Keating, Seán. Illustration for The Playboy of the Western World. 1923.
- Play title: The Playboy of the Western World
- Author: John Millington Synge
- First performed: 1907
- Page count: 92
The Playboy of the Western World is a comedy by John Millington Synge which tells the tale of a notorious patricide. The play is set in County Mayo, Ireland, with most events taking place in a little shebeen (public house). Synge depicts the rural Ireland of the early 1900’s and pays particular attention to accurately capturing the Hiberno-English of the Irish peasantry. The central characters are Christy Mahon a Kerryman who murdered his father, Pegeen Mike the publican’s daughter in the bar where Christy finds refuge, and Shawn Keogh the fiancé of Pegeen. The situation is complicated by the Widow Quin, an amorous and wily woman. In three acts, Synge describes how Christy arrives as a stranger in Mayo, the strange and beguiling tale that he tells the locals, and how the truth finally changes everything. The play closes with Pegeen’s lament that she has “lost the only Playboy of the Western World” (224). Synge explores several themes in this work, most notably patricide, but also Irish nationalism and storytelling.
Ways to access the text: Reading/listening.
The play is available to read online on multiple websites including Project Gutenberg and the Open Library.
On YouTube, there is an audiobook version entitled “Playboy of the Western World.” This recording has a running time of 1hr and 28mins and is voiced by famous Irish actors Cyril Cusack and Siobhan McKenna, among others.
Why read/listen to The Playboy of the Western World?
Constructing a story.
Synge’s play explores how a stranger may create his own backstory. This is a metadramatic element of the work because Synge initially creates a character who in turn is shown to create his own story as the play unfolds. Christy Mahon is clearly an anti-hero, yet the paradox is that his bloody deed is praised as a great show of masculinity. It is patricide alone that secures for Christy the fawning attention of several women as well as the fear and respect of men. Once Christy comes to realise the power of his story then he consciously and cleverly enhances it thus securing even more adoration and infamy. Yet the play is not only the tale of a stranger who constructs his own story. What happens simultaneously is that a rural community projects onto Christy the image of a man now rare in such communities, namely a daring man of courage. This is a coincidental yet fruitful marriage of the desires of an individual with that of the community he enters. Somewhat unexpectedly, Christy begins to inhabit the new persona that was initially just a false construction, slowly turning myth into reality.
In The Playboy of the Western World, Synge writes in the Hiberno-English of rural Irish peasants rather than standard English which would have reflected his privileged, educated, Anglo-Irish background. He intentionally captures the language of ordinary Irish people due to its extraordinariness. In the preface to the play, he writes that, “anyone who has lived in real intimacy with the Irish peasantry will know that the wildest sayings and ideas in this play are tame indeed, compared with the fancies one may hear in any little hillside cabin in Geesala, or Carraroe, or Dingle Bay” (137). He continues by asserting that “all art is a collaboration” (137) and this refers to how a playwright may use as his artistic material the “striking and beautiful phrases” (137) of the people of his country. Synge lived in various rural communities in the West of Ireland including the Aran Islands. The result in “Playboy” (abbreviation of title) is a work that exhibits Hiberno-English to full advantage. Take for example one local man’s assessment of Christy after hearing about the shocking deed – “bravery’s a treasure in a lonesome place, and a lad would kill his father, I’m thinking, would face a foxy divil with a pitchpike on the flags of hell” (154). The witty, imaginative language of this comedy is a true pleasure for readers.
The Great Taboo.
On its first production, The Playboy of the Western World led to vehemently critical reviews and even riots. In short, Synge upset the sensibilities of his Irish audience. The chief reason was that the playwright unfavourably depicted the people of Ireland or was at least perceived to have done so. His audience was annoyed at several aspects of the play as was clear in newspaper articles and politicians’ statements of the time. Among the grievances were the depiction of Irish women as sexualized, the mention of women’s undergarments, the idolatry of a patricide by Irish peasants, and the portrayal of a rural community so fickle that they first praise but then quickly try to sacrifice their new hero. From a modern standpoint, one may surely say that Synge’s play is both realistic and surreal because he creates a depiction of a typical rural Irish community but also creates a storyline that is extraordinary in many ways. Yet, parricides do occur in real life and criminals are often protected by others and sometimes even admired. However, Synge wrote a play that undermined an ideal of Irishness at a crucial period in Irish history namely during the Celtic Revival. When the play was released in 1907, Irish nationalists among others expected that the literature of Ireland should espouse the Irish way of life, not denigrate it. Native Irish people had long been classed as inferior by their colonial masters and the country was still firmly under English rule. An added complication that exacerbated the problem was that Synge had primitivist views and therefore actually held up the Gaelic communities of rural Western Ireland as somehow ideal in their pre-industrialized states. For the playwright to expose dysfunction and depravity in an isolated, West of Ireland community, albeit not an Irish speaking region, was a shock as it indicated a rotten core in the community not easily attributable to the colonial overlord. In this essay, I will strive to expose the foundation for the drives and desires of the characters in Synge’s play. Crucially, this essay will delve into the aspects of the play that caused offence but will investigate why the fictional characters act as they do rather than analyse the audiences’ responses. The key to the play is not an ideal of primitive Irish peasants somehow horribly distorted by the playwright but is explained instead through the apparent and fundamental drives of all mankind as determined by primary taboos. “Playboy” is a work that depicts a man who apparently murdered his father and what more powerful taboo can one imagine!
The character of Christy Mahon has considerable prestige in the play as shown by the fact that he is compared with heroes of old, poets, and men of great courage. The writers of the Celtic Revival made frequent use of ancient Irish folklore and myths and Synge’s “Playboy” references and indeed builds upon such depictions, especially of ideal manhood. Yet, this fact does not imply that Christy’s terrible deed is a devaluation or besmirching of the heroes of Ireland’s past. In truth, Christy’s crime is only conspicuous due to its actual enactment rather than the thinking of it. After all, the Oedipus complex as outlined by Sigmund Freud tells us about the two main taboos of all mankind and a desire to kill the father is one of them. Therefore, one may conveniently untangle Synge’s play from the original concerns of Irish nationalists regarding the correct representation of Ireland’s people by turning instead to an investigation of man’s primary drives. In Freud’s famous work, Totem and Taboo, he explores how modern man’s darkest thoughts may be explained by reference to the rules of the tribal existence of ancient and primitive man. Through references to this work of Freud’s as well as to Charles Darwin’s writings on sexual selection and some more modern texts, it is ultimately possible to see clearly that Christy is not some mocking depiction of Irish manhood. Furthermore, one may still retain insight into Synge’s very apparent and indeed valid criticisms of certain aspects of Irish society. The play’s anti-hero does ultimately hold a political message. My interpretative approach looks at Christy’s motivations in a realistic manner and not just at him as a comedic character. There must, after all, be a reason that Pegeen laments the loss of Christy at the play’s conclusion. The approach also helps one to maintain an interpretation of Synge’s play as political but simultaneously unhook it from the narrow politics of satisfying one particular grouping that had specific expectations of him in regard to complimentary dramatic representations.
In order to productively apply Freud’s theories in Totem and Taboo to Synge’s play, it is first necessary to briefly outline a few key points. We are familiar with the word taboo and Freud gives the following comprehensive definition of it, “For us the meaning of taboo branches off into two opposite directions. On the one hand it means to us sacred, consecrated: but on the other hand, it means, uncanny, dangerous, forbidden, and unclean” (34). The idea of a taboo will be essential to explaining the aura surrounding Christy Mahon. Totemism is not quite so familiar, but it is most easily described as a system of beliefs and social organization used by primitive man, predating Christianity, where groups formed kinships and worshipped particular totems. The totem itself was normally a species of animal or plant. The chief connecting link between Freud’s book and Synge’s play is the important subject of patricide. Freud hypothesizes the formation of the ancient rules of totemism and the resulting taboos which are precisely the same taboos we recognize today as forming the Oedipus complex. His hypothesis rests on the killing of the father by a tribe of brothers and Freud describes this momentous event which happened sometime in the mists of history as follows:
“One day the expelled brothers joined forces, slew and ate the father, and thus put an end to the father horde. Together they dared and accomplished what would have remained impossible for them singly. Perhaps some advance in culture, like the use of a new weapon, had given them the feeling of superiority. Of course these cannibalistic savages ate their victim. This violent primal father had surely been the envied and feared model for each of the brothers. Now they accomplished their identification with him by devouring him and each acquired a part of his strength. The totem feast, which is perhaps mankind’s first celebration, would be the repetition and commemoration of this memorable, criminal act with which so many things began, social organization, moral restrictions and religion” (Freud 195).
Freud goes on to write that the brothers mentioned in the above quote were struggling with the “father complex” (195) and therefore “They hated the father who stood so powerfully in the way of their sexual demands and their desire for power, but they also loved and admired him” (195). This accurately describes Christy Mahon who raises his hand in anger at a father who will not abdicate power or authority. Old Mahon has evidently not yet let his son inherit or take over his land because the older man is still clearly the boss, and this old man also thwarts his son’s sexual desires by trying to marry him off to a wholly unsuitable woman twice Christy’s age. Later, one witnesses Christy’s conflicted feelings when he almost weeps in front of the Widow Quin when speaking of his hatred for his father thus proving that the ‘father complex’ does indeed result in such mixed emotions. The figure of Christy Mahon becomes less of a comic figure when one bears in mind Freud’s statement that, “The basis of taboo is a forbidden action for which there exists a strong inclination in the unconscious” (52). What makes Christy special is his conscious enactment of a horrible desire. Since Synge viewed the peasants of Western Ireland with a primitivist’s eye then it is legitimate to go far beyond the specific myths and folklore of Ireland for Christy’s prototype and back to ancient man because modern man still shares the precise same taboos.
The structure of this essay is that particular characters, subjects, and themes will be addressed individually indicated by subheadings. As noted, the primary focus will be on how various taboos explain the action of the characters involved. This analysis also delves into what political message Synge wanted to impart by his fantastic depiction of an anti-hero in a rural Irish community.
It is essential to begin with the father, and of all the fathers depicted in Synge’s play, old Mahon epitomizes the fierce patriarch. Other patriarchal influences are ever-present in the community like the long arm of the law extending from colonial England and Father Reilly as the representative of the Catholic Church yet only old Mahon appears in the flesh. He is the father who must be conquered before Christy can assert that he has become a man. There is also a significant difference between the authoritarian but also highly regulated powers of church and state compared with Christy’s father who is volatile and a law unto himself. Christy battles for power in the most intimate of arenas which is the family. The first excuse that Christy gives for having slayed his father is because “he was a dirty man, God forgive him, and he getting old and crusty” (153). The description indicates not only an unclean and dishevelled peasant but strongly suggests immorality too. The old man is described by Christy as “a man’d be raging all times … you’d hear cursing and damning and swearing oaths” (161). Such a volatile temper shows fearlessness proven by the fact that old Mahon would sometimes be “locked in the asylums for battering peelers or assaulting men” (162). That such a man manages to hold his son in a subordinate position is no surprise. However, a tipping point does come. It is old Mahon’s abuse of his son by ordering him to marry the Widow Casey that eventually leads to the infamous altercation. The old man’s motivation is, in Christy’s words, to gain the widow’s “hut to live in and her gold to drink” (174). When Christy unexpectedly refuses, then the frighteningly authoritarian older man raises his scythe to strike the disobedient son who avoids the blow and strikes back with the loy. By felling such a potently masculine figure, Christy is elevated in the estimation of all those he later meets but he has also transgressed one of the fundamental taboos of all mankind.
In Synge’s text, we see much evidence that the son is made in the mould of the father. In this way, it is Christy’s genetic inheritance that largely determines his success in battle against the older man. Thus, the fearless and fierce father is eventually reflected in the newly mature son. This is most humorously indicated when old Mahon is seeking out his son to gain his revenge and the Widow Quin says that she indeed saw, “a hideous, fearful villain, and the spit of you” (190). Yet, the resemblance goes beyond looks and character traits and extends into skills that must have been learned by Christy from his father. For instance, the storytelling skills that Christy slowly crafts are already far more developed in his father, a man who is “after walking hundreds and long scores of miles, winning clean beds and the fill of my belly four times in the day, and I doing nothing but telling stories” (197). This contrasts with the novice, Christy, who is reduced to eating raw turnip and groans in a ditch most likely from hunger on his arrival in Mayo. Yet, once Christy has an audience to listen to his story, he shows that he is much like his father. Also, even though old Mahon is some sixty years old, he is surprisingly just a few days behind his son in pursuit and therefore obviously still quite a formidable character. The old man’s vigour may be summed up under the three headings of sex, drinking, and violence. He speaks of having been “three weeks with the Limerick girls drinking myself silly, and parlatic from the dusk to dawn” (204) and his violence is clearly shown when he physically attacks his son Christy on at least two occasions. Christy’s eventual defeat of his father marks the ascension of the next generation, boldly asserted by Christy with the words, “for I’m master of all fights from now” (224). The son has not alone matched but finally surpassed the father. Like in Freud’s account, the “violent primal father” (195) refused to share power and this led to inevitable rebellion. In this light, Christy’s actions are justifiable or at least defensible. Synge’s play can also be read as a condemnation of the other power wielding patriarchal forces in Ireland at the time who also cruelly subjugated their charges.
Freud writes of the domineering, tribal father who obstructs his sons by standing “in the way of their sexual demands” (195). This scenario is quite relevant to Synge’s play. Under the general heading of marriage, the playwright depicts various father figures who either meddle in, or actually arrange/dictate the young generation’s choice of marriage partners. Furthermore, Synge looks at several associated taboos, for example, the taboo of sexual relations between persons related by blood or kinship. Freud traces such taboos back to the rules of ancient tribal communities. The playwright also deals with a potent, societal taboo in Catholic Ireland which was pre-marital sex, and he adds a taboo scene of his own invention, showing how one man quite literally takes the place of another in a romantic relationship.
The trigger for Christy’s outburst of anger towards his father is the proposed marriage of Christy to the Widow Casey. The fact that the placid young man reacts to the prospect in such an uncharacteristically violent manner already hints at a taboo situation. The match is certainly odd due to the disparity in their ages with Christy just twenty-one and the Widow Casey aged forty-five. Additionally, she is an ill-suited partner for a young man because she is lame, blind in one eye, and “a woman of noted misbehaviour with the old and young” (174). Yet the taboo arises because the Widow Casey acted as a surrogate mother to the newborn Christy. He says, “she did suckle me for six weeks when I came into the world” (174). Freud writes that “Psychoanalysis has taught us that the first object selection of the boy is of an incestuous nature and that it is directed to the forbidden objects, the mother and the sister” (29) and he also notes the normal healthy process by which “the maturing individual frees himself from these incestuous attractions” (29). The fact that old Mahon tries to force Christy to wed the Widow Casey explains the son’s unusual anger given the subconscious power of the taboo. Admittedly, the Widow Casey is not a blood relation of Christy’s, but Synge cleverly imbues breast feeding with potent qualities in the play. This is alluded to in Pegeen’s insult to the Widow Quin who apparently “reared a black lamb at [her] own breast” (165) and when a bishop later ate the cooked lamb then he detected in the meat the “elements of a Christian” (165). As such, breast feeding made the lamb practically human! The recounting of this comic and superstitious tale in the play only serves to underline that in Christy’s case there was a clear kinship bond established between him and his wet nurse. The Widow Casey fulfilled the role of mother for the baby boy and this fact cannot be erased. Though a digression, it is of interest that Freud comments on the role of the Catholic Church who had “extended the marriage prohibitions always in force for brother and sisters, to cousins, and invented for them the grades of spiritual kinship” (19). Therefore, Christy is not only the man who kills his father but he is also destined to sleep with his surrogate mother, a woman who is most certainly linked to him in spiritual kinship. These are the two great taboos of society as most famously outlined by Freud in his writings on the Oedipus complex.
In a work that covertly proclaims the need for new blood, new heroes, and a new future, the playwright places an unusual prospective marriage at the play’s centre. The future union between Pegeen and Shawn is consanguineous and for this reason they require a special dispensation from Father Reilly. Not only is the marriage slightly unusual in modern times but in ancient times it would also have broken the traditional code of exogamy where one should marry outside one’s community. It is only with the arrival of Christy that Pegeen changes her mind and chooses to renege on her promise to Shawn because of her attraction to the brave man. When Pegeen’s father, Michael, agrees to her marriage to Christy, he alludes to a healthy gene pool which will be achieved with the help of the newly arrived hero. Michael says, “it’s the will of God that all should rear up lengthy families for the nurture of the earth” (213). While Michael is slightly afraid of a daring lad like Christy, he still says, “I liefer face the grave untimely and I seeing a score of grandsons growing up little gallant swearers by the name of God, than go peopling my bedside with puny weeds the like of what you’d breed, I’m thinking, out of Shaneen Keogh” (213). Although humorous, such a view is affirmed by scientific study. In an essay entitled, “Female and Male Perceptions of Attractiveness,” Ryan Schacht explains that “Masculinized males have higher genetic quality due to their ability to resist diseases and other adverse conditions, but will offer little parental investment. Feminized males will offer increased parental investment, but not high quality genes” (66). In this light, one clearly sees the perceived differences between Christy and Shawn. It is the unpredictable and fiery stranger who promises to breathe life into the community in the most literal manner. Christy is the new hope for a revitalized community. On the other side of the spectrum, the Catholic Church neutralizes the taboo of mild inbreeding in a small rural community through its dispensation to allow blood relations to marry. In the context of the play, one must read this as a detrimental influence.
In “Playboy” there is an arbitrary dichotomy between acceptable taboos and those deemed unbroachable. As noted, the Catholic Church’s authority to give a dispensation for the marriage of blood relatives, for a minor fee, is arguably an unnatural dispensation of a societal taboo. However, the taboo of pre-marital sex is one that the church cannot tolerate. Synge ridicules the church’s position in Ireland by showing how Father Reilly overly concerns himself with ensuring that Pegeen marries Shawn Keogh and not Christy. This is proven by the acceleration of the dispensation process. Michael Flaherty quotes the priest as having said – “so I’ll wed them in a hurry, dreading that young gaffer [Christy] who’d capsize the stars” (210). However, even earlier, one witnesses how the priest intervenes to keep Christy apart from Pegeen as shown when the Widow Quin comes with an offer to house Christy on his first night, saying, “It isn’t fitting,” says the priesteen, ‘to have his likeness lodging with an orphaned girl’” (164). The priest’s overriding fear is of budding romance and sexual relations between the two young people. However, it is not that Christy is unsuitable, the opposite is true because he is the one who may actually ignite sexual desire. The problem for the church is that someone like Christy is not governable and therefore to be feared. This trait proves to be Christy’s enticement to the opposite sex.
In Why Women Have Sex, Cindy Meston ponders if men’s sex appeal to women correlates with practical benefits in their choice of mate. Meston sums it up as follows:
“Biologists distinguish two broad classes of evolutionary benefits. Genetic benefits are the high quality genes that can endow a woman’s children with a better ability to survive and reproduce. Resource benefits, including food, shelter from the hostile forces of nature, and physical protection from aggressive men, help a woman and her children to survive and thrive” (29).
Under these classifications, one sees that Christy is the bearer of good genes and fulfils the role of protector and so offers both genetic and resource benefits whereas Shawn only offers resource benefits because he is wealthy. A discussion in this vein brings one back to the writings of Charles Darwin on sexual selection in his book, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. Even in 1874, Darwin writes of how women may choose a partner, “in civilised nations women have free or almost free choice, which is not the case with barbarous races, yet their choice is largely influenced by the social position and wealth of the men” (2027). Pegeen does assert her own freedom by choosing Christy and this choice is based on his status as a brave man and a poet of sorts. Her choice is not based on Christy’s wealth since he is impoverished but this may be due to her own family’s secure business. The arrival of Christy upsets the well-made plans of the elders of the community. The potential marriage of Christy to Pegeen is based on mutual attraction and this contrasts sharply with the proposed marriages of Shawn to Pegeen or Christy to the Widow Casey as these unions are tainted with taboo elements.
Synge’s treatment of the subject of marriage in the play is noticeably cynical. There is a decidedly cold, transactional tone to the arranged marriages portrayed. For example, Shawn refers to his future marriage to Pegeen as a “good bargain” (142) because of the merging of their combined finances and property. Their union will be defined more by commerce than by love but there is no obstacle to this union since it has the stamp of approval from the Catholic Church. Thereby, the marriage vow is not just devalued by the allusion to the couple’s financial benefits but also by the clerical dispensation. In total, there are four prospective marriages noted in the play. However, only the proposed union of Pegeen with Christy is based on passion, all the others are mired in sordid bargaining of some sort. It is significant that both Michael Flaherty and old Mahon arrange the marriages of their adult children. In Christy’s case, as previously noted, his father in motivated by the prospect of the widow’s cottage and money for alcohol. In Pegeen’s case, her father remarks that Shawn is the “shy and decent Christian I have chosen for my daughter’s hand” (210). However, the truth is later revealed when Shawn is too afraid to fight Christy for Pegeen’s hand and commands his potential father-in-law to “Strike him yourself, Michael James, or you’ll lose my drift of heifers and my blue bull from Sneem” (212). In both cases it is primarily the wealth of the potential marriage partner that motivates the father. While marriage is the legitimate union of the parents of the next generation, Synge displays all that is fundamentally wrong in Irish society through the depiction of the aforementioned proposed unions. It is the biological fathers along with church fathers who, motivated by money and petty gains and power, facilitate the breaking of taboos thus ensuring short term benefits for themselves but ultimately selling out future generations.
Since Christy’s rebellion against his father is fundamentally linked to partner choice, it is interesting to view his progress when free of the patriarch’s influence. In whatever way one spins or unspins Christy Mahon’s fantastic backstory, he still represents new blood in the Mayo community. In “Playboy” it is evident that Christy fulfils some lack in the community and so his arrival seems natural, even destined. The young man’s success in romance is a marker between his old and new life. Synge, who is quite deft at inserting taboo moments in the text, shows how Christy unashamedly replaces Shawn, the groom-to-be. This occurs when Shawn attempts to bribe Christy to leave town and part of the bargain are his own breeches, hat, and coat. Christy tries on the new clothes, including the breeches (trousers) which are still obviously warm from Shawn’s body. The taboo here is quite evident since the two men are vying for Pegeen’s love. In a wonderful, comic twist, Christy is aesthetically enhanced by the new “tweeds and hat” (184) which only improve his plan to replace Shawn as Pegeen’s lover and future husband. Charles Darwin once wrote, albeit about savages, that “A weak man, unless he be a good hunter, and well-beloved, is seldom permitted to keep a wife that a stronger man thinks worth his notice” (1990). Synge most definitely presents a modern version of this same dilemma in the replacement of Shawn by the stronger man, Christy. Therefore, Christy’s success over his father was just his beginning step.
The ideal man.
The archetype of heroic manhood is defined by various characters in the play but most importantly by the bride-to-be, Pegeen. Synge’s play evokes and laments the loss of an older Ireland, a land of heroes fit to inhabit tales of great deeds. It is as if the rural Mayo community exists in the shadow of great forefathers who must be toppled by some modern hero. Pegeen denigrates her own community by telling Shawn that “we’re a queer lot” (142) and this refers primarily to a list of local men with obvious flaws like squints, lameness, or who suffer from madness. What is missing from her local place is men of substance and Pegeen recounts the following examples:
“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, and he a great warrant to tell stories of holy Ireland till he’d have the old women shedding down tears about their feet. Where will you find the like of them, I’m saying?” (143).
One may summarize the kinds of men Pegeen laments as possessing two important traits. Firstly, men who will not shy away from attacking any representative of the law, and by extension the English Crown. Secondly, men who can weave a tale so compelling that it draws an emotive response from even the most accustomed of listeners. Pegeen sees Christy as just such a man and compares him to “Owen Roe O’Sullivan or the poets of the Dingle Bay” (158) which coincidentally references his home place of County Kerry and she goes on to say, “it’s the poets are your like, fine fiery fellows with great rages when their temper’s roused” (159). Christy fulfils the image of ideal manhood because he is not afraid to fell an authority figure and he can spin a good story in the aftermath. There is a clear link between Pegeen’s description of the fiery poets and Darwin’s writings on sexual selection where he comments, “The impassioned orator, bard, or musician, when with his varied tones and cadences he excites the strongest emotions in his hearers, little suspects that he uses the same means by which his half-human ancestors long ago aroused each other’s ardent passions, during their courtship and rivalry” (2007). It is therefore no surprise that a young woman would positively respond to Christy’s story of his dreadful deed. Yet, at this early point in the play when Pegeen showers Christy with praise, he has in fact been exceptionally coy and taciturn and said little beyond admitting to killing his father and that was divulged with little eloquence.
It is informative that Synge keeps returning his audience to the image of the father. As Christy has not yet proven himself beyond haltingly telling a story, we logically must look elsewhere to find an example of proven manhood. One may begin with Philly’s reminiscence of an unusual skeleton that he saw in a graveyard as a child. This dead man had “thighs as long as your arm” (197) and Philly remarks that “you wouldn’t meet the like of these days in the cities of the world” (197) signifying that such great men are unfortunately just skeletal remnants of a glorious past. Most conspicuously, it is just at this moment when the locals are speaking of the bones and skulls of great men that old Mahon appears and boldly says “you wouldn’t is it? Lay your eyes on that skull, and tell me where and when there was another the like of it” (197). Synge is clearly signalling that the uncouth and fiery Mahon is indeed such a man of legend. This is not so unusual as he is obviously Christy’s father and Christy is the newly crowned hero of the locality. It is therefore in Christy’s blood that the potential for greatness lies. One should also detect in old Mahon’s position as a great man the contrast between romanticized heroes of old and the somewhat blunter reality of such men in the flesh.
The image of the virile man, fearless and poetic, is superimposed on Christy by the Mayo community. It is an ideal long held in all societies and Darwin writes of how “Man is more courageous, pugnacious and energetic than woman, and has a more inventive genius” (1982). From the outset, even before Christy confesses his actual crime, the locals energetically speculate that he has committed bigamy, or was “fighting bloody wars for Kruger” (152) and Pegeen even mistakes him for a tinker. Christy resembles a tinker possibly due to his dirty, dishevelled state but it also signals that he is potentially someone to fear in Pegeen’s eyes. This occurs in the context of Michael leaving his daughter to spend the night alone in the bar when she professes fear of three categories of men, namely, harvest boys, tinkers, and militia (146). The three categories of men are ones that could not easily be trusted with a woman. Yet the image of the dangerous man is double sided since he may use his fierceness to attack or alternatively to protect. Jimmy asserts that “herself [Pegeen] will be safe this night, with a man killed his father holding danger from the door” (156). The group of men in the bar even consider a criminal like Christy to be the sort that the police/peelers would be loath to tackle. The characterization of Christy ignores his obvious fear of the police and of potentially being hanged. However, the young man does begin to inhabit the heroic persona once he has learned of its obvious benefits. The construction of a hero from the meagre stature of a man like Christy is only made possible on the grounds that he committed an almost unspeakable crime.
Synge’s play looks at the kind of male gender performance typified by a hero and the resulting female response of sexual attraction. This topic closely interlinks with the aforementioned ideal image of manhood. While the playwright uses comedy to great effect when depicting the women’s romantic interest in Christy, one must not assume that the depiction is false, quite the opposite in fact. An analysis may begin with how the ideal of masculinity holds obvious connotations of sexual prowess. When Pegeen bemoans the loss of heroes of old like Daneen Sullivan and others then Shawn instinctively responds that, “Father Reilly has small conceit to have that kind walking around and talking to the girls” (143). In this context, the word conceit is best defined as favourable opinion. As such, a priest who is the moral guardian of his congregation would look unfavourably and indeed be fearful of heroic figures because of their expected influence on girls. It is as though heroism stokes a brand of exuberant sexuality in women that would otherwise be containable or tameable. Indeed, Synge’s depiction of Irish women as having sexual desires at all was one of the reasons for the protests against the play.
However, it is difficult to comprehend why Christy Mahon excites the adoration of so many women. How does one reconcile the real Christy with the image of a hero? The issue here is that there is fact and fiction, ordinary fellow and hero. To separate the ‘two Christies,’ one may simply look at the first impressions Christy makes on Pegeen and the Widow Quin, the two women who eventually wish to wed him. The playwright’s own opening description of Christy is as “a slight young man … very tired and frightened and dirty” (148) and Pegeen’s initial estimation of Christy is as “a soft lad the like of you wouldn’t slit the windpipe of a screeching sow” (152). Neither does the Widow Quin see a hardened criminal at first, but says somewhat derogatorily to Christy, “Well, aren’t you a little smiling fellow? … and you fitter to be saying your catechism than slaying your da” (163). The allotment of the mantle of hero to Christy and thereby the creation of Christy’s alter ego may be demystified by a quotation from Northcote W. Thomas which Freud uses in his own text, shown as follows:
“The violation of a taboo makes the offender himself taboo … Persons or things which are regarded as taboo may be compared to objects charged with electricity; they are the seat of tremendous power which is transmissible by contact, and may be liberated with destructive effect if the organisms which provoke its discharge are too weak to resist it” (37).
Christy is indeed singled out as a man who has broken a great taboo and he has an electrical charge as a result, to use Thomas’ metaphor. Christy’s crime of patricide is what gives him the electric charge of masculinity so distinctive that it secures the amorous attention of women. This explanation ties back to the subconscious power of taboos and our perceptions of those who dare to break them.
Christy’s horrible deed and the story that he later weaves are quite separate things. For one, the story is not fully under his autonomy because even though he changes it, the women also actively contribute to it. For Christy’s part, one may say that he engages in role play. Yet, he enters the role of hero in a most organic manner because he simply responds to the favourable stimuli he receives from all those around him who listen to his story. The first example of this is the way Christy slowly reveals his awful deed, dismissing the names of various listed crimes considered by him as somewhat trivial, like larceny, and adding teasingly, “I had it in my mind it was a different word and a bigger” (150). One senses that the young man’s swell of pride is concurrent with his gradual realization that an awful crime is even more impressive. Christy certainly plays up to the image of one who brutally murdered his own father, and the primary reason soon becomes obvious. At the conclusion of the first act, we witness Pegeen and the Widow Quin fighting over the young man which leads him to express the following thoughts:
“Two fine women fighting for the likes of me — till I’m thinking this night wasn’t I a foolish fellow not to kill my father in the years gone by” (167).
If Christy’s awful deed changes the opinion of all those around him then the story serves to extract the maximum results. The positive responses are that the men folk of the village treat Christy with respect tinged with fear while the women become amorous.
The partial appropriation of Christy’s story by the women reveals a separate aspect to the topic of sexual attraction. Freud explains that for anyone who has broken a serious taboo then the following occurs, “The most peculiar part of it is that any one who has violated such a prohibition assumes the nature of the forbidden object as if he had absorbed the whole dangerous charge” (39). While similar to Northcote W. Thomas’ previous quote, Freud focuses on the idea of the forbidden object which is quite interesting when applied to Christy. In line with this idea, the Widow Quin sums up the appeal of Christy as – “there’s great temptation in a man did slay his da” (164). Indeed, such temptation that Pegeen even denies that she is engaged to Shawn so that she appears to be single. The two women hold a similar view of Christy as a mercurial figure who is capable of fearsome deeds. The Widow Quin tells him to stop pretending that he is shy and describes him as “a fine, gamey, treacherous lad the like of you” (173). Pegeen thinks of Christy as “a coaxing fellow” (180) referring to her presumption that he is a ladies’ man and further describes him as “a fine lad with the great savagery to destroy your da” (180). What the women share is the need for a man who exceeds the pedigree of the men they have become used to in the locality. Christy’s appeal to all of the women in the village may be explained by a quote from Ryan Schacht who writes that “The more attractive a person is viewed by the opposite sex, the more potential copulations are possible” (67) and Christy’s stock is enhanced by the lack of eligible men in the locality but more importantly by his special status as a forbidden object. Pegeen, though annoyed by Christy’s flirtations with the local young women, says that “I wouldn’t give a thraneen for a lad hadn’t a mighty spirit in him and a gamey heart” (182). The constant implication, even though covert, is that a brave, heroic figure also promises a guaranteed level of sexual satisfaction to women. Synge overturns his audiences’ normal expectations so that it is now the amorous females who pursue the male based on their assessment of his desirability and suitability as a lover.
The proof of Christy’s strange allure is shown in the welcome he receives from the four eligible local women, Susan, Nelly, Honor, and Sara. The scene highlights one crucial difference between Shawn and Christy. The difference may be explained by a quote from Cindy Meston who writes that “Just as overexposure can douse the fire of sexual attraction, its opposite— novelty—can stoke its flames. Psychologist Daryl Bem sums it up with the phrase ‘the exotic becomes erotic’” (32). Christy is referred to by the Widow Quin as Pegeen’s “curiosity man” (163) which communicates his novelty status. Upon learning that Christy is indeed the man who killed his father, Sara says “Then my thousand welcomes to you” (171). The four women then produce an assortment of gifts: duck eggs, butter, cake, and a cooked chicken. Several of the gifts and the manner of their presentation have decidedly sexual undertones. For example, Christy commends the duck eggs which he is encouraged to hold in his hands by Sara, as being “a great and weighty size” (171). This reflects the growing tumescence of Christy’s own manhood as portrayed in his fighting tale. The butter is for Christy’s potatoes and Susan references the potato field, the crime scene from which he has recently fled. The cake, Honor’s gift, could be a form of barmbrack or currant bread which at Halloween would have contained a ring and other indications of one’s future marriage prospects. This could also be a slice of cake from someone’s wedding feast which Irish people traditionally saved. However, the most sexually evocative gift is the cooked chicken from Nelly who encourages Christy to “feel the fat of that breast” (172) and then Sara further encourages him, prompting, “will you pinch it?” (172). The sexual innuendo is apparent and adds a piquant atmosphere to the scene. If one views the scene from the aspect of sexual attraction alone then Schacht’s following observation seems appropriate, “For short term relationships, sometimes coinciding with long-term relationships, and especially during ovulation, females prefer more masculine males” (65). Synge depicts for his audience a community starved of virile men with sadly only compliant, God fearing and law fearing cowards like Shawn Keogh left to the women to choose from. In this environment, Christy with his story of a fearsome deed ignites unusual levels of sexual desire.
The Widow Quin sums up the chasm between Christy and Shawn, saying “it’s true all girls are fond of courage and do hate the like of you [Shawn]” (184). This concurs with what Cindy Meston writes, “women generally are not attracted to men who appear as though they could be easily dominated by other men” (41). Synge does not depict the Mayo women’s desires as simply immoral or wanton but explores themes like loneliness and the need for protection as partially motivating factors. The hero will thus fulfil not just natural sexual cravings but also tend to practical concerns like bodily protection and fending off a single woman’s loneliness. After all, the reason for Christy staying the night in the shebeen is to protect Pegeen and Christy’s other potential love interest, the Widow Quin, describes how she is sometimes lonesome in her own cottage. It is arguable that Synge merely uses female sexuality as a shorthand method to describe what is essentially missing in the community, which is strong, brave men. Yet, the longing is clearly expressed in sexual terms. The Widow Quin speaks of the men sailing the sea as “gallant hairy fellows” (192) who come to her mind when she feels lonesome. Pegeen too admits to desiring a man of adventure but equally one who can support her, saying “And myself, a girl, was tempted often to go sailing the seas till I’d marry a Jew-man, with ten kegs of gold, and I not knowing at all there was the like of you [Christy] drawing nearer, like the stars of God” (208). As Meston informs, “Studies of mate preferences reveal that women desire strong, muscular, athletic men for long-term mating as well as for sexual liaisons” (41). It is important to note that the menfolk also view Christy as a sexual threat with Michael Flaherty describing Christy as “a little frisky rascal” (210) and that “It’ll be a poor thing for the household man where you go sniffing for a female wife” (210). The image of the brave, heroic male is inseparable from the sexual usurper.
One may interpret Synge’s comedic depiction of women’s sexual longings for a hero as reflective of Ireland’s political quagmire and need for strong nationalistic leaders. Ireland was ravaged by famine and severely depopulated just over fifty years previous to the play being written and was still subject to mass emigration, especially young men seeking employment. The playwright avoids making such a bare political point, but the humorous content of the play still conveys a sharp political critique. Ireland was regularly represented in literature as a female figure, for example as Cathleen Ní Houlihan, the title of a play by William Butler Yeats and Lady Augusta Gregory. Writers frequent use of this motif of Ireland as a female figure has interpretative implications when one considers Christy’s interactions with the women of Mayo. For instance, Old Mahon is amazed to learn that Christy is to marry Pegeen and says, “Is it in a crazy-house for females that I’m landed now?” (203). However, it is not specifically female hysteria but the hysteria of an entire community who have mistaken the impish Christy for the brave man in the concocted story. Old Mahon’s foolish son cannot possibly be the eligible young bachelor and bona fide hero that the small Mayo community takes Christy to be! The situation that has emerged in Mayo simply underlines the desperate need for someone who breaks the conventional rules and espouses freedom. Unfortunately, the father’s resurrection from the dead nullifies the strange, electrical aura of masculinity, heroism, and sexuality that had surrounded Christy. Like a broken spell in a story book, the young man is robbed of his powers. Old Mahon devalues Christy and removes the mantle of hero by describing his son as “the laughing joke of every female woman” (189) and “the fool of men” (200). However, until the truth comes out, Christy enjoys the attention a hero receives.
Christy and Shawn.
It is tempting to conclude that Synge believed the Irish peasantry were either too submissive to raise a leader or would promptly destroy any man who tried to lead them. He depicts a community in dire need of heroic men but also a community who will promptly attempt to hang any man who raises his head above the parapet. At the heart of Synge’s play are two men very much alike, Shawn and Christy. By comparing these men, one finds a specific criticism of Irish society which is neither about raising nor destroying a leader, but about nurturing one. The playwright portrays Christy and Shawn as opposites in all ways except for the fact that Christy was actually no different from Shawn before the day he raised a loy to hit his father. One finds clear evidence of this in old Mahon’s derogatory descriptions of his son which are similar to the negative points attributed to Shawn, and also in the descriptions that the two young men give of themselves. Christy describes himself as follows:
“Up to the day I killed my father, there wasn’t a person in Ireland knew the kind I was, and I there drinking, waking, eating, sleeping, a quiet, simple poor fellow with no man giving me heed” (160).
Later, when Shawn is trying to bribe Christy to leave so that he may marry Pegeen himself, the weaker man confesses that:
“It’s the like of me only that she’s fit for, a quiet simple fellow wouldn’t raise a hand upon her if she scratched itself” (184).
It is striking that both men describe themselves almost identically. Christy is a “quiet, simple poor fellow” (160) and Shawn is a “quiet simple fellow” (184). There are in fact few differences between them either in temperament or background. When Christy refers to people not previously knowing “the kind I was” (160), it indicates that there was an inner, hidden potential in him which is only unlocked in Mayo. Shawn acts as a perfect foil for Christy as he has not broken from his submissive path in life and is portrayed as a sad figure who is afraid of the dark, strangers, the local priest, sex, and fighting. Synge directs the audience to view Shawn as a sort of eunuch who Pegeen advises should join the “holy Brotherhoods” (157) since he is ruled by Father Reilly’s instructions. When Michael Flaherty fails to convince Shawn to stay the night at the bar to protect Pegeen, he remarks that his daughter will not need to worry about Shawn ever being unfaithful even if there were “a score of young girls” (147) working for them. Shawn, though wealthy and with church approval for his marriage is convincingly portrayed as an impotent figure. In Shawn’s eyes, Christy is a “clever fearless man” (183) who will upset his plans for marriage to Pegeen. Yet, the true difference between the men may be summed up in one word – encouragement. When Christy begins to enjoy the attention that he receives in Flaherty’s sheebeen, he comments that:
“Didn’t I know rightly I was handsome, though it was the divil’s own mirror we had beyond, would twist a squint across an angel’s brow; and I’ll be growing fine from this day” (168).
It is not only that Christy’s father kept the young man in a submissive position and deprived him of encouragement, but that this treatment consequently robbed Christy of his sense of manhood. As Meston writes, “Masculine facial features are heavily influenced by the production of testosterone during adolescence, when the bones in the face take their adult form” (43) and it is only when Christy really considers himself a man that the image that looks back from the mirror is no longer distorted but one to be proud of. What transforms Christy and makes him grow into the man who famously wins all the prizes at the village sports day is simply the encouragement of others. This in turn makes real the image others at first just superimposed on him, the image of the hero. As Meston writes, “Across cultures, physical contests such as wrestling, racing, and throwing allow women to gauge men’s physical abilities, including speed, endurance, and strength” (42). The devil’s mirror is therefore a negative appraisal of Irish society, a society which holds back potential leaders and treats them as submissive fools. Only when the double yoke of a domineering father and a repressive society is removed from the young man’s shoulders, even temporarily, can he flourish.
The act of murder.
With each retelling of his story, Christy Mahon enhances the details and thereby builds a certain momentum that must eventually find an outlet. What is of foremost importance for a reader is to understand the significance of the story. Yes, it gains Christy respect from the community and aids his romantic goals. However, the story is most importantly about the breaking of a taboo. To kill one’s own father is to be the ultimate rule-breaker. From Synge’s text, one garners that any opposition to state authorities is valued, and the most visible arm of state authority is the local police force. When the locals initially guess at Christy’s crime then there is speculation that maybe his family’s land was taken and therefore bailiffs, agents, and landlords are mentioned. Most Irish land was still owned by Anglo-Irish landlords until the late 19th century and only the “Land Acts” helped begin a reversal so that Irish tenant farmers could purchase their lands. In all, Anglo-Irish estate owners, their representatives, and the police force are associated with England’s colonial power in Ireland. Christy is viewed as a dangerous maverick who is an equal to the oppressive authorities and thus, he reduces the community’s sense of oppression. Freud writes that “An individual who has violated a taboo becomes himself taboo because he has the dangerous property of tempting others to follow his example” (53). In this way, Christy has the potential to become an insurgent leader, but this would crucially implicate the whole community because their support is necessary. Christy’s story when retold with increasing rhetorical skill resembles a rallying cry for support.
It is in self defence that Christy strikes his father. This point is salient as it ameliorates his alleged crime. In Christy’s version of the tale, he commits the ultimate offence, yet it is also a manly act as he simply retaliated in kind to a violent father. When Christy repeats his own tale then the fierceness of his opponent is not changed, it is the nature of his victory that is exaggerated. One may trace how Christy’s tale transforms in each retelling of it. He first confesses to the crowd in the bar that “I just riz the loy and let fall the edge of it on the ridge of his skull, and he went down at my feet like an empty sack” (153). On the second occasion that Christy tells the tale, he recounts that – “He [old Mahon] gave a drive with the scythe, and I gave a lep to the east … and I hit a blow on the ridge of his skull, laid him stretched out, and he split to the knob of his gullet” (175). The new depth of the wound is conspicuous here and one suspects that his audience of admiring, young women may have had an influence. On the third occasion, Christy describes himself to the Widow Quin as “a gallant orphan cleft his father with one blow to the breeches belt” (187). The blow has become superhuman in power and what started as a head wound becomes the near division of his victim in two. Christy later refers to this famous “one single blow” (206). Yet the “gallous story” (220) may hold additional meaning because it asserts the right of a man to rise up against an autocratic father figure. Christy is the underdog who against the odds manages to conquer his oppressor. If interpreted as a form of political rhetoric, then Christy is amassing support to take on a leadership role in the community with the promise of achieving great things.
Christy is perceived by others as being unafraid of the police, yet this perception is as flawed as his own tall tale. In the beginning, Christy tells Michael that no police pursued him at any time on his eleven-day journey to Mayo. From this information, Philly asserts the following, “It’s only with a common week-day kind of a murderer them lads would be trusting their carcase, and that man [Christy] should be a great terror when his temper’s roused” (154). This aura of danger around Christy creates a complimentary comparison between him and heroes of old like Daneen Sullivan who knocked out a policeman’s eye. Yet, Christy clearly does fear the police as revealed by his first question to the landlord of the shebeen in Mayo, “Is it often the police do be coming into this place, master of the house?” (148). Synge uses to great comedic effect the contradictory status of Christy as simultaneously rebellious and law fearing. When Pegeen is angered by Christy’s flirtations with the girls she says, “a pack of wild girls the like of them do be walking abroad with the peelers, talking whispers at the fall of night” (179) and enhances this hypothetical threat by speaking of a local newspaper’s article on a man’s hanging. Christy immediately plans to flee until Pegeen reassures him of his safety. Yet, it is Pegeen and those in her community who betray Christy in the end and plan to hand him over to the peelers. Synge portrays a Janus-faced rural community who welcomes Christy through the door of the shebeen as a hero one day but wishes to drag him out the same door as a sacrifice just days later. This ultimately negative response to Christy is explained by Freud’s summation of what happens the one who breaks a taboo – “It is equally clear how the violation of certain taboo prohibitions becomes a social danger which must be punished or expiated by all the members of society lest it harm them all … If the others did not punish the violation they would perforce become aware that they want to imitate the evil doer” (54). In the play, this means that a rebel needs to be supported in his attack on authority whether it be a father or the peelers or the English Crown but failing this level of support, the community must destroy the rebel! The many references to the peelers in the play foreshadows how authority may ostensibly be rebelled against yet paradoxically relied upon to solve unsavoury situations like father killers. The playwright exposes the community’s complex relationship to the power structures of the day, and it is not a flattering depiction. Christy is himself a microcosm of the community because he shows a hair’s breadth between one being fearless/fearful of the law. When one takes account of the consequences of breaking a taboo then the community’s choice of Christy’s total annihilation versus total support becomes understandable at a new level. It is not just about self-preservation but also a rejection of the tilt towards rebellion.
When Christy’s deed of patricide is finally exposed as false then his mythical status crumbles and the community instantly rejects him. Pegeen says, “And it’s lies you told, letting on you had him [old Mahon] slitted, and you nothing at all” (214) and she later says, “and he [Christy] an ugly liar was playing off the hero, and the fright of men” (217). It is comedic, even absurd, to consider Christy’s alleged crime as ever having been heroic. However, as a breaker of taboos then he does become a feared and revered individual. Pegeen’s famous rebuke to Christy is – “there’s a great gap between a gallous story and a dirty deed” (220). In effect, Pegeen means that the story loses all its sheen and becomes horrid when it is replayed in one’s own back yard. It is a case of romantic myth clashing with cold, sordid reality. It is Christy’s repetition of his awful crime, not in story but in actuality, which leads the community to turn on him. Only when old Mahon appears to lie dead outside the shebeen in Mayo does the crowd become a lynch mob. The young man repeated the crime because it had originally brought him fame and female attention yet ironically the community reject him because he commits the crime before their eyes. In this scene, Synge appears to be referencing something embedded in our psyches which originated in ancient tribal people and their relationship to their totem which Freud identifies as simply a symbol of the father. The following quote shows how one may make sense of the seemingly absurd double killing of old Mahon in the play.
“The religion of totemism included not only manifestations of remorse and attempts at reconciliation, but also serves to commemorate the triumph over the father. The gratification obtained thereby creates the commemorative celebration of the totem feast at which the restrictions of subsequent obedience are suspended, and makes it a duty to repeat the crime of parricide through the sacrifice of the totem animal as often as the benefits of this deed, namely, the appropriation of the father’s properties, threaten to disappear as a result of the changed influences of life” (Freud 199).
In this light, Christy performs a sort of ritual in order to renew the benefits of his original ugly deed. The ritual is to “repeat the crime of parricide” (Freud 199) so that he will continue to reap the benefits. Yet, because he now implicates his new admirers in the crime, he must be punished and harshly expelled from the community.
Synge’s depiction of how the Mayo community suddenly attacks Christy is one of the key scenes that originally brought the play into disrepute. It is a depiction of betrayal because a community takes the side of the oppressive authorities when Christy merely proves himself to be the man he always claimed to be, a father killer. The contentiousness of this episode in the play is explainable through reference to Freud’s definition of a taboo as quoted at the beginning of this essay. To paraphrase Freud, a taboo has dichotomous meanings with words like sacred and consecrated contrasting with the darker side which hold meanings like the uncanny, dangerous, forbidden, and unclean. The people of Mayo compare Christy to great men of the past like the heroes who hold an esteemed place in myths and folklore. In this way, the sacred, God-like warriors of stories are made flesh in the brave, young man. It is this link between Christy and heroic figures of the past that leads some to believe Synge may be mocking either past heroes or modern Irish men. Yet, as has already been discussed, Christy also carries the aura of the dangerous and the forbidden due to his crime. A single individual cannot house these two contrasting sides of the taboo and yet Christy’s transformation as a character rests on the brief period when he does. It is both the dark and light in Christy’s character that the community perceive which secures their support.
Synge is careful to fully represent the two conflicting sides of Christy. Therefore, some characters support him while others voice dissent against Christy and thereby the audience constantly views the blatant contrast of hero versus villain. As patricide is Christy’s only alleged crime, the locals haggle over an interpretation of this event. Some sympathetically consider Christy’s possible reasons for striking his father. Michael tentatively states that for Christy to kill his father, “You should have had good reason for doing the like of that” (152). Later, when old Mahon tells his tale to the Widow Quin, she facetiously quips that “you should have vexed him fearful to make him strike that gash in his da” (187). In this light, Christy is like a hero of old who only breaks a taboo with good and justifiable cause. On the other hand, Shawn describes Christy as “a queer kind” (155) and “a bloody-handed murderer” (155) while old Mahon refers to his son as “a small low fellow … Dark and dirty … An ugly young blackguard” (190). Shawn’s opinion of Christy reflects the rigid, law-abiding perspective but crucially disregards the reasons for Christy’s actions. Of more interest is old Mahon’s assessment of his son because it shows that an aggressively authoritarian father and by extension a society of the same ilk, will fail to see the potential in the next generation and will hold them in demeaning submission until forced to repent. However, once Christy remains in the central position of satisfying the two contradictory positions of villain and hero, then he transforms. In this space, he garners abundant support and encouragement while also commanding respect and awakening fear in others.
The revelation of Synge’s play is Christy’s transformation. It is a fascinating depiction of myth becoming reality with the underlying political message that communities should encourage and support strong leaders rather than shackle them into submission. The kind of men that Ireland produced were more typically the Shawn Keoghs of the world who Pegeen quickly dismisses when offered a better prospect, saying, “Wouldn’t it be a bitter thing for a girl to go marrying the like of Shaneen, and he a middling kind of a scarecrow, with no savagery or fine words in him at all?” (211). The scarecrow is the hollow figure, only a man in appearance and lacking in the vital aspects of masculinity. Yet, Shawn and Christy as not so unalike and therefore the formation of the hero relies overwhelmingly on support.
One only sees the transformed Christy when his tale of patricide dissolves into farce with the reappearance of his father. By this point, the young man has already been transformed by the community’s support and invigorated by a strong belief in himself. When Pegeen rejects him, Christy responds with reference to his great show in the games that day, saying “You’ve seen my doings this day” (215). However, the community is against him and jeers him, “There’s the playboy! There’s the lad thought he’d rule the roost in Mayo” (215). Synge has foreshadowed Christy’s fate through the example of the Widow Quin who killed her husband, though unintentionally, and then bears the burden of social ostracization. It is the reality of rebellion that the community find distasteful preferring instead to listen in safety to scandalous tales while sitting in the bar. Yet, Christy moves beyond storytelling and threateningly lifts a loy against Shawn and subsequently against his father symbolizing that he will never again submit to oppression. When the group of men and women in the bar seek to bind Christy so that he may be handed over to the police, he again shows a desperate fearlessness. When Pegeen shuns him, Christy says, “That’s your kind, is it? Then let the lot of you be wary, for, if I’ve to face the gallows, I’ll have a gay march down, I tell you, and shed the blood of some of you before I die” (222). In the end, when Christy departs the shebeen as the victor, he metaphorically wipes his boots of that place, saying, “Ten thousand blessings upon all that’s here, for you’ve turned me a likely gaffer in the end of all” (224). Christy is the hero that the community nurtured into being, only to reject him when his ungovernability becomes all too real. However, the new man is fully formed and does not intend to give up his newfound freedom.
With the aid of Freud’s Totem and Taboo and various other texts, this essay has sought to delve into explanations for the actions of Synge’s characters in his acclaimed comedy “Playboy.” While a serious contemplation of a very entertaining play, it has revealed a solid, plausible basis for the main aspects of the play that originally caused offence. These are noted in the introduction but are chiefly concerning women’s sexuality, praising a parricide, and a community that turns on its hero. By going beyond Synge’s own idealized impressions of Irish peasants as summed up in his primitivistic views, then one finds specific fears and taboos that are common to all mankind. The main conclusion one may make is that Synge did not intend nor create a mocking depiction since the actions of people like Christy, Pegeen, and the rest of the community are explainable by reference to specific taboos. The more interesting aspect of this conclusion is the idea of a subconscious superstructure of actions and reactions which are set in motion by the triggering of certain taboos in real life. Synge incorporates a strong focus on the taboos of the Oedipus complex in his work as well as other taboos. When one views the play in reference to the taboos of killing one’s father and sleeping with one’s mother then Christy’s every action is laden with significance.
It is reasonable to assume that the heroes of Ireland’s past were sometimes flawed characters who transgressed many boundaries in order to achieve great things. Storytelling gives a polish to such men, a refined and pleasing presentation that is disjointed from reality. Characters like old Mahon and Christy chafed on the sensibilities of Synge’s early audiences because they are uncouth, contradictory, and often unheroic. To simply laugh is to dismiss them a little too easily, and miss their relevance. Synge gives his readers a bare reality with strong political overtones in a country that was still under English rule. Given Ireland’s long history of rebelling against English colonial rule with the Irish Rebellion of 1798 as a primary example, it would be foolish to interpret Synge’s play as critiquing Irish people for not having the stomach for rebellion. However, Synge’s criticism is evident in his depiction of an overly authoritarian societal structure which smothers the potential of new generations. The authority figures are indeed all patriarchs of one kind or another, familial, church, or state. Similarly, one senses in the play a distinct disapproval of middle-class Ireland represented by publicans, big farmers, and even priests when they are shown to turn everything they touch into a question of commerce.
A discussion of taboos is quite apt in Synge’s play given its Irish setting. Freud traces the origins of all religions and moral restrictions back to the killing of the primal father and the subsequent ritual of totem feasts. Ireland was a staunchly Catholic country for most of the 19th and 20th centuries and many acts and even subjects were quite taboo. If one had to cite an example from modern Irish history of a heroic figure being toppled by the revelation of a taboo then it would be Charles Stewart Parnell, an Irish nationalist and Member of Parliament. Though a prominent and lauded politician, the exposure of his long-term affair with a married woman and the Catholic Church’s subsequent condemnation of him helped seal the premature end of his political career. Parnell died of pneumonia aged just 45 in the year eighteen ninety one. Against this backdrop, Synge cleverly depicts not the destruction but formation of a hero from a taboo act. It is true that Christy never actually succeeds in killing his father but it is not for want of trying. The plot of Synge’s play is extraordinarily counterintuitive because the protagonist is not destroyed in the end but instead is emboldened, masculinized, and empowered. An obscure and ordinary fellow broaches a great taboo and thus becomes one of the best know names in Irish literature, Christy Mahon.
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Freud, Sigmund. Totem and Taboo. Translated by A. A. Brill, Acheron Press, 2012.
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Schacht, Ryan. “Female and Male Perceptions of Attractiveness: What is attractive and Why?” University of Nebraska, 2005.
Synge, John Millington. “The Playboy of the Western World.” The Complete Works of J. M. Synge, edited by Delphi Classics, Delphi Classics, 2018, pp. 132-224.