John Millington Synge: Quotations (2)

File 2

Extracts from the Works
When the Moon Has Set (1900)
Riders to the Sea (1904)
In the Shadow of the Glen (1903)
The Well of the Saints (1905)
The Playboy of the Western World (1907)
Deirdre of the Sorrows (1910)
The Aran Islands (1907)
On the Aran Islands [Notebook]
“The People of the Glens” (1907)
Preface to Poems and Translations
“A Landlord’s Country Garden in Wicklow”
“The Old and New in Ireland”
“Can We Go Back Into Our Mother’s Womb?”
“A Good Picture for Dublin”

There is a digital edition of The Playboy of the Western World (1907) at The Univerisity of Adelaide EBooks - online; accessed 06.10.2017.]

Remarks on sundry subjects
Early aesthetics
Poetry (Synge’s theory)
Drama (Pref. to Playboy )
Humour & imagination
Villon and Burns
Religion and nationality
Catholic middle class
Irish Peasants
Religious feeling
Religious art
Life in Ireland
Western Ireland
Sexuality in Ireland
Women of Aran
Home-made wares
Irish language
His childhood
Irish Literary Revival
A chink in the floor ...
Ideas for The Playboy
The ‘Playboy riots’
Defending The Playboy
Parricide in The Playboy
Theatre business
‘Style’ defined
Life as music
Humanity in art
Peasant drama
“The Curse”
“Come a season ...”

An unpublished letter to his mother

“Irish Classics” in the RICORSO Library

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Some characteristic remarks ...
Strange simplicity: ‘The complete absence of shyness or self-consciousness in most of these people gives them a peculiar charm, and when this young and beautiful woman leaned across my knees to look nearer at some photograph that pleased her, I felt more than ever the strange simplicity of the island life.’ (Aran Islands, 1907; Coll. Works, II, p.106.)
Native intelligence: ‘It is likely that much of the intelligence and charm of these people is due to the absence of any division of labour, and to the correspondingly wide development of each individual, whose varied knowledge and skill necessitates a considerable activity of mind. Each man can speak two languages. He is a skilled fisherman, and can manage a curagh with extraordinary nerve and dexterity He can farm simply, burn kelp, cut out pampooties, mend nets, build and thatch a house, and make a cradle or a coffin. His work changes with the seasons in a way that keeps him from the dullness that comes to people who have always the same occupation. The danger of his life on the sea gives him the alertness of a primitive hunter, and the long nights he spends fishing in his curagh bring him some of the emotions that are thought peculiar to men who have lived with the arts.’ (Aran Islands, 1907, pp.115-16 [Internet Archive - online]; Coll. Works, II, p.106; )
Spirited/spiritual: Synge called The Playboy of the Western World a ‘Dionysiac’ extravagance ‘drenched in poteen’, and therefore ‘spirited’ rather than ‘spiritual’ (q.source; related to Daniel Corkery.)
Hillside bachelors: ‘This peculiar climate, acting on a population that is already lonely and dwindling, has caused or increase a tendency to nervous depression among the people, and every degree of sadness, from that of the man who is merely mournful, to that of the man who has spent half his life in the madhouse, is common among these hills.’ (‘The Oppression of the Hills’, in Collected Works, Vol. 2: Prose, ed. Alan Price, OUP 1966, p.209; quoted in quoted in Anne Gallagher, ‘Tramps, Tinkers and Beggars in the Plays of J. M. Synge’, UUC UG Diss., 2010.)

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Early aesthetics: ‘I am yielding up in my imagination to the marvellous. These things cannot be understood without an intimate if cautious sympathy, and I long to lift the veil and see with my own inward sight the pretended symbols of the soul.’ (‘Étude Morbide’, Collected Works, II, p.34).

Autobiography [I]: ‘I was painfully timid, and while still young the idea of Hell took a fearful hold on me. One night I thought I was irretrievably damned and cried myself to sleep in vain yet terrified efforts to form a conception of eternal pain. In the morning I renewed my lamentations and my mother was sent for. She comforted me with the assurance that the Holy Ghost was convicting me of sin and thus preparing me for ultimate salvation. This was a new idea I rather approved of.’ (Quoted in Colm Tóibín, ‘New Ways to Kill Your Mother: Synge and His Family’, in New Ways to Kill Your Mother: Writers and Their Families, London: Viking 2012, p.83.)

Autobiography [II]: ‘When I was about fourteen I obtained a book of Darwin’s. It opened in my hands at a passage where be asks how can we explain the similarity between a man’s hand and a bird's or a bat's wings except by evolution. I flung the book aside and rushed out into the open air - it was summer and we were in the country - the sky seemed to have lost its blue and the grass its green. I lay down and writhed in an agony of doubt ... Incest and parricide were but a consequence of the idea that possessed me ... Soon afterwards I turned my attention to works of Christian evidence, reading them at first with pleasure, soon with doubt, and at last in some cases with derision.’ (Quoted in Tóibín, op. cit. 2012, p.85.)

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Poetry (Synge’s theory): ‘No one is less fond of theories and divisions in the Arts than I am, and yet they cannot altogether be gone without. In these matters we need not expect to say anyhting very new, but in applying for ourselves to our own life what is thought in different ways by many we are likely to hit on matters of some value. For a long time I have felt that Poetry roughly is of two kinds, the poetry of real life - the poetry of Burns and Shakespeare and Villon, and the poetry of the land of fancy - the poetry of Spenser and Keats and Ronsard. That is obvious enough, but what is highest in poetry is always reached where the dreamer is leaning out to reality, or where the man of real life is lifted out of it, and in all the poets the greatest have both these elements, that is they are supremely engrossed with life, and yet with the wildness of their fancy they are always passing out of what is simple and plain. Such is the case with Dante and Chaucer and Goethe and Shakespeare. In Ireland, Mr. Yeats, one of the poets of the fancy land, has interests in the wolrd and for this reason his poetry has had a lifetime in itself, but A.E. [George Russell], on the other hand, who is of the fancy land only, ended his career in poetry in his second volume. It would be easy to carry this division a long way, to compare the romances of the Arthurian style with the modern realistic novel, Gotffried of Strasburgy and Malory become real here and there [...] suddely a real voice seems to speak out of their golden and burning words [...] and they are then extraordinarily powerful. So, on the other hand, it is only with the Huysmans that the realistic becomes of interest.’ (‘Various Notes’, Collected Works, ‘Prose’ [Vol. II, ed. Alan Price], 347-48; quoted in Patrick Sheeran, “The Novels of Liam O’Flaherty: A Study in Romantic Nationalism”, UCG/NUI PhD Diss., 1972, pp.138-39; also [in small part] in P. J. Mathews, ‘The Irish Revival: A Reappraisal’, in New Voices, ed. Mathews, ed., Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2000, p.16 [viz., ‘what is highest in poetry ... simple and plain.’) [Cf. ‘the reality that is at the root of all poetry’, in Preface to The Playboy, 1907.]

[See full text of Preface to The Playboy - supra ]

Drama (Preface to The Playboy, in Collected Works, Vol. IV [Plays II]): ‘All art is a collaboration and there is little doubt that in the happy ages of literature, striking and beautiful phrases were are ready to the story-teller’s hand, as the rich cloaks and dresses of his time. It is probable that when the Elizabethan dramatist took his ink-horn and sat down to his work, he used many phrases that he had just hard, as he sat at dinner, from his mother or his children. In Ireland those of us who know the people have the same privilege [...] In Ireland for a few years more, we have a popular imagination that is fiery and magnificent and tender; so that those of us who wish to write start with a chance not given to writers in places where the springtime of the local life has been forgotten, and the harvest is a memory only, and the straw has been turned into bricks.’ (p.53; cited extensively in Declan Kiberd, Inventing Ireland, 1995, p.274.) [Cont.]

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Drama (Preface to The Playboy, in Collected Works, Vol. IV [Plays II]) - cont.: ‘This matter, I think, is of importance, for in countries where the imagination of the people, and the language they use, is rich and living, it is possible for a writer to be rich and copious in his words, and at the same time to give the reality, which is the root of all poetry, in a comprehensive and natural form In the modern literature of towns, however, richness is found only in sonnets, or prose poems, or in one or two elaborate books that are far away from the profound and common interests of life. One has, one one side, Mallarmé and Huysmans producing this literature; and on the other, Ibsen and Zola dealing with the reality of life in joyless and pallid words.’ (Also quoted [in part] in Harry Levin, James Joyce: A Critical Introduction [1944], 2nd. Edn. Faber & Faber 1960, p.19; see full text in RICORSO Library, “Irish Classics”, infra.)

Saddlemyer [ed.], notes that draft in Notebook 34 reads: ‘It may be said that my rule in these plays has been to use no word that I ahve not heard among illiterate people or used myself before I read the newspapers a great deal or Macaulay’s Essays’, and: ‘I have no doubt at all that in all the great literary moments the living speech that was in the ears of Cervantes and Ben Jonson teemed with phrases that pass anything produced by the Goncourts.’ (Works, IV, p.53.)

Drama (2): ‘The drama is made serious - in the French sense of the word - not by the degree in which it is taken up with problems that are serious in themselves, but by the degree in which it gives the nourishment, not very easy to define, on which our imaginations live.’ (Preface, The Tinker’s Wedding ; cited in T. R. Henn, ed., The Plays and Poems of J. M. Synge, London, 1968, p.108.)

Humour & imagination: ‘Of the things which nourish the imagination humour is one of the most needful, and it is dangerous to limit or destroy it. Baudelaire calls laughter the greatest sign of the satanic element in man; and where a country loses its humour, as some towns in Ireland are doing, there will be morbidity of mind, as Baudelaire mind was morbid. / [T]he artistic value of any work is measured by its uniqueness. Its human value is given largely by its intensity and its richness, if it is rich it is many sided or universal, and, for this reason, sane - another word for wholesome - since all insanities are due to a one-sided excitement.’ (Preface to the Tinker’s Wedding []; Collected Works, II, 350; quoted in part in Brendan Kennelly, Journey into Joy: Selected Prose, ed. Åke Persson, Bloodaxe 1994, p.79.)

Villon and Burns: ‘many of the older poets, such as Villon and Herrick and Burns [who] used the whole of their personal life as their materials’ (Pref. to Poems and Translations [undated], cited in Ann Saddlemyer, ‘John Millington Synge’, in Robert Hogan, ed., Dictionary of Irish Literature, 1979, p.654.)

Religion and nationality: ‘Soon after I relinquished the Kingdom of God,’ he wrote, ‘I began to take a real interest in the Kingdom of Ireland. My patriotism when round from vigorous and unreasoning loyalty to a temperate nationalism, and everything Irish became sacred.’ (Autobiography ; q.p.)

The Catholic middle class (I): ‘The scurrility and ignorance and treachery of some of the attacks upon me have rather disgusted me with the middle-class Irish Catholic. As you know I have the wildest admireation for the Irish Peasants, and for Irish men of known and unknown genius - do you bow? - but between the two there’s an ungodly ruck of fat-faced, sweaty-headed swine.’ (quoted in George Watson, Irish Identity and the Literary Revival: Synge, Yeats, Joyce and O’Casey, CUA 1994, p.39; also in Patrick Sheeran, The Novels of Liam O’Flaherty: A Study in Romantic Realism, UCG 1972, p.34, citing Collected Works, 1966, Vol. II: Prose, p.283 [n.3] also in Aaron Kelly, Twentieth-Century Literature in Ireland: A Reader’s Guide to Essential Criticism, Palgrave Macmillan 2008, p.18-19.)

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The Catholic middle class (II): ‘There are sides of all that western life, the groggy-patriot-publican-general-shopman who is married to the priest’s half-sister and is second cousin once removed of the dispensary doctor, that are horrible and awful. This is the type that is running the present United Irish League - anti-grazier campaign, while they’re swindling the people themselves in a dozen ways and then buying out thei holdings and packing off whole familes to America. The subject is too big to go into here, but at best it’s beastly. All that side of the matter of course I left untouched in my stuff. I sometimes wish to God I hadn’t a soul and then I could give myself up to putting those lads on the stage. God, wouldn’t they hop!’ (Letter to Stephen MacKenna, in Collected Works, 1966, Vol. II: Prose, p.283, n.1; quoted in Patrick Sheeran, The Novels of Liam O’Flaherty: A Study in Romantic Realism, UCG 1972, p.33 [given as n3.].)

The Irish peasantry (I): ‘One’s first feeling as one comes back among these people and takes a place, so to speak, in this noisy procession of fishermen, farmers, and women, where nearly everyone is interesting and attractive, is a dread of any reform that would tend to lessen their individuality rather than any real hope of improving their well-being. One feels then ... that is part of the misfortune of Ireland that nearly all the characteristics which give colour and attractiveness to Irish life are bound up with a social condition that is near to penury.’ (Collected Prose, Vol. II [var. Vol. 4], p.286) [written for Manchester Guardian on return from tour with Jack Yeats in 1905; quoted with the foregoing in George J. Watson, ‘Celticism and the Annulment of History’,  Irish Studies Review, Winter 1994/95, pp.2-6; also printed in Celticism, ed. Terence Brown, [IASIL Confernence Papers], Amsterdam; Atlanta GA Rodopi 1996, pp.207-20.)

The Irish peasantry (II): ‘Even among the old people, whose singular charm I have tried to interpret, ... it is possible to find many individuals who are far from admirable either in body or mind. One would hardly stop to assert a fact so obvious if it had not become a fashion in Dublin, quite recently, to reject a fundamental doctrine of theology, and to exalt the Irish peasant into a type of almost absolute virtue, frugal, self-sacrificing, valiant, and I know not what ... the heart of man is not spotless, for though the Irish peasant has many beautiful virtues, it is idle to assert that he is totally unacquainted with the deadly sins, and many minor rogueries.’ (Article in The Shanachie, printed in Collected Works, II, p.224.)

Aristocrat peasants (III): ‘The absence of the heavy boot of Europe has preserved to these people the agile walk of the wild animal, while the general simplicity of their lives has given them many other points of physical perfection. Their way of life has never been acted on by anything much more artificial than the nests and burrows of the creatures that live round them, and they seem in a certain sense to approach more nearly to the finer types of our aristocracies - who are bred artificially to a natural ideal - than to the labourer or citizen, as the wild horse resembles the thoroughbred rather than the hack or cart-horse. Tribes of the same natural develoment are, perhaps, frequent in half-civilised countries, but here a touch of the refinement of old societies in blended, with singular effect, among the qualities of the wild animal.’ (“The Aran Islands”, Coll. Works, Prose: II, p.56.)

Religious feeling: ‘Gaiety is a divine impulse peculiar to humanity. Is not Rabelais equal to the saints?’ [Notebook, containing also ‘A Rabelasian Rhapsody’]; The monotheistic doctrines seem foreign to the real genius of childhood, in spite of the rather maudlin appeal Christianity makes to little children. [Prose, p. 7]; A heavy roll from the Atlantic is today on the north west of the island ... A sudden gust so beautiful is a danger [sic]. It is well arranged that for the most part we do not realise the beauty of a new wonderful experience till it has grown familiar and so safe to us. If a man could be supposed to come with a fully educated perception of music, yet quite ignorant of it and hear for the first time let us say Lamerteux’s Orchestra in a late symphony of Beethoven I doubt his brain would ever recover from the shock ... some such emotion was in me the day I looked first on these rising magnificent waves towering in dazzling white and green beyond the cliff. [Prose 97-98]. I felt that this little corner on the face of the world, and the people who live in it, have a peace and dignity from which we are shut for ever. [Aran Islands, Prose p.162]; ... the people [of the glens] who unite in a rude way the old passions of the earth (Prose, p.199.)

Religious art: ‘The religious art is a thing of the past only - a vain and foolish regret - and its place has been taken by our quite modern feeling for the beauty and mystery of nature, an emotion that has gradually risen up as religion in the dogmatic sense has gradually died. Our pilgrimages are not to Canterbury or Jerusalem, but to Killarney and Cumberland and the Alps.... In my plays and topographical books I have tried to give humanity and this mysterious external world. (Prose, p.351).

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Life in Ireland: In the greater part of Ireland, however, the whole people, from the tinkers, to the clergy, have still a life, and a view of life, that are rich and genial and humorous. I do not think that these country people, who have so much laughter themselves, will mind being laughed at without malice, as the people in every country have been laughed at in their own comedies. (Pref. The Tinker’s Wedding, q.p.; and cf. the unpublished typescript of preface to Tinkers’ Wedding : ‘I do not think these country clergy ... will mind being laughed at ... as the clergy in every Roman Catholic country were laughed at through all the ages that had real religion’ (see Saddlemyer, ed., Plays, 1968.)

Western Ireland: ‘There are sides of all that western life, the groggy-patriot-publican-general shop-man who is married to the priest’s halfsister and is second cousin once-removed of the dispensary doctor, that are horrible and awful. This is the type that is running the present United Irish League anti-grazing campaign, while they’re swindling the people themselves in a dozen ways, and then buying out their holdings and packing whole families off to America.’ (Letter to Stephen MacKenna, 13 July 1905; quoted in Stephens and Greene, 1959, p.264; cited Peter Costello, The Heart Grown Brutal, Gill & Macmillan, 1977, p.33).

Sexuality in Ireland (Letter to Stephen McKenna, [1903]): ‘[That] we have any peculiarly blessed sanctity ... I utterly deny - see percentages of lunatics in Ireland and causes thereof. [...] On the French stage the sex-element in life was given without the other balancing elements; on the Irish stage the people you [Stephen McKenna] agree with want the other elements without sex. I restored the sex-element to its natural place, and the people were so surprised they saw the sex only. [...] I do not believe in the possibility of a “purely fantastic, unmodern, ideal, spring-dayish, Cuchulainoid National Theatre”, because no drama - that is to holds its public - can grow out of anything but the fundamental realities of life which are neither modern or unmodern, and, as I seen them, are rarely fantastic or spring-dayish. [...] I think squeamishness is a disease and that Ireland will gain if Irish writers deal manfully, directly, and decently with the entire reality of life.’ (Letters, Vol. 1, 1983, ed. Saddlemyer, pp.74-81; also quoted [in part] in D. E. S. Maxwell, Modern Irish Drama, p. 47.)

Women of Aran (I): ‘[Synge sought to find] a posible link between the wild mythology that is accepted on the islands and the strange beauty of the women.’ (“The Aran Islands”, Coll. Works, Prose: II, p.54; quoted in Patrick Sheeran, The Novels of Liam O’Flaherty: A Study in Romantic Realism, UCG 1972, p.45)

Women of Aran (II): ‘The women of this island are before conventionality, and share some of the liberal features that are thought peculiar to the women of Paris and New York. [See note, infra]. / Many are too contented and too sturdy to have more than a decorative interest, but there are others full of curious individuality. This year I got to know a wonderfully humourous girl ... She plays continual tricks with her Gaelic in the way girls are fond of, piling up dimunutives and repeating adjectives with a humorous scorn of syntax. [...; 143] / She says when I go away now I am to marry a rich wife with plenty of money, and if she dies on me I am to come back here and marry herself for my second wife. / I have never heard talk so simple and so attractive as the talk of these people. This evening they began disputing about their wives, and it appeared that the greatest merit they see in a woman is that she should be fruitful and bring them many children. As no money can be earned by children on the island this one attitude shows the immense difference between these people and the people of Paris. / The direct sexual instincts are not weak on the island, but they are so subordinated to the instincts of the family that they rarely lead to irregularity. The life here is still at an almost patriarchal stage, and the people are nearly as far from the romantic moods of love as they are from the impulsive life of the savage.’ (pp.143-44.) Note: here the editor of the OUP 1966 Edn. quotes at length from Notebook 17: ‘One woman also has interested me in a way that binds me more than every to the islands. These women are before convention and share many things with the women of Paris or London who have frieed themselves by a desperate personal effort from the moral bondage of lady-like persons. Many women here are too sturdy and contented to ahve more than the decorative interest of wild deer, but I have found a couple that have been turned in on themselves by some circumstance of their lives and seem to sum up in the expressions of their blue eyes the whole external symphony of the sky and seas. They have wildness and humour and passion kept in continual subjection by the reverence of life and the sea that is inevitable in this place.’ (“The Aran Islands”, Coll. Works, Prose: II, p.143, n1.)

Home-made wares: ‘Every article on these islands has an almost personal character, which gives this simple life, where all art is unknown, something of the artistic beauty of the mediaeval life. The curraghs and spinning-wheels, the tiny wooden barrels that are still much used in the place of earthenware, the home-made cradles, churns, and baskets, are all full of individuality, and being made from materials that are common here, yet to some extent peculiar to the island, they seem to exist as a natural link between the people and the world that is about them.’ (“The Aran Islands”, Coll. Works, Prose: II, p.59.)

Irish language: ‘In the older generation that did not come uner the influence of the recent language movement, I do not see any particular afection for Gelic, Whenever they are able, they speak English to their children, to render them more capable of making their way in life.’ (Ibid., p.115.) But cf. the response that Synge received on Aranmore when he asked the islanders about the future of the language: ‘“It can never die out,” he said, “because there’s no family in the place can live without a bit of a field for potatoes and they have only the irish words for all that they do in the fields. They said their new boats - their hookers - in English but they sail the curragh oftener in Irish, and in the fields they have irish alone. It can never die out and when the people begin to see it fallen very low, it will rise up again like a phoenix from its own ashes.”’ (The Aran Islands, p.150; both the foregoing quoted in Patrick Sheeran, The Novels of Liam O’Flaherty: A Study in Romantic Realism, UCG 1972, p.38f.) [See remarks on Synge’s tutors in Hiberno-English, under Notes, infra.]

Childhood, ‘The well-meant but extraordinary cruelty of introducing the idea of hell in the imagination of a nervous child has probably caused more misery than many customs that the same people sent missionaries to eradicate.’ Further: ‘There, I said, I am unhealthy and if I marry I will have unhealthy children. But I will never create beings to suffer as I am suffering and so I will never marry.’ (from pseudonymous autobiographical writing, ‘My Youth by Dora Comyn’, quoted in Greene & Stephens, J. M. Synge 1871-1909, NY 1959; rep. in Collected Works).

Literary Revival: ‘The intellectual movement that has been taking place in Ireland for the last twenty years has been chiefly a movement towards a nearer appreciation of the country people, and their language, so that it is not too much to say that the translation of the old MSS into this idiom is the result of an evolution rather than a merely personal idea.’ (review in of Lady Gregory’s Cuchulain of Muirthemne, in The Speaker, June 1902, Coll. Works, II, p.367; quoted by Lorna Reynolds, ‘The Irish Literary Revival: Preparations and Personalities’, in Robert O’Driscoll, ed., The Celtic Consciousness, Dolmen/Canongate 1981, p.391.)

A chink in the floor: ‘When I was writing The Shadow of the Glen, some years ago, I got more aid than any learning could have given me from a chink in the fl[oor] of the old Wicklow house where I was staying, that let me hear what was being said by the servant girls in the kitchen.’ (“Autobiography”, in Collected Works, IV, p.53; quoted in Nicholas Grene, op. cit., 2005, p.73; Frank Tuohy, Yeats 1976, p.132.)

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Synge on The Playboy of the Western World (1907)

Ideas for The Playboy: ‘Island with populations of wreckers, smugglers, poteen-makers, etc. are startled by the arrival of a stranger and reform for dread of him. He is an escaped criminal and wants them to help him over to America, but he thinks that they are so virtuous he is afraid to confess his deeds for fear they should hand him over to the law that they are so apparently in awe of. At last all comes out and he is got off safely.’ (See David Greene & Edward Stephens, J. M. Synge, 1961 [London] Edn., p. 191.) Note Stephens’s remarks: ‘He jotted in his notebook an “Idea for a Play” ...’ (Idem.).

Defending of The Playboy [1]: The Playboy of the Western World is not a play with "a purpose" in the modern sense of the word, but although parts of it are, or are meant to be, extravagant comedy, still a great deal that is in it, and a great deal more that is behind it, is perfectly serious, when looked at in a certain light. This is often the case, I think, with comedy and no one is quite sure today whether Shylock [Merchant of Venice] and Alceste should be played seriously or not. There are, it may be hinted, several sides to The Playboy.’ (Letter to the Irish Times, 31 Jan. 1907; quoted in Weldon Thornton, J. M. Synge and the Western World, Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe 1979, p.136.)

Defending of The Playboy [2]: ‘In writing The Playboy of the Western World, as in my other plays, I have used one or two words only, that I have not heard among the country people of Ireland.’ (Coll. Works, IV, Plays, Bk. II, ed. Ann Saddlemyer, OUP 1968, p.53; quoted in Nicholas Grene, ‘Reality Check: Authenticity from Synge to McDonagh’, in Irish Studies in Brazil, ed. Munira H. Mutran & Laura P. Z. Izarra, Sao Paolo Univ.: Associação Editorial Humanitas 2005, p.72.)

Playboy as extravaganza’ (Letter to Stephen McKenna, 1907): ‘[The] Extravaganca [sic] theory is partly my fault - an interviewer - who, the devil hang by his own guts - ran up and down stairs after me for two hours on the Monday night when there was the first riot [ ...] He - the interviewer got in my way - may the devil bung a cesspool with his scull - and said, “Do you really think Mr. Synge, that if a man did this in Mayo girls would bring him a poulet?” The next time it was “do you think Mr. Synge they’d bring him eggs?” I lost my poor temper (God forgive me, that I didn’t wring his neck,) and I said, “Oh well, if you like, its improbable, its extravagant, its extravazanca (how’s it spelt?) so is Don Quixote!”’ (Coll. Letters, Vol. I, ed. Ann Saddlemyer, Clarendon Press 1983, pp.332-33; quoted in Nicholas Grene, op. cit., 2005, p.72.)

Note: Synge shortly afterwards remedied this impression in a letter to The Irish Times: ‘Although parts of it are, or are meant to be, extravagant comedy, still a great deal that is in it, and a great deal more that is behind it, is perfectly serious, when looked at in a certain light.’ (Coll. Letters, Vol. I, 1983, p.286; Grene, op. cit., idem.)

Parricide in the Playboy (source of the idea): ‘He [Devaney] often tells me about a Connaught man who killed his father with the blow of a spade when he was in a passion, and then fled to this island and threw himself on the mercy of some of the natives with whom he was said to be related. They hid him in a hole - which the old man has shown me - and kept him sage for weeks, though the police came and searched for him, and he could hear their boots grinding on the stones over his head. In spite of a reward which was offered, the island was incorruptible, and after much trouble the man was safely shipped to America.’ (The Aran Islands, Bk. I; Collected Works, Prose, p. 95; see longer extract in Quotations 1, supra) [Cont.]

Parricide in the Playboy (source of the idea) - cont: ‘[T]he impulse to protect the criminal is universal in the west. It seems partly due to the association between justice and the hated English jurisdiction, but more directly to the primitive feeling of these people who are never criminals yet always capable of crime, that a man will not do wrong unless he is under the influence of a passion which is as irresponsible as a storm on the sea. If a man has killed his father, and is already sick and broken with remorse, they can see no reason why he should be dragged away and killed by the law. (Aran Islands, in Coll. Works, Prose, p. 95.)

[See also the account of a contemporaneous instance perpetrated by one William Maley in Ballinahinch, Co. Galway, as recalled by Gregory Allen in Irishman’s Diary (The Irish Times, 31 Jan. 1997) [Notes, infra.]

Rabelesian note: ‘The romantic note and a Rabelaisian note are working to a climax through a great part of the play, and [...] the Rabelaisian note, the “gross” note, if you will, must have its climax no matter who may be shocked.’ (Coll. Letters, Vol. II, p.47; quoted in Ann Saddlemyer, ‘Correspondences And What They Tell Us: Putting a Life on Stage’, a paper at University of British Columbia, 21 Feb. 2004; supplied by author.)

The “Playboy riots”: ‘In the same way you see - what it seems so impossible to get our Dublin people to see, obvious as it is - that the wildness and, if you will, the vices of the Irish peasantry are due, like their extraordinary good points of all kinds, to the richness of their nature - a thing that is priceless beyond words.’ (Letter to The Irish Times, 30 Jan. 1907); note also the comment of the Irish Times reporter: ‘it is as if we looked into a mirror for the first time, and found ourselves hideous. We fear to face the thing. We shrink at the word for it. We scream.’ (Collected Works: Prose, Oxford, 1966, p.376; quoted in Declan Kiberd, ‘The Fall of the Stage Irishman’, The Genres of Irish Literary Revival ([Oklahoma UP]; Dublin: Wolfhound Press 1980, p.46.) Further, ‘A young literary movement is never the worse for adverse and candid criticism. It should never be forgotten that half the troubles of England and Ireland have arisen from ignorance of the Irish character, ignorance founded on the biased views of British and Irish historians and on the absurd caricatures which infest the majority of plays and novels dealing with Irish folk and affairs. Lever, Lover, Boucicault and Punch have achieved much in the way of making the Irish character a sealed book to Englishmen.’ (Idem.) Synge insisted that ‘the rollicking note is present in the Irish character - present to an extent some writers of the day do not seem to be aware of - and it demands, if we choose to deal with it, a free rollicking style’ (Collected Works, p.397; Kiberd, op. cit., p.47.)

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Theatre business: ‘I met Kerrigan today and had a long talk. He is ready, - eager, - to come back to us. He speaks of Fay quite simply and without temper. On the day in question he was in time for his cue – he only comes on in the 2 nd Act – but Fay swore and cursed at him and spoke badly to him personally – as he puts it – but there was nothing out of the way [...] He says Fay is unfortunate in his manner with them; at one time too confidential, and the next lowering himself by undignified personal abuse so that none of them can feel any respect for him [...] If we gave Fay the power he wants we could lose the two Miss Allgoods, Mac, and, of course Kerrigan. Otherwise we shall I fear lose the “Fay family’ as Kerrigan calls them. (I think we shall have to lose the Fays.) He, Fay, as it is, flatly refuses to have Kerrigan back, he is putting Vaughn into the Yankee part in the Dress maker [sic] that is why he cannot give holidays.’ Further: ‘P.S. My Deirdre is impossible without Kerrigan.’ (Letter to Lady Gregory, Wed. 18 Dec. 1907, in Anne Saddlemyer, ed., Theatre Business, Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe 1982 p.252; see also ensuing letter from Lady Gregory, 21 Dec.; ibid., p.258; quoted in Una Kealy, “George Fitzmaurice”, PhD Diss, UU 2005.)

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Writings quoted in Watson’s Identity and the Literary Revival (1979)
If, however, the Gaelic League can keep the cruder powers of the Irish mind occupied in a healthy and national way tithe influence of Irish literature, written in English, is more definite in Irish life, the half-cultured classes may come over to the side of the others, and give an intellectual unity to the country of the highest order. (‘The Academy and Literature’, 1902, in Collected Writings, Vol. 2, p.386.)

I believe the nation that has made a place in history by seventeen centuries of manhood, a nation that has begotten Grattan and Emmet and Parnell [all three of impeccable Ascendancy pedigree] will not be brought to complete insanity in these last days by what is senile and slobbering in the doctrine of the Gaelic League. There was never till this time a movement in Ireland that was gushing, cowardly and maudlin, yet now we are passing England in the hysteria of old women’s talk ... there is more in heaven and earth than the weekly bellow of the Brazen Bull-calf and all his sweaty gobs, or the snivelling booklets that are going through Ireland like the scab on sheep. (Unpublished letter, Collected Writings, Vol. 2, pp.399-400.)

Letter to McKenna: I sometimes wish I had never left my garret in the rue d’Assas ... the scurrility and ignorance and treachery of some of the attacks upon me have rather disgusted me with the middle-class Irish Catholic. As you know I have the wildest admiration for the Irish Peasants, and for Irish men of known or unknown genius - do you bow? - but between the two there’s an ungodly ruck of fat-faced, sweaty-headed swine. (Critical Writings, Vol. 2, p.283.)

There are sides of all that western life, the groggy-patriot-publican-general-shop-man who is married to the priest’s half-sister and is second cousin once-removed of the dispensary doctor, that are horrible and awful ... All that side of the matter of course I left untouched in my stuff [the articles]. I sometimes wish to God I hadn’t a soul and then I could give myself up to putting those lads on the stage. God, wouldn’t they hop! In a way it is all heart rending, in one place the people are starving but wonderfully attractive and charming, and in another place where things are going well, one has a rampant, double-chinned vulgarity I haven’t seen the like of. (Critical Writings, Vol. 2, p.283.)

The Manchester Guardian (on Connemara): One’s first feeling as one comes back among these people and takes a place, so to speak, in the noisy procession of fishermen, farmers, and women, where nearly everyone is interesting and attractive, is a dread of any reform that would tend to lesson their individuality rather than any very real hope of improving their well-being. One feels then ... that it is part of the misfortune of Ireland that nearly all the characteristics which give colour and attractiveness to Irish life are bound up with a social condition that is near to penury. (Critical Writings, Vol. 2, p.286.)

In some ways these men and women seem strangely far away from me. They have the same emotions that I have, and the animals have, yet I cannot talk to them when there is much to say, more than to the dog that whines beside me in a mountain fog. There is hardly an hour I am with them that I do not feel the shock of some inconceivable idea, and then again the shock of some vague emotion that is familiar to them and to me. On some days I feel this island as a perfect home and resting place; on other days I feel that I am a waif among the people. I can feel more with them than they can feel with me, and while I wander among them, they like me sometimes, and laugh at me sometimes, yet never know what I am doing. (Critical Writings, Vol. 2, p. 113)

All the above quoted in George Watson, ‘J. M. Synge’, in Irish Identity and the Literary Revival (London: Croom Helm 1979, pp.38-41.)


Writer-response: ‘I feel like old Maura today “its four fine plays I have though it was a hard birth I had to everyone of them and they coming to the world.”’ But then he added, ‘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.’ (Letter to Molly Allgood, in Letters, I, 1983, p.285; quoted in Saddlemyer, op. cit., 2004.)

Style: ‘Is not style .. born of the shock of new material?’ (W. B. Yeats, quoting Synge’s conversation, in ‘Bounty of Sweden’, Autobiographies, 1955, p.531; cited in Declan Kiberd, Inventing Ireland, 1995, p.169.)

Life as music: ‘Every life is a symphony, and the translation of this life into music, and from music back to literature or sculpture or painting is the real effort of the artist. The emotions which pass through us have neither end nor beginning - are a part of the sequence of existence ... and as the laws of the world are in harmony it is this almost cosmic element in the person which give great art, as that of Michelangelo or Beethoven, the dignity of nature.’ (Autobiography, Col.. Works, II, ed. Alan Price, 1966, p.3; quoted in Brendan Kennelly, Journey into Joy: Selected Prose, ed. Ake Persson, Bloodaxe 1994, here p.78.)

Humanity in his works: ‘In my plays and topographical books, I have tried to give humanity to this mysterious external world’ (Collected Works, II, 351)

Beauty in drama: ‘... for the present the only possible beauty in drama is peasant drama, for the future we must await the making of life beautiful again before we can have beautiful drama. You cannot gather grapes off chimney pots.’ (Notebook, Collected Works, IV, p.165.)

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Commination” [otherwise ‘The Curse’]: ‘To a sister of an enemy of the author’s who disapproved of The Playboy of the Western World” : Lord, confound this surly sister, / Blight her brow with blotch and blister, / Cramp her larynx, lung, and liver, / In her guts a galling give her. // Let her live to earn her dinners / In Mountjoy with seedy sinners: / Lord, this judgement quickly bring, / And I’m Your servant, J. M. Synge.’ (Posted on Virtual Pub Web Page; also Declan Kiberd, Inventing Ireland, 1995, p.187; and see cuttings in Greene & Stephens, J. M. Synge, NY 1957 [presentation copy of Sybil le Brocquy from Ann Saddlemyer].)

Onexpression’: ‘The deeds of a man’s lifetime are impersonal and concrete, might have been done by anyone, while art is the expression of the abstract beauty of the person’. (quoted p.71; David H. Greene, ‘J. M. Synge: A Centenary Appraisal’, in Éire-Ireland, 6, 4 (Winter 1971), pp.71-86).

Momento mori: ‘There’ll come a seasons when you’ll stretch / Black boards to cover me ./ Then in Mount Jerome will I lie, poor wretch, / With worms eternally.’

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