What’s Coming

David Edgar

  • Fool of the Family: A Life of J.M. Synge by W.J. McCormack
    Weidenfeld, 499 pp, £25.00, March 2000, ISBN 0 297 64612 5
  • Interpreting Synge: Essays from the Synge Summer School 1991-2000 edited by Nicholas Grene
    Lilliput, 220 pp, £29.95, July 2000, ISBN 1 901866 47 5

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.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in