A Question of Identity
Today, the 26th of January 2007, is the centenary of the Abbey riots during the production of Jonathan Millington Synge’s famous play The Playboy of the Western World. These thoughts are inspired by having attended a free public lecture in the Abbey Theatre to mark this important centenary.
The blurb on theatre promotional material for this public talk states: “The Unmentionable Shift: The Abbey Theatre and the Playboy Riots: On 26 January 1907 Synge’s The Playboy of The Western World premiered at the Abbey to a howl of protest. Will the ghosts of Irish theatre be present one hundred years later as Dr Eibhear Walshe examines what made the audience furious?” It was at the mention of this then very provocative word “shift” meaning lady’s undergarment or chemise that provoked paroxysms of protest from the audience, and then eventual “riots.” A few contemporary quotations from the papers of the day are worth recalling:
• A vile and inhuman story told in the foulest language.
Arthur Griffith, The United Irishman, 1907
• People stood up in their seats and demanded the withdrawal of the play [The Playboy of the Western World], and when it became clear that the cast was determined to see the thing out to the end, tempers began to fray.
The Splendid Years: Recollections of Maire Nic Shiubhlaigh, 1955
• An unmitigated, protracted libel upon Irish peasant men and, worse still, upon Irish peasant girlhood.
The Freeman’s Journal, 1907
• It was not for the purpose of lessening Ireland's self-respect and holding her people up to the ridicule of the world that the 'National Theatre' was established.
Irish Independent, 1909
Dr Walshe’s talk was informative and entertaining and he had it well illustrated with marvelous pictures of Synge, Yeats and Lady Gregory as well as contemporary cartoons from the newspapers. He also quoted at length letters to various papers about the so called riots. The lecture was delivered with humour and erudition.
What remains with me from this talk? Well, the question that caught my interest was the whole thorny issue of national identity. The Playboy obviously touched a very sensitive nerve with the audience. As one of my companions at the theatre remarked “Don’t forget that Ireland at the time was barely on her knees after the huge set-backs of famine, deaths and emigration in hundreds of thousands.” “Tom, I said, “you are correct in that observation.” Tom’s point was that most of the audience would have been people just about coming around to some little pride in themselves as a nation. They needed traditional heroes not antiheroes like Mike Daneen O Shay.
Also I was quite taken with the point that Lady Augusta Gregory, W.B. Yeats and Jonathon Millington Synge belonged to the Irish “aristocracy” or more properly termed the “ascendancy” or “Anglo-Irish classes” classes sending the Irish peasantry up. Here you had the ascendancy portraying the peasant life as anything but heroic, where patricide or even attempted patricide is somehow a gallant act of manhood.
I like what the great scholar and critic Martin Esslin says by way of defining theatre as a nation thinking about itself in public. Hence these riots bear witness to a great turbulence in our early sense of identity as a nation. If the search for identity in an individual’s life is turbulent how much more so must the forging of an identity by a whole nation. There will be purists and conservatives, those with mythic and heroic visions of the sanctity and purity of the nation’s manhood and womanhood – traditional Roman Catholics and nationalists - at the one pole; in the centre will be the matter-of-fact realists both of a religious and agnostic view who are open to debate while at the other pole will be the free thinkers, atheists, stirrers of debate, radical questioners, revolutionaries and subversives. I suppose J.M. Synge belonged to this last more extreme pole. His play endures because it subverted traditional conservative views of nationhood. It questioned the position of the hero in Irish society. In short it is a challenging, provocative, questioning and subversive play. We need dramatists to provoke a debate, to stir the conscience of the nation, to knock us out of our complacent slumber, to send us home disturbed (now and again) as well as entertained. This Synge does in large measure.
Another criticism which I’m inclined to agree with, voiced by another of my companions, is that Synge’s language is totally stage Irish and that it is in no way representative of a so called “peasant’s” natural use of the English language. Róisín who is almost 70 grew up in Mayo in the West of Ireland and never heard such a strange unnatural dialect as Synge has his characters utter. I have been speaking Irish now for the best part of 50 years and a lot of the dialogue in “The Playboy” grates on my ears somewhat. How much real Gaeilge J.M. Synge learned I really have to question! His language does not really reflect the Hiberno-English as we have it recounted in the works of Dwyer Joyce or in Terry Dolan’s marvelously learned books, dictionaries and internet site on the subject.
Another point Dr Walshe made was about the presence of drunken students from Trinity College at some of the performances. Like all young students, they were out not alone for entertainment but for fun and even a little trouble. What’s new in that? Student and college life is full of such antics. I wish I could have been present at those performances where there was more action in the pit than on the stage, where Yeats would have got up to lecture the audience on their behaviour, which indeed, he had to repeat in 1926 at the staging of Seán O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars by telling the audience that 'You have disgraced yourselves again.' This was a reference to the 1907 riots obviously. Yeats wished that the audience would give the play a fair viewing or hearing, and having done so then debate the whole question of what nationhood means for the Irish.
To finish I’d like to quote Lady Gregory with respect to what she felt the role of a national theatre was. In Our Irish Theatre (1913) she stated: ‘we went on giving what we thought was good until it became popular’. In other words, the original policy was never to pander to public taste but rather to mould it.
Above I have placed a picture of The Irish Famine Monument Boston, USA. This monument represents part of our cultural identity as Irish and obviously as Irish Americans. I took it on a holiday to Boston to see my cousin Paul in March 2002