The Playboy of the Western World is a story about conformity and rebellion towards the law. In the play, Shawn Keogh is the ultra-conservative figure who bows towards the law with deference and meekness. At the other extreme, Christy Mahon is the rebellious figure who rebels against the law by posing himself as the perpetuator of patricide and a criminal of the legal system. In the play, the law is portrayed as an oppressive social institution that stifles the expression of a person’s individuality. The law-abiding Shawn is portrayed as an uninspiring figure whose individuality is totally stifled by the law of society, while the rebellious Christy is portrayed as the flamboyant individualist who exudes vigour and individuality by breaking himself free from the law. By unshackling himself from the legal constraints, Christy develops into a supreme individualist who rises above law and society, while the conservative Shawn possesses no individual character by remaining the slave of the legal system. Through the contrast of the these two characters, the play suggests that Ireland could equally achieve its unique individual character by breaking itself free from the oppressive dominance of the British legal system in the manner of Christy rather than remaining as a passive occupied country which meekly obeys the British law in the manner of Shawn. Shawn is the most law- abiding and god- fearing figure in the play. Throughout the course of the play, Shawn exhibits a deferential attitude towards law and morality. He is the paragon of the law- abiding citizen and is repeatedly described by his entourage as a “decent man” (13). He is saddled with all sorts of legal and moral obligations and forbids himself to do anything in contradiction to the law. Shawn is totally subjugated to the laws of the church and waits patiently for the holy dispensation from the bishops to get married. He constantly fears of breaking the rules of the church. His deference to the religious authority is such that he fears to be left alone in the company of his fiancée before obtaining a proper legal dispensation from the church. His obedience to the secular criminal law is equally noticeable. Upon learning Christy’s patricide, he is the only person in the play who is not amused by his crime. He immediately identifies Christy as a “bloody-handed murderer” (20) and a devilish figure, rather than applauding him as the hero of a glorious exploit like everyone else. In the play, Shawn moves strictly within the conventional legal strictures and is hemmed in by both legal and moral constraints. However, rather than applauding Shawn as an exemplary law- abiding citizen, the author portrays him as an insipid and uninspiring figure who is subjugated to the many social institutions such as the law and the church. His slavish subjugation to these social institutions devours his individuality. The audience never witnesses any active expression of his individual character; instead, his individuality is entirely expressed through his servile relations to these legal and social institutions. Rather than behaving like a sovereign individual capable of independent feelings and judgment, Shawn resembles a robot who mechanically obeys the dictates of the law, both secular and religious, without any mental reflection on his part. His passive meekness towards the law turns him into a part of the wider moral framework, thus making him the very opposite of an individualist. Through the portrayal of Shawn’s slavish subservience to the law, the law is presented as an oppressive social institution which curtails individual freedom by hindering the expression of one’s individuality.Unlike Shawn, Christy is someone who rises above law and the legal institution. Although Christy starts off as a conventional “law-fearing man” (20) in the beginning of the play, he chooses to rebel against the law by posing as someone who has committed patricide. Christy explains his act of murder by telling his audience that he strikes his father in a fit of rage after he forcefully persuades him to marry a certain widow, which he refuses to do. By acting as someone who murders his father in order to defend his freedom and independence, Christy proves himself to be a radical individualist who tramples upon the laws of the coercive legal authority in order to defend his individual sovereignty and freedom. By murdering his father, Christy eliminates the authority figure in his life and is now free to become his own master. Christy poses himself as someone who believes in radical personal freedom and who is willing to break the legal strictures in order to achieve it. After he defies the law by committing his imaginary crime, Christy develops greatly as an individual. The sexually timid and cowardly Christy who has once been the “fool of men” (58) and the “laughing joke of every female woman” (49) develops into a “champion of the world” (58) who exudes confidence and swaggers with self-assurance. The Christy who once hid himself at the sight of women now wins all the sports and pursues Pegeen with boldness. Christy’s astonishing development illustrates the oppressiveness of the legal institution. It is only through the breaking of the law does Christy truly unleashes his individuality and develops into a full person. Christy liberates himself from the oppressiveness of the law by unshackling himself from the legal constraints, thus transforming himself into an emancipated individualist who is free from legal coercion, and who is at liberty to develop his individuality to the full. By acting as someone who breaks the law and detaches himself from the wider moral framework of society, Christy is transformed into a supreme individualist. The breaking of the law enables Christy to rise above fettering constraints of law and society, rather than becoming the law’s obedient slave in the manner of the conservative Shawn. The Irish community in the play initially presents itself as law-abiding society. The audience learns from Michael that the consumers of the liquor house are all “bona fide” (14), which shows the community’s respect for the law. However, the community quickly reveals a rebellious law-breaking spirit beneath its law-abiding façade. When Christy reveals himself to the community as the perpetuator of patricide, the people of the community applaud him to the skies as the gallant hero of a glorious deed. Rather than delivering Christy to the police, the people regard the illegal act of patricide as a grand action. As one member of the community puts it, the man who dares to break the law by killing his father “would face a foxy devil with a pitchpike on the flags of hell” (19). The community’s deep admiration for Christy’s crime clearly reveals its hidden law-breaking spirit. In the play, the police are referred as the “peelers”, after the English Prime Minister Robert Peel who created the justice system. This shows that Ireland is an occupied land and that the police are working under the British legal system by “selling judgments of the English law” (37). The entire legal system is thus an instrument of foreign oppression. By breaking the law, Christy can almost be seen as someone who bravely resists the oppressive British legal system. In this way, the breaking of the law is transformed into a virtue. Breaking the law means the defying of authority, which is what Ireland needs to do if it wants to free itself from British rule and become sovereign once more. It is no wonder that Christy’s act of resistance against the legal authority should receive such rapturous applause from the community. Just as Christy achieves his individuality by “breaking” the law, the author seems to suggest that Ireland could equally achieve its unique individuality by breaking itself free from the British legal system through active rebellion. Just as Christy’s act of rebellion turns him into the “master of all fights” (80) at the end of the play, Ireland could shake off the yoke of foreign oppression and become its own master by striking down the British authority figure in the manner that Christy strikes down his father. The Playboy of the Western World is celebration of the courageous and rebellious spirit who dares to strike down the law and authority. The Irish community living under the oppression of foreign rule is quick to lionize the father murdering Christy because he possesses the will and the energy to defy the forces of authority, which is exactly the kind of people that Ireland needs if Ireland intends to be free and independent once more. The law is an instrument of colonial oppression; therefore, for Ireland to become sovereign again, its people must learn to break the British law and to strike down the authority figure in the manner of the father murdering Christy. Ireland can choose to become free and individualist by defying the legal authority in the manner of Christy, or it can choose to remain subservient to the British law in the manner of Shawn. Even though the community ultimately loses its courage towards law-breaking at the end of the play and threatens to deliver Christy to the police, the Irish community’s psychological disposition towards rebellion has been clearly demonstrated through its deep admiration towards Christy’s crime. Just as Michael puts it, it is better for his grandchildren to grow up like “little gallant swearers” (71) like Christy who exude vigour and rebellious spirit, than to become the “puny weeds” (71) in the like of Shawn who can only bow down meekly to the oppressive legal authority by remaining a passive law-abiding citizen in an occupied land. Works CitedSynge, M, John. The Complete Plays of John M. Synge. New York: Vintage Books, 1960.
J. M. Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World is a three-act play which follows Christy Mahon’s escape to a rural community of Western Ireland after striking and presumably killing his father. In the small Mayo village, authority presents itself in many facets as an interlocking, linear structure that is both tangible and intangible. Three aspects of the power structure present in the text are patriarchal figures, religious figures, and the community, which are also intertwined with logical conduct and gender stereotypes. Furthermore, Synge depicts momentous and meaningful resistance as only exerted against patriarchal and community forces – religious figures are subjected to a perversion, distortion, or reallocation of their authority.
In Playboy there are three child-father relations for examination: Christy and Old Mahon, Pegeen Mike and Michael Flaherty (Michael James), and Shawn Keogh and Father Reilly. Each relationship represents a different gradient of resistance to paternal oppression, with Christy demonstrating significant defiance. Nothing that either Pegeen or Shawn attempt in the play is remotely comparable to his crime of patricide. Christy’s motivation for doing so, explained in a noticeably more dramatic version of the tale later in the play, is to avoid an arranged marriage with the Widow Casey who is a woman significantly older and larger than Christy and ‘of noted misbehaviour with the old and young’ (2.116-120). The reason for this union is none other than his father’s personal gain, according to Christy, evidenced by Old Mahon’s judgment of him as not worthy of the Widow (2.125-127, 137). Further reinforcing Old Mahon’s tyranny is Christy’s initial description of himself as the ‘son of a strong farmer’ (Synge 1.203-204), but Christy then replaces that ‘strong farmer’ with a ‘dirty’ and ‘crusty’ man he could not tolerate (1.266-268). Therefore, by depicting Old Mahon as domineering, selfish, and a less-than-ideal father, Synge allows the villagers to pity Christy and accept the killing of his father as justified, even honorable.
Where Christy engages in the ultimate resistance to paternal authority, Pegeen is only able to struggle between her force of will and her reliance on her father. For the majority of Playboy she is compliant with Michael James’ wishes, but also does not hesitate to voice her own inclinations when they differ from his. This aspect of her personality remains intact throughout the text; for example, in Act 1 she chastises her father for leaving her alone while he attends Kate Cassidy’s wake (1.102-105), and in Act 3 she rejects Michael James’ arrangement of her marriage to Shawn and insists on marrying Christy instead (3.350-351). After some hesitation, her father eventually gives in to Pegeen’s persistence and allows the two his blessing. Her persistence, however, does not translate into repudiation. As Christy and Old Mahon leave the village, Pegeen loses ‘the only playboy of the western world’ (3. 653-654) and, unable to sustain herself, she remains dependent on her father and the life he provides for her.
Lowest of all is Shawn Keogh, Pegeen’s second cousin and soon-to-be husband until Christy appears at the tavern. His relationship with Father Reilly is different than Christy’s to his father and Pegeen’s to hers because Shawn makes no effort to challenge Father Reilly’s (and by extension the Church’s) religious power. Unlike Old Mahon and Michael James, Father Reilly never appears on stage yet exerts enough power to make Shawn constantly nervous, in turn causing Shawn to abandon all religious expectations for the sake of self-interest. When Michael James tells Shawn to stay overnight to act as protector for Pegeen while he is away, Shawn responds ‘[in horrified confusion] I would…but I’m afeard of Father Reilly, and what at all would the Holy Father and the Cardinals of Rome be saying if they heard I did the like of that?’ (1.116-119). His aversion to being associated with indecency, coupled with his refusal on the grounds of being ‘afeard of Father Reilly,’ is met with contempt as Michael James sarcastically reflects that he has found a decent man for Pegeen (1.148-149).
While Christy grows from ‘a dirty, stuttering lout’ (2.434) to ‘the master of all [future] fights’ (3.636-637), Shawn is never able to break away from Father Reilly’s paralyzing influence. Although Shawn and Father Reilly have a religious connection rather than a familial one, direct comparison between this pair and Christy/Old Mahon is inevitable. Levitt argues that the comparison implies oppressive patriarchal authority should be – and can be – overthrown, and that this is necessary for the child’s maturation (20). Pegeen seems aware of the concept, but is not entirely willing or able to implement it. Additionally, Shawn’s total obedience to Father Reilly relieves him of the responsibility of making any difficult decision, but leaves him as a flat character and an undesirable man. Christy and Shawn begin the play as equals, but by the end one has transgressed prescribed paternal boundaries while the other has remained comfortably static (21).
No significant resistance to Father Reilly’s religious authority can be truly expected because of his absence from the play, and Synge gives the reason for this as due to fear of the murderous Christy. According to Levitt, Father Reilly’s avoidance of Christy and his failure to alert the local police both portray him as a priest whose fear outweighs not just his sense of moral duty, but his ‘authoritarian sympathies’ as a Father of the Church as well (21). This is not an attempt to dismantle the Church’s power on Synge’ part, but rather an attempt to transfer religious identity to other characters, particularly female characters. Thus, the transference is combined with a reversal of gender roles. Upon Widow Quin’s entrance into the play she announces that she has come to the tavern on the orders of Father Reilly to board Christy in her house (Synge 1.488-496). His command seems out of place, since there is no immediate logical explanation as to why a confessed murderer should be housed alone with a woman. Father Reilly’s apprehension prevents him from serving the orders in person, and he instructs a hardened woman to deal with the ‘young gaffer who’d capsize the stars’ in his stead (3.349). Moreover, during the scene of the next morning four village girls pursue Christy at the tavern by bringing him presents of duck eggs, butter, cake, and boiled chicken (Synge 2.63-77), which is reminiscent of the Three Wise Men offering their own gifts. The analogy is further emphasized when it is mentioned that one of the girls traveled for ten miles to see him (2.45).
Other men in addition to Father Reilly rely on the Widow Quin several times for her steadfastness. For example, at first Shawn tries to bribe Christy with a ticket for the United States, a new hat, breeches, and a new coat as incentives for leaving and preserving Shawn’s proposed marriage to Pegeen (2.320-327). But his offers are not successful, and he turns to the Widow Quin for help. Even Philly O’Cullen and Jimmy Farrell, two of the men who previously mocked Shawn for his cowardice, cannot muster any courage themselves when Old Mahon drags himself into the village with his bandaged head. All they can do is direct him toward Widow Quin when he demands room and board in exchange for sharing his version of the events (3.52). Though the local police are present, they are never notified. Instead, the women are charged with handling all dangerous outsiders when the men cannot.
Absurdly, the whole community save for Shawn, Father Reilly, and the Irish Constabulary accept and approve of Christy as a murderer from the start. His tale of homicide comes to serve as his only identity, with him not being ‘able to say ten words without making a brag of the way he killed his father and the great blow he hit with the loy’ (3.15-17). With all the others responding so encouragingly Christy cannot help but elevate himself to a prominent name and Christ-like figure, absorbing the distinction conferred to him. Interestingly, Christy and Old Mahon are extremely alike since the latter has been using the same tactic of storytelling to win a clean bed and a full stomach during his travels, explaining his request at the tavern (3.47-51), and is proud of the attention his head wound has received (3.43-44). It is only because of their similarity and the novelty of Old Mahon’s arrival that the fickle community rescinds the notoriety it has bestowed on Christy and demotes him to social pariah. Only after Christy bludgeons his father for a second time do they behave reasonably and arrest him to protect themselves from being accomplices in murder (3.446-499, 565-567). Continuing Synge’s role reversal, the men are wary of going near Christy, and it is up to Pegeen to do the dirty work of fastening rope around him and burning his leg to remove him from the tavern (3. 553-560, 618). In the end, everyone comes to their senses and unites under the work of driving out the very man they rose up.
This raises the obvious question – why did it take them so long? The answer can be found in another examination of Pegeen’s and Christy’s paternal relationships. Michael James, though perhaps inattentive at times, is well-intentioned and invested in Pegeen’s future. Old Mahon on the other hand is the exact opposite. The implication of a comparison between the two is that ‘good’ fathers such as Michael James deserve the obedience of their children, whereas ‘bad’ fathers like Old Mahon deserve nothing short of death. However, since Christy did not actually kill Old Mahon, Synge also implies the potential for redemption for both the child and the father. Christy’s experiences in the village are based on falsehoods but are necessary for his individual development and reconnection with his father.
The combined nature of authority represented in The Playboy of the Western World makes it impossible to analyze one without necessarily analyzing the resulting intricacies of the structure’s chain order. Most of these depictions stem from the umbrella authorities of the patriarchy, religion, and the community, then devolve into other facets such as reason and gender roles. Through the illustrations of resistance to authority, it can be argued that Synge gives his ‘protagonist’ agency to redefine and subvert by one way or another the limitations set upon them. Whether or Christy’s outcome can be considered successful, his struggle and defiance offer a contemplation of the psychological effects of oppression and the lengths one will go to escape them.
Beirne, Piers & O’Donnell, Ian. ‘Gallous stories or dirty deeds? Representing parricide in J. M. Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World.’ Crime Media and Culture, vol. 6, no. 1, 2010, pp. 27-48.
Levitt, Paul. ‘Fathers and Sons in Synge’s the Playboy of the Western World.’ The Explicator, vol. 66, no. 1, 2007, pp. 18-21.
Synge, J. M. ‘The Playboy of the Western World.’ The Playboy of the Western World and Other Plays. Oxford University Press, 1995, pp. 98-146.
Prior to the release of Synge’s work Playboy of the Western World, Ireland was typically depicted as an orderly and civilized nation in its prized literature. What made Synge’s play stand out from other theatrical productions was its portrayal of Ireland as a tainted, morally depraved place, but what was Synge’s purpose in disrupting theater norms and angering his audience? In reading Playboy of the Western World and Declan Kiberd’s article from The Guardian on Synge’s work, readers can see that Synge paints a negative thematic landscape that showcases the true grime of the Irish to reveal their underlying savage nature.
In Playboy, Synge has his main character commit a wrongful deed only to be celebrated by those around him in order to illuminate the depravity of the Irish identity. In the story, Christy, the main character, murders his father and brags about his crime to others. Christy counterintuitively finds himself not only welcomed, but also adored in County Mayo for killing his father. He reflects on his newfound good fortune: “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 years gone by” (Synge, 131). The author’s choice to make women attracted to Christy’s immoral action to the point where they’re “fighting” for him shows the wicked nature of the Irish. Additionally, the fact that the power of storytelling, something representative of Irish culture, functions despite immorality further illuminates the madness and savagery that the author wanted to display as defining qualities of the Irish identity.
This observation is reinforced by a different character’s feelings following Christy’s popularity. The fatherless orphan, Shawn Keogh, is jealous of Christy’s rise to fame and complains to Widow Quin that “… it’s a hard case to be an orphan and not to have your father that you’re used to, and you’d easily kill and make yourself a hero in the sight of all” (Synge, 141). Keogh is lamenting about being an orphan, as evidenced by his self-pitying statement, “it’s a hard case … not to have your father… .” The fact that Keogh wishes he had a father after Christy murders his own and is celebrated for doing so suggests that Keogh would “easily kill” his father to become a “hero” just like Christy, reflecting the savage intentions of the Irish people. In other words, Keogh is sad about being an orphan for the wrong reasons; being an orphan prohibits him from killing his father and becoming the hero that the villagers celebrate in Christy. Moreover, the author’s inclusion of Keogh’s deranged way of thinking steers away from the classic depiction of Ireland as a steady, refined place, as discussed by The Guardian…
The article from The Guardian explores the stark contrast between Synge’s play and the more appropriate ones that came before it, thereby strengthening the argument that Synge created a negative thematic landscape to finally expose the savage nature of the Irish identity. In the article, it’s mentioned that the play was performed at “Ireland’s national theater,” which had a mission “to show that Ireland was not the home of buffoonery but of an ancient idealism” (Kilberd). Synge’s unique choice to follow Christy’s murder with countywide praise, as discussed in the paragraph above, differed from the usually refined plot lines of other Irish plays, upsetting Irish nationalists who believed their country “was not the home of buffoonery.” Synge most likely had his play performed at the famous theater to get enough people to witness a truer, grimier portrayal of Irish identity for the first time. Furthermore, The Guardian article reveals the irony in the Irish protesters’ response to Synge’s play. Upon viewing the production, “[The protestors] insisted that the Irish were not by nature a violent people – and on the second night they stormed the stage and rushed the actors to prove their point.” The protestors’ anger-filled, violent reaction to Synge’s work simply demonstrated what Synge hoped to convey in his play: the Irish identity is partly made up of savage behavior. Thus, Synge’s choice to have his grimy play contrast the nationalist-themed Irish plays of the time period caused a wild response among the audience, successfully revealing the savage characteristics of the Irish people as depicted in the play.
Synge’s play Playboy of the Western World and The Guardian article reveal the Irish identity as inherently. As seen in the positive response to Christy’s killing of his father and the portrayal of Ireland as a place of disorder at Ireland’s national theater, it’s evident that the author intended to depict a different, more depraved side of Irish identity. To end, Synge gave a more accurate representation of Irish identity in his work, and he managed to do so by capturing the grime of the everyday Irish citizen.
Declan Kiberd, “Riotous History of The Playboy of the Western World”: https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2011/sep/23/playboy-western-world-old-vic