Rembrandt and Synge and Molly

Denis Donoghue

  • The Collected Letters of John Millington Synge. Vol. I: 1871-1907 edited by Ann Saddlemyer
    Oxford, 385 pp, £30.00, August 1983, ISBN 0 19 812678 6

Synge’s origin was solidly Anglo-Irish, Protestant, upper-middle class: his father a well-got barrister, his mother the daughter of a Protestant parson in Schull, County Cork. Presumably it was a financial blow when his father died, but Synge was too young to feel a difference, and besides there was enough money coming from rented estates in Wicklow. The Synges were landlord-class, with the mentality that went with such privilege. As a young man, John thought himself some kind of radical in a vaguely European sense. In Ireland, he knew that the real issue was the ownership of land. In 1893 he canvassed against Gladstone’s second Home Rule Bill on the grounds that it would exacerbate the question of land and cause war between landowner and peasant. In Paris he joined Yeats and Maud Gonne in the Association Irlandaise and stayed in it as long as its talk sounded harmless, but when Maud’s journal L’Irlande Libre looked as if it would take the libre literally, he resigned from the association and told her he wouldn’t ‘get mixed up with a revolutionary and semi-military movement’. Years later, he accepted an invitation from the Manchester Guardian to write 12 articles on the impoverished areas of Galway and Mayo administered by the Congested Districts Board, but the articles, published in June-July 1905, were pretty innocuous. He wanted to see the local conditions improved, provided the peasants stayed as aesthetically winsome as they were: but he hated the few people who were comfortable enough to have acquired a double chin. Things should change: but not yet, O Lord, not yet. Synge’s political vision, in fact, didn’t amount to anything better than Yeats’s sickening ‘dream of the noble and the beggarman’. He hated the small towns, with their shopkeepers, as Yeats wrote, ‘fumbling in a greasy till’.

The truth is that Synge was never really interested in political issues. As a young man, he much preferred to traipse around Europe, playing his fiddle, enjoying the seasons and the landscapes, learning French, Italian, German, Hebrew and, at Trinity College, Dublin, making a reasonable shot at modern Irish. He had the background of a gentleman and the instincts of an aesthete: spiritualism and theosophy were more in his line than the activities of the Land League. Like Yeats, Lady Gregory and Douglas Hyde, he brooded over the ‘spirit of the nation’ and thought it would be a fine thing to express it in a theatre, but he didn’t want to see it manifested in a rough form. Maud Gonne was too rough. Yeats had to hover about her interests, because he was besotted with her, but Synge had no intention of falling in love with her or letting her bewitch him into dangerous practices.

Besides, he was already in love, supposedly with Cherrie Matheson. His letters to her haven’t survived, so we know little or nothing about the relation except that when he proposed to her in June 1896 she turned him down. The letters Ann Saddlemyer has collected give a misleading account of his interests in the years before 1896 when he met Yeats and Maud Gonne. Mostly, such letters as have turned up are carefully composed things in French and German, written to various acquaintances he met on his wanderings. The earliest letter is dated 2 February 1894, and it merely shows that Synge was a young man observing the decencies of discourse. Thankyou notes, a little music, some readings in vaguely Decadent French poetry, and a sense of being abroad, made up most of his experience. He was not yet, in any sense that mattered, a writer.

But his constitution was determined to be gloomy. Delicate, morbid and, after a few years, nearly always ill, he made himself a writer by imagining forms of life as different as possible from his own. No wonder he fascinated Yeats, who took him as the most complete exemplar of the theory he accepted from Wilde, that a writer gains mastery of himself by creating an anti-self or mask and striking through it. Fulfilling the doctrine of the mask, Synge won a place for himself as one of the two representatives of Phase 23 in Yeats’s A Vision – the other was Rembrandt. ‘In Synge’s early unpublished work, written before he found the dialects of Aran and of Wicklow,’ Yeats wrote, ‘there is brooding melancholy and morbid self-pity. He had to undergo an aesthetic transformation, analogous to religious conversion, before he became the audacious, joyous, ironical man we know.’

Taciturn and dispirited in daily life, Synge filled his plays with gallant lads, tricksters, daring fellows with a gift of the gab. At a time when Dublin audiences were content to see ‘Mde Rejane in Ibsen, Mrs P. Campbell in Sudermann, Olga Netherstole in Sapho, etc’, as he told Stephen MacKenna, Synge wanted to interest them in unsqueamish plays of rural life, visions of the Aran Islands, the sexual loneliness, the provenance of fear and joylessness and desire. Standard English wasn’t good enough to express his gloom, so he invented a style called Synge-song if you don’t like it and poetry if you do: a dialect compounded of Irish-English, rural formulae and the Irish of Inishmaan in literal translation. He learned a good deal from Douglas Hyde’s Casadh an t-Sugain and even more from Lady Gregory’s little peasant-plays. But he was interested in these writers only pragmatically and so long as he found them useful: otherwise, he was indifferent.

Yeats was bewildered by him till he saw how fully he exemplified his favourite doctrine. In ‘The Death of Synge’ he said that ‘he had that egotism of the man of genius which Nietzsche compares to the egotism of a woman with child.’ For a time, Yeats couldn’t understand why Synge never complimented him on a poem or a play; why he never said a word of praise to Lady Gregory. He had, Yeats said, ‘under charming and modest manners, in almost all things of life, a complete absorption in his own dream’. He was ‘that rare, that distinguished, that most noble thing, which of all things still of the world is nearest to being sufficient to itself, the pure artist’. He had ‘no life outside his imagination, little interest in anything that was not its chosen subject’. In, Paris, Synge and Joyce are supposed to have had lively arguments about literature, drama, language, and such things: or so Stanislaus Joyce reported in My Brother’s Keeper. But he wasn’t much interested in Joyce as a writer. In a letter of 26 March 1903, he told Lady Gregory: ‘I cannot think that he will ever be a poet of importance, but his intellect is extraordinarily keen and if he keeps fairly sane he ought to do excellent essay-writing.’

It is a mercy that Synge’s plays imagine a life as different as possible from his own, because his own was cripplingly tedious. The natural man in him was a wearisome, fretful, petulant bore. Cherrie Matheson was well rid of his attentions. Early in 1906 he allowed himself to be smitten by Molly Allgood, a light-headed, flirtatious girl who started out as a middling actress and became a good one. Whatever form the relation took, it started in the spring of 1906 and gathered something like momentum in the summer when the Abbey toured Scotland and the North of England. Synge’s carrying-on with Molly caused eyebrows to lift and tongues to wag. The management didn’t like it. Annie Horniman thought his behaviour scandalous, Lady Gregory thought it at best a nuisance. But the love-birds quarrelled often and loudly enough to take some of the harm out of the situation. As a couple, they were mismatched. Molly was pretty enough to make a good time seem the natural thing. Synge was always jealous. He nearly had a seizure when she went off to a party – I assume the crime was no worse – with some medical students. He hated her to talk to any man. One of the actors, he insisted, had flagrant designs on her. She was silly, childish, she had no taste, she didn’t read good books; so he lent her Ivanhoe, took her to task when he disapproved of her hat, berated her when a day passed and she didn’t write him a loving letter. When he got ill, he fretted through every letter, complaining of her carelessness, her thoughtlessness, assuring her that ‘you need never doubt me, my little heart, if you treat me well.’ Baby-talk became his norm.

Molly kept these letters, but she didn’t warm to their whining rhetoric. On one she scribbled ‘appalling’, on another ‘frivolous’, on a third ‘presume’, whatever she meant by that. When the correspondence began, Synge and Molly were reasonably healthy, but soon he started getting ill. His illness wasn’t properly diagnosed: there was talk of asthma and influenza but it turned out to be Hodgkin’s disease. After a while, and as if all this talk of illness were catching, Molly, too, started getting ill: she had a lot of trouble with her eyes. When it became clear that he was indeed in bad health, she devoted herself to him, they planned to marry, she visited him with the assiduity he demanded. He was too sick to be jealous and sick enough to be miserable.

Most of these letters are to Molly, and tedious they are. It is a relief to come to letters in which Synge minds his professional business: when he writes to Frank Fay at the Abbey to find out whether the company is favouring Yeats or Lady Gregory and suppressing The Playboy of the Western World and Riders to the Sea. Stephen MacKenna brought out the best in Synge. MacKenna was a spirited, malicious character, quite what Synge needed to stir him into life. To MacKenna, he entrusted his opinion that one of George Moore’s essays was ‘a misbegotten abortion’, and that John Eglinton was ‘a fearful instance of pedantic degeneration’. Synge was also roused to act with spirit when it looked as if Miss Horniman would coax Yeats into a cosmopolitan rather than an Irish form of theatre. Synge took Lady Gregory’s side and preserved Yeats for righteousness. His letters on these occasions are far sturdier than any he wrote from his more intimate life.

Most of the letters in this first volume have been published in other forms. Professor Saddlemyer published in Letters to Molly (Harvard, 1971) the correspondence between the lovers in the last three years of his life. In the meantime she has found, by my count, four new letters, and has changed her mind about the dates of a few. But the main difference in the new volume is that she has left the letters in their original form. Synge, like Yeats, couldn’t spell, had only the merest notion of punctuation, and let his letters go out in a mess. In Letters to Molly Professor Saddlemyer corrected the errors and made Synge appear more controlled and orthodox than he was. Sometimes the messy letters are hard to read: it takes guesswork to decide that ‘squal’ is supposed to be ‘squeal’. But it’s better, on the whole, to see the letters in their native squalor. A few typos are editorial: ‘coeil’ should be ‘ceoil’, ‘cliat’ should be ‘cliath’, ‘fór’ has to be ‘fós’, in one place Shawn is mistaken for Patrick, in another ‘Eniskerry’ should be ‘Enniskerry’. The letters to MacKenna have also appeared in Professor Saddlemyer’s contribution to Irish Renaissance, edited by Robin Skelton and David Clark (Dolmen Press, 1965), but I suppose that volume is long out of print. So it is good to have all this material brought together, splendidly elucidated by Professor Saddlemyer’s notes. The new volume also incorporates the relevant matter from Professor Saddlemyer’s Some Letters of John M. Synge to Lady Gregory and W.B. Yeats (Cuala Press, 1971), a handsome book treasured by book-lovers but hardly available to the common reader. The second volume of these Letters will cover the period from 27 June 1907 to Synge’s death on 24 March 1909: a short span, no doubt, but a frantic one.