- 1 The edition to which all page numbers refer is: The Playboy of the Western World in J. M. Synge, Co (...)
- 2 ‘In the modern literature of towns […] richness is found only in sonnets, or prose poems, or in one (...)
1J. M. Synge’s fascination for rural Ireland has often been apprehended as partaking of a neo-romantic inclination, as have his taste for myth or folk legends and his use of an Hiberno-English dramatic idiom, an autochthonic idiom which may best be described in Synge’s own words as ‘fully flavoured as a nut or apple’ (54)1. In the preface to The Playboy of the Western World (henceforth abbreviated as Playboy), Synge emphatically distances himself from the ‘modern intellectual drama’ of the time and from writers such as Ibsen or Zola. He asserts several times his preference for rich, luscious poetry over dry, ‘pallid’ prose and pits the joylessness of the ‘modern literature of towns’ against the richness of a poetry which takes the country people as its source of inspiration2. The preface to Playboy reads like a manifesto for Synge’s own dramatic art: his plays are undeniably all deeply concerned with the countryside; they take country people as their source of inspiration and the exuberance of their language is highly poetical and jubilant. Yet, it is my contention that for all their apparent shunning the modern themes of the ‘literature of towns,’ these plays are profoundly concerned with urban modernity; and that despite their fascination for practices commonly construed as ‘archaic’ or ‘primitive,’ they are very much preoccupied with ‘the shock of the new.’ When they were first produced, Synge’s “peasant plays” confronted their largely urban audience with the ‘shock of the old’ or ‘the shock of the primitive’ in the very midst of one of the most prominent institutions of modernity: Ireland’s recently-established National Theatre. The staging of the ‘primitive’ itself may be read as a very modern gesture. Moreover, the plays engage in a subtle, complex but very insistent way with modernity and the anxieties it triggered - in Synge himself, in the members of his class or in the people whose ways of life were marked as irretrievably backward and perceived as impeding progress. These anxieties are given an especially powerful expression through an extensive recourse to animal imageries, in Playboy in particular.
- 3 See for example George Cusack, "'In the gripe of the ditch': nationalism, famine and The Playboy of (...)
- 4 Augusta Gregory, Our Irish Theatre: A Chapter of Autobiography (New York and London: G. P. Putnam's (...)
- 5 For enlightening analyses of Synge’s drawing on the popular performance tradition of faction fighti (...)
- 6 Keening, or caoineadh in Irish, was a ritual lament for the dead. It partook of a performance tradi (...)
2This article proposes to read animals in Playboy as indexes of (pre-)modernity and as markers of the divide between rural and urban areas that modernity accentuated. The various forms of animality that Playboy turns to will be considered as explorations of the unstable, forever elusive limit between the pre-modern and the modern. Animal-like forms of embodiment and behaviour in Synge’s plays have been read as traces of the Great Famine and thus as reminiscent of an era commonly apprehended as pre-modern, when not utterly dismissed as medieval3. The Great Famine of the 1840s indeed marks a turning point in the period during which Ireland was frogmarched into modernity. The beastly forms of embodiment displayed in the plays may also be viewed as exhibiting a rural, pre-modern Irish body and thus as replicating, albeit unwittingly, the colonial stereotype of the simian Irish. Moreover the wild gestures, farce-like moments and histrionics conjure up the image of the Stage Irishman and thus run counter to the professed aim of the founders of the Irish Literary Theatre who wanted to ‘show that Ireland [was] not the home of buffoonery and of easy sentiment, as it ha[d] been represented, but the home of an ancient idealism4.’ The argument of this article, however, is that animal-like behaviour in Synge’s plays, and in Playboy more specifically, may also be considered as a form of resistance to a hegemonic and early twentieth century conception of modernity. Alongside the trained, performing, modern Irish body that emerged in the theatre of the early 1900s there survived vestiges of a radically different form of embodiment associated with, for example, performance traditions such as faction fighting5 or rural performance rituals such as keening6. It was these other expressions of corporeality - less easily legible and more beastly - which piqued Synge’s interest and which, in his plays, offer traces of an inexpungible and co-existing alternative to the modernity of the (Abbey) theatre as an institution.
- 7 ‘Jimmy [flatteringly]: What is there to hurt you and you a fine, hardy girl would knock the head o (...)
3The pre-modernity of the characters in Playboy is first conveyed through an emphasis on aurality and on the characters’ inability to see things clearly, which is implicitly opposed to the modern, enlightened gaze of the audience. The first dialogue between Pegeen Mike and Shawn Keogh sets the tone of the play, situating the story in what was bound to be construed by the audience as an uncanny environment. Pegeen Mike’s and Shawn Keogh’s words conjure up a terrifying landscape whose darkness is repeatedly insisted upon: ‘Pegeen: How could you see him […] and it dark night this half-hour gone by?’ (56); ‘Shawn: And he’s going that length in the dark night?’ (59); ‘Pegeen: Isn’t it long the nights are now, Shawn Keogh, to be leaving a poor girl with her own self counting the hours to the dawn of day?’ (59); ‘Shawn: […] I’ve little will to be walking off to wakes or weddings in the darkness of the night’ (59). Metaphorically the darkness signals the shortsightedness of the Mayo villagers and their obscurantism. It also sets into relief the hostility of the environment they live in and accentuates the sense of impending danger: ‘Pegeen (Impatiently, throwing water from basin out of the door): Stop tormenting me with Father Reilly (imitating his voice) when I’m asking only what way I’ll pass these twelve hours of dark, and not take my death with the fear. (Looking out of the door)’ (59-61). If Pegeen’s words and action point to the real dangers of the world lying outside the door of the shebeen (the former soldiers from the Land Wars, the ‘loosed khakis‘ ‘walking idle through the land’ (63), for instance)7, her hyperbolic turn of phrase and her imitation of Shawn’s voice effectively turn his fears into ridicule. Frightened of the dark and disconcerted by the placid sound of cows, Shawn Keogh is thus implicitly set against the like of brave Marcus Quin who ‘got six months for maiming ewes‘ (59). The characters’ relationship to animals define their (pre-) modernity in the world of Playboy: Shawn is associated with the aspirational ordered tranquility of modern times whereas Marcus Quin stands for a time of resistance, red in tooth and claw, whose disappearance Pegeen deplores.
4In the soundscape evoked by the two characters the familiar sounds of the countryside – ‘cows breathing and sighing in the stillness of the air’ (57)- mix with the uncanny grunts of an unidentified creature ‘groaning wicked like a maddening dog’ (61). This contributes to raising the question of the blurred distinction between the human and the bestial:
Shawn: […] I’m after feeling a kind of fellow above in the furzy ditch, groaning wicked like a maddening dog, the way it’s good cause you have, maybe, to be fearing now.
Pegeen: [turning on him sharply] What’s that? Is it a man you seen?
Shawn: [retreating] I couldn’t see him at all, but I heard him groaning out and breaking his heart. It should have been a young man from his words speaking. (61)
- 8 The imagery used by old Mahon to describe his son in act II reiterates this impression of Christy’s (...)
5The markers of approximation and uncertainty in Shawn’s speech (‘a kind of’, ‘maybe’, ‘it should have been’), the comparison with a ‘maddening dog’ and the reference to the surrounding darkness combine to cast doubt as to the human nature of the creature under discussion. The problematic issue of the porousness of the frontier between the human and the animal is taken up again in act III when Christy is tied down by the villagers and is seen squirming round on the floor and biting Shawn’s leg: ‘Shawn: My leg’s bit on me! He’s the like of a mad dog, I’m thinking, the way that I will die surely’ (171)8.
- 9 On the link between the decorousness of the body and the theatre of modernity in a (post)colonial c (...)
6Beyond the sheer comedy of these two scenes lies an unsettling question: what makes a man a man in the post-Famine, turn-of-the-century Ireland that Synge’s play depicts? For Dublin audiences in 1907 the spectre of a subhuman creature groaning in a ditch held an unmistakable resemblance and an uncanny association with the Great Famine of the 1840s. Most accounts of the Famine insist on the silence that fell on the land after a huge proportion of the population died of hunger or famine-related diseases or emigrated, as well as on the sound of wailing or howling which pierced the silence. This cry of despair and powerlessness was apprehended as indifferently human or animal by the colonial power, as had been the lamentations of keeners in pre-Famine Ireland. Mentioned at the beginning of the play, Christy’s ‘groaning out and breaking his heart’ (61) appears as a resurgence of a pre-modernity that the colonial power and those of the nationalists who embraced its modernising agenda were striving to expunge and reform. For nationalist audiences, this was deeply embarrassing. Any form of embodiment or behaviour diverging from the norms of modernity, as set by the colonial power and endorsed later by constitutional nationalists, would have been seen as compromising Ireland’s chance of gaining independence9. To become independent, Ireland had to prove and showcase its modernity. Giving unlimited, vociferous vent to one’s grief testified to one’s lack of self-control and would have therefore been deemed archaic, primitive or atavistic. Christy’s reported dog-like groans or Pegeen’s ‘wild lamentations’ (173) on which the play ends evoke all too clearly the wild, beast-like cries of a keener, which encouraged a collective expression of grief and solidarity with the family of the bereaved. These cries were perceived as antithetical to the hegemonic conception of what the modern subject ought to be: rational, restrained and, most importantly perhaps, self-reliant.
7The political objective behind the insistence on the porousness of the limit between the human and the bestial is transparent enough in a colonial context. Foreigners journeying in Ireland in the nineteenth century often compared the cabins in which the Irish peasantry lived to pigsties, for instance. Their writings emphasized the filthy state of both the dwelling and its inhabitants, who were often depicted as savages living half-naked, sleeping huddled together and sharing their living space with animals. Most of the travellers’ accounts thus implied the need for a “humanisation” of the Irish poor. They implicitly advocated the necessity for hygienic reforms, and more importantly for a clear–cut division between species, human beings being clearly not meant to share the same space as other animals. In June 1895, a detailed description of Irish mud cabins appeared in several American newspapers - The San Fransisco Call and Old News, for instance10. The article is entitled simply ‘In An Irish Mud Cabin’ and the subtitle reads: ‘Little Light Penetrates the Dingy Building. – No Disagreeable Odors.’ The first paragraph of the article is taken up by a detailed description of the mud cabin. From the second paragraph, the sharing of the dwelling between animals and humans is emphasised: ‘The mud floor is always more or less wet from the patter of the children’s bare feet or from the animals which have free access to the house.’ The article reads on as follows:
- 11 "In an Irish Mud Cabin."
In the state berth in the calliogh, or recess at the side of the hearth, the father and mother repose unscreened from the live stock and breathe the same atmosphere as some eight quadrupeds besides the poultry. Pigs, cattle, dogs, cats, and probably a horse or donkey, have their bed space respectively, and jealously resent any encroachment by a bedfellow.
Astonishing as it may appear, there are hardly any disagreeable odors. The overpowering smell of the peat smoke evidently acts as a complete disinfectant and fortunately it is innoxious to the inhabitants of the hovel. Equally astonishing is the fact that the whole community is in comparative harmony, and even the babies rarely cry. There is plenty of occupation for all the family who are able and willing to work, the mother doing little else but nurse the youngest infant11.
8The account is almost stereotypical in its colonial bias, especially visible at the end of the excerpt where the mother is described as doing almost nothing except feed her umpteenth new baby. One recognizes the widespread prejudices against the Irish Catholic poor, whose filthy and promiscuous ways are presented as being in desperate need of reform. The hygienist concerns of the author are made explicit by words such as ‘disinfectant’ or ‘innocuous’. The pejorative tone is also perceptible in the remark on ‘the father and mother repos[ing] unscreened from the live stock.’ Implied is a need for a better division of spaces and for a stricter disciplining of the (Catholic) Irish body within the new space of the home. Excessive promiscuity is clearly what is feared. Cross-species sexual activity is even hinted at, as is a form of exhibitionism or lack of modesty on the part of the father and mother.
- 12 John Berger, "Why Look at Animals?," in About Looking (New York: Vintage, 1991), 3-28.
9To differentiate him- or herself from animals and become fully human, the Irish peasant had to be modernised. Such a modernising discourse emphasises the desirability of shifting to a different economy where animals would not constitute the first circle of men. As John Berger has argued in the opening of his seminal 1977 essay ‘Why Look at Animals?’, the shift to corporate capitalism in nineteenth-century western Europe and North America ruptured the relationship between men and animals12. The setting described in the magazine article quoted above locates rural Ireland as a place of transgression in relation to the rules of this new economy.
10The “modernisation” of the Irish peasant also necessitated a new emotional economy. It is this new emotional economy that Synge was interested in critiquing when he chose to begin the Playboy with a report of an aural performance of emotion – Christy’s ‘groaning out and breaking his heart’ - and to end the play with an actual performance of grief, which actualises and echoes the reported animal-like groans of pain. Pegeen’s wild lamentations are given prominence by their position in the play. Synge’s various drafts show that the lament was a late addition, but that he kept reworking and expanding the curtain scene till the lament appeared, and, as Ann Saddlemyer remarks, ‘each version strengthen[ed] Pegeen’s lamentations’ (175). Interestingly, however, the lamentations were curtailed either by the repeated call for a ‘quick curtain’ or by a stage business, which would have seen Pegeen rushing ‘out of the door upsetting two chairs’ and the crowd saying ‘loudly and all together’: ‘Well now’ (175). The last stage business and the crowd’s response were to be cut after the first rehearsals. Had this not been the case, the collective voice on which the play would have ended would have been of a very different nature to the one it actually does end on. Pegeen’s departure would have sealed her exclusion from the community and discarded her dissenting voice as definitely past and no longer immediately relevant – like those of Daneen Sullivan or Marcus Quin. The community of the Mayo villagers would have smugly reconfigured itself on this exclusion and the ‘well, now’ sealed its acquiescence to the new emotional economy. Synge’s hesitations, as revealed by the various drafts of the curtain scene, testify to his reluctance to give the last word to an old emotional economy which the whole narrative of the play presents as violent and doomed to give way to a tamer, modern reticence. Pegeen’s keen-like lamentations must have asserted themselves so strongly when performed during rehearsals that Synge decided to make them the play’s final stage direction. Even if Playboy is defined by Synge as a comedy and Pegeen’s lamentations are thus made light of, the performance of a keen-like ritual must have reminded 1907 Dublin audiences of the power of such ritual practices. If a director had chosen to allow the keen to unfold in all its wild intensity, it could have encouraged a different perspective on the rural performance traditions that keening exemplifies. Moreover, it could have presented these traditions as viable alternatives to modern cultural practices, contrary to the narrative of Playboy which clearly points to the unsustainability of such “pre-modern” performances.
- 13 Lionel Pilkington, Theatre & Ireland (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 49.
- 14 Máire Ni Shiubhlaigh, The Splendid Years (Dublin: James Duffy & Co., 1955), 81.
11As Lionel Pilkington has argued, in ‘putting her shawl over her head,’ Pegeen is embracing a collective identity, opposed to the individuality she acquired during the love scene with Christy at the beginning of act III; she is retreating into the anonymity of the group13. By ‘breaking into wild lamentations’ she is performing the part of a keener and inviting her community to share in her grief. The effect of the keen on stage depends entirely on the choice of the stage director. If curtailed, its irrelevance is confirmed and the audience leaves, measuring the distance separating it from such practice, strengthened in its sense of its own modernity. If left to unfold in all its wildness and exuberance, its performative power may perhaps not be dismissed as easily. Interestingly enough the play was first performed as a double bill with Riders to the Sea as a curtain raiser. Thus, Pegeen’s lamentations could have echoed Maurya’s long keen. However if the performance of Mauray’s grief ‘brought long and appreciative applause’ according to the testimony of actress Máire Nic Shiubhlaigh, who attended the first performance of Playboy, Pegeen’s was drowned by the protests of the first audience14.
- 15 Contrary to what one might think religious devotion was not an obstacle to the modernization of rur (...)
- 16 David Lloyd, Irish Culture and Colonial Modernity, 1800-2000: The Transformation of Oral Space (Cam (...)
12Against the wild expression of a collective grief Synge pits the restrained, self-controlled attitude of Shawn Keogh. Shawn’s behaviour is the opposite of the excessive exuberance of the other male characters, such as Christy or Jimmy Farrell. He embodies the modern values of reticence, moderation and sobriety – figuratively and literally. While all the men join in the communal mourning ritual of Kate Cassidy’s wake, Shawn emphatically states that he has ‘little will to be walking off to wakes or weddings in the darkness of the night’ (59) and that he is ‘going home the short-cut to (his) bed’ (63). For the colonial power and other modernising forces such as the Catholic Church15, the rituals of the wake and the burial epitomized the Otherness of the rural Irish. As in Dion Boucicault’s melodrama, Conn the Shaughraun, funerals were perceived as the occasion for an immodest public display of emotions - conflicting emotions, what is more, as laughter often mixed with tears. This communal expression of solidarity and grief defied the modern or enlightened sense of moderation and propriety. Pegeen’s father, Michael, is still ‘swamped and drowned with the weight of drink’ the day after the wake and his description of the ritual leaves little doubt as to the criterion that presided over his judging this particular wake as one of the best he has ever attended: ‘you’d never see the match of it for flows of drink’ (151). And there is something that sounds almost sacrilegious to modern ears in his depiction of the state the men were in: ‘the way when we sunk her bones at noonday in her narrow grave, there were five, aye, and six men, stretched out retching speechless on the holy stones’ (151). ‘Groaning out […] breaking [one’s] heart’ and ‘retching [oneself] speechless’ are two different but not dissimilar ways of expressing emotion that the colonial power, the Anglo-Irish Protestant elite or the Catholic Church condemned for their loudness, excessiveness and inarticulacy. David Lloyd introduces his Irish Culture and Colonial Modernity by a ‘history of the Irish orifice,’ pointing out its excesses (too much talking, drinking or singing) and its lacks (starvation, hunger-striking). Like Seamus Deane before him, Lloyd reminds us that the history of the Irish orifice is a history of attempts ‘to control a strange bodily economy in which food, drink, speech, and song are intimately related16.’ With his excessive drinking Michael embodies a form of resistance to the regulation of a ‘bodily economy;’ so does Christy with his inebriating himself with words as the play unfolds. Shawn, on the other hand, incarnates a form of compliance with the modern disciplinary regime, his general reticence standing in sharp contrast with the defiant rambunctiousness of the other male characters: Michael James, Philly O’Cullen or Jimmy Farrell.
13Opposed to the modernity embodied by Shawn are the “old” values whose disappearance Pegeen moans at the beginning of the play:
Pegeen: Where now will you meet the like of Daneen Sullivan knocked the eye from a peeler, or Marcus Quin, God rest him, got six months for maiming ewes […] (59)
14Later, when she is trying to assess the nature of the crime Christy has committed, she expresses something almost akin to hope at the thought that ‘the like’ of Jimmy Farrell have not been completely extinguished yet:
Pegeen: You never hanged him, the way Jimmy Farrell hanged his dog from the licence and had it screeching and wriggling three hours at the butt of a string, and he himself swearing it was a dead dog, and the peelers swearing it had life? (73)
15If Pegeen’s agreeing to marry Shawn Keogh may be read as her reluctantly embracing the values of modern Ireland, she is repeatedly presented as the mouthpiece for other values, which the play does not construct as possible alternatives to the values of modernity but which it nevertheless articulates, thus allowing for the memory of these practices to be passed on. In the two cues quoted above Pegeen may be understood as listing various resources of resistance.
- 17 See for example, Thomas Bartlett, Ireland: A History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), (...)
16The reason for this is that the way humans relate to and treat animals marks the divide between those who abide by the rules of the modern state and these who not only do not abide by those rules but subscribe to an incommensurate set of values. The maiming of cattle (for which Marcus Quin got six months in prison) refers to a tactic used during and after the Land Wars of the 1880s17. It was used for a broad range of grievances. The set of values shown by the reported actions of Marcus Quin and Jimmy Farrell sounds barbaric to a modern audience and would have sounded no less barbaric to a 1907 Dublin audience. However these violent practices may be read as a reaction to an equally violent (but less visibly so) set of values - that of the modern state. Jimmy Farrell swearing his screeching dog is dead while the peelers are swearing it is alive in order to extract a licensing fee is an invitation by him to construe the situation very differently. A different perception of reality, not necessarily subservient to rationality and an altogether different conception of life are here being articulated.
17Like Synge’s plays in general, Playboy testifies to Synge’s fascination for the resourcefulness of a deprived community and its means to resist a modernizing process imposed onto it from the outside. Even if the narrative of the plays condemn these practices and ways of being as unsustainable, the strategic position at which he places his stage keens, for example, and the performative nature of these stage rituals (and of the plays themselves) provide opportunities to revisit these so-called archaic or primitive practices and to see in them possible alternatives to the contemporary modernity. In spite of its narrative, Playboy holds the potential to question the borders of cultural legitimacy that the theatre as a modern institution sets out to enforce. What if the keen, instead of stigmatizing the beliefs and social practices of the rural population of the West of Ireland as irremediably outdated and irrelevant had the opposite effect and drew the audience into feeling a form of communal solidarity for the grief vented on stage? What if it encouraged a rethinking of the process of identity formation in terms of communal solidarity rather than individual self-reliance?