There’s a saying that all great English playwrights start out as failed Irish actors. In fact, only the late Restoration dramatist George Farquhar fits the bill completely. But actor-playwrights go back from Marber, Pinter, Osborne and Coward to Jonson and Shakespeare. And if you leave out the Irish (by birth or upbringing), you lose Congreve, Sheridan, Goldsmith, Wilde and Shaw. The source that gave London The Importance of Being Earnest and Arms and the Man a hundred years ago shows no signs of drying up: Irish writers, whether resident in England or Ireland, remain a considerable presence on the London stage.
Of course, Irish writers who weren’t dramatists spent long periods abroad. But the difference between Joyce and Shaw is that Joyce kept Ireland as his setting, even if he was actually writing in Zurich. Apart from the occasional Irish character (Sir Lucius O’Trigger in Sheridan’s The Rivals) and the even more occasional dramatic location (as in Shaw’s John Bull’s Other Island), the playwrights listed above wrote about England as if they were English. There may be Irish resonances in Waiting for Godot, but Beckett set it in no man’s land and wrote it in France (and when required to make short trips home to Ireland was subject to depression and illness). Until recently, most great playwrights of Irish origin have wished to write neither in nor about the land of their birth.
There are two exceptions. Although he spent the second half of his life in London, Sean O’Casey’s great plays about revolutionary Dublin in the 1910s and 1920s were written in Ireland. And John Millington Synge was persuaded by Yeats (a better poet than dramatist) to return from Paris to study the Irish peasantry of the western islands and to make plays out of what he found there. One of the triumvirate which ran the self-consciously culturally-nationalist Abbey Theatre (the others were Yeats and Augusta Gregory), Synge completed five plays between 1902 and 1909, when he died from Hodgkin’s disease. Despite his metropolitan upbringing and Protestant heritage, all of his finished plays concerned the Catholic peasantry of rural Ireland. Their sources are the stories and myths Synge found in County Wicklow and on the Aran Islands, and they have the feel of folk-tales. They form a gateway, however, not only to the development of Irish writing in the 20th century, but also to the playwriting of the modern world.
W.J. McCormack’s biography claims to place Synge in the context of turn of the century modernity, but he chooses a pretty perverse point of comparison. His association of Synge with Ibsen (whom Synge himself rejected as one of those ‘analysts with their problems, and teachers with their systems’ whose work would not last) is not the only perversity of this frustrating book. McCormack’s case rests on a convoluted claim that Synge’s abandoned first play, When the Moon Has Set, was a rewrite of Ghosts (even though’no explicit mention of Ghosts can be traced’). Specific points of contact between Synge’s country-house drama and Ibsen’s tale of congenital syphilis include a concern for the past, suppressed incest and mention of the sun: ‘at the level of a general cultural diagnosis, one can argue that the two divergent perspectives have a point of intersection in the notion of generational anxiety, from which the past (along one line of perspective) appears dubious in the legitimacy it confers, and the future (along the other) depends on a present which is dumbly tense.’ Well, sure.
In fact, the notion of a conversation between past, present and future is the key to Synge’s Modernism, but the comparison that makes sense is not with Ibsen but with Chekhov. Synge and Chekhov started out pursuing alternative careers (music and medicine), fell in love with their leading actresses, wrote their major works in six years and died young. More important, they both wrote plays about the impact on the present of the future; Ibsen’s great subject was the impact on the present of the past.
In Chekhov’s first great play, The Seagull, the first three acts adumbrate hopes and ambitions that are cruelly dashed in the fourth. The thematic core of Uncle Vanya, The Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard is provided by the visionary speeches of the doctor Astrov, the soldier Vershinin and the student Trofimov. In the very different setting of peasant Ireland, Synge’s characters, like Chekhov’s, are haunted not so much by the ghosts of the past as by their dreams for the future. In all his plays, characters look forward to what appears to be an inevitable destiny and call it into question.
This is true even of Synge’s most grimly determinist play. Before the start of Riders to the Sea, four of Maurya’s six sons have died, and a fifth is missing. At the start, her daughter has received what may well be the missing Michael’s clothes, washed up from the sea ‘in the far north’ at Donegal. During the course of the play, Maurya tries to persuade her remaining son, Bartley, not to ride off with the horses to the Galway fair, predicting that he, too, will be taken by the sea. Ashamed of sending him out with an ‘unlucky word’, she follows him, only to witness the drowned Michael on a grey pony, overtaking Bartley, and claiming him for the grave. In the final scene of the play, in which Maurya mourns her last two sons, their deaths provide a bleak comfort: ‘They’re all together this time, and the end is come,’ she says, ‘no man at all can be living for ever, and we must be satisfied.’
If Maurya finds solace in the inevitability of a fate predicted from the outset, the protagonists of Synge’s other plays make more determined attempts at escape. In his first completed play, In the Shadow of the Glen, a husband pretends to be dead in order to test his wife’s faithfulness, thereby discovering (predictably) no good about his wife, his marriage or himself. Exposed and rejected, the wife is offered a fine vision of the poetry of the road by a tramp to whom she has given shelter; she is realistic about his promises of ‘herons crying out over the black lakes’ and ‘the grouse, and the owls with them, and the larks and the big thrushes where the days are warm’, but concludes that for all the cold nights, ‘you’ve got a fine bit of talk stranger, and it’s with yourself I’ll go.’
Unlike her namesake in A Doll’s House, Nora’s departure from her bleak home and husband is thrust on her. The protagonists of The Tinker’s Wedding are more proactive. Sarah has resolved to raise her social status a notch or two by marrying Michael, properly, in church. The farce of the play consists of the couple’s frustrating attempts to negotiate financial terms with a passing priest and then to keep to them; at the end, even force fails to bring about Sarah’s entry to the ranks of the respectable poor and the priest is ‘master of the situation’. The point, however, is that she has had her vision of a different and better life, and tried to achieve it.
If The Tinker’s Wedding is about unachieved ambitions, The Well of the Saints is about the dangers of getting what you want. Based on the fairytale format of the granted wish, the play concerns an old, blind beggar couple who are given temporary sight by a passing saint (echoing the tinker couple and the passing priest of The Tinker’s Wedding). In practical terms, the miracle removes the couple’s main means of employment, but more important, vision destroys their illusions about themselves and each other. Believing his wife to be beautiful, the newly sighted Martin walks straight past her to the luscious young Molly (to receive a rude awakening); Mary, too, realises that if she ever was, she is now far from being ‘the beautiful dark woman of Ballinatone’.
In the hands of a different playwright, this cruel disillusionment would be the end of it, and the subsequent decision of the couple to return to blindness a summary conclusion of an obviously cautionary tale. Despite the brilliance of the discovery scene, the innovation of the play is in the last act, in which the couple reconstruct the fantasy life they will live in the darkness to which they are eager to return. Of course they can never again believe each other to be straight, dark and handsome; but even before the world fades around her Mary is thinking of herself lovely in age: ‘I’d a face would be a great wonder when it’ll have soft white hair falling around it.’ In turn, Martin dreams of the ‘beautiful, long, white, silken, streamy beard’ he’ll grow. Challenged by the returning saint with the beauties of the actual world, Martin counters with the finer sights of the imagination, where far from the grey days and the harsh skies of reality, ‘we’d be looking up in our minds into a grand sky, and seeing lakes, and broadening rivers, and hills are waiting for the spade and plough.’
Ending with not one but three contending predictions for the future of the couple, The Well of the Saints is not so much about what might have been (the subject of The Three Sisters) as what might, in the world of the imagination, still be. What Synge discovers in In the Shadow of the Glen and brings to fruition in The Well of the Saints is a way of dramatising the truth that disappointed people live not in the fixed world of their failed past but in the much more enticing future of infinite possibility. Having used this technique to dramatise a folk-tale, Synge applied the same strategy to a comedy of misunderstanding in his most popular (and contentious) work.
In outline, the plot of The Playboy of the Western World concerns a young man who turns up in a village, pretends to have murdered his father, becomes a local hero, is exposed by the arrival of his wounded but still living victim, fails in an attempt to murder him again and resolves to depart with his father and journey through the country telling the tale. This description leaves out the most important element in the story – the villagers, who at each twist of the plot suggest alternative outcomes to each other and indeed to the young man himself. On his first appearance, Christy Mahon is subject not to questioning but to speculation: perhaps he has committed larceny, the publican thinks; or perhaps his land has been grabbed; or he might be a forger; or he might have married three wives. Similarly, when Christy announces that he has killed his father, the first response of his listeners is not to ask him how, but to outline the various possibilities (shooting, knifing, hanging) to a degree which renders the actual story (inflated though it is) a kind of disappointment. From then on, each twist and turn is accompanied by rich fantasies, and Christy selects as embellishments to his story those elements most likely to contribute to his growing fame. When the girls of the village come to see him and find him absent (in fact, he is in the other room), they immediately start constructing narratives (‘maybe he’s stolen off to Belmullet’). In their attempts to detach Christy from the smitten publican’s daughter, the Widow Quin and the girl’s ditchwater-dull fiancé offer him elaborate bribes of productive livestock, rich clothing and sumptuous victuals, and talk not just about their worth but about the imaginary future Christy might enjoy in their possession.
The most convoluted speculations are those of the publican’s daughter, Pegeen Mike, herself: like Nora, Sarah and Mary before her, she imposes her dreams of a new and better life on her current situation. In the richness of her fantasies, Pegeen even finds time to speculate about the future life her erstwhile fiancé might enjoy without her, with a ‘radiant lady with droves of bullocks on the plains of Meath’. And when father and son depart to make their living out of tale-telling, Pegeen Mike is already structuring a tragic model of the events and their protagonist: ‘Oh, my grief, I’ve lost him surely. I’ve lost the only Playboy of the western world.’ Of course, she is disappointed by Christy’s failure to live up to her dreams. But it is the loss not of the dream but the dreaming that afflicts her at the end of the play.
If the present-tense plot of The Playboy is merely the trunk from which branches of speculation grow and multiply, Synge’s last, unfinished play exists even more starkly in the future conditional. Although Synge knew he was dying when he wrote the first draft of Deirdre of the Sorrows, it was not necessarily conceived as his final statement (any more than The Cherry Orchard was conceived as Chekhov’s). But it’s hard not to see the play as completing a circle in Synge’s work. Like Riders to the Sea, it begins with women making pessimistic predictions and ends with one of them mourning over a dead body. In between, almost every key turning-point in the plot takes the form of a prediction. The crucial moment is when Deirdre, who has rejected a future of wealth and position with an old king in favour of true love with a young warrior, angrily overhears her lover’s prediction that when she is old he will cease to love her – a circumstance which leads to his death at the hands of the man she has deserted and her suicide. Despite Deirdre’s fatalism (‘there’s little power in oaths to stop what’s coming’), it is her own actions that bring her successful escape attempt to a bitter end, actions provoked not by what has happened but by what someone else has predicted. Even beyond the end of the play (and her own death), she sees the fall of the house of the man she deserted: ‘there will be weasels and wild cats crying on a lonely wall where there were queens and armies and red gold, the way there will be a story told of a ruined city and a raving king and a woman will be young for ever.’ Before she goes, the woman who will not grow old has left a bleak and bitter future behind her.
If there is a particular characteristic of the current upsurge of Irish playwriting in the English theatre repertoire, it is that it lies in the Synge tradition. From willing expatriates like Conor McPherson to Martin McDonagh, who is Irish by descent but was born in England, the current crop of writers have chosen to set their most successful plays neither in London nor in Dublin but in the villages and small towns of rural Ireland. But while critics have noted that the strange, dark, rural Ireland of Martin McDonagh owes much to the world of In the Shadow of the Glen and The Well of the Saints (he set his National Theatre hit The Cripple of Inishmaan on one of the Aran Islands), it is McPherson whose work fits most closely into the tradition of Synge’s dramaturgy. His monologue St Nicholas is literally a story (about vampires, as it happens) told in the past tense by a single character to the audience; his hugely successful play The Weir has the same structure as Pinter’s The Homecoming (a man brings a woman into a close-knit group with unpredictable results), but in fact consists of four ghost stories told by a group assembled in a small rural bar on a winter’s night, three of which (told by the men) seem false, and one of which (told by the woman) appears to be true.
New Irish writers are not alone in their concern with storytelling (it is the subject of Mark Ravenhill’s Shopping and F***ing and the form of David Hare’s Via Dolorosa), as Post-Modernist attempts to deny the validity of narrative give way to a more subtle (and sensible) exploration of how narrative works. The influence that speaks most strongly to today’s Irish dramatists is not that of the turn of the century expatriates, nor of the metropolitan revolutionaries, but of J.M. Synge, a reluctant republican of Protestant origin, who renounced social drama for what he saw as dramatic poetry and thereby invented a world from which the Irish dramatists of the 21st century still find it hard to escape.
Some (though not nearly enough) of that world is described in McCormack’s biography. He spends his first chapter attacking other biographies (coyly threatening some ‘knuckle rapping’ of their authors); his last chapter summarises the story he has failed to tell in between. Fond of literary curlicues (‘let us be content in saying’, ‘let us concede’, ‘it is worth noting’, ‘it is hardly too much to say’, ‘it is not premature, therefore, to ask’), McCormack spends much of his time explaining what he doesn’t know (diaries ‘do not disclose’, events are ‘difficult to date’ and indeed ‘not possible to establish’, suppositions ‘cannot now be challenged’, conclusions ‘may not be drawn’). When he isn’t telling readers what cannot be known, he is failing to tell them things he fears they know too well. Thus Yeats’s recommendation to Synge that he go to Aran pops up as a ‘too famous injunction’ on page 28, ‘too famous advice’ on page 140, an event from which ‘momentous consequences duly followed’ on page 186, and finally as ‘Yeats’s subsequently trumpeted advice’ on page 194; it’s only then that the reader realises that this vital event has been anticipated and recollected without actually having been described.
McCormack’s knowingness is indeed the problem; there is a sense of inverted commas being placed around platitudes in the manner of the covering of Victorian table legs. Christmas was ‘a noted event in the Christian calendar’; accents ‘bespoke an Ulster origin’; Synge’s brothers ‘embark on life’s highway’ and – ludicrously, if you think about it – ‘the Abbey Theatre lay hidden in the future.’ McCormack’s delight in the spun sugar of his syntax sometimes results in sentences that make no sense: speaking of Synge’s period on Aran, he writes that ‘the cultural significance of his example cannot now be exaggerated, though one might say that some who followed did exaggerate it.’ And that’s before he enters – mercifully rarely – what he calls ‘the heated pool of Post-Modernism’, claiming that ‘a distinctive characteristic of Synge’s attitude towards women is that each brought to him, or elicited in him, an ideological classification which he then problematised.’ Despite this, ‘sex, in the form longed for by avid biographers, did not raise its lovely head.’ Or at least there’s ‘no proof’ that it did.
Much more illuminating is the compilation of essays from the Synge Summer School, edited by Nicholas Grene. There is, for instance, more concise and effective analysis of the Yeats-Synge relationship in the first paragraph of R.F. Foster’s paper than there is in the whole of Fool of the Family. There are also excellent essays by Christopher Morash on the nationalist-inspired riots which greeted the opening performances of The Playboy of the Western World at the Abbey Theatre, by Angela Bourke on the tradition of keening over the dead, which provides the ending for both Synge’s first and last play, and by Declan Kiberd on the cultural assumptions – uncomfortably close to those exposed by Edward Said in Orientalism – that lay behind Synge’s expedition to the Aran Islands.
Finally, like McCormack, the Irish playwright Frank McGuinness seeks to capture Synge for the Ibsenite tradition. He cites better evidence (Ibsen’s ‘I am more a poet than a social commentator’) and expresses himself with much crisper wit (‘The older man is searching for a lost youth, the younger is searching for a lost race’). But in this case, Synge (who thought that Ibsen’s work would soon look ‘as old-fashioned as the pharmacopoeia of Galen’) was right about himself. He was wrong about Ibsen, but that’s another story.