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Sex and Sovereignity in Synge's Playboy of the Western World.

Sex and Sovereignity in Synge's Playboy of the Western World.

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An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Meadhbh McHugh. Originally submitted for Theatre and Ireland 1. at Trinity College, Dublin, with lecturer Dr. Sara Keating in the category of English Language & Literature
An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Meadhbh McHugh. Originally submitted for Theatre and Ireland 1. at Trinity College, Dublin, with lecturer Dr. Sara Keating in the category of English Language & Literature

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 29, 2012
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10/27/2013

 
1
‘ 
Women became as sexually intangible as the ideal of national independence
became politically intangible. Both entered the unreality of myth.’ Kearney.
  Discuss.
SEX AND SOVEREIGNITY IN SYNGE’S PLAYBOY OF THE WESTERN
WORLD.
To Kearney‟s statement that in the literature and society of colonial Ireland, „w
omen becameas sexually intangible as the ideal of national independence became politically intangible.Both entered the unreality of myth
‟, Synge‟s vision was a rare exception.
John MillingtonSynge wished to analyse rather than idealise Ireland. In the preface to his masterwork 
ThePlayboy of the Western World 
, Synge writes „On the stage one must have reality, and onemust have joy.‟
1
It is this negotiation between actuality and art that places Synge in a liminalspace between the politically charged myth-making work of his contemporaries involved inthe Irish Celtic revival and the more European modernist movement, where as Kearney put
its „theirs was an art of pure interrogation. Question without answer.‟
2
 
Synge‟s plays are
riddled with seeming contradictions, ironies, ambivalences and ambiguities, as he hintedhimself when he wrote in a letter to
The Irish Times
, „There are, it may b
e hinted, severalsides to
The Playboy.’ 
3
It may also be suggested that were many sides to his politics. Hespurned much of the cultural nationalism ideals of the Gaelic Leaguers whom he thoughtwere timid and mediocre, but he was also heavily involved in the Irish Literary Theatre thatwas to be a major part of the Celtic revival and nationalist movement. If he refused to deal inmyths of the CuChulain-cult variety, he continuously evokes myth in his work whether todebunk it, defamiliarize it or depoliticize it. If he was a pacifist as is suggested, his violentdrama did little in content or context to pacify. If he was a socialist, he was also opposed toculture as a tool, or the drama of reform, so his plays did little to suggest viable alternativesfor social reform other than a call for emancipation, often in an individual rather thancommunal sense, and thus proved an aesthetic ideal of a mythological variety in itself. Syngewas predominantly an artist, but no artist can escape his environment completely, and as
Padraic Colum wrote in 1911 „The dramatist is the child of his time and hislocality.‟
4
Therefore Synge, writing in the charged climate of early twentieth century Ireland,whether consciously or not, was a political dramatist
, contrary to Yeats‟ popular espousal of 
him as apolitical. The final irony may be that Synge was the most revolutionary of hiscontemporaries and the most modern of the modernists if we look at how he demythologisesthe tropes of woman as mother/maiden and lampoons myth-making nationalist politics in The
Playboy of the Western World.
Exposing the „great gap between a gallous story and a dirtydeed‟ he brings the unreality of intangible myth down to earth and in implicating the
1
J.M.Synge,
The Playboy of the Western World 
in
Synge, The Complete Plays
(London: Methuen PublishingLtd.,1963). p.174.
2
Richard Kearney,
Myth and Motherland 
, (Derry: Field Day Theatre Company Ltd., 1984)p.16.
3
 
The Irish Times
, 30 Jan 1907.
4
Padraic Colum
 , Evening Telegraph
, 20 May 1911. Quoted in Ben Levitas,
The Theatre of Nation
(Oxford:Clarendon Press, 2002).
 
2
audience in the discovery of this sinister space between fiction and fact, he too like themodernists asks a question without answer. The audience would give their own answer, a fewyears later when the ideal of national independence came down from its lofty literary heightsand violently executed its real liberation.Aside from the centuries-old mythologies of woman-as-Ireland, Erin, Cathleen Ní Houlihan,the Poor Old Woman, Dark Rosaleen and the other multitude of mythological idealisationsand representations of woman, t
here was at the time of Playboy‟s first production in
1907 areal political investment in female purity and chastity. The founder of Sinn Féin, Arthur
Griffith‟s protestations to the perceived slur on Irish womanhood in
 In the Shadow of theGlen
four years previous
included the claim that „Irishwomen are the most virtuous in theworld.‟
5
There was evidently a material deanglicising and decolonising basis for thisinsistence and attachment to the ideal of woman as pure, chaste maiden or nurturing,patriotic,
suffering mother. As Susan Canon Harris wrote „sexual purity conflated withcultural purity of the domestic space.‟
6
If the home and hearth represented on the stage at theNational theatre, The Abbey, was to be taken as a national representation of Ireland as
opposed to the „misrepresentation‟ of the colonial stage
-Irishness, then any perceived insultto Irish women was appropriated as an insult to Irish nationalism. The eroticism and primal
sexuality connoted by Synge‟s „drift of chosen
females, standing
in their shifts‟
7
was not onlyseen as a
defamation of Irishwomen but as a „
libel on Ireland
8
and hence the ensuinginfamous riots. As Richard Kearney has noted
“T
he more dispossessed the people became in reality the more they sought to repossess a senseof identity in the realm of ideality. Since the women of colonized Ireland had become, in James
Connolly‟s words „slaves of slaves‟, they were in a sociological sense obvious candidates for compensatory elevation in the realm of myth and mystery.”
9
 
The
nationalists in the audience at the opening of Synge‟s play were painfully aware of their 
carefully constructed national identity which included the image of woman, so fundamentalto nationalist iconography, as an emphatically desexualised one.
“Wome
n became as sexually intangible as the ideal of national independence becamepolitically intangible. Both entered the unreality of myth
.”
10
 
5
Quoted in Susan Cannon Harris,
Synge and Gender
,”
 
in
The Cambridge Companion to J.M. Synge
, ed., P.J.Matthews (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.)p.106.
6
Ibid.
7
J.M.Synge,
The Playboy of the Western World 
in
Synge, The Complete Plays
(London: Methuen PublishingLtd.,1963). p.226.
8
George Bernard Shaw,
The Matter with Ireland 
, ed. David H. Greene and Dan H. Laurence (London: Hart-Davis, 1962).p.84.
9
Richard Kearney,
Myth and Motherland 
, (Derry: Field Day Theatre Company Ltd., 1984) p.20.
10
Ibid.
 
3
In a telling letter to his friend Stephen McKenna, Synge wrote
On the French stage, the sex-element of life is given without the other balancing elements; onthe Irish stage...people...want the other elements without sex. I restored the sex element to itsnatural place, and the people were so surprised they saw the sex only
.”
11
 
Synge‟s „female women‟
12
, a distinction he makes which suggests the disparity between hisreal live bodied and blooded women and the mythical women propagated by thecontemporary fantasist Celtic revivalists, expressed their sexual desires to the outrage anddismay of the predominantly middle-class Catholic Nationalist audiences. His women areneither icons of virtuous maidenhood nor are they mythological mother-Ireland figurescalling their sons to patriotic sacrifice. They live, under distinct colonial and patriarchal rule,lives of emotional barrenness and their repressed sexuality finds its outlet in a voraciousappetite for violence, hence the ready acceptance of the criminal into their community.Christy as hyper-masculine hero is a fictional creation of Pegeen
s, as Declan Kiberd writeshe is a
„f 
etishized sex-
object of her starved imagination.‟
13
The mayo women of 
Playboy
arehungry for adventure, for romance, for a virile man to enter their sphere of drudgery; stuck asthey are in the colonial torpor between brutal facts and unreal dreams. As Patrick Kavanagh
would write decades later „for the strangled impulse there is no redemption.‟
14
The women
intuitively know this and are immediately aroused by Christy‟s seeming heroic manline
ss; theferocity of his savage crime awakens the primal instincts and urges of the isolated women. Asthe realist Widow Quin admits
„There‟s great temptation in a man did slay his da.‟
15
Neitherare the women subservient to the dogma of Catholicism. Pegeen
claims she wouldn‟t wed thetimid and cowardly Shawn now that she has experienced the company of a real man, even „if a bishop came walking for to join us here.‟
16
Likewise the girls in the village are embarrassed
and regretful of their wasteful lives with „
nothing worthwhile
to confess at all‟
17
to the priest.Even as Synge celebrates the strong character of the wilful Pegeen, he is careful not to
idealise. With increasingly florid language, Christly proclaims to have seen the „star of knowledge shining from her brow‟ when the Widow Quin
undercuts his soaring romanticismand idealisation of the woman with her cutting candour :
 
“There‟s poetry talk for a girl you‟d see
itching and scratching and she with a stale stink of 
 poteen on her from selling in the shop.”
18
 
11
J.M. Synge,
The Collected Letters of John Millington Synge
, ed. Ann Saddlemyer,2 vols. (Oxford: ClarendonPress, 1983-4.) p.74.
12
J.M.Synge,
The Playboy of the Western World 
in
Synge, The Complete Plays
(London: Methuen PublishingLtd.,1963). p.206.
13
 
Declan Kiberd,
 Inventing Ireland 
(London: Vintage Books,1996)p.
176.
 
14
Patrick Kavanagh,
The Great Hunger 
, accessed at January 16, 2011.http://www.irishcultureandcustoms.com/poetry/PatKavanagh1.html
15
J.M.Synge,
The Playboy of the Western World 
in
Synge, The Complete Plays
(London: Methuen PublishingLtd.,1963). p. 191.
16
Ibid., p.192.
17
Ibid., p.194.
18
J.M.Synge,
The Playboy of the Western World 
in
Synge, The Complete Plays
(London: Methuen PublishingLtd.,1963). p.208.

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