It never ceases to amaze how far people will go out of their way to be offended. It’s a phenomenon on a par only with the numbers of those who will take gross offence at something they have neither seen nor heard, because, obviously, it is so offensive.
Take John Millington Synge’s classic Playboy of the Western World, which opened in the Abbey Theatre in 1907. W.B.Yeats, the poet and the theatre’s eminence, said of Synge, that ‘whenever a country produces a man of genius, that man is never like the country’s idea of itself’, and he would know. He might just as well have been writing about W.B.Yeats.
Ireland in 1907 liked to think of itself as sober, steady and respectable. In a word, boring. But the West of Ireland seaboard that Synge depicted was wild, rumbustious, sexy and delightfully disreputable. This was, after all, the story of a converted village idiot who enchants a west of Ireland community by telling them that he has ‘killed his da’ with a blow to the head. Not exactly reputable middle class Rathmines and Rathgar sort of material, though it was from the leafy boroughs of Dublin that the theatre drew its audiences.
Of course Synge had ‘previous’ where the fumblers in greasy tills were concerned. This was, after all, the man who had written a drama, The Shadow of the Glen, about a frustrated Wicklow woman who ups and leaves her marriage to follow a tramp she barely knows. Even Henrik Ibsen himself, the Godfather of louche theatre, might have baulked at that one.
So the Dublin middle classes, sober, steady and respectable to a man and woman, were probably lying in wait for Synge’s follow-up to Shadow of the Glen. Just as you might allow the first wave of a headlong attack to pass through your defences, they let the production off the hook on the opening night.
By 28 January, however, a couple of nights into its run, word had got out that if you came to the Abbey you could be truly scarified by what you saw and heard onstage. Catholics could shiver at a Protestant playwright having the anti-hero of the play, Christy Mahon, utter the line:
With the help of God, I killed him surely, and may the holy immaculate mother intercede for his soul.
The prurient could cover their reddened ears in shame when Christy transgressed against sexual morality with the shocking insult to Irish womanhood:
What would I care if you brought me a drift of chosen females, standing in their shifts itself maybe …
It was the reference to ‘shifts’ that seems to have done it. A ‘shift’ by the way is female undergarment, just in case you have yet to reach the age of sixty. The performance on Monday 28 January was rendered almost inaudible by members of the audience shouting ‘kill the author’, an exceptionally muscular form of theatre review. The following night Yeats called the Dublin Metropolitan Police to keep the peace, while a young Sean O’Casey stood outside the theatre being pushed around by what he described as ‘Gaelic Leaguers foaming at the mouth’.
In the Gaelic League newspaper, An Claidheamh Soluis, which he edited at the time, Patrick Pearse called for a boycott of the play, observing of Synge that, ‘It is not against a nation that he blasphemes so much as against the moral order of the universe.’ In fairness to Pearse, he had changed his tune on Synge, as on much else, by 1913. Neither did the rioters cause the play to be taken off. The run continued, and the disturbances ended.
Later, when the Playboy finally premiered in the west of Ireland, where it was set, many theatre-goers were said to have been bored by the production, their attitude being, ‘You can see the like of that any night you like in the pub’.
When it travelled to the USA in 1911 they were ready for it there too. The performers were booed and hissed throughout the New York opening, and were arrested in Philadelphia and charged with putting on an immoral performance. The charges were later dropped.
By the way, Yeats didn’t come onstage in 1907 and tell the restive audience, ‘You have disgraced yourselves again’. That didn’t happen until the sequel almost twenty years later in 1926 at the Plough and the Stars riots. The artistic riposte on this occasion was for the theatre to launch, at the last count, fifty-six separate stagings or productions of O’Casey’s classic. The Playboy can’t be too far short of that
John Millington Synge’s Playboy of the Western World opened at the Abbey Theatre one hundred and eleven years ago, on this day.