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Backstage at the Irish Renaissance: The Contrast Between Yeats and Synge

PATRICK BRENDAN POINTS It is no longer strange for us to consider Ireland a source of great literary talent; the superabundance of Irish literature in this century has found an admiring audience in every part of the world. The incredible success of such luminaries as Joyce, Beckett, O'Casey, and Yeats tends to obscure the fact that until the turn of this century Ireland had nothing resembling a literary tradition. It did, however, possess a remarkable heritage-the Celtic mythos. To a great extent, we can attribute the emergence of Ireland as a literary power to the revival of interest in these myths brought about by William Butler Yeats, Lady Augusta Gregory, AE, and a somewhat reluctant John Millington Synge. In particular, it was the dynamic relationship between Synge and Yeats - the two most prominent writers of the early Irish Renaissance-which provoked an ongoing exploration of what it means to be an Irish writer; we find in the works and beliefs of these two men the ideas which would give form to a national literature. Yeats's goals in this venture find their most efficient and eloquent expression in his proposal for the founding of an Irish National Theatre: We propose to have performed in Dublin in the spring of every year certain Celtic and Irish plays, which whatever be their degree of excellence will be written with a high ambition, and so to build up a Celtic and Irish school of dramatic literature. We hope to find in Ireland an uncorrupted and imaginative audience trained to listen by its passion for oratory, and believe that our desire to bring upon the stage the deeper thoughts and emotions of Ireland will insure for us a tolerant welcome, and that freedom to experiment which is not found in the theatres of England, and without which no new movement in art or literature can succeed. We will show that Ireland is not the home of buffoonery and o£ easy sentiment, as it has been represented, but the home of an ancient idealism. We are confident of the support of all Irish people, who are weary of misrepresentation, in carrying out a work that is outside all the political questions that divide us. (Marcus 278) Yeats’ proposition is no mere call for the production of new works; new works in themselves are not enough. Yeats is beckoning for a new species of literature and a new audience to receive that literature; his hope is to dispel any aura of inferiority in the Irish mind. To understand specifically what Yeats is demanding we need only to consider a few of his central propositions. Immediately we take notice of his insistence that plays be "Celtic and Irish ... [and] written with a high ambition." At first one might suppose Yeats means only a revival of the old Irish myths for stage presentation; this response is at once both correct and short-sighted. Indeed, Yeats did aspire to revive an interest in the Celtic myths, but mere retelling would result in creative stagnation and repetition. What Yeats wants, what he means by "high ambition," is a dramatic literature which at once turns towards the past for inspiration ("ancient idealism") and displays innovation by endowing those stories with relevance to modem concerns. Such high aspirations are necessarily difficult to realize, and Yeats wisely notes that success depends as much on the audience as it does on the works being produced. Yeats's rhetoric seeks an "uncorrupted," "imaginative," and "tolerant" audience because without these characteristics, the plays would certainly fail. "The freedom to experiment" is absolutely necessary for the difficult task of creating a body of uniquely Irish literature, not only because Ireland had "no viable dramatic tradition" but most importantly because these experimental plays were to be unlike anything found in English theatres (Marcus 278). For their tolerance, audiences would be rewarded with the representation of "an ancient idealism"; no longer would they have to writhe in their seats at portrayals of buffoonish and sentimental Irishmen. We finally see Yeats's proposal as a means of uniting a politically and religiously divided Ireland. The success of the theatre project depends on a cooperative effort between artists and audiences. Yeats is attempting to unite Ireland under the one thing all of its people share-the Celtic inheritance, the "ancient idealism" of what was once one of the most powerful and influential cultures in the western world. Now we can understand Yeats's concluding remark; a national literature need not be a nationalistic literature. Although many of the plays would address political and religious themes, their true aim would be to educate the Irish people about themselves and their glorious past.


It is certainly true that Synge set his face against myth. The contrasts between Yeats and Synge are fascinating when one considers that they were both working towards the same goal-capturing the richness of Irish culture on an Irish stage. did not adhere to Yeats's other ideals. as I see them. let us focus on the special role of Celtic mythology in their work. but rather than glorifying unrealistic. but his use of mythology and universal characters does not contradict his earlier statements about Cuchulamoid plays. that Synge will portray. attacks any misconceptions of Synge's statement: This declaration has been interpreted to signify that Synge "resolutely set his face against the use of myth in his plays" and that "he was certainly too little interested in it to write his greatest work as parody. however. for example. while they largely agreed about the value of and need for a national literature. Plays. Synge did not claim to be interested in his audiences' opinions (he "did not care a rap" about the response to The Playboy of the Western World [Bowen 69]). Yeats. but it is not true that he was little interested in it. irrelevant myths. Synge was a scholar of both the Irish language and the old Celtic myths. had similar ambitions for Irish literature and was a close companion of Yeats. argued that Irish themes expressed in an Irish dialect of English would distinguish these new works from everything else written in English... rarely spring-dayish or breezy or Cuchulainoid." This is a myopically literal interpretation of the letter . Synge is so clear in his intentions that little expounding is required. the messages Yeats and Synge were sending through these plays reflect how very differently they perceived Ireland's people and Ireland's past.. but in representing everyday life through speech "as fully flavoured as a nut or apple" (Synge's Preface to Playboy). one of Synge's foremost critics. It is all the more ironic. With the problematic exception of Deirdre of the Sorrows. Two Faces of Cuchulain Recall that Synge expresses a great distaste for the sort of "Cuchulainoid" plays being written by Yeats and AE. In particular. agreed that the Celtic myths were excellent sources for new literature. let us now go beyond simple ideology and rhetoric to the plays themselves to see how these most Irish of playwrights applied their own beliefs. those same works written in English would spread Ireland's greatness across the globe. but they also wanted to revive the dying Irish language as the only acceptable tongue for Irish writers. the simple nobility of the Irish peasantry. Synge has every intention to be an Irish writer. but what is fascinating about the Celtic Revival is that much of the opposition to Yeats's ideas stemmed from groups (even other playwrights) who were sympathetic to Yeats's cause. his rejection of mythological subjects ridicules Yeats and his followers: I do not believe in the possibility of purely fantastic unmodern ideal breezy spring-dayish Cuchulainoid National Theatre. which some of Yeats's plays tend to be). We had the `Shadowy Waters' [by Yeats] on the stage last week and it was the most distressing failure one can imagine. For the moment we must take into consideration not what Synge was rejecting. I. Declan Kiberd. Although Synge's statements attack the notion of purely mythological drama. and novels written in Irish would have a very limited audience. he chooses "the living world for text" (Kenner 113). but what he regarded to be proper dramatic material. yet he did not consider either of them to be appropriate for the stage (at least not as mere retellings of the myths. that Synge. Here we must qualify some earlier remarks about Synge.. Such proposals are bound to attract criticism. With these ideas in mind. So obsessed was he [2] . they do not restrict Synge from incorporating mythological elements in his own plays. (Dasenbrock 136) We can glean from this brief outburst as much about Synge as we did from Yeats's proposal. As we shall see. His plays are neither fantastic nor spring-dayish.. more importantly. whose skill at capturing the Irish dialect in written English is perhaps unequalled.Yeats's manifesto is not only confident and ambitious. who did not have any Irish. Synge's plays are all set in an uncertain time ("neither modem nor unmodern" ) with characters drawn from Irish peasant life. moreover. It is the honest humanity. poems. English is a world language. John Millington Synge. The greatest difference between these prominent figures is to be found in their attitudes towards the mythological inheritance. to some extent Synge does write mythological plays. but also highly idealistic. are neither modem nor unmodern and. In fact. a fellow playwright. The Gaelic League. No drama can grow out of anything other than the fundamental realities of life which are never fantastic.

The similarity to a story from Lady Gregory's Cuchulain of Muirthernne is unmistakable: the people were so frightened of Cuchulain's battle madness that they "sent out three fifties of the women . hanging as a scarecrow for the fowls of hell. he says that he could not be calmed "even if [the Widow Quin] brought [him] a drift of chosen females. is indeed the home of "buffoonery and easy sentiment. If I do lay my hands on you. Christy's parricide is an act of heroism to them.. Philly. PEGEEN (blowing the fire with a bellows). . the head of poets ("a fiddle played by the poets the years gone by" [Synge 63]). . a theory whose force is difficult to ignore. I'm afeard of him. standing in their shifts itself . When the boy saw them coning there was shame on him. and the wildness went out of him" (Lady Gregory 33). Be wary. The three prizes Christy wins. young fellow. Keep a good hold. Contrast Christy's behavior (and remember that he is bound with ropes) with Shawn's: SHAWN (in terror). you'll have a gallous jaunt I'm saying. the challenge to "slit the windpipe of a screeching sow. and scorch his leg." and Sara Tansey's trip to see "the man bit the yellow lady's nostril" (Synge 17. Cuchulain wins the Championship of Ulster in a borrowed suit of armor. The Playboy of the Western World is a castigating response to the mythological glamorization in which Yeats was engaged." In a very complicated series of allusions to Cuchulain. evoke the three titles bestowed on Cuchulain at the Championship of Ulster-the head of warriors (symbolized by the blackthorn). Leave go now. and a bagpipes. The simple country-folk in The Playboy are enthralled by the lowest acts of violence. The Playboy is also an open critique of the Irish people who responded myopically to this hero-worship. yet when they are confronted with real violence. will you. How else should we view their abuse of Christy even after they have him tied up? SHAWN. that he sought to expose it fully in The Playboy. Ah. for the love of God. it's the way you'll be at the fall of night. Kiberd's comparison is firmly established. or I'll scorch your shins. Synge simultaneously criticizes Yeats's idealism and the shallowness of the Irish people and presents Christy (who can represent Cuchulain) as the most admirable character in the play. (Synge 78) Synge's play depicts an Ireland that. Kiberd contends that The Playboy of the Western World is (among other things) a parody of Cuchulain's heroics. The obscurity of the mythological references in The Playboy requires a justification of Kiberd's claim. CHRISTY (almost gaily). Christy's characterization is perceived as an antagonistic response to Yeats's romanticism. contrary to Yeats's idealism. (Kiberd 111) Kiberd's grace and mental agility belies what is an extremely taxing undertaking. . Kiberd begins his list with a parallel that those with some historical knowledge of The Playboy should find familiar? As Christy recovers from the rage which drove him to "kill" his father a second time. Kiberd's knowledge of the Cuchulain myth establishes the existence of 2 several convincing parallels between Christy and Cuchulain. (Synge 78) [3] .. A similar parallel presents itself in Christy's borrowing a suit to participate in the local games. He distinguishes himself from the villagers in two important ways-through his bravery in a life-threatening situation and in his ultimate recognition of his true self. they turn on Christy like animals. it also reveals the "portentous bearing and blind violence of the ancient protagonists" (Kiberd 109). coaching out through Limbo with my father's ghost. recognizing the mythological allusions in The Playboy requires perspicacity.33). As Kiberd is clearly suggesting." (Synge 75). . the violent sports in The Playboy include Jimmy Farrell hanging his dog. as the evocation of the Celtic ideal embodied in Christy reveals the meanness of the peasants (and by extension the peasants in Synge's own time). (To Pegeen) Lift a lighted sod. a fiddle.with heroic myth and with the lies which it seemed to foster among his fellow-dramatists. Kiberd's analysis has interpretive value which leads in two directions. Christy Mahon is an incarnation of Cuchhulain. Although other lesser parallels may be drawn. but he is also an inversion. For I'm thinking he would liefest wreak his pains on me. Kiberd is the first to advance this theory about The Playboy. and the head of musicians (the bagpipes). a blackthorn. red-naked to meet him.

" as Barton Friedman argues. "to recognize in the mythic giants they shadow an age vastly superior to our own" (Friedman 23). The story of their lowly existence scavenging for food in Cuchulain's house frames the story of Conchubar's attempts to get Cuchulain to enter into a similar arrangement: CONCHUBAR. (Synge 80) It is important that Christy is not without virtues. whether Christy Mahon or Cuchulain. The relationship between both pairs is symbiotic. As with The Playboy of the Western World. I'll be growing fine from this day. for Pegeen. "forcing us. If Synge's allusions are meant to provoke a comparison between Christy and Cuchulain. whose feats inbattle are now perceived as mindlessly violent and bloodthirsty. Blindness is the genesis of the tragedy. but his human foibles prevent him from attaining the awe due a truly heroic figure. he is act as mediators between the audience and the meaning of the play. [4] . the way I'll go romancing through a romping lifetime from this hour to the dawning of the judgement day. Perceiving this parallel is the key to a complete understanding of the play. This criticism is obviously aimed at writers such as Yeats who (as we shall see) hold an irrationally idealistic view of the myths and their value. Up until now. Didn't I know rightly I was handsome . who realizes her folly too late): CHRISTY (with mirror). On Baile's Strand. his cowering at the sight of his returning father ("Where'll I hide my poor body from that ghost of hell?" [Synge 47]). Christy has flaws. (Synge 31) CHRISTY Ten thousand blessings on all that's here. when Christy's preening in front of Pegeen's mirror is compared to the self-knowledge he displays at the play's close. his timidity around women ("If he'd seen a red petticoat coming swinging over the hill. Synge challenges our perception of Cuchulain and heroes in general. but it does not make him a great man. consider. they must be if we are to learn from them. for example. has blindness as one of its central themes. nor does it glorify "godlike" Cuchulain. Synge colors our view of Cuchulain through Christy Mahon. as the great warrior-poet of Ulster. The comparison raises Christy above the other characters in the play. The effect is interactive. where Yeats portrays Cuchulain as the ideal spirit of heroic Ireland. Synge's lesson is that blind devotion to an ideal can only lead to destruction. Yeats even introduces two new characters-the Blind Man and the Fool. it is not to the glorification of either character. Synge was consumed with interest for these myths. It is a central part of Friedman's argument that the Blind Man and Fool enjoy a relationship which both imitates and parodies the one between Conchubar and Cuchulain. "there's a great gap between a gallous story and a dirty deed" can be applied to Cuchulain as easily as Christy-both have their strengths and weaknesses. for the first play of Yeats's Cuchulain cycle. the way I'll have soft lovely skin on me and won't be the like of the clumsy young fellows do be ploughing all times in the earth and dung. Synge clearly did not mean to suggest that Christy possesses all of the excellences of a Cuchulain. and you'd see his sheep's eyes between the little twigs" [Synge 49]). the conclusions drawn from the comparison between Christy and Cuchulain have mocked the notion of the flawless hero. he'd be off to hide in the sticks. As Kiberd elaborates'. we have a much higher opinion of him than we do of the townspeople. this is also his strongest criticism of Yeats's approach to mythology.. Will you be bound into obedience And so make this land safe for them and theirs? You are but half a king and I but half.In a similar manner. What distinguishes Yeats from Synge is a matter of creative and intellectual restraint. perhaps. perceiving blindness does not necessarily enable one to evade its consequences. each of the central characters in On Baile's Strand is blind after a fashion. are ultimately human. however. Pegeen's comment. Numerous examples attest to this observation. as Christy Mahon does in Playboy. the Blind Man relies on the Fool to do physical work for him while the Fool would never be able to get food for the two of them without the Blind Man's wisdom. What Synge has emphasized is that heroes. for Yeats's characters. his complete failure to kill his father in two attempts. The Playboy of the Western World ends happily for Christy because he is able to separate himself from the hero-worshipping blindness of the crowd and accept his own strengths and weaknesses. his vanity with the mirror in the shebeen. The contrast shows a maturation on Christy's part that we never see in any of the townspeople (except. for you've turned me into a likely gaffer in the end of all. That Synge should criticize blindness is highly ironic. Christy is superior to the townspeople in many ways. but this does not make him an ideal character.. and his allowing himself to be clothed in a dress to escape his father.

but you would not stay there. Hunting or dancing with your wild companions. Indeed. and amenable to moral compromise" (Friedman 28). in which the relationship between the audience and hero. The Fool and the Blind Man are foils to Conchubar and Cuchulain. Only Cuchulain finds a worthy friend in the Young Man whom Conchubar perceives as a threat to his kingdom and his power over Cuchulain. Alex Zwerdling has an even stronger assertion: Yeats was too interested in emphasizing the distinction between his heroic mortals and the common run of humanity to risk going too far in the direction of the merely human. The parallels between Cuchulain's relationship with Conchubar and the Fool's relationship with the Blind Man may finally be explained. and I take your strength" (Yeats 32). Think of the care I have taken of you. you were always wandering about. That so great a man should be deceived into killing his own son arouses sympathy. only the Blind Man recognizes the opportunity to steal food from the unguarded ovens. until Cuchulain races into the ocean to fight the invincible tide. acquisitive. Like Cuchulain. On Baile's Strand would not reach its tragic ending. (Zwerdling 49) The revelation of Cuchulain's greatness is also necessary if any sense is finally to be made of the play as a whole. His hopeless struggle enables us to take seriously the awe and fear felt by Conchubar and the other kings in the beginning of the play and their desire for his obedience. as these flames are one: I give my wisdom. Their own interests blind both Cuchulain and the Fool to the fact that they are being used. And you my wisdom. other similarities are quick to present themselves. his plays do not create a situation in which the audience identifies with the hero. we would be inclined to compare him to the Cuchulam parodied by Christy Mahon. (Yeats 25) The Fool. Conchubar blames Cuchulain for the Young Man's safe landing on the shore: He came to land While you were out of sight and hearing. (Yeats 39) These relationships are more than master and servant. I have brought you to many a warm hearth. Conchubarsees as a tool for enforcing agreements. Friedman suggests that "take" could mean "drain" as well as "gain" (Friedman 29). the Fool is absorbed with Cuchulain fighting the waves. as Conchubar has defined it. Conchubar uses Cuchulain to fight the Young Man because he feels threatened. Conchubar. Cuchulain misses the subtleties of Conchubar's "We are one being.I need your might of hand and burning heart. where there was good welcome for you. More specifically. Conchubar and the Blind Man share aims that are "pragmatic. becomes one of awe rather than sympathy. are more interested in freedom and expression. the honor which Cuchulain values. like Cuchulain. The reason Cuchulain and the Fool are so easily manipulated is because they are blind to their masters' motives. good Fool! listen to me. (Yeats 29) This bond. Cuchulain and the Fool. casts Cuchulain in the part of the Fool. It is also curious that the Blind Man and Conchubar express a similar complaint about their servants. From this. the pettiness of their arguments about [5] . the Fool is not preoccupied by material gain. At the close of the play. The Blind Man gets the Fool to steal food. tricks Cuchulain into fighting the mysterious Young Man whose proclaimed mission is to kill Cuchulain. making Conchubar the Blind Man. Were it not for Cuchulain's ability to be manipulated. if it is to be successfully established at all. despite the fact that it forces Cuchulain to break his oath of friendship. but more importantly it arouses awe. both Conchubar and the Blind Man use their positions to manipulate their servants. The Fool could as easily be speaking for Cuchulam: "You take care of me? You stay safe and send me into every kind of danger" (Yeats 39). but one in which he is to be regarded with admiration. as the above quotations show. This act born out of inhuman rage and anguish places Yeats's Cuchulain above normal humans and the rest o£ the characters in the play. claiming that Cuchulain is bewitched. This is where the parallels between Cuchulam and the Fool end. needs the Blind Man because he is prone to wandering when he shouldn't: BLIND MAN. Additionally. As a result. pragmatism and acquisitiveness are foreign to them. O. the realization that he has been tricked into killing his own son (the true identity of the Young Man) frees Cuchulain from the blindness which has plagued him and kept him from displaying his greatness.

but also our understanding of Synge's rejection of those standards sought by Yeats. the Cuchulain of On Baile's Strand represents a lost or dying idealism which is an essential part of Ireland's when perceived as nothing more than a retelling of the myth. Ironically. we perceived a critique which did not differentiate between modern man and the Celtic hero. We are presented with a unique and auspicious opportunity to contrast the two writers and their approaches to the same story. (Friedman 23) In Synge's Playboy of the Western World. the peasant dialect Deirdre speaks is the only one appropriate to her upbringing in the [6] . Synge was dying of Hodgkin’s disease. even in the face of the awesome tragedy unfolding before them and narrated to him by the Fool. who knew Synge so well. however. in fact. On Baile’s Strand and The Playboy of the Western World do not share much beyond the examination of Cuchulain's heroism. Curiously. II. A common response to these questions claims that Deirdre is nothing but an inconsistency (an unsuccessful one at that) that is impossible to reconcile with Synge's earlier plays and beliefs. Friedman continues: The Blind Man's absorption in the benefits to be reaped from untended ovens. At this same time he had become secretly engaged to actress Molly Allgood. Synge's last (and uncompleted) play. Before defending Deirdre of the Sorrows in terms of Synge's own principles. and their conclusions about him are incompatible. This would be a rash conclusion. that Deirdre is a radical departure from Synge's earlier works and that it fails because "the play remains narrative rather than drama for much of its length" (Dasenbrock 137). it fails. Deirdre of the Sorrows. This line of argument is interesting enough and may even have some validity. Yeats can be counted among those who see Deirdre as a failure. Synge has also been criticized rather severely for employing in Deirdre the same peasant dialect he uses in his other plays. How can we explain Synge's decision to write an overtly mythological play? Perhaps even more puzzling is his choice to write a play about Deirdre. Distinguished Synge scholar Robin Skelton has argued along the same lines as Yeats. my emphasis). The impending death after brief happiness which gives form to the Deirdre story Yeats perceives as a parallel to the crisis Synge faced in his own life. several useful and convincing explanations have been presented to explain this drastic shift in Synge's subject matter. some of Yeats's doubts about this play -"Would it seem mere disjointed monotony? Would the second act be intelligible?" (Dasenbrock 137) . is very difficult to integrate with the rest of his works. Several other compelling arguments concluding that Deirdre is a failure have been brought forward. however. completely ignores the structure of Synge's play. in doing so we are led to a very promising observation-both wrote plays about the tragedy of Deirdre and Naisi.are more suited to some of Yeats's later plays. Such a criticism. Dei r dr e: Tw o Tr a g edi es The two "Cuchulainoid" plays that we have examined are not enough to illustrate the differences between Yeats and Synge. Cuchulain (embodied by Christy) is only a man. Recall Friedman's assertion that the Fool and the Blind Man "[force] us to recognize in the mythic giants they shadow an age vastly superior to our own" (Friedman 23. however. We must look later in their careers to furnish ourselves with a more complete contrast between Yeats and Synge. Yeats. The answer to this question will greatly affect not only our interpretation of the play. to address the possibility of incorporating Deirdre with the remainder of Synge's plays. At the writing of Deirdre of the Sorrows. bespeaks the moral and imaginative bankruptcy for Yeats they were one and the same thingafflicting modern man. Sean O' Tuama speaks for this view: "the language is completely inadequate tonally to create a milieu in which kings and princes can operate" (Dasenbrock 137). We have seen that The Playboy does not deviate from the beliefs he expressed about Irish theatre. For any critical study of Synge to be thorough. a story both Yeats and George Russell (AE) had already presented on stage to no great success. offers a biographical explanation of Deirdre. it will be helpful to see why so many regard it as a failure for Synge. it must in some way attempt to assimilate Deirdre of the Sorrows into the remainder of Synge's canon. their thievery and constant bickering-these things underscore the seriousness of the power struggle between Cuchulam and Conchubar. As we would expect from Yeats's proposal for the founding of an Irish National Theatre.

a short space only. Hugh Kenner's brilliant treatment of Synge in A Colder Eye also casts a glance or two towards the problems presented by Deirdre of the Sorrows. This enables Gerstenberger and others like her to find a respectable place for Deirdre in Synge's canon.. suggests that whatever Synge's own intentions were. (Kenner 120) Alan Price has formed a criticism which both reflects and expands Kenner's view. Synge's play "is all the time true to the way trapped and terrified people would act under intolerable strains. It also seems unfair to regard Deirdre of the Sorrows as an artistic failure just because it enjoys very little commercial success. Synge's play does not present Deirdre as a passive victim of fate (as some original texts do).wilderness-courtly speech and mannerisms would be out of place. Synge has not only adhered to his original opinions on Irish drama. Kiberd begins his defense of Deirdre of the Sorrows by reminding us of the special problem Synge faced in writing it-not that it would be perceived as a contradiction of his earlier views. Synge's Deirdre has its proponents as well as its detractors. His exhaustive scholarly argument' proves conclusively that Synge was not merely retelling the old myths. It's for that there's nothing lonesome like a love is watching out the time most lovers do be sleeping.. As with all criticisms. He agrees with Kenner on the pattern found in all of Synge's works and then goes on to add that Synge's work also avoids the shortcomings of other retellings of the story. In typical fashion. is that the human element is crucial.." and his emphasis on the real tragedy of Deirdre and Naisi-the death of their love-is far more compelling than Yeats's emphasis on their bravery in the face of physical death (Kiberd 177). then. Yeats worked from translations. then. and these are the people who provide the most insight into Synge's accomplishments with this play. but making significant innovations in both plot and character. Donna Gerstenberger contends that the focus of Synge's drama is to develop all of the human aspects of each character.. a story of setting out and then dying. in which those who have set forth have chosen better than those who choose to stay. Kiberd also emphasizes the importance of Synge's knowledge of the Irish language and the original myths. but only in Price do we find the seeds of an answer to those questions raised at the beginning of this discussion. For example. It's for that we're setting out for Emain Macha when the tide turns on the sand. to emphasize human growth and experience. Yeats undermines the tragic effect of the story by continuously emphasizing the courage Deirdre and Naisi display when confronting death. but there is no way to keep life. [Synge] saw the plot as a crisis in human relations" leads us to conclude that Synge was indeed presenting the story in an untried manner (Kiberd 177). Deirdre of the Sorrows is a direct response to the mythological plays written by Yeats and AE. Only in Synge's play does Deirdre make the decision to face death so that their love may remain perfect: There are as many ways to wither love as there are stars in a night of Samhain. those questions which seek to direct us towards a full understanding of Synge's relationship to the old Irish myths. The common thread of these analyses is that they all see Deirdre of the Sorrows as a continued exploration of the themes and values embodied in Synge's other plays. The first thing Synge's work teaches about mythological plays. (Synge 244) The tragedy of Synge's telling of Deirdre is not that the lovers died. that not only is Deirdre of the Sorrows consistent with Synge's beliefs. but in doing so he 5 has also written a play which makes radical innovations in the treatment of mythological subjects.. Kenner's compelling response to this critical problem is both simple and elegant: Synge. that the audience must be able to empathize with the characters on stage. but also serves as a guide to those who choose to write mythological plays. but that the story had already been done by Yeats and Russell. The truth of his statement should be obvious to anyone who is reasonably familiar with the plays. Kiberd's observation that "where Yeats had seen the play as an elegiac essay on fame and Russell had filled his with nature-mysticism. those presented above have their relative strengths and weaknesses (for example. but that their plan to preserve their perfect love fails: [7] . Yeats has them playing a casual game of chess as though their imminent deaths do not disturb them.. Numerous others have noted this failure. Synge and the Irish Language. Declan Kiberd's exhaustive study of Synge's use of original sources and peasant dialects. In his opinion. or love with it. but makes her decisiveness a prominent feature of her character. handled but the one story six times. it may be. it is debatable as to whether Kenner is right in asserting that Deirdre and Naisi have really chosen well).

(Synge 258-259) Kiberd refers to these passages as "Synge's brilliant innovation" (Kiberd 187). What Synge gives two acts. The King was old. in the laughing scorn of his youth. or anything at all Of who she was or why she was hidden there. (Years 48) Fergus's faith in Conchubar's promise is met over and over by the first musician's prophetic refrain "Yet old men are jealous" (Years 49). Or of the Gods. it must also be stressed that our understanding of both playwrights is only deepened through knowledge of the other. Taking after the Greek tragedians. To elaborate. It has already been stressed that Yeats's methods are not like Synge's. 'Tis you that put that meaning upon words Spoken at random. remember. Go to your brothers. Yeats. Carried her off. hoped to portray the "ancient idealism" of Ireland. Yeats's musicians perform the functions of a chorus and seer-foreshadowing. NAISI (looking at her aghast). several settings. But that she'd too much beauty for good luck. And there a child with an old witch to nurse her. the son of Usna. (Yeats 56) [8] . Yeats accomplishes in sixteen lines: FIRST MUSICIAN. breezy. Synge treats the myth as though it were still alive and growing. concerns only the imminent deaths of Deirdre and Naoise. Ah! Now I catch your meaning. and he lost peace. Unlike Synge's Deirdre of the Sorrows which has a subplot. but the hardness of death has come between us. And nobody to say if she were human. Some dozen years Ago. making commentaries on the action. breezy. A month or so before the marriage-day. Naoise. the musicians make references to other lovers thwarted by jealousy (Lughaidh Redstripe and his love died in the same guesthouse) and suggest to Deirdre that she will meet the same fate: DEIRDRE. but also the manner in which Deirdre and Naoise are characterized. For seven years you have been kindly. Yeats's Deirdre rigidly adheres to the three unities: the plot unfolds over one night and the action. Similarly. been wooed. supplying background information. we should see that Synge's version of the Deirdre story is consistent with his earlier remarks about mythological plays: even from the brief passages quoted above it is obvious that Synge's play is neither ideal. nor spring-dayish. that this king Will murder Naoise. climbed up there. FIRST MUSICIAN. And Deirdre's tale began. or. He went up thither daily. till at last She put on womanhood. Yeats has not strayed from his original theories. And having wooed. and spans seven years in the life of Deirdre and Naisi. his emphasis on the humanity of the tragic lovers gives his retelling a universal quality.DEIRDRE. And you'll have me meet death with a hard word from your lips in my ear? DEIRDRE. We've had a dream. nor spring-dayish (possibly to Synge's chagrin). King Conchubar found A house upon a hillside in this wood. Most striking about Yeats's version of Deirdre is that he has modeled it after Greek tragedy-presumably to associate the Celtic myths with the revered Greek tradition. which takes place entirely within Conchubar's guest house. but this night has waked us surely. as some say. Most importantly. and keep me alive. this desire certainly influenced not only the form Deirdre takes. yet Yeats's version of the story is radically different from Synge's. A young man. It may also be said of Yeats's Deirdre that it is neither ideal.

past wrong forgotten. Deirdre conquers her fear by evoking her first night with Naoise: "Do you remember that first night in the woods. faltering not even when confronted with death. the protagonists are [9] . but a virtue. but she is driven entirely by her love for Naoise.This deliberate ambiguity on the musician's part prevents Deirdre and Naoise from realizing that they have been deceived until it is much too late. The characters do not undergo any fundamental changes in moral being-they are merely perfected and pay the price of their finishing. Their love has remained ideal for the duration of the play. Had they not bred you in that mountainous place. and these are not the chief tragic characters. and how does it affect the tragic outcome of the play? Presumably. That when we give a word and take a word Sorrow is put away. were I given life at such a price. where the action for each of the characters is to discover the tragedy of trust. this omission has a profound effect on Yeats's characterization of Deirdre and Naoise. Trust is not a vice. Deirdre finds in love. In committing suicide to escape Conchubar." does Naoise realize that he is the victim of treachery. Because no man and woman have loved better. one element.' Because it would be a breach of faith against Conchubar. What courage Naoise finds in honor. The emphasis Yeats has placed on Naoise's honor and Deirdre's love results in an almost traditional tragic ending. Yeats even gives the play a tragic ending after the Greek tradition. Deirdre robs Conchubar of his victory by killing herself. should fall on me [Yeats 66]) and in a desperate attempt to save his life she even offers to go with Conchhubar. You would have known. Might sit on there contentedly. and weigh The joy comes after. hamartia. Love compels Deirdre to accept blame for Naoise's behavior ("all the blame . nor is Deirdre's love. David R. and not "the traitor that bore off the Queen. (Clark 103) Clark has asserted one thing of particular interest to our understanding of Deirdre and Naoise: they are "perfected. and even then he does nothing to curtail his death but opts instead to play chess (like Lughaidh Redstripe) until he must die: [To musicians] Had you been here when that man and his queen Played at so high a game... we should perceive Deirdre's perfection in her loving and Naoise's in his honor. could you have found An ancient poem for the praise of it? It should have been set out plainly that those two. if not entirely comprehensible. "Even this last hour" (Yeats 65)." How is this so. is curiously absent (unless it can be argued trust is a tragic flaw). after Naoise is murdered. only the optimism of Fergus and the pride of Conchubar are qualities capable of bringing about a Sophoclean tragic rhythm." Deirdre responds. Deirdre possesses similar heroic qualities. Deirdre defiantly underscores this fact.. Yeats's Deirdre presents the unwarranted death of the two lovers as the height of the tragedy. Despite the Greek structure Yeats has given to his play. The ancient idealism Yeats spoke of in his proposal for an Irish National Theatre finds an elegant expression in Deirdre. Naoise refuses to give Deirdre's doubts any heed: DEIRDRE. Clark has reached a similar conclusion: In Deirdre. (Yeats 62) Such unswerving courage in the face of death is admirable.. As the musician reminds us that "though you suffered all for mere love's sake/You'd live your lives again. (Yeats 57-58) Only when Conchubar summons Deirdre and Fergus. Playing at chess. unlike Synge's Deirdre of the Sorrows. Am I to see the fowler and the cage And speak no word at all? NAOISE. Naoise's honor is not a mistake./ We lay all night on leaves" (Yeats 63). / I would not cast it from me?" (Yeats 67). although it would mean leaving Naoise behind.. Naoise's response both affirms the fortitude of their love and condemns them both to death: "And do you think / That.

73. The way of knowing which the play underwrites is neither that of reason nor that of passion but that harmonious movement of the whole soul indicated in the perfect love of Deirdre and Naoise.noble and steadfast lovers for whom love is above all worldly concerns. in Yeats's play. 'in AJ. His Deirdre of the Sorrows has the bearing of a true tragedy. Sidnell and Diane E. p. Synge is his superior as a playwright. whose protagonists do not undergo any significant changes. but more important differences exist. Synge's characters are more fully developed and more human than Yeats's. it has already been established that these two works disagree on the true nature of the tragedy. but that the two are incompatible in life. That each pursued the project according to his original intentions should be clear as well. Endnotes 1 M . idealism has as a side-effect: the stubborn blindness that brings Deirdre and Naoise to their untimely deaths.g. an audience can (and should) feel sympathy for them. Concl usi ons The principal differences between Yeats and Synge in this undertaking of an Irish body of drama should be wellestablished by this point. although they display an almost inhuman courage in openly going to their deaths. Synge's mythologically inspired characters are essentially human. Synge's characters do not suffer from the perfection which affects Yeats's Deirdre and Naoise. Synge Literary Companion. but certainly it would experience pride in the Celtic inheritance. M. Perhaps this assertion is not so bold. The correspondences between particular events in Christy's and Cuchulain's stories were culled from a lecture given by Kiberd at Trinity College. David Clark does an excellent job of summarizing the lessons of the play: The play says that honorable purpose and passionate love are both essential to an ideal relationship. Dublin. as Donna Gerstenberger has written. which allows him to develop his characters more fully than Yeats.M Synge Literary Companion for an excellent summary of the positions outlined above. a modern Irish audience might not be able to sympathize with Yeats's Cuchulairt or Yeats's Deirdre. who cannot sympathize with Deirdre's loss? Yeats tells a good story. the imperfections which result in a tragic loss of love are much easier to understand than perfections which bring about death. Synge's characters have foresight enough to realize that they must go to meet their deaths. 4 5 See Dasenbrock's essay. [10] . See Chapters 4 and 7 of Synge and the Irish Language. particularly a beheading story from the Cuchulain cycle.J. (Clark 112) The contrast to Synge's Deirdre of the Sorrows is inevitable. and for that it is a far more effective tragedy than Yeats's Deirdre. a world of uncommon nobility and courage. Deirdre is such a play. we have already seen that Synge has the greater gift for endowing his characters with humanity. III. he nevertheless impresses on us the greatness of the old characters. Synge develops his plot gradually. Bessai also see mythic sources for The Playboy. The hero and the heroine achieve this ideal relationship only in death. is more human. in August of 1990. p. 2 Kiberd's book Synge and the Irish Language emphasizes many character similarities between Christy and Cuchulain (e. not given to buffoonery or easy sentiment. Synge's play. but his characters do not breathe the same air as us. 3 The famous "Playboy riots" began when the line about "women in their shifts" was first uttered on stage. with its distinctively Yeatsian versification and its emphasis on ritual. See Zack Bowen's essay on The Playboy in A J. History leads us to a stronger conclusion: although Yeats has earned international fame as one of the greatest (if not the greatest) poets of this century.139. they live at a higher altitude. Watching a Yeats play. can be like attending an unfamiliar religious ceremony. their battle rage and their fine speech). Although Yeats is more idealistic in his depiction of Celtic myth. His plays have an ancient quality-stemming perhaps from his imitation of Greek tragedy-that has been known to alienate audiences. These two differences have result in the most significant difference between Yeats and Synge in this matter. and they are able to see a benefit to this-their love will remain perfect.

B.6 Kiberd's outline of the various accounts of the Deirdre story which Synge would have known offers an unusual insight into the vast amount of knowledge Synge possessed about these myths.J. 7 Clark places a heavy stress on Deirdre's love and Naoise's honor in the first third of his essay. See chapter 7 in Synge and the Irish Language. edited by R. [11] . Yeats." See Critical Essays on W. "Deirdre: The Rigour of Logic. Finneran.

Totowa. Jr. Reed W "J. 1965. Clark. New York: Collier Books. 1970. Edward A. 1970. Phillip L. Westport.K. New York: Vintage Books. Ed. Gregory. 1964. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press. [12] .. Lady Augusta. Dasenbrock. Synge. Hall & Co. Yeats and the Beginning o f the Irish Renaissance. Edward A. Ed. 1988. A Colder Eye: The Modern Irish Writers. Synge. CT: Greenwood Press. Finneran. "Synge: The Playboy of the Western World” in AJ. Friedman. Ireland: Colin Smythe Limited. Princeton: Princeton University Press. A. Hugh. Yeats. Yeats and the Heroic Ideal. Adventures in the Deeps o f the Mind. Synge and the Irish Language. Kiberd. 1977. Synge Literary Companion. Kopper. William Butler. Westport. Zack R. Kopper. Jr. Cuchulain of Muirthemne. Zwerdling. The Complete Plays o f John M. Synge and Irish Mythology" in AJ. 1960. Alex.1979. Kenner. CT: Greenwood Press. New York: New York University Press.M. "Deirdre: The Rigour of Logic" in Critical Essays on W. 1986. Declan. Richard J. Boston: G. 1988.M. Eleven Plays of William Butler Yeats. B. Ed.M. NJ: Rowman and Littlefield. Synge Literary Companion. John M. David R. Marcus. Norman Jeffares. Yeats. Barton R. Vale. Ed. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 1983.Wor ks Ci te d Bowen.