Two telegrams tell the story of the opening night of JM Synge's The Playboy of the Western World. Both were sent to WB Yeats by flamboyant Lady Gregory, who was helping him run the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, Ireland's embryonic national theatre. He was woken up in Aberdeen by the first, sent at the close of act one: "Play a great success." Two acts later, she sent a second: "Play broke up in disorder at the word 'shift'."
According to William Fay, playing the lead, the audience had become "a veritable mob of howling devils" at this mention of a petticoat. Soon, "the uproar had become a riot". The mob was only prevented from storming the stage by the call-boy, who "had armed himself with a big axe... and swore by all the saints in the calendar that he would chop the head off the first lad who came over the footlights". (Samantha Ellis, The Guardian online)
You know, sometimes you just need a good call-boy and a big axe, and nothing else is going to do the trick.
This week, in Irish Literature, we read two plays by J. M. Synge. The first one, "Riders to the Sea," is a quick punch to the solar plexus in one act. A mother and her two adult daughters, in the kitchen of their tiny little windblown, seacoast, dirt poor house, waiting for the news of the death of the last remaining brother. Read this one and weep. You won't be able to help it much.
But "Playboy"? Oh my oh my oh my. Believe me, the public mention of the name of a lady's undergarment is the least of the worries here. This is a bawdy, rowdy, hilarious, in your face and slap your pants ride into everything the polite people of the world want stopped. If you were born and raised in the particulars of propriety, this is not the sort of thing you want on the stage.
Set in a small village in County Mayo, The Playboy of the Western World is a lyrical comedy which tells the story of lonely dreamer Christy Mahon who wanders into a pub, claiming that he has killed his father. Captivating the locals with his tale of bravery he becomes an instant hero but it turns out that there is an unexpected twist in his tale. (London Theater)
Ha! "Unexpected twist" indeed. Spoiler alert. He didn't do it.
But it's worse even, than that. A country's fragile ego was at stake here. Ireland was getting sick and tired and tired and sick and shut yer face about it with all of this condescending claptrap coming at them from England's hoity toity mucky mucks. The national theater was somber, artistic and important, and th' divil take y' if y' don't understand that!
Ireland in 1907 saw itself as ready for self-rule and it expected its artists to promote the image of a steady, sober, self-reliant people. Instead, with The Playboy of the Western World, Synge gave them a play in which a village loon splits his father's head open with a spade, runs away, tells people he "killed his da" and is promptly installed as a hero by excitable women and drunken men. Worse still, this drama was staged not in some backstreet art-house, but at the Abbey, Ireland's national theatre, one of whose mission statements was to show that Ireland was not the home of buffoonery but of an ancient idealism. (Declan Kiberd, The Guardian, online)
Ireland, in all of living memory now, and for a long time before that, is a place where the unforgiving ocean's tide changes and the violence of it can be heard inside the kitchen of the praying mother's house. England hammers on the one side, colonizing, unmaking the Irish people and their mother tongue, and the bogs suck at the boots of anyone walking there. To have such a portrayal of the Irish, to make their most vulnerable country rubes the laughing stock of the theater ... it was too much.
Some writers who had admired Synge's earlier work felt that now he had gone too far. "It is not against a nation that he blasphemes," wrote Patrick Pearse in a journal of the Gaelic League, "so much as against the moral order of the universe." The Irish Times's critic identified one cause of the trouble: "It is as if a mirror were held up to our faces and we found ourselves hideous. We fear to face the thing. We scream." (Kiberd)So far, this all makes sense. (The Guardian's Kiberd does a great job of discussing all of this. Click on the link for "The Riotous History" of this play.)
Like Christy’s own tale of slaying his Da, the story of his injuries to Ireland’s good name continued to grow with the years. When the Abbey theatre took the play on tour to the United States, the clash between the idea of a pure nationhood cherished by Irish immigrants and what they saw on stage was even more pronounced. In New York missiles were thrown on the stage, and a hundred police attempted to keep order. Lady Gregory, who led the tour, received death threats; Theodore Roosevelt’s presence at the second performance ensured a more sedate reception. But when the company arrived in Philadelphia all hell broke loose, and the players were hauled into court by an Irish-American patriot who accused the company and the play of indecency. The case was dismissed when the judge learned that the accusers had not read the text. (Anne Saddlemyer, Oxford University Press, online)Ah, for the love of Mike! The riots over this play tell the story of every purist, every fundamentalist, every rampaging, prohibition-championing, thin-skinned, small-minded, fear-mongering zealot of a lunatic that has ever drawn breath on this whole glorious planet. Would someone call the call-boy out here? And give him an axe!