Prepared by the researcher : Arezki KHELIFA – Associate-Professor at the Department of English – Faculty of Letters and Languages – Mouloud MAMMERI University of Tizi-Ouzou, Algeria
Democratic Arab Center
Journal of cultural linguistic and artistic studies : Twenty-Eighth Issue – June 2023
A Periodical International Journal published by the “Democratic Arab Center” Germany – Berlin
Journal of cultural linguistic and artistic studies
:To download the pdf version of the research papers, please visit the following link
Thematizing Culture in literature was intensified during the end of nineteenth century in Ireland because a national language and culture were considered necessary prerequisites to make firm and stable the identity of their people and country. John Millington Synge, considered as a prominent representative of the Irish Cultural and Literary Revival, availed the cultural heritage of Ireland by exploring cultural and linguistic issues in his plays. He questioned and redefined historical cultural heritage of his country in a singular and original way. Therefore and in order not to enter into issues pertaining to power politics, I propose to study the way J. M Synge has chosen to construct and offer another aesthetic conception to the identity construction and literary revival in two of his plays: In the Shadow of the Glen and The Playboy of the Western World. In order to understand its coherence and claim its validity, I suggest referring also to W. B Yeats’ theatre ideals, for they were very crucial to the literary work of Synge.
The aim of this paper is to show the importance of Synge’s artistic work in relation to the development and revival of the Irish language and culture at the end of nineteenth century. This article will try to bridge the distance between Synge’s dramatic art and Irish language and cultural revival, hoping, at the meantime, to show how the artistic ideals of the playwright can be of great profit for identity construction and quest for language and culture revival. Indeed, J.M Synge, who had been claimed that, “He’s the greatest imaginative dramatist since the Puritans closed the theatres in 1642” (Bickley, 1912: 21), was born on April 16th, 1871. He extracted himself from his society to be an objective observer; a fact that allowed him to be closer than any other to the austere reality of Ireland. He was, as many who knew him, recorded, “a drifting, silent man, averse to discussion, aloof from the controversies and activities of literature in the making” (Boyd, 1917: 92). He had collaborated to the Irish cultural revival by struggling against the hegemony imposed by the British cultural model; he went to the Western Aran Islands, which he identified as the home of an Irish authentic identity or culture.
Coming from an Irish-Protestant background, Synge explored extreme identity tensions, and underlined the necessity to preserve the core Irish values in an era being encroached by new economic, social, cultural and demographic circumstances. He observed a disregard of the prevailing realisms of the country at that time, and transcended its existing cultural boundaries. In this respect, the older pagan beliefs formed his basic literary scenery wielded to resist and defeat the culture of Ireland modelled upon English liberal and capitalist ideals. Throughout History, Ireland has succeeded to recover from numerous invasions by alien enemies, and “This is what gives such permanent and enduring interest to the story of ancient Erin and old Irish culture” (Turner, 1919: 27). Hence, Synge seemed to be fascinated by those traditional and legendary Gaelic ways of thought and behaviour. He discovered the Aran Islands after his encounter with W. B Yeats in Paris. This counsel would later prove to be the turning point of his literary career which was short but very influential. Subsequent to Yeats remarkable and insightful admonition, Synge put an abrupt end to his years of peregrine in Germany and France and ventured into the Aran Islands. He wrote a total of six plays about the primitiveness of these different country men and women. He said, “I have the wildest admiration for the Irish peasants.” (Becket, 1966: 283) And at his first arrival there, he added that “It is hard to believe that these hovels I can just see in the south are filled with people whose lives have the strange quality that is found in the oldest poetry and legend.” (c.f. Mercier, 1994:69), announcing the greatness of his artistic production.
In view of these observations and with reference to two of J.M Synge’s plays: In the Shadow of the Glen and The Play Boy of the Western World, this paper attempts to show the possibility of transposing the theatre ideals of W.B Yeats as applied by J. M Synge upon another people’s quest for identity and cultural revival.
Review of Literature
Interesting and innumerable studies were done on Synge’s work. In the chapter one of J. M. Synge and the Irish Theatre, Maurice Bourgeois notices the hostility of certain Irish critics toward Synge because of his remote English origin; he also points to Synge’s strange and reserved behavior that transformed the Gael into a pure myth (c.f. Bourgeois, 1913: 04). The author observes in another chapter entitled ‘Synge’s Observation of Irish Ireland’ that though his leaning on the national side was sincere, Synge advocated literary and cultural explanations and ideals of his own. He wanted to depict his own soul by relying solely upon the peculiarities of the typical Gael peasant of the Aran Islands.
Inscribing the lives of the Gaelic peasants in Synge’s plays is also mentioned by Ernest A. Boyd in The Contemporary Drama of Ireland, wherein he states that Synge gained a position of prominence in the Irish Revival movement since he had incorporated an impressive quantity of folk realism in his drama (c.f. Boyd, 1917: 88). In Strange Country, Modernity and Nationhood in Irish Writing Since 1790, Seamus Deane arouses the issue of redefining and revising culture in Ireland. Referring to historical events, Deane showed that ‘Landlordism’ which faded and lost its political force resulted in a cultural deficiency. Consequently, the cultural revivalist writers such as Synge were interested in legends and myths instead of history. They developed a serious sensibility toward folklore, occultism and the old Irish language structure in the process of construing an unconventional literary expression as regards the specification of a different Irish identity (c.f. Deane, 1998: 93)
Other literary analyses focused on the retrospective and inward-scrutinizing aspect of Synge’s drama. In A History of Irish Thought, Thomas Duddy reveals that, “The cultural nationalism of the first decades of the Irish twentieth century was deliberately inward-looking and retrospective” (Duddy, 2002: 287). He explains that it sought to value the main cultural activities which would help the resurgence of the genius and uniqueness of the legendary Gael. At the end, Mary King in an article whose title is The Body out of Place: Strangers, Intimates and Destabilized Identities (1985) deals with the tensions between the stranger and the settled community in Ireland. Considering these conflicting relationship, she links Synge’s drama to his traumatized and attenuated sense of belonging to the unauthentic Ascendancy tradition, the Protestant Irish community which did not repel any eventual unity with England. From what is written above, one may to an agreement that Synge’s literary art has been characterized by its uniqueness and unusualness in its aesthetic image of Ireland’s Cultural Revival.
Historical Background of Ireland
In some respect, Synge can be considered as the literary figure that imagined and conceived artistically the modern Irish drama during a tumultuous and turbulent historical period of Ireland. That cycle stretched from 1870s until the Irish Independence in 1922, though Synge’s collaboration came only in 1902, three years after the Irish literary theatre was founded in 1899. He designed a significant secular literary movement that established the Gaelic Irish Cultural Revival in response to an actual identity and cultural predicament. Being a protestant, he felt himself as intruder; he suffered from continuous suspicion from the part of the catholic majority in Ireland despite that his drama had been concerned with the establishment of an identity and a cultural stability in his country. The Gaelic Revival, initiated by Synge, rejected all institutional, linguistic, and cultural realizations the British state had initiated and forced on the attention of the people of Ireland. Others like the Gaelic League, the native cultural anthropologist as Hayes O′Grady and Douglas Hyde and Trinity College scholars of a Protestant Ascendancy also sought to rediscover the Gaelic past of Ireland in order to preserve its cultural individuality, which Anglicization threatened. To that same purpose, these leaders used an amounting number of agrarian agitations of the peasantry though none of them proved to be efficient.
On his part, Synge was utterly inspired by scholars like Henry D′Arbois de Jubainville, Gaidoz, J. Strachon and Kuno Meyer who provided most of the legends and myths upon which his literature was mostly grounded (c.f. Mercier, 1994: 2). He sympathized with the poor and weak Irish peasantry which was fighting the British authority over land exploitation. To interpret and depict Irish islanders’ estranged soul, Synge uses fairy tales, endless talks about war or heroism, and the Aran people’s frugality and closeness to nature. For ages, Ireland knew political instability and perpetual warfare. Since Middle and Renaissance ages, there had been no significant manufacturing activity over the whole country. Only a few people took profit of overseas elementary trade, and its agriculture was astern if compared what the continental agricultural norms were. More expressive than all, the English throne paid scant attention to the distant Ireland. The English concentrated upon the wars against French and Spanish armies. Life in rural Irish Aran islands remained unaltered until the Great Famine of the 1840’s.
An unparalleled scarcity of food [lack of the potato crop] had given birth to revolutionary fancies among the Irish people. First of all, remarkable and resentful attitudes were adopted towards landlords and the king’s authority. Secondly, immigration to America grew more and more momentous among the underfed poor. Thirdly, Catholic and Protestant nationalists derived much of their strength from land protests in order to install home rule policy and finally obtain independence at the beginning of twentieth century. Peasantry and its land attachment had held a central position in Ireland ever since very ancient times. Thus, interest in the ordinary and primitive minds of the peasants and in their language had engendered an illustrious distinctiveness to Synge’s art though it very often scandalized nationalists of every trend.
Yeats said of Synge that, “He had come towards the nightfall upon certain set apart in a most desolate stony place, towards the nightfall upon a race passionate and simple like his heart.” (W. B. Yeats, cited in Ellis-Fermor, 1954: 163) And Synge had come to the Aran Islands five times from 1898 to 1902. Three islands which are surrounded by the Atlantic in the West, Clare in the East and Connemara to the North. The life in this desolate part of Ireland was hard, primitive and full of fairy and wondrous imagination. W.B Yeats was aware that that magic and ancient-like world would promptly disappear; that was why he advised Synge to go to the Aran Islands. In any case, form, language, details of setting, acting and speech defined themselves before the newcomer playwright. The peasants displayed before him an attitude to life which was like those of the Greeks and the Elizabethans. The peasants’ “Spirit revealed itself in this language spoken and in their love of heroic and homely legend and in daily life.” (Ibid: 71)
Synge’s theatre art put into practice the ideas freshly sketched out by W. B Yeats. Frustrated by the fall of the great nationalist leader Parnell, Yeats marked a literary and artistic upsurge. He discovered people whose first language was Irish; they also spoke an archaic, musical and vivid English, to a great extent constituted of direct translation from Gaelic and of the old Elizabethan English. Everything in that part of Ireland was of extraordinary beauty, dignity and of passionate and intense feelings. Elizabeth Coxhead said of Synge that “He looked at these primitive people, and through them, into the heart of humanity” (Coxhead, 1962: 10) Yeats wanted drama art to express heroic and universal themes, and the epics of Ireland’s ancient past as translated by Celtic scholars. Besides, theatre sought to preserve the living language of, “These strange men with receding foreheads, high cheekbones and ungovernable eyes seem to represent some old type on these few acres at the extreme border of Europe, where it is only in wild jests and laughter that they can express their loneliness and desolation.” (Ibid:11)
To respect that authenticity, Yeats reduced gesture and simplified the setting, for they might detract and interfere with the effectiveness of the verse and the prose delivery of the actors and may also lower the intensity of emotions. A minimum of outward events might be dispensed in order to unfold and mirror the minds, the inwardness and the inner experiences of these ‘primitive’ people in literary texts. Nothing unnecessary had to be put on the stage. Yeats observed that, “The background should be of one colour or of one tint, persons on the stage, wherever they stand may harmonise with it or contrast with it and preoccupy our intention” (Ellis-Fermor, 1954: 76). Actors have to move slowly; their movement should have something decorative and rhythmical as if they are paintings. According to the usual course of things, the Aran Islands and its people had hierarchized and aided Synge to give form to his aesthetic poetics. On stage, language dominated the character (actor) and the character dominated the scenery. Simplicity, inwardness, discursive or controlled reference to reality, uniqueness and unusualness of language are designed as major artistic tools for the development of an Irish theatre genre. Most important of all, Yeats advocated the pursuing and insertion of interpolating references to the glorious Gaelic past in order to understand the present. Within the identity and cultural mist of Ireland, Yeats had provoked the poetic illumination Synge needed to start a literary career.
1-In the Shadow of the Glen
Among his comedies and tragedies, it is in this play that Synge adorns in a very beautiful way a small world of ordinary peasants. Finished by 1902, this one-act comedy is a peasantry story about Dan Burke, an old farmer and his younger unfaithful wife Nora. David Green and Edward M. Stephens notice that in, “Making Nora Burke a young girl married not only to a jealous husband but an old one, Synge was indeed making a pertinent observation on an Irish institution-the loveless marriage.” (Green and Stephens, 1959: 153)
Knowing that Nora entertains adulterous relations with others, Dan has orchestrated his death during a winter night. A tramp that is looking for shelter is introduced into the family isolated cottage and Nora also calls for the young farmer Michael on the plea of observing the wake, which is a traditional ceremony for the dead. Being lovers, Michael and Nora have been making plans for their would-be profitable marriage almost all that night. But Dan wakes up to force his wife off the house. Nora accompanies the Tramp on the roads for the rest of her life. In fact, the reader ought to know that a same but true story of an unfaithful wife was told by old Pat to Synge in Aran Islands. Old Pat told him almost the same story as In the Shadow of the Glen. The two stories differ only in their ending. In Pat’s story, “The dead man hit him [Michael] a blow with the stick so that the blood out of him leapt up and hit the gallery” (Skelton, 1962: 33). Synge made a change in the plot. Francis Bickley pointed to this fact when he wrote that “In the Shadow of the Glen […] offended serious-minded Nationalists because it portrayed an Irishwoman a little light in her loving” (Bickley, 1912: 32).
This play exhibits high imaginative conceits and a poetic grandeur and none more than Synge profited from the clear-sighted vision of Yeats, who advised him to, “Go to the Aran Islands. Live there as if you were one of the people themselves; express a life that has never found expression.” (Ibid: 14). Because the story was not his, Synge provided his text with a movement that is larger than the ordinary Irish life. The characters are larger than life just as Hamlet and Macbeth were for Shakespeare. Though Dan, Nora and the Tramp are very naturalistic and individualized, they are remarkably conceived to serve a communal and cultural purpose. For Synge, a revolution with very lasting effects had to take place in the psyche of Nora or of any other Irish peasant. To address the main issues of his time, Synge did not join any political party or organisation but relied on the exploration of the inner minds of his characters. Confirming Synge’s particular vision, Francis Bickley observes that, “Synge, who is never abnormal or morbid, has tramps or tinkers prominent in three of his plays; finding them a little richer in life than the ordinary man, and making them a little richer again than he found them.” (Ibid: 26) Alan Price also affirms that “It is significant that Synge identified himself with the vagrant.” (Price, 1961: 122) The Tramp has many stories to tell about the legendary and glorious past of Ireland. When Nora is banished from home at the end of the play, Dan says to the Tramp, “Let her walk out of that door, and let you go with her, stranger-if it’s raining itself – for it’s too much talk you have surely.” The Tramp may show to Nora, who represents Ireland and who is acquainted and conversant with its past, the way to fulfil her identity comfort and cultural revival. Synge seems to suggest to his countrymen this same opportunity, which consists of venturing into their past; the only way for them to go beyond the several political, economic and identity issues. W.B Yeats writes in his essay ‘The Reform of the Theatre’ that authors,
Must have to write or find plays that will make the theatre a place of intellectual excitement […] If we are to do this we must learn that beauty and truth are always justified of themselves, and that their creation is a greater service to our country than writing that compromises either in the seeming service of a cause […] Such Plays will require, both in writers and audiences, a stronger feeling for beautiful and appropriate language than one finds in the ordinary theatre.” (Price, 1961: 68)
To attain such intellectual excitement, Synge used the Tramp for two main purposes. First, the Tramp condones turning the play’s movement of sadness, loneliness and solitude into one of uncertainty, of excitement and of an unknown mystery. The second is that he gives Nora-the symbol of Ireland- another opportunity for rediscovering her mythical past and for constructing again her language and cultural identity. In the play, Nora is subjugated by wonderful and poetical references the Tramp has been evoking throughout. She seems to have validated her desire of redefining her identity when she says, “I’m thinking it’s myself will be wheezing that time with lying down under the Heavens when the night is cold, but you’ve a fine bit of talk, stranger, and it’s with yourself I’ll go.” (Synge, 1911: 27)
To conclude, the Tramp and Nora would supposedly become much closer to one another; therefore, she may acquire necessary knowledge about her glorious past, language and myths necessary for a renewed identity and a cultural revival. Synge assumed that the same thing would have happened to Ireland if she had grown more intimate with her mythical past. That was probably the reason why Synge operates a change in the plot to old Pat’s story about the adulterous wife. Throughout In the Shadow of the Glen, Synge suggested the rediscovery of the past in order to transcend the various opposing views on identity and cultural revival in Ireland, hoping to refute the old clichés about France’s pride, England’s treason and Ireland’s warfare and hostility that would never terminate. (Price, 1961: 1)
2-The Play Boy of the Western World
This three-act comedy (1905-06) had a tempestuous stage beginning. Theatregoers did not like it because it features the lives of simple characters in relation to the mood of the period by only using nuances about the dominating ideology in almost the same manner as his contemporary Russian playwright Anton Chekhov. Synge was accused of reducing important political issues to a puerile formula.
The first scene is presented in a concise way; the details which might divert spectators are dissipated, a response to one of the aspects of the early Irish drama as thought by W.B Yeats. Nothing futile is put on the stage. In a like manner, the modern theatre director Stanislavsky also makes note of the fact that, “Generalizing is the enemy of art” (c.f. Styan, 2000: 25). The stage has, therefore, few properties, or props as called in theatre. Only bottles, a counter and jugs can be seen on the shelves inside the shebeen, which is a country public house. The shebeen is very rough and untidy like Pegeen that is wild looking and wearing the usual dress of a peasant girl. Synge reduces the importance of the stage, and fixed onto the wild and fine girl of twenty. These stage props have symbolic meaning. They point to the individuality of the place and its people. Very few words are used to plunge the reader in the unique and savage atmosphere of the Irish peasant world. This economy of mimesis heightens and values the voice of the characters. A long stage direction to introduce characters and the setting might divert the reader/spectator from capturing the deepest meaning of the play. Through its subtle forms, voice (language) conveys fundamental information about class and gender inequalities, about desires and aspirations, and about every political or cultural problem of the Irish people.
In Act I, Pegeen, who is writing a letter slowly, discusses with her fiancé, Shawn Keogh. The word “slowly” is intended to demonstrate that the actors on the stage should move in very decelerating ways so as not to detract the spectators’ immersion. Throughout their discussion, various corollary issues that structured Irish identity like the authoritative image of the father, importance of Catholic Church, immigration to America, and references to English rule in Ireland, can be noticed. For instance, one can read, “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 holly Ireland.” (Act I)
The language used by Pegeen hints to discursive positions and feelings of the peasants towards the symbolic and exterior realm in which they are living. She speaks of a ‘peeler’, a representative of the English Justice and Court in Ireland, who is beaten by a home peasant. When Christy Mahon-The barbarian play boy-enters on stage, Synge changes the atmosphere from suspicion to one of easiness. The result is that both Pegeen and Christy begin learning more about one another. Pegeen elevates him to the rank of ancient poets. She declares, “I’m thinking, as Owen Roe O’Sullivan or the poets of the Dingle Bay; and I’ve heard all times it’s the poets are your like-fine, fiery fellows with great rages when their temper’s roused.” (Ibid: I) With simplicity, relief and confidentiality, they both speak in a plain symbolic language full of references to the sublime past of Ireland, and to the peasants’ closeness to nature. In this respect, W.B Yeats writes that, “One must be able to make […] an old countryman or a modern lover speak that language which is his and nobody’s else’s, and speak it with so much of emotional subtlety that the hearer may find it hard to know whether it is the thought or the word that has moved him, or whether these could be separated at all.” (Bickley, 1912: 72) In a much similar way, the language of Synge’s characters is unique and full of references to myths, nature and to a sublime imaginary past life. As an illustration, Christy and Pegeen have continued to speak about a king of Norway or of the eastern world, seven curses, a rabbit starting to screech, the ducks and geese stretched sleeping, and used metaphoric images like an ash tree in the moon of May. (Synge, 1995)
At the end and though he detaches from Pegeen, seeming to grow a little dispassionate, Christy Mahon says to his father, “Go with you, is it? I then, like a gallant captain with his heathen slave. Go on now and I’ll see you from this day stewing my oatmeal and washing my spuds, for I’m master of all fights from now.” (Act III) J. M Synge made Christy Mahon realize a qualitative change in his identity because he travelled inside every part of his country: history, nature, myths and legends. He has lived a same legendary tale as those bequests and patrimony bestowed by Irish figures and heroes of the glorious past. Lusia Desy Kustianto writes that Christy Mahon, “Is able to develop from a boy who is frightened to be a man who is brave to accept the reality” (Kustianto, 2000). Thus, Christy Mahon has grown to know the necessity of past rediscovery in the process of the identity making and of the cultural revival of Ireland.
In the light of what has been said, Synge’s art is fascinating though it was achieved within a short time. It put into practice the radical experiments suggested by Yeats. Every now and again, Synge uses single words to refer to past myths or legends. At the meantime, he alludes to many social, economic, political and cultural realities of his time. In addressing those lugubrious and forlorn issues, he concerned himself with the Aran peoples’ language and the necessity of impassioning a Gaelic Cultural Revival. He applied Yeats’ theatrical techniques of reduced gesture, of simplified setting and of limited stage properties. The language used by the characters is unique and unsophisticated. To recapitulate, he relied on very few details to generate an adequate atmosphere for a cultural and literary revival by making reference to the glorious Gaelic past of Ireland. Synge elevated the Irish past to a higher rank of glory. The literary image he transmitted about Gaelic past is very captive and contrasts with the harsh and desolate area of the Aran Islands. It is also acknowledged that he had been in touch with the main philosophical trends. He read most of the works by Kant, Nietzsche, Hegel and Schopenhauer but none of them seemed to exert an apparent and overt influence upon him. Any direct reference to the works of those philosophers can hardly be detected in all his plays. Synge had remained as pure and truculent to them as the peasants of the Aran Islands had been to the English influences. Francis Beckley reports that Synge claimed that he, “Never, or hardly ever, to have used word or phrase which he had not heard among the Irish peasantry. He found the language of these people, whose proper speech is Gaelic, a curiously simple yet dignified language.” (Bickley, 1912: 17) In sum, J. M Synge borrowed character, situation and language from the true and real life of the Irish peasant world without altering its quintessence. He could innovate and beget the new characteristics of Gaelic drama primarily thought by Yeats; he “Set a high literary mark for the new generation.” (Canfield, 1936: V)
Synge, John Millington. The Play Boy of the Western World and Riders to the Sea. Routledge: London, 1995.
—–. In the Shadow of the Glen. John W. Luce and Company: Boston, 1911.
– Becket, J. C. The Making of Modern Ireland: 1603-1923. Faber and Faber Ltd: London,
1966, pp. 283.
-Bickly, Francis. J. M. Synge and the Irish Dramatic Movement. Mifflin: Houghton, 1912, pp. 14-72.
-Bourgeois, Maurice. J. M. Synge and the Irish Theatre. London: Constable and Company Ltd, 1913, p.04.
-Boyd, A. Ernst. The Contemporary Drama of Ireland. Boston: Brown and Company, 1917, pp. 88-92.
-Canfield, Curtis. Plays of Changing Ireland. The MacMillan Company : New York, 1936, p. V.
-Coxhead, Elizabeth. J M Synge and Lady Gregory. Longman: Green, 1962, p. 10-11.
-Deane, Seamus. Stranger Country, Modernity and Nationhood in Irish Writing Since 1790. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998, p. 93.
-Duddy, Thomas. A History of Irish Thought. Routledge: London, 2002, p. 287.
-Ellis-Fermor, Una (1939). The Irish Dramatic Movement. Methuen and Co: London, 1954, pp. 71-163.
-Green, David and Stephens, E. M. J.M Synge 1871-1909. The McMillan Company: NewYork, 1959, p. 153.
-Mercier, Vivian. Modern Irish Literature: Sources and Founders. Clarendon Press: Dillon, 1994, pp. 02-69.
-Price, Alan. Synge and Anglo-Irish Drama. Methuen: London, 1961, pp. 68-122.
-Skelton, Robin (1907). The Aran Islands, J. M. Synge. Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1962, p. 33.
-Styan, J. L. A Guide to the Study of Plays. Peter Lang: New York, 2000, p. 25.
-Turner, E. Raymond. Ireland and England in the Past and at Present. The Century Co: New York, 1919, p. 27.
-King, Mary. The Body out of Place: Strangers, Intimates and Distabilized Identities, in Critical Survey, Hamburg University, 1985.
-Kustianto, Lusia Desy. The Emotional Development of Christy Mahon in John Millington Synge’s Western World. Petra Christian University, 2000.