Francis Bickley, J. M. Synge and the Irish Dramatic Movement (London: Constable; NY: Houghton Mifflin 1912), 96pp. + 1pp. bibl. [front. port. photo by James Patterson R.S.A.]

[On Yeats’s meeting with Synge during the latter’s ’days of symbolism’ in Paris:] At this work Mr. William Butler found him in Paris, in 1897 or thereabouts, living in the state of poverty implied by a top floor in the Latin quarter. Mr. Yeats saw at once that the poems and essays Synge showed him were of no value, merely poor examples of the morbidities of the time, “images reflected from mirror to mirror”. “He had wandered”, writes the poet in his preface to Synge’s Well of the Saints, among people whose life is as picturesque as the middle ages, playing his fiddle to Italian sailors, and listening to stories in Bavarian words, but life had cast no light on his writings.” Now it so happened that in these dying moment of the last century Mr. Yeats was at his grand climacteric. Not only was he, as it befell, nel nezzo del cammin di nosta vita, but he was also suffering a reaction against the influences of the day, and seeking [11] simpler modes. He, too, had ventured, none more boldly, into the mysterious caves of symbolism, and had returned from his journey with much garnered wisdom, but with a new love for the sun. She he spoke his mind to his new friend. “Give up Paris”, he said, “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.” Many young Irish writers have profited by Mr. Yeats’ clear-sighted and uncompromising criticism; but non more so than John Synge. (pp.11-12.)

[...] ‘Rightly to appreciate this movement, it is necessary to understand, rather in its [49] organic development than in its individual manifestations, the work of the man who for nearly twenty years has been the dominant figure in Irish letters. It has been shown how a crisis in Mr. Yeats’ life, rather than Synge’s own, determined the latter’s destiny. So with almost the whole of modern Irish literature, both poetry and drama, its progress is inextricably interwoven with the spiritual progress of William Butler Yeats.’

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.145-18.)

Chap. II - “Theory and Practice”
Synge wrote six plays; one of them left incomplete, two of them very short, none long enough to fill the stage for a London evening. On these he has established a reputation which was high at his death, has grown since, and seems as likely to be permanent as that of any man of his generation. It has been claimed for him that he is the greatest imaginative dramatist who has written English since Shakespeare, or at least since the Puritans closed the theatres in 1642. The claim is not as big as at first sight it looks; and even the conservative will find it hard to gainsay. To some extent, however, its validity depends on what one seeks in the theatre.

Synge himself had very definite views on the drama, and he has stated them with the economy and precision which marks all his writing.

”On the stage one must have reality, and one [19] must have joy; and that is why the intellectual modern drama has failed, and people have grown sick of the false joy of the musical comedy, that has been given them in place of the rich joy found only in what is superb and wild in reality. In a good play every speech should be as fully flavoured as nut or apple, and such speeches cannot be written by anyone who works among people who have shut their lips on poetry.” [Pref. to Playboy].

”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.  ...  The drama, like the symphony, does not teach or prove anything ...  . Of the things which nourish the imagination, humour is one of the most needful, and it is dangerous to limit or destroy it.” [Pref. to Tinker’s Wedding].

This last pronouncement was evoked by the reception of The Playboy of the Western World. Certain Irish towns were apparently losing their humour. “In the greater part of Ireland, however”, he consoles [20] himself, “the whole people, from the tinkers to the clergy, have still a life, and view of life, that are rich and genial and humorous.” He did not think that these people would mind being laughed at without malice.

Art for Synge was an expression, not of life keyed down to the low pitch convenient for those who live in the narrow streets of civilisation, but of life “superb and wild.” He would have approved of George Gissing’s definition of art as “The expression, satisfying and abiding, of the zest of life.” Gissing’s “zest “is Synge’s “joy”, which is no more confined to comedy than his “seriousness “to tragedy or his “reality “to plays of modern life. They are the qualities which nourish the imagination by giving it food richer than the fare of ordinary experience. He had no sympathy with the drama that is concerned with the problems incidental to modern conditions, and differed from the founders of the Irish theatre in his scant reverence for “Ibsen and the Germans.”

One has always imagined Shakespeare [21] going attentively about Stratford or the streets of London, taking notes here of a striking phrase, there of some trait of character sufficiently vivid or eccentric for the emphatic life of the stage. Mr. Bernard Shaw, in his amusing sketch of The Dark Lady of the Sonnets, has shown us his possible method; but in The Aran Islands we have an authentic account of a modern artist doing this very thing, though neither the London of his day, nor even the Stratford-on-Avon, would have filled his notebooks.

For though a certain savour of race prejudice may be traced in some Irishmen’s estimate of the Saxon tongue and of modern English literature, it is very clear that the stuff of drama is not so ready to hand as it was in Shakespeare’s time. Otherwise it would certainly be used. The reason for this is at least twofold. In. the first place our vitality is lower; we are prone to think about life instead of living it, so that even artists deal with special problems rather than with life as a whole. In the second place, our language has undoubtedly deteriorated from the level [22] of art to the level of journalism. One has only to compare the hastiest letter of the sixteenth or seventeenth century with one of the eighteenth or nineteenth to see this. The Elizabethans, and even Wycherly and Congreve, could use speech which only differed from that of the market-place by being a finer selection; but in the last two centuries the rift has gradually widened between literature and talk. A poetic language has developed which may be a very fine thing to read, but is of no value whatever for drama, which demands something more beautiful than ordinary speech, but of kindred nature. Consequently all that English dramatic literature has to show for two hundred years is the sentimental comedy of the eighteenth century, the dreary blank-verse efforts of the Victorian poets, and, more lately, the naturalistic sociologists. Only by keeping clear of reality altogether-far clearer than Congreve-have two moderns, Wilde and Shaw-the one developing the comedy of manners, the other inventing the comedy of bad manners-contrived to produce plays which are very delightful, but not, [23] it is to be feared, immortal. It may be urged that English genius has turned from the theatre to other forms of art; that is self-evident, but the turn was made from necessity rather than from choice. When so virile a creator as Browning fails to become a dramatist one suspects the matter rather than the man.

“But in Ireland”, once more to quote Synge, “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 that is not given to writers in places where the springtime of local life has been forgotten, and the harvest is a memory only, and the straw has been turned into bricks.” He found in the Aran Islands and Connemara and Wicklow a peasantry which was perfect material for drama as he had come to believe it should be written; or rather, acquaintance with the people awakened in him a perception of the sort of material the dramatist must use if his art is to be both human and beautiful.

In this people, as he saw it-and he had [24] no sentimentality to mar his vision the god and the beast were mixed in just proportions; corresponding to that juxtaposition of exaltation and brutality which figures in his theory of poetry. Very significant is his story of the old man who, in “a freak of earthly humour”, told him what he would have done if, in his youth, he could have had a girl alone with him in the beehive dwelling where he and Synge were sitting; and then, a moment later, was reciting ancient Irish poetry in a manner which brought tears into his companion’s eyes. This duality justifies Synge’s making Mary Byrne, the drunken old reprobate of The Tinker’s Wedding, break into such lyric utterance as:

”That’s a sweet tongue you have, Sarah Casey; but if sleep’s a grand thing, it’s a grand thing to be waking up a day the like of this-, when there’s a warm sun in it, and a kind air, and you’ll hear the cuckoos singing and crying out on the top of the hill.”

When people found fault with his characters he quoted a paragraph from an article of his own on the vagrants of Wicklow. [25] in its energy and beauty than anything, at least, since Lady Wishfort abused her maid, or Millament dictated terms to Mirabell. Yet Synge claimed never, or hardly ever, to have used word or phrase which he had not heard among the Irish peasantry. He found the English of these people, whose proper speech is Gaelic, a “curiously simple yet dignified language “spoken with a “delicate exotic intonation that was full of charm”; and these qualities of simplicity and dignity, rhythm, delicacy, and strangeness are the qualities of his prose.

Nevertheless, he did not accept this folk-language in the gross. As with his characters and his situations, he bettered what was already good by fastidious selection and blending. Here, perhaps, more than anywhere are visible the effects of his training in Paris, his knowledge of elaborate literature. For all his energy he was an artist eclectic and austere, and it was in language that his art was most triumphant. “In a good play”, he held, “every speech should be as fully flavoured as a nut or apple.” But in careless converse [28] many words-though fewer in Inishmaan than in London-must always run to waste. The borders of the finest unpremeditated speech must be trimmed before it is suited for the shapely life of the stage. There is one very interesting instance of how Synge used his material. An old man said to him:

”Listen to what I’m telling you: a man who is not married is no better than an old jackass. He goes into his sister’s house, and into his brother’s house; he cats a bit in this place and a bit in another place, but he has no home for himself; like an old jackass straying on the rocks.”

This is vivid enough, but in The Playboy of the Western World it becomes:

“What’s a single man, I ask you, eating a bit in one house and drinking a sup in another, like an old braying jackass strayed upon the rocks ?”

The somewhat rambling original is pruned down to its essentials without sacrifice of any of its picturesque ness. Synge, having discarded the mechanical aid of [29] blank verse, was entirely dependent on his own sense of form for his effects. His art was literally a criticism, a choosing.

Character, situation and language he thus borrowed from actual life, improving and embellishing them, but never altering their essence. His plays are never symbolical, his characters never projections of his own moods and ideas, as with Maeterlinck or Mr. Yeats. But, when all is said, no sincere artist has ever produced absolutely impersonal work. He depicts things as he sees them, and each has his peculiar mental vision. So Synge’s work, though objective in method, is subjective in so far as it is coloured by his own temperament. The plays are bound together, and separated from all others, by something less material than their distinctive language; they are the work, not only of one hand, but of one soul. The moods of his various plays-laughter and passion and knavery-were what he saw in the world; but the light in which he saw them was his own, a clear hard light, shining neither through rosy nor through smoky glass. If there be an actual reality in things  [30] - an authentic value to stultify all our illusions - Synge was one of the few who have got very near to seeing it. For that reason sentimentalists considered him a cynic. [31]

Chap. IV -  “Yeats and the Movement”
’Granted the meeting with Mr. Yeats, it is not likely that Synge’s subsequent work would have been other than it was, even if no Irish dramatic movement had been at the time on foot. Many admirable dramatists have come into being purely on account of the needs of the Irish Literary Theatre Society and the encouragement it has offered. Synge, on the other hand, having once found that drama was his business and Ireland his quarry, would have worked on without external stimulus. Still, though neither parent nor child of the movement, he became one of its most prominent figures and has left his mark on its development. Moreover, it gave him a stage, adequate interpreters, and an audience, without which things even the finest dramatist is not very much better than “an old braying jackass strayed upon the rocks”.  [p.49.; &c.]

[ back ]

[ top ]