The “Real” and the “Mythological” in Early Irish Theatre
John Millington Synge once said that he did “not believe in the possibility of ‘a purely fantastic, unmodern, ideal, breezy, spring-dayish, Cuchulainoid National Theatre’”. In Synge’s opinion “[n]o drama can grow out of anything other than the fundamental realities of life.” In this essay, we will examine how this idea relates to three plays by three Irish playwrights.
These plays are: The Playboy of the Western World by J.M. Synge, Juno and the Paycock by Seán O’Casey, and At the Hawk’s Well by W.B. Yeats.
Audiences were shocked and outraged by Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World (referred to hereon in as Playboy) when it premiered at the Abbey Theatre in 1907. The play dealt with a young man — Christy Mahon — who claims to have killed his father and how he is welcomed and celebrated by a small community in County Mayo. He is praised for his bravery. Becoming a local celebrity, his recollection of the deed makes him the object of affections for women in the town. When it is revealed that his father is still alive he attempts to kill him again. This time the locals bind and prepare to hang him to avoid implication as accessories to the crime. His father, still alive, saves him and they leave the village.
Synge took great pains to write the dialogue of the play in the dialect he encountered during his stay on the Aran Islands. The dialogue is his main vessel for this idea, as he recreates a dialect of an ordinary people extremely well. Synge carries this through, as Ben Levitas notes, to the specific naming of the attempted murder weapon as a loy, rather than a shovel. Levitas says that this “makes the violence socially and economically determined” (468). In short, it is one of the aspects of the play that grounds it in realism. This allows spectators and readers to recognise something of Irish life in the playscript. Synge pushed against Yeats’ vision of Irish theatre as a way of expression Nationalistic ideals and against the use of symbolism or recalling figures from Irish mythology. To this end he created works that would bring across a more realistic depiction of Irish life. The realism in Playboy is dependent on a largely unbelievable premise and plot development, yet it emerges as one of the best depictions of Irish country people in the Irish theatrical canon.
A riotous play, it caused riots during its original run. Irish nationalists were offended by what they saw as an insult to Ireland and public morals. Protestors cried that the portrayal of the villagers was at odds with the true nature of Irish people. They insisted that the glorification of patricide had no place on the Irish stage. In the opinion of the author, part of the reason why the play was so controversial was that audiences did see themselves in it. With a rich folklore tradition, the Irish love a good story, often with violence (as a cursory glance at Irish mythology will attest). That is what Christy presented in Playboy, a thrilling story of murder. Paige Reynolds believes that Synge wished Playboy to “manipulate its first audiences into a critical self-awareness” (Modern and Contemporary Irish Drama, 464). According to eyewitnesses, audiences were indeed enjoying the play and laughing, up until the use of the word “shift”, whereupon the spectators turned. Audiences did not wish to admit that they were willing to accept the blasé attitude of Synge’s play towards patricide and even female sexuality. The women of the play are true to the spirit of many Irish women, particularly those of the west, in that they are strong and more than capable of holding their own. Women have been an important part of societies in Ireland for centuries, reaching back to the Celts. In Playboy the women are a match for men and are very forward in their pursuit of Christy. Pegeen and Widow Quinn are transparent in their desire for Christy. These characters challenge conservative gender roles while still tapping into real-life female feistiness. At a time where sexuality, particularly female, was not generally discussed, this casual display of attraction pushed against the norm.
Kim Moon Gyu writes of Synge’s realistic vision by saying that the locals are living “the routine life which the community requires” (1) and is thus in a state of severe disillusionment. Pegeen remarks on the stagnant way of life which they find themselves living early in Act One:
“Where now will you meet the like of Daneen Sullivan knocked the eye from a peeler; or Marcus Quirt, God rest him, got six months for maiming ewes, and he a great warrant to tell stories of holy Ireland till he’d have the old women shedding down tears about their feet. Where will you find the like of them, I’m saying?” (69–70)
Into this want of change enters the figure of Christy Mahon, who instantly shakes up the villagers’ lives. This complacency found early in the play is depressing as it is indicative of something that the author views as an “Irish depression” to be found in the ordinariness of day-to-day life. It is this shared outlook that may be found in the dark elements of Irish folklore and reaches to the modern day. Synge does not show the Irish as a proud people, as a race of people willing to give up their lives, as Yeats was wont to do. Synge portrays the Irish people as any other people, going through the motions of life and falling in for any modicum of excitement that comes there way. It is in this way that Synge succeeds in his desire to create his drama from the fundamental realities of life.
Another controversial playwright was Seán O’Casey. Best known for his “Dublin Trilogy” O’Casey gave voice to ordinary people and how they interact with events going on around them. They are at the heart of his best and most popular works, including The Plough and the Stars, which was controversial as it was seen as being disrespectful to those who had died in the Easter Rising a decade earlier.
O’Casey often set his plays during times of turmoil or significance, such as the play which shall be examined next: Juno and the Paycock (referred to hereon in as Juno). It was first performed at the Abbey Theatre in 1924. The play takes place in a working-class Dublin tenement in 1922, just following the outbreak of the Irish Civil War and focuses on the flawed Boyle family. The effects of the Civil War are felt lingering throughout the work, culminating in the final tragic Act. The execution of Johnny is taken from life and from O’Casey’s own experiences, as Christopher Murray notes:
“[…] he told Holloway … about recent raids by rogue elements in the Free State army with scores to settle. ‘Last week he was awakened out of his sleep with hands pulling the sheet off him, and a light full in his eyes […]’ They were after a young man who had shot one of their own.” (Murray, 506)
O’Casey would later describe the swift and terrible revenge carried out by the Free State forces in his autobiographies; this violence experienced by people during this period is cleverly used by O’Casey. Murray quotes O’Casey as saying: “Such brutality demoralises a country” and comments that “It was out of that sense of moral outrage that the action of Juno was conceived” (507). When the characters’ dialogue mentions the “die-hards,” and “Irregulars,” they refer to the rigid, dogmatic Republicans who followed Eamon De Valera in his rejection of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921. At the centre of the play are violent forces that threaten to tear the lives of Dublin citizens to pieces. This tension is the basis of Johnny’s line: “Ireland only half free’ll never be at peace while she has a son left to pull a trigger” (214).
This is the best example of the realism found in Juno. The power of the work comes from its historical context. The Irish Civil War was a time of internal conflict, even between those who had fought together in the War of Independence. Johnny unsuccessfully pleads for his life in Act Three, saying: “Are yous goin’ to do in a comrade?–look at me arm, I lost it for Ireland” (243). Tension was a part of daily life and people tried to carry on with their lives as best they could. The very first line of the play (as spoken by Mary) is the nonchalant reaction to a newspaper story: “On a little by-road, out beyant Finglas, he was found” (Modern and Contemporary Irish Drama, 198). O’Casey imbues his play with a sense of realism by addressing these events rather than brush over them. There is a sense of the spirit of endurance found in the Irish people. Through all obstacles they strive to endure. This atmosphere of trying to obtain some semblance of normality in the face of danger is greatly conveyed in Juno.
O’Casey’s play places at its centre an imploding relationship between Mrs. Boyle and her “paycock” of a husband. This motif of conflict between husband and wife is often found in comedy. Juno is a funny play, though the humour often takes the form of Irish gallows humour, making the best of a bad situation. Mrs. Boyle amusingly laments early in the play: “Oh, he’ll come in when he likes; struttin’ about the town like a paycock with Joxer, I suppose” (199). This leads to the author’s next point: the dialogue itself. O’Casey was known for writing works that captured the flavour, tempo and idiosyncrasies of the Irish way of speaking, predominantly the Dublin accent. Growing up in a tenement himself, he was well familiar with this accent and was able to replicate it faithfully. Reading and viewing Juno is to see and hear the Dublin tongue.
Murray refers to an oral history by Kevin C. Kearns wherein an interviewee commented that when they see an O’Casey play they: “hear all the Americans and the Irish bursting their sides laughing at the way [the characters] mangle the English language. Well, I was listening to it every day! It’s totally authentic” (510). Language and dialect are vastly important elements of what makes up a shared cultural identity. With this emphasis placed on the way in which the characters speak, O’Casey adds a dimension of authenticity to Juno.
The overarching feeling in Juno and the Paycock is one of disillusionment and alienation. Both with marriage and of a more national flavour. Following the Nationalistic spirit planted by the Easter Rising and the War of Independence, Ireland had to face the enemy within itself. In that way Juno can be seen as a metaphor for Ireland itself. The tenement of the Boyles and the events that take place there are dramatic symbols of a broken country. This is the Ireland O’Casey saw and the one he captured in his Dublin Trilogy. O’Casey’s view of Ireland and its flaws may be summed up by the final line of the play, as spoken by Captain Boyle: “th’ whole worl’s… in a terr…ible state o’… chassis” (246).
The final play with which this essay is concerned is At the Hawk’s Well by W.B. Yeats, first performed in 1916. This was deliberately chosen to stand in stark contrast to the prior two plays discussed. While Synge and O’Casey’s works are based in realism, Yeats’ play is solely planted in the realm of the mythological. One of five plays which Yeats wrote that were based on the legends of mythological hero Cuchulain. This distinctly Irish source material is woven into a form that borrows heavily from the Japanese Noh Theatre. Noh Theatre is a form of Japanese musical drama that can be traced back to the 14th century, often based on traditional stories that integrate masks and costume into performances heavily reliant largely on dance. Having evolved from Shinto rites, Noh theatre is steeped in the mythological. In combining this style with Irish mythology, Yeats creates a striking, eclectic mixture.
The play takes place by a dry well guarded by a mysterious hawk-like woman. At this well an old man takes camp for fifty years so he can drink of the waters which occasionally rise and have miraculous qualities. Onto this scene arrives Cuchulain, also seeking to drink from the well and the men speak of the “Woman of the Sidhe” — the Guardian of the Well. The use of dance and music is very important in the play. It is a piece that relies on an abstract, symbolic style highly unlike the theatre of the time. In writing it, Yeats was not interested in the mainstream audience, but a more intellectual crowd. The stage is: “bare space before a wall against which stands a patterned screen” (Penguin, 113). Added to this the only props in the form of a black cloth with a pattern suggesting a hawk and a blue cloth which is representative of the well. The two main characters wear masks, the faces of the remainder made up to resemble masks.
The element of the miraculous waters has firm roots in Irish mythology. Holy wells are a common occurrence throughout the country, many said to have healing powers (such as Father Moore’s Well in County Kildare). A promise of wealth or health is a collective theme that runs throughout much of Irish mythology, along with the dangers of pursuing said promises. Yoko Sato references folklorists Janet and Colin Bord’s Sacred Waters, wherein they discuss this high number of holy wells. These sites offer evidence of water cults in pre-Christian Ireland and they “suggest the holy wells have a strong association with water divinities, fairies, witchcraft, and symbolic fish, though in later years some holy wells gained a stronger tie with Christian saints” (Sato, 7). Sato also goes into detail on the meaning of the acoustics of the dialogue, which while interesting, is of no relevance to this essay.
Taking further cues from Irish mythology, At the Hawk’s Well is concerned with ruminations on the nature of fate and destiny, as well as the relationship between age and youth. Though in a different vein to other Nationalistic works, the play also features portrayals of heroic acts:
“YOUNG MAN: […] Who are they that beat a sword upon the hill?
OLD MAN: She has roused up the fierce women of the hills, / Aoife, and all her troop, to take your life […] Stay with me, I have nothing more to lose, / I do not now deceive you.
YOUNG MAN: I will face them. [He goes out, no longer as if in a dream, but shouldering his spear and calling:] He comes! Cuchulain, son of Sualtim, comes!” (27)
This final scene plays into what the Abbey was originally founded upon, the notion of bravery found in the annals of Irish culture. At the Hawk’s Well is unusual however in that it was not intended to call to a patriotic sense of Nationalism, but rather was intended merely as a piece of theatre. It was an experiment by Yeats intended poses a challenge to the linear storyline common in theatre at the time. It is somewhat evocative of the experimental theatre that would emerge in Ireland in the latter half of the 20th century, dependent on stylised visual representations and acoustic.
At the Hawk’s Well is a severe deviation from the realistic approached practised by other playwrights, yet it is as valid as a representation of Ireland as other plays. Where the previously discussed works sought to more-or-less portray Ireland as it existed, Yeats’s play portrays the deep running mythological roots of the country. Though told in a stylised way not native to Ireland, what emerges is a play so steeped in Irish mythology it is portraying the soul of the nation’s history.
The Irish Literary Revival began with an intention of bringing to the stage plays with Nationalistic inclinations, as a call for freedom to the Irish people: “We will show that Ireland is not the home of buffoonery and of easy sentiment, as it has been represented, but the home of an ancient idealism” (Abbey Theatre mission statement). To this end playwrights such as Yeats and Lady Gregory looked to mythology for a noble Ireland, for heroes. These heroes were welcomed to the stage by the public, as well as the messages of an idealised Ireland. These works express the fantastical elements of the National Theatre in its early days.
As we have seen this idealised depiction of Ireland as a land of heroes and Irish people as a race of strong warriors was not fully embraced by all playwrights. Though those “Cuchulainoid” plays served their purposes, theatre is ever evolving as time progresses. In fact, Lady Gregory herself once wrote: “One has to go on with experiment or interest in creation fades, at least so it is with me”. Hence playwrights looked from mythology to realism, to capture the Ireland they knew. They did not believe that the early work of the Irish Literary Revival was indicative of true Ireland. They looked to the people themselves to build their work upon.
To compare these two types of Irish theatre is without reason as they are valid and may exist in their own right; they illuminate the wealth of Irish literary talent and the broad scope of work this talent has produced and continues to produce.
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Murray, Christopher. “[Juno and the Paycock] (From Sean O’Casey: Writer at Work — A Biography). McGill Queen’s University Press. Reprinted in Modern and Contemporary Irish Drama. Ed. John P. Harrington. New York: Norton, 2009. 506–12.
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Sato, Yoko. “‘At the Hawk’s Well’: Yeats’s Dramatic Art of Visions.” Journal of Irish Studies, vol. 24, 2009, pp. 27–36. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/27759624.
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