J. M. Synge: as A English Playwriter

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Unrivaled Dramatic Work

      Synge is an outstanding figure in the vast history of Irish Literature though faced many uprisings from either mob or the Irish nationalists. Though Synge’s raw material is transmitted by his imagination into something tender yet wild, its essence is not allowed to suffer any change. As a direction of the Irish literary theatre, he was quite acquainted with the theatrical experiences but ‘he is much popular because of his unique capability to blend ideally with the actual. Synge can never be obligated for an idle spectator of the sufferers who only sketched the characters without penetrating their misfortunes, their sufferings or their ecstasies. He had lived and experienced the life’s drama to its full. Perhaps his life of solitude kept him aloof from the din and stir of the general national movement. His lack of interest in politics has been greatly exaggerated. Several critics have defended him on this point that as a man who belonged to Ireland, is quite natural if he is detached from the political issues. He was sometimes called a naturalist for he is concerned with archetypal and universal themes which are deeply rooted in the ‘psychic reality of the locality’. His love of naturalism can be estimated from his inclination to the small Aran Island, where he found simplicity and dignity. Sygne’s life span was very short, even then he gave some plays with much intensity and force to arouse the deep-rooted emotion.

Synge’s limited output of plays

      The premature death of Synge kept his work somewhat limited. The classification of the work is difficult as Synge’s plays are mostly blended with both forms of dramatization ie. tragedy and comedy. Though his comedies include The Shadow of the Glen, The Tinker's Wedding, The Well of the Saints and The Playboy of the Western World, whereas, tragic elements in Riders to the Sea and Deridre of the Sorrow qualify them as tragedies. This last play 'Deirdre of the Sorrow is sometimes considered as melodrama because of the scenes of blood-shed which intensify our emotions of fear. This work remained unrevised, due to the sudden death of Synge after long illness. This play was criticized for lack of coherence and unity, most probably, because Synge could not revise the work and prepare it as a work of excellence. All the other plays are significant works of art and highly entertaining, no matter if some of his plays became the issue of controversy.

Gift for Comedy

      Portraying the real people of Aran Island, Synge blended all his plays with comedy and some elements of tragedy is felt here and there as happens in true life. Synge believes that humor is very rich, in Irish peasantry. He says, of the things which nourish the imagination humor is one of the most needful, and it is dangerous to limit or destroy it. Baudelaire calls laughter the great sign of the Satanic element in man; and where a country loses its humor, as some towns in Ireland are doing, the mind will be morbid, as Baudelaire’s mind was morbid. He continues I do not think that these country people, who have so much humor themselves will mind being laughed at without malice, as the people in every country have been laughed at in their own comedies. Besides this Synge is aware of the Islanders’ fear of the death, their dependence on nature with utter helpless, which is constantly haunting the writer, thus, the output, is the comedies, with a sense of tragedy.

Riders to the Sea as a grim tragedy

      Riders to the Sea is A story of human beings who are constantly fighting with the Sea, the giver and taker of life. The sea is a monster devouring the male members of the fishermen’s families, and thus leaving the mothers utterly destitute of sons. Maurya, the protagonist of the play, is a representative of the whole class of fisherwomen facing the same problem again and again.

His Choice of Subject

      The most exciting event in Synge’s life is, the moment, when Yeats suggested he to travel the Aran Islands, which was followed too. The theme and style were inherited from these Islands. He saw and felt deeply the-life of the peasants wringing a hard living from sea and soil; its tragedy, its comedy, its poetry and dignity are all captured in his work. Synge reacted against the photographic representation of Irish life, which, he felt, missed the essential poetry and joy of life that “rich joy found only in what is superb and wild in reality.” On the contrary, he desired in drama an imaginative reality and a poetic truth. This sympathetic observation of the Irish life, his sensitiveness his transformed his almost naturatistic themes into an art with a universal appeal. In the words of Synge himself, “I feel more every day that it is criminal to deprive these people of their language and with it the unwritten literature which is still as full and distinguished as in any European people.” So, we see that his choice of subject was the Irish people as concluded by his own views, “I look on The Aran Islands as my first serious piece of work—it was written before any of the plays. In writing out the talks of the people and their stories in this book—and in a certain number of articles on Wicklow peasants when I have not yet collected-I learned to written the peasants which I have not yet collected—I learned to write the peasant dialect and dialogue which I use in my plays.”

Treatment of his themes

      The themes in Synge’s plays are wider and deeper in its range and the varieties include the tension between illusion and reality; discovery of the self, horror of death and old age and many others, Synge’s genius is seen in both comedy and tragedy, though the latter is, perhaps, his more natural element in spite of the fact that some of his plays were attached due to in W.R. Roger’s words, “Synge’s hunger for harsh facts, for ugly surprising things, for all that defies our hope,’ his love for all that in speech of character was. earthy, salty, and prickling to the springs of the mouth or mind, that roused the resentment of Dublin audiences....” His plays might have got some resentment but whereas the theme is concerned, is always appreciated and contains unexampled universality in it. The loss of religious faith, which gave color to Synge’s treatment of themes, is noteworthy in most of his plays esp. Riders to the Sea and Deirdre of the Sorrows.

Impression of Satire

      After a deep analyzation of the Synge’s plays except Deirdre of the Sorrow, Riders to the Sea and The Well of the Saints, we reach on the conclusion that his plays possess satire and mockery. The Shadow of the Glen, developed from a story told to Synge by Pat-Dirans, an old man in Inishmaan. The story is also a satire on the Irish people, where the mens, take death, a horrible word, as a game or trick to discover a truth. Some way, it is mockery too, where a big issue i.e. the unfaithfulness is taken in a trivial sense.

Blend of Opposites

      Synge did not belong to the Gaelic World but he acquired their dialect and their stories, and he used them to create—the real and the fanciful, the traditional and the individual. In the words of Synge, “For a long time I have felt that poetry roughly is of two kinds, the poetry of real life.... and the poetry of a land of fancy.... What is highest in poetry is always reached where the dreamer is leaning out to reality, or where the man of real life is lifted out in it, and in all the poets the greatest have both these elements, that is they are supremely engrossed with life and yet with the wildness of their fancy they are always passing out of what is simple and plain.”

Synge’s treatment of Nature

      Synge’s love of an early training in music is well known, and it is echoed in his description of nature but his view is quite different from that of Words Worth. He does not find solace in the lap of nature. On the contrary, nature is harsh, cruel and unconcerned with human sufferings as Synge interprets in Riders to the Sea. Wild And hostile Nature—the source of sustenance, pleasure and suffering—is an integral part of life on the islands.

Synge’s language

      As Synge got his stuff from the Aran Islands, so naturally, the adoption of their native tongue was his right choice with rhythm, cadence and melody. Look at the following speech by Maurya just before Bartley’s dead body, brought to the cottage:

“There was Sheamus and his father, and his own father again, was lost in a dark night, and not a stick or sign was seen of them when the Sun went up. There was Patch after was drowned out of a curagh that turned over. I was sitting here with Bartley, and he a baby, lying on my two knees, and I seen two women, and three women, and four women coming in, and they crossing themselves and not saying a word. I looked out then, and there were men coming after them, and they holding a thing in the half of a red said, and water dripping out of it—it was a dry day, Nora—and leaving a track to the door.

Drawbacks as a Playwright

      Limitations of comedies are due to his representation of only one kind of man, the peasant with his manners and motif. Whereas the tragedy is limited because of the same complexity of mood and themes. The tragedies are grave as the audience is not relieved from the tension because of any comic character or funny scene. Religious and metaphysical elements are not present in the tragedies which is sometimes referred as hard, and abrupt. Synge’s tragedies also lack those elements, which are the essential part of it to analyze a true tragedy. What great tragedies always carry i.e. hamartia and .catharsis, is absent from his tragedies, thus could not win the; appreciation as Shakespear’s King Lear or Marlow’s Dr. Faustus.


      Riders to the Sea is an acknowledged masterpiece i.e. a compact of intense tragedy from start to finish: a mood towards which all the elements of the play—setting, atmosphere, character, situation, and language—contribute. It presents the poignant tragedy inherent in the life of fishermen on an island west of Ireland. The play concerns with the lives and deaths in the family of a fisherman. It’s style and language is a fit vehicle for the people of Islands, which deepens the tragic effect. David Daiches remarks “....Riders to the Sea is a remarkable dramatic presentation of an elegiac situation redeemed from false pathos by the elemental dignity achieved by the language.” Mark, for example, the following passage spoken by Maurya: “It isn’t that I haven’t prayed for you, Bartley, to the almighty God. It isn’t that I haven’t said prayers in the dark night till you wouldn’t know what I’d be saying; but it’s a great rest I’ll have now, and the great sleeping in the long nights after Samhain if it’s only a bit of wet flour we do have to eat, and may be fish that would be stinking.”

An Estimate

      The great achievement of Synge is due to his deeper and wider range of experience. In his short life span, he wrote seven plays, one, out of them was left incomplete. He was incapable to handle political themes due to his temperamental idiosyncrasies. Yeats had observed “Synge seemed by nature unfitted to think a political thought, and with the exception of one sentence spoken when I first met him in Paris that implied some sort of Nationalist conviction, I cannot remember that he spokes of politics or showed any interest in men in the mass, or in any subject that is studied through abstractions and statistics. Often for months together he and I and lady Gregory would see no one outside the Abbey Theatre, and that life, lived as it were in a ship at sea, suited him for unlike those whose habit of mind fits them to judge of men in the mass, he was wise in judging, individual meh, and a wise in dealing with them as the faint energies of ill-health would permit; but of their political thoughts he longs understood nothing.” In the words of Robin Skelton, “J.M. Synge was indeed passionately concerned with what was essentially Irish, and emotionally Irish, and emotionally involved in working for the cultural renaissance of his country, his work is, in any serious sense of the word, international for he tackled fundamental crisis of the human spirit, and in his plays especially, did not limit but extended? the territory of twentieth-century drama.”

Riders to the Sea

      The life of the fisherman on one of the Islands of Ireland is a pathetic representation of the young men at the mercy of the sea, who is shown as sustainer as well as destroyer. Sustainer in a sense that it is sea who provides them with their requirements essential to living and the sea is the destroyer as well, for its changing moods which mostly brings death for them at their flowering age. The Aran Islands is a recollection of the life of the fishermen, as seen and felt by them. “The Sun seldom shines and day after day a cold southwestern wind blows over the cliffs bringing up showery of hail and dense masses of cloud.... The sons who are at home stay out fishing whenever it is tolerably calm from about three in the morning till after right fall, yet they earn little as fish are not plentiful....The old man fishes also with a long rod and ground bait with very little success.... and women look after calves and do spinning....” It is the story of a woman named, Maury a, who falls into trouble, due to the drowning of all the male members of her family. Synge says that “the material feeling is so powerful on these islands that it gives a life of torment to the women. Their sons grow up to be banished as soon as they are of age or to live here in continual danger on the sea; their daughters go away also, or are worn out in their youth with bearing children that grow up to harass them in their turn a little later.” R. Williams thus praises the play: “is a tragic chorus which draws its strength form the quality of acceptance which Synge had discovered in the islanders among whom he had lived....”

      Riders to the Sea was considered as the most tragic one Act play in the English literature. The play got paradoxical comments when it was performed for the first time. One critic called it a ‘trifle’, another something like a wake,” and Griffith’s paper a week later conceded that its “tragic beauty powerfully affected the audience,” but described the use of a drowned man’s body on stage as “a cheap trick of the transpontine dramatist. No matter how one chooses to describe the play, whether as a ‘dirge’ or a choric lament, or an ‘elegy’, it would be noticed that the play is a tragic masterpiece in one-act form.”

The Well of the Saints

      The Well of the Saints has the pattern in which the main characters is bewildered between the illusion and reality and finally choose the path which gives them a new insight. It is believed that when Martin Conecly the tutor, was showing him the sights on Inishmore Synge went to see a holy well near a church and wrote down the story in his note book, when returned. A woman of Sligo had one son who was blind. She dreamed of a well that held water potent to bure. So she took boat with her son, following the course of her dream and reached Arran. She came to the house of my informants father and told what has brought, but when those around offered to lead her to the well nearby she declined all aid, saying she saw still her way clear before [her]. She led her son from the [house] and going a little up the hill stopped at the well. Then kneeling with the blind child beside her she prayed God and then bathed his eyes. In [a] moment his face gleamed with joy as he said,’ Oh mother, look at the beautiful flowers.” Martin and Mary, a beggar couple, are blind and quite happy and contented with their destiny. Their blindness made them assume that they are “the finest man, and the finest woman of the seven countries of the east.” Their ecstasy suddenly converts into misery after restoring their sights due to the help of a saint as they realized that both are ugly, wretched and old. So, they refuse the saint to restore their sight permanently thus leading towards the illusion. In fact, this play of Synge, is of, circular motion—depicting illusion to reality and then again to illusion. The couple prefers to live a life based on fake happiness than on bitter truth.

      The thematic pattern of the play is typically tragic. In the end, Synge refers that physical darkness is not as terrible as inner darkness. The life of the beggars and tramps with hardships, suffering and hunger is also shown with much intensity. As well as, Synge’s fear of loneliness and horror of old age is also explicit too.

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