Fathers and Sons in The Playboy of the Western World

Although the hostile reception in 1907 of Playboy has been attributed to Synge's slanderous portrayal of the Irish and the subversive implications of that portrayal—namely, that the Irish were unfit for self-rule—the most radical implication of all has escaped scholarly comment: the antipatriarchal message found in the play's structure. When, for example, Declan Kiberd in Inventing Ireland argues that "Father Reilly is so peripheral a figure to these fundamentally pagan people [the Mayoites] that Synge does not allow him to appear on the stage at all," he misses the significance of the priest's off-stage portrayal.

Admittedly, to this day, people cannot agree on the play's meaning. Like all great literature, Playboy lends itself to a number of readings: as a traditional comedy, in which a parent tries to obstruct the union of two would-be lovers; as a spoof of traditional comedy, in which the suitor rejects the woman and goes off with his father; as a stage demonstration of the Irish proverb "praise a lad and he'll prosper," in which the hero's propensity for poetry corresponds to his growth in self-esteem; as a biographical play, in which the poet repeatedly speaks of loss and loneliness, feelings that express Synge's own unhappy love affair with a young actress (Molly Allgood); as a reversal of gender roles, in which the men are feminized and the women masculinized; as a dialectic of Irish independence, proceeding from occupation, through nationalism, to liberation; or as a social critique, in which Synge rebukes domineering Irish fathers and emasculated sons under the guise of satirizing provincial villagers in the west of Ireland.

Nicholas Grene, in Synge: A Critical Study of the Plays, describes the play as "puzzling, and a common reaction to seeing or reading [it] for the first time is complete bewilderment," an observation that might explain why Mavis Brown, in "Christy's Two Fathers" (The Canadian Journal of Irish Studies), omitted the most overbearing father of them all, the Irish priest. Despite the play's bewildering effect on audiences and readers, it has remained popular and has become a staple of the Abbey Theatre. (In the summer of 2005, a Dublin performance was highly acclaimed.) This was not the case in January 1907, when few praised it and one person famously defended it, W.B. Yeats. Mostly audiences, reviewers, letter writers, and especially nationalist politicians fulminated about those aspects of the play that they found offensive: the suggestion that an Irish lass would ever appear in her "shift" before a stranger; the drunkenness; the swearing; the invocation of God's name, as well as numerous saints; the mention of the Widow Quin rearing a black ram at her breast, "so that the Lord Bishop of Connaught felt the elements of a Christian, and he eating it after in a kidney stew"; the condoning of Christy's parricide and the Widow Quin's killing of her husband; the suggestion that the west of Ireland was a refuge for scofflaws; the willingness of a father to leave his unmarried daughter overnight unchaperoned; the psychological implication that landless sons would like to kill their fathers to inherit the farms; and the contention that the country had been depopulated of real men, leaving behind only weaklings, like Shawn Keogh, who are in the paralyzing and pernicious grip of the Catholic Church.

In Mavis Brown's article, she stoutly tries to dispel the cloud of unknowing, proceeding chronologically through the text and drawing on Jungian psychology, religion, Greek mythology, philosophy, a dictionary of symbols, and her own close reading to prove Paul Diel's contention, in Symbolism and Greek Mythology, that "all men possess two 'fathers'"—the birth father, and the mythical father, "who forms every man . . . spiritually." The two fathers of her article are Michael James and Old Mahon. But the latter's reversal from a domineering "da" to a supportive one makes him, in effect, two fathers, bringing the total to three. Given the title of her article, Brown inexplicably treats Father as dismissively as Declan Kiberd. She mentions Father Reilly only twice—and then only in passing; and yet to ignore Father Reilly is to neglect the artistry of the play and thus Synge's aesthetic achievement.

As an Anglo-Protestant, Synge was treading on dangerous ground by arguing that the effects of emigration had been to rob the country of its most able-bodied males, leaving behind a population of men subject to secular fathers who used land ownership as a means to cow their sons and to religious fathers who used spiritual ownership to keep them "afeard." The Irish nationalists, feeling that Synge was playing into the hands of the British, took particular umbrage at the portrayal of Shawn Keogh—and thereby came closest to identifying the play's subversiveness and the radical meanings found in the two father-son relationships: Christy and Old Mahon, and Sean Keogh and Father Reilly.

An artist as meticulous as Synge does not introduce or mention characters for no reason. Father Reilly is included because he is an integral part of the play's meaning. In fact, the structure of the play makes no sense unless Father Reilly and Sean Keogh are seen in a father-son relationship. Christy's manumission—his change from stuttering lout to master of all future fights—contrasts with Sean's continued submission. At the opening curtain, Christy and Shawn are coequal, even though a terrified Christy thinks he has murdered his "da." By the final curtain, one man has changed, and the other has not. The implication of that change—that tyrannical fathers should and can be overthrown—is at the heart of the play. Unwilling ever to gainsay Father Reilly, Shawn will remain forever in his power. Although Father Reilly never appears on stage, he remains a formidable figure in the life of Shawn Keogh. The Father's absence, in fact, proves more powerful than the ravings of Old Mahon, who ultimately praises his son for declaring "I'm master of all fights from now." Ironically, the priest's off-stage "presence" provides Synge the means to criticize the Church's pervasive authority and Shawn's "blind faith."

Although the play's meaning demands that Father Reilly remain off-stage, Synge has to provide a reason for the priest's absence. He does so, amusingly, by ascribing Father Reilly's disappearing act to fear, the very motivation that governs Shawn's behavior. On Widow Quin's first entrance, she remarks to Pegeen:

I'm after meeting Shawn Keogh and Father Reilly below, who told me of your curiosity man, and they fearing by this time he was maybe roaring, romping on your hands with drink.

In other words, both Shawn and Father Reilly, who are joined at the hip, dread a confrontation with Christy. Not surprisingly, they send a hardened woman to do what these weak men will not do themselves.

If, in fact, Christy is a murderer, we might expect that Father Reilly, despite being an Irish-Catholic priest, would want to inform the English authorities (the peelers). And yet he, like Shawn, is too scared to act, even though the offense has immense symbolic importance. His inaction, besides making Shawn seem that much more spineless, is also fraught with other meanings. Irish nationalists supported the Catholic Church's swift condemnation of "immorality" on the part of Parnell and "Kitty" O'Shea. But in Playboy, Synge shows us a priest whose fear outweighs not just his moralism but even his authoritarian sympathies: a Father of the Church who turns a blind eye to parricide.

Embedded in the structure of the play, then, is a seditious choice: sons can either resist or endure. They can either stand up to overbearing fathers, like Old Mahon and Father Reilly, or they can live in fear. At a subliminal level, the Irish found neither choice palatable—and spat out their rage.

Professor Paul M. Levitt

With the author's kind permission

NOTES

Declan Kiberd, Inventing Ireland (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996), 166.

Nicholas Grene, Synge: A Critical Study of the Plays (London: Macmillan, 1985) 145.

Mavis Brown, "Christy's Two Fathers," The Canadian Journal of Irish Studies, 22:1 (1996) 42-60.

Paul Diel, Symbolism in Greek Mythology: Human Desire and Its Transformations, trans. Vincent Stuart, Micheline Stuart, and Rebeccas Folkman (Boulder and London: Shambhala, 1980) 69-70.

J.M. Synge: Collected Works, gen. ed. Robin Skelton, 4 vols; 4th vol, Book II, ed. by Ann Saddlemyer (London, Oxford University Press, 1968) 87.

Although the hostile reception in 1907 of Playboy has been attributed to Synge's slanderous portrayal of the Irish and the subversive implications of that portrayal—namely, that the Irish were unfit for self-rule—the most radical implication of all has escaped scholarly comment: the antipatriarchal message found in the play's structure. When, for example, Declan Kiberd in Inventing Ireland argues that "Father Reilly is so peripheral a figure to these fundamentally pagan people [the Mayoites] that Synge does not allow him to appear on the stage at all," he misses the radical implication of the priest's off-stage portrayal.