Those involved in the Irish Literary Revival, in particular, Lady Gregory, WB Yeats and JM Synge, wished to create a new literary Ireland. They wished to change how Irish people were perceived in writing, especially onstage. With Ireland having a very poetic tradition, the Revivalists felt that this “great moment” had passed. They chose drama as a means to dismantle the “Paddy” image. They were self-conscious as a movement, knowing that drama had the power to change things politically, or at least make people question the politics in action around them. Yeats especially was aware of this and wished to grab audiences “by the neck”.
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Many of the plays written during the Irish Literary Revival were openly representative of the ideals and ethos of the Revival, like Cathleen Ní Houlihan by WB Yeats. However, others, such as The Playboy of the Western World by JM Synge, were more subtle, but ultimately went further than any in expressing the transformative nature of the Revival and the works created during this time. The riots following the first performance of The Playboy of the Western World showed how big an impact the play had on society. The fact that the play caused such controversy proved how it had opened the eyes of the theatre-goers and pushed boundaries in Irish drama.
JM Synge was born in Dublin in 1871. He studied music in Germany before travelling to Paris to write, where he was met by WB Yeats in 1899 who persuaded Synge that he must write about his own country. Synge travelled to the Aran Islands. There he studied the dialects of the islands, and took note of the characters and folklore there. He began to write plays of peasant life, employing the natural speech which he had learned. In the preface to The Playboy of the Western World, Synge wrote, “… in countries where the imagination of the people, and the language they use, is rich and living, it is possible for a writer to be rich and copious in his words, and at the same time give the reality, which is the root of all poetry, in a comprehensive and natural form.”
The play itself is a commentary of how society can both rebel and conform to certain social conventions. The village condones Christy Mahon’s story of killing his father and the Widow Quinn even lies on his behalf when his father turns up at the pub. The people of the village regard Christy’s act as a revolt against the older generation – he is then considered a hero. However, when the village realises that Old Mahon is not dead and Christy threatens to actually kill him in, they are appalled and declare him barbaric. When the crime is committed in front of them, they are disgusted. They condemn Christy to hanging then, despite having praised him in the first instance. To a lesser extent, the ideas of rebellion are portrayed in the play in the way Pegeen disregards Shawn Keogh’s obvious reverence for the Church. Shawn is pious and does not wish to jeopardise his place in the local priest’s esteem. He will not stay with Pegeen Mike when her father leaves the bar because they are not married and it is considered “unholy” for an unmarried man and a woman to be alone in a house together after dark. Pegeen confronts every person who enters the bar. She is not afraid to voice her opinion and she challenges what is expected of her as the daughter of a well-liked publican.
It is in this way that the play represents the ideals of the literary revival. The revival was about rebellion, though perhaps not with the same violent connotations that go with The Playboy. The revivalists wished to depict the west of Ireland in a particular light. Yeats’ vision of a new Ireland in the west was part of a larger cultural revival which was taking place throughout the country during this time. The revival dedicated itself to Irish music, language, myths and folklore, sporting events and literature. With British colonialism, Irish culture had been very much threatened and the revivalists sought to overcome this. The timelessness of Yeats’ paradise and primitive islands was the perfect setting in which to “fend off the homogenising advances of modernity” (McIntyre, 92)
It is amidst this landscape that The Playboy is set, in the west of Ireland, among the peasant people, who are neither very educated or articulate. The play encapsulates the doctrine of the revival: it is modern in its writing and presents a new Ireland. It caused controversy and sparked further interest in the theatre in general and gaining much more publicity for the Abbey Theatre.
As Colin Graham notes in his essay “Ireland and the Persistence of Authenticity” (1999), Revivalist constructions of the nation, the type that W.B. Yeats uses for his Cathleen Ní Houlihan, rely upon a notion of “cultural purity” whereby claims to access an authentic sense of “Irishness” underlie cultural nationalism: “The nation’s very reason for being, its logic of existence, is its claim to an undeniable authenticity as a pure expression of the “real”, the obvious, the natural”.
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WB Yeats’ Cathleen Ní Houlihan also manifests the ideals of the revival and in a much more obvious way. The Old Woman is a construction of Ireland. She is Ireland personified and embodies everything that Yeats values in being Irish – bravery, nationalism and patriotism. In 1903 Yeats wrote to Lady Gregory in a dedication of a volume of his plays to her:
One night I had a dream almost as distinct as a vision, of a cottage where there was well-being and firelight and talk of a marriage, and into the midst of that cottage there came an old woman in a long cloak. She was Ireland herself, that Cathleen ni Houlihan for whom so many songs have been sung and about whom so many stories have been told and for whose sake so many have gone to their death. I thought if I could write this out as a little play I could make others see my dream as I had seen it.
The play is about a young man, Michael, being persuaded to fight for his country and homeland. His enthusiasm and willingness to do so is a foreshadowing of Yeats’ later poem “September 1913” where he criticises the Irish who are not prepared to fight for their country in the same way that the likes of Wolfe Tone and Robert Emmett were. The play then is Yeats’ undiluted opinion on how Ireland show be, as well as his visions for the revival. It is about distinct Irishness, bravery and, because of the eerie nature of the Old Woman, it also addresses Irish myth and folklore. It is almost as though Michael is bewitched by the Old Woman, so sure is he about leaving his family and his wife-to-be in order to fight for the “four fields”.
In conclusion, it should be stated that the ideals and ethos of the Irish literary revival were manifested onstage to a great degree. The revival was obviously about change and both plays discussed here are about change in some way, and both about a new, different and modern Ireland. The Playboy of the Western World is a commentary on the lives of the people of the west of Ireland and is a play about rebellion: Christy Mahon kills his father twice over. He is rebelling against the “powers that be”, similar to Michael if he follows the Old Woman. Cathleen Ní Houlihan, with its mysticism and elements of magic, is especially representative of the literary revival as a whole. It can be said then, based on these examples, that plays written during the revival were archetypal of the views of the revivalists.
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