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J.M. Synge’s highly controversial play The Playboy of the Western World exposed the middle-class Dublin audience to a different portrayal of Irish countryside life as opposed to the traditional idyllic image they were accustomed to. Synge strongly employs the element of satire in his play, implemented as a device to shock his conventional audience; the play’s lack of morals would have offended the audience, so satire is also used to inject humour, creating a light-hearted tragicomedy. In pages 59 – 62 the presence of satire can be analysed in terms of satirising gender, religion and the presentation of rural Ireland, in addition to how satire is present throughout the entire play.
Synge depicts Christy Mahon as a weak, frightened, young man at the beginning of the excerpt, whereas Pegeen is given a strong, almost masculine persona, protecting him from the Widow’s advances. When the Widow is introduced, the audience sees Christy “clinging to Pegeen” exclaiming “Oh Glory!” with Pegeen having to hurriedly give Christy his supper and usher him off to bed like a child. In this extract, the audience sees how Pegeen is given the ‘protector’ role, exhibiting maternal instincts. In 1907, the satirising of gender roles shown with Synge giving more status to women than men would amuse the audience, as it conflicts with the traditional Irish patriarchal society. Christy is painted as the classic ‘damsel-in-distress’, with Pegeen having to fight the Widow, angrily telling her that she will “not have him tormented, and he destroyed travelling since Tuesday was a week”. Again it is evident that Christy is shying away from his expected male role, leaving Pegeen to defend him, amusing the audience. When the Widow “pulls Christy up”, as “they’d best be going, young fellow; so rise up and come with me”, Pegeen retaliates by “seizing his arm”, insisting “he’ll not stir”. Christy has been compromised in terms of his masculinity; two women have physically placed their control over him, and Christy lacks the strength to disprove their control.
This scene would have been very comedic, as not only are Pegeen and the Widow effectively having a ‘brawl’, a male associated activity, but Christy is helpless in the middle, like a female. Traditionally, it would have been the men who ‘wooed’ the women, but Synge has ignored this, with Christy being rather violently ‘wooed’ by Pegeen and the Widow, eliciting laughter from the audience, who would find the explicit use of satire highly amusing. Synge is presenting Christy’s essential emasculation, shown by reversing traditional gender roles. Later on in the play a mule race takes place; as D. P. Moran observes, “the pursuit of physical-contact Gaelic games [was used as] an antidote to such emasculation”. Christy’s partaking in the race shows how he used this opportunity to reassert his gender after feeling emasculated by Pegeen and the Widow.
Throughout the excerpt from p.59-62, repeated references are made to religion, many in the form of Father Reilly, the local priest. Though he is not seen in the excerpt, his presence is acknowledged as he is partially why the Widow went to find Christy Mahon; when Pegeen asks her “What ails you, or what is it you’re wanting at this hour of the night?” the Widow replies that she was “after meeting Shawn Keogh and Father Reilly below, who told me of your curiosity man, and they fearing by this time he was roaring, romping on your hands with drink”. The audience would not be surprised by Father Reilly’s attitudes, as in the 1900s Ireland was a devoutly Catholic nation, as Jane Abbottsmith explains “The term ‘Irish Irelander’ originated to characterize the true Irishman: Catholic and with Irish ancestry, learned in Irish folklore and competent in the speaking and reading of the Gaelic language”. Abbottsmith continues to remark that it was the “Irish peasants, who were the traditionally pious, Catholic population that was well versed in Irish folklore”. Though the 1900s audience would have expected the priest’s intervention, a modern audience would find it comedic how Pegeen being alone with Christy has prompted such a flustered reaction, suggesting Synge’s attitudes were ahead of his time. Irish society was devoutly religious, so the audience would have been surprised at how Father Reilly is the only religious character. The other characters do not seem to incorporate religion in their personas, shocking the audience. However, the only other character to be religious would cause offence: the Widow Quin remarks to Christ “God save you mister!” which is highly ironic as her intentions for him are far from holy. Seeing such a scandalized, predatory character using the Lord’s name would have undoubtedly offended the audience. The power of the Catholic Church is a running theme throughout the play, as Synge would be aware that his audience would compare what they see onstage to the Church’s teachings. Therefore Synge has satirised religion to expose the absurdity of the extreme religious views in Ireland; a lack of religion in the other characters further show the audience how independent rural Ireland is from middle-class conventions.
The portrayal of life in the Irish countryside was undoubtedly one of the main sources of controversy in the play. The middle class audience would have had the conception of rural Ireland employing a quiet, idyllic life – however Synge’s play disproves this, county Mayo being the antithesis to their expectations. Christy is welcomed with open arms, despite the town knowing he murdered his father. As Adrian Fraser notes, “The Playboy could be read as exploring a converse proposition: a communal willingness to absorb (even glorify) those who break the ultimate taboo against patricide”. Christy’s glorification would greatly concern the audience, inducing outrage. By satirising countryside life, Synge was providing a social commentary on life in the isolated rural coast. However, Christy is later disgraced in the play, when the characters realise they have been deceived. When Pegeen tells of how the Widow supposedly murdered her husband, where she “hit himself with a worn pick, and the rusted poison did corrode his blood the way he never overed it, and died after. That was a sneaky kind of murder did win small glory with the boys itself” the audience would be shocked that such sin runs free in the countryside. As Fraser again writes, The Playboy of the Western World “is a social satire of rural life that is fantastic, grotesque, and profound”. At the play’s conclusion, when Christy leaves Pegeen for his adventures, the audience would find humour at the contrast between their futures: Christy is off to live a life of excitement, whilst Pegeen is doomed to a fate of marrying Shawn and a dull life in County Mayo. The difference in their fates reinforces the play’s status as a tragicomedy.
Synge uses the element of satire in his play to expose to the middle class Dublin audience what life was like for the people of the countryside; the play’s controversy stemmed from people disliking what they saw. By satirising gender roles, religion and the idyllic conception of Irish countryside life, Synge was effectively able to annul the pastoral sentiments felt towards them, illustrating to the middle class how independent rural Ireland was to the pretentious Dubliners. As Heidi Holder says “Synge makes it quite clear to his audiences that their beloved image of the Irish country folk was a mere construction – a construction eminently open to challenge, and it was precisely this dismantling of the distinctions between fiction and reality that was the source of Synge’s conflict with his audience”.
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