I stand in relation to these people? Whether or not Synge portrayed the people of the West truly is not of much importance: as I say, it is the lie in his own heart that matters. / Daniel Corkery said that Synge failed to bridge the gulf between himself and the people because he was a Protestant. There is something in this but it is not all. Any man who is big enough and sincere enough is at one with every man. […] His peasants are picturesque conventions; the language he invented for them did a disservice to letters in this country by drawing our attention away from the common speech whose delightfulness comes from its very ordinariness. One phrase of Joyce is worth all Synge as far as giving us the cadence of Irish speech […] Synge provided Irish Protestants who are worried about being “Irish” with an artificial country.’ (‘Paris in Aran’, Kavanagh’s Weekly, 7 June 1952; quoted [in part] in Terence Brown, ‘After the Revival: The Problem of Adequacy and Genre’, The Genres of Irish Literary Revival, ed. Ronald Schleifer, Oklahoma: Pilgrim; Dublin: Wolfhound 1980, pp.153-78; pp.165-66.) [Cont.]

Patrick Kavanagh (‘Paris in Aran’, 1952) - cont.: ‘But what has been the most shocking has been the way that Synge’s necessary mummerset was taken by Irish writers since. / Synge’s was the easy way; he just wasn’t good enough to dig beneath the crust of the ordinary and find the romance that is not a mere invented phrase. […] Synge provided Irish Protestants who are worried about being “Irish” with an artificial country. One has being sectarian in this matter, but it all springs from insincerity, and literature has to do with sincerity. It doesn’t matter what so-called nationality you belong to. […] Yet in spite of his insincerity regarding himself Synge happened to be just good enough to overcome his defect to some extent. […; p.190.] Synge’s plays and writings would be tolerable to me if they had been set in Never-Never-Land, the Land in which the plays of Congreve and Sheridan are set, but one can never get away from the “Irish” thing that hangs over them; we cannot forget that Synge in some way is claiming to portray real people.’ (Rep. in A Poet’s Country: Selected Prose of Patrick Kavanagh, ed. Antoinette Quinn, Dublin: Lilliput Press 2003, pp.189-92; 191.) [Cont.]

Patrick Kavanagh (‘Paris in Aran’, 1952) - cont.: ‘Since writing all this I have re-read The Playboy and I find that Synge has imposed on the peasant women of Aran a psychology which is only to be found among the higher types of women. It is only the sophisticated, educated woman who has the courage to worship the hero, and I say this remembering the worship of film stars that is common among uneducated women. The repressed peasant has not the courage to go through with hero worship. Synge found Pegeen Mike, among the sophisticated upper-middle-class women of Paris or Dublin and put her in an incongruous setting. From this point of view he flattered the peasants.’ (Selected Prose, ed. Antoinette Quinn, 2003, p.192.)

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Edward M. Stephens: his MS life [of the above] represents Synge’s youthful position as in insoluble dilemma: ‘The conflict was in the religious system that he had accepted. He had been taught the virtue of faith, and at the same time the virtue of an honest search for truth. His mother had told him that the Protestant faith was free from superstition, and depended upon “The Open Book” and the use of private judgement. She had often repeated, “Seek and ye shall find, knock and it shall be opened unto you” [Matt VII: 7]. His research appeared to be disclosing facts contrary to his faith. The dilemma seemed insoluble.’ (Quoted in Thornton Weldon, Synge and the Western Mind, Dublin 1979, q.p.)

David Greene & Edward Stephens, J. M. Synge (1959; London: Collier 1961): ‘Synge’s visit to the Aran Islands in 1898 must be one of the most remarkable examples on record of how a sudden immersion in a new environment converted a man of ostensibly mediocre talent, a complete failure in fact, into a writer of genius’. (1961 Edn., p.74.) The authors quote Synge: ‘No drama can grow out of anything other than the fundamental realities of life which are never fantastic, are neither modern or un-modern and, as I see them, rarely spring-dayish, or breezy, or Cuchulainoid.’ (Ibid., p.157.) [Cont.]

David Greene & Edward Stephens (J. M. Synge, 1959; 1961 edn.)- on Christy Moore (The Playboy [… &c.]): ‘The point of Synge’s play was that it glorified the lout who demolished the whole social structure of rural Irish life when he cleft his father from the gullet to the navel […] It also ridiculed the people of Mayo […] The Playboy’s self-liberation from parental tyranny […] was a symbol of their own deep-seated urge to reject the tyranny of their own lives […] The villagers […] could applaud Christy for his desperate act of emancipation because it was an embodiment of their own subconscious desires. But when it became a reality - suddenly and violently - and they were asked to stand up and be counted, they had only the courage of their dreams.’ (q.p.; quoted in Stanley Sultan, ‘A Joycean Look at The Playboy of the Western World’, in Maurice Harmon, ed., The Celtic Master, Dolmen Press 1969, p.46.)

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Peadar Ó Cearnaigh [aka Peter Kearney], “The Abbey Theatre” [1953], in The Soldier’s Song: The Story of Peadar Kearney [comp. & written by Seamus De Burca] (Dublin: P. J. Bourke 1957), pp.34-39: ‘For the Abbey Theatre the first definite clash came when Arthur Griffith, in the columns of the United Irishman, made a fierce attack on Synge’s In The Shadow of the Glen. The origin of the attack was, and still is, obscure [37]; but it seems to point more to a personal issue between Griffith and W. B. Yeats - who had been a contributor to Griffith’s paper - than to anything else. But at that time Griffith was very popular and, through the United Irishman, wielded an immense influence over the growing number of young nationalists who in most things were prepared to accept his verdict as final. / Anyhow, the controversy that raged round the Shadow of the Glen started a prejudice against the Abbey which came to a head when semi-organised attacks were launched against Synge’s famous comedy, The Playboy of the Western World when it was first produced there in 1907 (St. Stephen’s Day). Riots broke out in the Theatre, and pandemonium reigned supreme whilst the unfortunate actors mouthed their lines.’ [Cont.]

Peadar Ó Cearnaigh (“The Abbey Theatre” [1953], in The Soldier’s Song (1957) - cont.: ‘On the second night of the play W. B. Yeats strode on to the stage a proud, defiant, commanding figure. He was greeted by prolonged cat-calls and derisive jeers from a howling mob lost to all sense of reason and balance; ce; Mitchel’s “bellowing slaves and genteel Bastards” incarnate, foaming at the mouth in manufactured impotent rage - the Gaelic League well represented in suits of Donegal tweed. Yeats literally stared the obstreperous audience out of countenance, hypnotised them into hushed silence, that was like a sudden calm in a tempest, a flash of lightning preceding thunder. / “I have never been taught to bend the knee,” said the poet-dramatist, a lock of hair falling over the broad forehead, the shoulders thrown back, the strong chin jutting forward, the pugnacious mouth, the proud defiant eye. “I have never been taught to bend the knee and, please God, I never shall. As long as there are people who want to see this play, they will see it in spite of all opposition.” [38] / Nine-tenths of the young men who thronged the Abbey Theatre for the first time in their lives to raise a shindy - a pastime dearly loved by all healthy young, men - eventually became loyal and regular supporters of the Theatre. The Playboy is now universally recognised as a masterpiece.’ /  Such was the necessary opposition which, combined` with the opportune financial support from Miss Horniman, definitely established the Abbey on a secure basis and started it forth on its career towards world-wide fame.’ [End; see further extracts from this writer under Kearney, q.v.]

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