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It had all the interest of the eternal triangle — a young man and an older one vying for the love of a beautiful aristocratic girl — but its appeal may also have been due to its treatment of the theme of emigration, whose pleasures and pains would have been well known in most rural communities. Many men in the west of Ireland had, after all, migrated to Scotland Alban , either on a seasonal or a semi-permanent basis: 64 Deirdre of the Sorrows and those who returned thereafter discovered what James Joyce would articulate in his great play Exiles : that a nation exacts from every emigrant a moral and emotional price, payable most often upon return.

If leaving proved almost always a heart-rending thing, coming home could often be even worse. A people whose community was ravaged by emigration of the young often seeking to escape the prohibitive codes of the elderly might also be fascinated by the abusive treatment offered to returnees. Those who came back often did so in the naive belief that they could take up things where they had left off. Synge was a shrewd observer of migrations from the western seaboard, noting that the tradition had become self-sustaining — not always a matter of economic necessity but simply the bright thing for young people to do, with a consequent impoverishment of social life for all who remained.

In an essay he wrote of the complex, even contradictory, impulses behind emigration: In the poorest districts of all they go reluctantly, because they are unable to keep themselves at home; but in places where there has been much improvement the younger and brighter men and girls get ambitions which they cannot satisfy in this country, and so they go also.

Again, where there is no local life or amusements they go because they are dull, and when amusements and races are introduced they get the taste for amusements and go because they cannot get enough of them. They go as much from districts where the political life has been allowed to stagnate as from districts where there has been an excess of agitation that has ended only in disappointment.

He believed that the Gaelic League was doing more than any other movement to check the demoralisation, but noticed with dismay in The Aran Islands that a young woman who had returned from exile seemed disoriented and listless, at once sophisticated and disillusioned: She has passed part of her life on the mainland, and the disillusion she found in Galway has coloured her imagination. At one moment she is a simple peasant, at another she seems to be looking out at the world with a sense of prehistoric disillusion and to sum up in the expression of her grey-blue eyes the whole external despondency of the clouds and sea.

Five years later, W.

Its theme anticipates that of Freud in Civilization and Its Discontents: that a massive price must be paid in terms of self-repression if one is to enter and partake in a given culture. Such reservations, far from being realistic scruples attendant on the enterprise, are built into the very structure and style of Deirdre of the Sorrows. Before writing it, Synge in his performed plays had written solely of the peasantry: and there is a very deep sense in which this play is itself a critical exploration of the relationship between the rather remote, aristocratic characters of the old tale and the warmly human peasant world in which alone it now lingered.

Synge achieves this effect by resort to a technique which might be called anti-pastoral: whereas in traditional pastoral, kings and queens dressed for a day as shepherds and shepherdesses, Synge puts his well-honed peasant dialect of Hiberno-English on to the lips of royalty. When peasants play at royalty, as the storytellers did every night on which they retold the legend, all social hierarchies are reversed.

Even the vellum of the bards, who thought that they had salvaged the royal names from oblivion, is now but a wormy sheepskin. As heir to those bards, Synge in his title seems to promise an encomium in celebration of ancient ladies but instead produces a lyric to his own girlfriend, Molly Allgood, the Abbey actress. He arouses the expectations of his audience with an unashamedly Revivalist title, only to deliver something quite anti-Revivalist in methodology. Many Revivalists subscribed to a cult of aristocracy — that very thing which England had now, a noble upper class, must have been something which the Irish once enjoyed in the days of their past glory.

Synge, a genuine aristocrat himself but one intent on embracing a more democratic politics, was impatient with those who seemed intent on reversing his chosen trajectory. The technical challenge faced by Synge was how to infuse tension into such a fated, over-determined tale. The young women of Aran seemed at once country girls and primal forces looking out upon the world with a sense of prehistoric doom, exactly like Deirdre in the grip of the prophecy. King Conchubor has isolated and sequestered Deirdre in the countryside until she is mature and sophisticated enough to make a wife for him: but in exposing her to the forces of storm and skyscape he has unleashed in her those vary natural instincts which he intended to curb.

In Act One, Deirdre and Naisi anticipate the joy of a life under nature in Alban, but once they are depicted as living that life in Act Two, they are already considering the world which they have lost. Evil seems, in all the works of Synge, to inhere even in the seemingly golden romantic moment. This is the psychological dimension — a truly tragic one — which Synge added to all previous versions. Confronted with a choice, they would prefer death to lost love, but in the end have to endure both.

The man who wrote in the Preface to his own poems that poetry must become brutal if it was again to be fully human CW I, xxxvi was deeply suspicious of such appeals to pathetic fallacy, such attempts to make the forces of nature into projected symbols of the human mood. Again and again in his plays and poems, Synge is modernist rather than romantic in his 70 Deirdre of the Sorrows view of nature: nature is weathering, mysterious, inexplicably there, but never reducible to the designs which mere humans have for it.

Again and again she tries to abort that very plot which it is in her professional interest to propel. Whenever the young people invoke the prophecy and the need to conform to the supplied script, she demurs. When they warn against the humiliation of growing old, she insists that the only bad thing about being old is having to watch young people whom you love making themselves miserable with such folly.

There could hardly be a more blatant manifesto against Revivalism in a play from the period of Irish Revival — a play which warns that the only folly is to make oneself a martyr to a text. There is nothing left for Lavarcham to do but to protect what life remains, as she assists her broken king from the stage. The Synge who wrote those lines was a man dying in his thirties.

Interpreting Synge: Essays from the Synge Summer School,

He appears to be a male choric counterpart to Lavarcham, a sort of Shakespearean Fool who works as a spy for the king but is secretly in love with the heroine. A reminder of mortality, he says his own father never decayed into angry old age because Naisi killed him. He warns Deirdre that Lavarcham is a dire and wrinkled example of what, if she lives, she will one day become. But his disappearance from the action is as arbitrary and as sudden as his introduction to it.

All this may call into question whether Synge really considered this a completed artwork. By juxtaposing the mythical and the matter-of-fact, and by submitting a story of ancient warriors to the deliberately banal language of contemporary life, Synge created a model which, however shakily, provided the basis for later work of more lasting achievement. Joyce, ever since he had read Riders to the Sea as a young man in Paris, felt that Synge was the man to beat:9 and he remained fascinated by his work and by its effects on audiences. It is obvious in the work of subsequent Irish playwrights.

If Yeats tried to imagine his own generation in the minds and bodies of the ancients, then Synge and Joyce did something even more radical. If the legend of Deirdre revealed an aristocratic code in all its moral and emotional bankruptcy, Synge had no compunction in concurring with those latter-day tellers who found such a meaning in the tale. Quoted by David H. Greene and Edward M. Stephens, J. Synge — New York: Macmillan, p. Cited by W. Yeats, Autobiographies London: Macmillan, , p. See Ann Saddlemyer ed. Synge: European encounters Of all the dramatists of the Irish Revival, John Millington Synge is the most intimately connected to the development of modern drama in Europe.

His image of Irishness was focused through a European lens. Not that this process made his work any less Irish. Synge considered that if any purposeful rebellion were to take place in Ireland it required just such a European dimension. In taking stock of the shock of the new, Ireland need not renounce its sense 77 ben levitas of cultural difference, if it could see that was precisely what cultural maturity entailed.

This denial of a notional opposition between Ireland and Europe was far from out of step with its time. It was common for cultural and political nationalists to take comfort and instruction from Europe: particularly the established club of Catholic states France, Belgium, Italy to which many thought Ireland should belong; and any small nations Hungary, Norway, Denmark which gave clues about how that club might be joined.

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The possibility that Ireland might be part of this emerging Europe of uncertain dynamics remains a relatively neglected aspect of his work. Yeats; and partly because his subsequent importance as a European as opposed to simply an Irish dramatist has seldom been fully considered. Although he moved beyond the formative evangelism his family practised, he retained close links with them, habitually spending his summers in their company, with his mother, in Wicklow.

This was one of the great shared shocks of nineteenth-century culture; and as such it opened the door to the wider world. Further doors opened at Trinity College, presenting two options that demanded internationalist sensibilities: music and languages. While his other studies suffered, Synge devoted himself to the violin and classical training in composition his advanced study in counterpoint would reappear in his 78 J. Synge: European encounters structural conception of playwriting.

Music offered a model of a panEuropean, shared culture: certainly, in Dublin, there existed a shared appreciation among Unionists and Nationalists for recital and opera which naturally looked to the continent for its staples. If musicality suggested a lingua franca, languages on the other hand complemented such universalism with a comparative frame of study.


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Synge left with his cousin Mary Synge a professional pianist then in middle age to seek further musical training in Germany. In Germany Synge discovered theatre — an introduction that began with Goethe and Schiller. But Synge could also appreciate his debt. During the troubled reception of The Shadow of the Glen in , Synge had received a cautious rebuke from his friend Stephen MacKenna. Synge: European encounters Synge did not, like many, go to Paris in to be an artist: he went to learn.

These were writers Synge would criticise for their fascination with moral turpitude and morbidity, not least because he feared these proclivities in himself. As with his rejections of Ibsen, such accusations were as much disguised tributes to mesmeric force, as attempts to distance himself from a bohemian licence which he felt both desirable and dangerous. Synge offset the apparent decadence of the moderns with a third strand of study: medieval literature with Petit de Julleville.

The immediacy they offered his poetry and his dialogue is apparent from any comparison of that writing with his direct HibernoEnglish translations. Synge also returned to Darwin, who remained a touchstone. This process involved political realignment. A contingent of Irish nationalists gathered in and around the Hotel Corneille: there he met W.

But also, no less importantly, Synge met 82 J. This was not merely a case of Synge shying away from physicalforce republicanism: his attempt to distance himself from Gonne should be seen in the context of her close association with French militarism and anti-Dreyfusard opinion via her lover Lucien Millevoye.

It was an expansive compound, open to elaboration: important, since Synge was an intellectual omnivore and his reading voracious. But this initial naive excitement evolves into a much more complex portrait. Fascination with the facts of violence and death came with a need to celebrate sensual tenderness, vitality and sex; tragedy blurred into comedy.

The comedic negotiation of lyrical romanticism and darker social realism would shift again once Synge stopped his continental wanderings to unload his heavily laden bags on the Irish stage. His theatre would not dictate. The apogee of this crisis of authority was the reception of The Playboy itself, which to all appearances was a violent response orchestrated by Synge to resonate with the onstage action.

His questioned, questionable heroes were again of their time. Interplay between stories and deeds, gallous and dirty, brings Synge into more than one European tradition. Meanwhile, a very different play, also inspired by Riders, had already been set in southern rural Spain: 88 J.

That I be received by those people, the people from over there, as one of them. Mc Cormack, Fool of the Family, pp. Diary, Jan. David H. Grene and Edward M. Synge — New York: Macmillan, , pp. Dublin Evening Mail, 29 Jan. Bushrui ed. Synge: European encounters Pirandello, Collected Plays, vol. This politicised Synge survived in East Germany. Letter to the Irish Legation, 6 Aug. Translation by Pollock. Oscar G. Brockett and Robert R.

Bourgeois, John Millington Synge, p. Something is happening on the stage that you have never quite felt before. People are speaking in a language which appears to be English, but it is an English once or twice removed. What precisely it is removed from is not that clear either. But the sets and the setting tell you that this is Ireland, and these are people who would be speaking Irish if the audience could only understand them.

But most of the people of Ireland could not understand a play in Irish in the early years of the twentieth century and, more assuredly, the greater part of the world could not either. It is obvious, therefore, that Synge is doing something with his Irish peasantry, and is attempting to mimic some kind of Irish. When characters in a Synge play speak, the air hums with something that does not quite belong. Their relationship with reality is oblique and romantic. Their tongue is a twisted idiom, at times crude, at times poetic.

The serious academic question is, what part of his language belongs to him, and what part of it belongs to the Irish language? For somebody from his fallen-ascendancy background — at least in the class sense — this was quite a revolutionary choice. The Irish language vanished from the hills and coasts of Wicklow before any other rural area of the country.

Although some vestiges of the language may have been spoken in the wildernesses of Wicklow, and vagrant words and aberrant pronunciations may have survived in the crevices 92 Synge and the Irish language of the mountains above Dublin in his youth, we can be certain that he never heard a living word of Irish in his youth or early childhood. Allied to that, his studies at Trinity College would have been necessarily philological in character, as the living word as text was anathema to the Irish scholars of the late nineteenth century.

The Chair of Irish was originally instituted in order to train proselytising clergy to spread the word of the Protestant God among the heretical Irish. Not surprisingly, then, the study of the Bible and other religious texts was central to the academic study of Irish. It appears that he was a good student with a serious academic knowledge of his course, but that he did not evince any real interest in the living language as it was spoken throughout various parts of Ireland at that time. Despite the dullness of his course in the university, some seed had been sown.

Although this may have been simply a device to prevent prying eyes from seeking his innermost thoughts, it does appear more likely that he had established some kind of spiritual communion with the language, as artists do. Live there as if you were one of the people themselves; express a life that has never found expression. But for all that, it had been an artistic directive, and Yeats always knew more in his heart than his head could ever comprehend. It is unlikely, however, that this was the single and only spur that brought Synge to one of the founts of his imagination.

Moreover, there is a palpable sense in all of his writings that he was searching for a form, or for an idiom, that would be commensurable with his imagination. He had an Irish teacher who was his companion and who helped to initiate him into island life. But he was always on a literary errand; his purpose was artistic; and he must have known what he was doing, at least in that part of him in which the imagination glows. He had a high standard of academic Irish with a corresponding knowledge of its history and literature.

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What remains with us, however, is the sense of an artist coming to selfknowledge, and that self-knowledge growing as his familiarity with Irish, and with Irish folk-culture, became more intimate. He is present at the wild keening of a wake, but does not realise yet that this is also a species of poetry. Everyone seems to want to tell him stories of the fairies, as the islanders most likely supposed that it was this kind of romantic tosh that visitors wanted to hear.

It was one of those stories that gave him the germ of his masterpiece The Playboy of the Western World. At the end of Part 3 of The Aran Islands he recalls a discussion about the Irish language with an islander who had travelled the world. They then fall to 94 Synge and the Irish language discussing the future of the language, as Irish speakers inevitably do.

This is an interesting argument in favour of the permanence of Irish, but hardly one that sociolinguists would easily accede to. Synge merely reports what he hears — he is a passive observer, noting, watching, listening. But he did have his own ideas, passionately held and delivered.

The great debates of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries ring through his thoughts. Ever since Stopford A. On the one hand, there were those who were endeavouring to use the Irish language and its resources to create a new literature in English; and, on the other, there were the followers of the Gaelic League who sought the preservation and spread of the Irish language for and in and by itself, and the cultivation of a new literature in Irish. Although Synge had no problem whatsoever with the preservation of Irish in the Gaeltacht or Irish-speaking areas , he was a heretic within Gaelic League circles with regard to attempts at a more widespread revival of the language.

He denounced the imposition of the English language in the Gaeltacht, a fact which was palpable to him when he encountered islanders who were literate in the government tongue but were forbidden literacy in their own language in the schools. Although this belief among Irishspeakers was not by any means universal, there was enough of it around to invite opposition.

He had seen the peasant close up, had looked into his smoky eyes, heard his lurid tales, and saw the same cruelty and tragedy in the heart as in the heart of any other man. And there was an attraction in this, albeit an artistic one.

Synge also mocked the bad Irish of the young Gaelic Leaguers and contrasted this with the natural tongue of the native speaker He knew his older literature as well as the contemporary spoken tongue. Knowing how to speak argot English does not give you access to the tale of the green knight or the medieval Arthur. And yet, it was not as simple as that. He recognises the connection between the folktales he hears on Aran and the great stories of Europe.

He did not want to admit it. Synge wished to keep a division between the life of the western peasant and the reality of modern life. The Aran Islands and the west of Ireland and the Irish language were a cultural resource. Their reality was the present past and not the present future. In the same way as exaggerated claims for the purity of the language were made, there were many Irish speakers who idealised the Gaeltacht and the islands.

One can only conclude that the Irish speakers who objected to The Playboy were not conversant with their own literature and folklore. On the other hand Synge was guilty of the elevation of the spoken Irish of the peasant as a language of vigour and sap, while apparently degrading the printed word as a mere shadow and wisp. A contrast was set up between the authentic tongue of the countryman and whatever other variety lay beyond the heather and the bog. This was a long-standing verbal war between those who claimed that the only authentic Irish was that spoken in the contemporary Gaeltacht and those who wanted to establish a prose style based more on the learned tongue which had last been most vibrant in the seventeenth century when Geoffrey Keating was at the height of his powers.

There was therefore among cultural revivalists a suspicion of the book, of print, of learning. The best Irish was to be found, according to scholars and learners in pursuit of the most pristine unsullied tongue, not 97 alan titley only among those monoglots who spoke no English, but also among those who could not read. CW II, We have it here. In this he was as conservative and as anti-modernist as the most backward looking of the Gaelic League. But it is what he did with the language which he found before him that was profoundly radical. This dialect, often depicting the English of native Irish speakers like Carleton himself, is only prevalent in dialogue, and is marked more by the insertion of garbled Irish words than by idiom and syntax.

There is a background there, certainly, but it is not the whole story. It would be simple to argue that what is left over is the distillation of Synge, but this is not how works of art become alive. It could also be translated into more standardised English than I have given, and lose even more of its poetic turn. The point is, that Irish writers saw Synge as a poet, as somebody whose beauty came from more than the language itself, and also associated him with their own romantic writers of the past.

Synge found something that already existed, but turned it into his own poetry. A glance at other celebrated translations from the Irish is worthwhile. It is as if the example of Synge is so powerful in our minds that a species of non-standardised English forces itself upon us. On his method of translation he says: Irish and English are so widely separated in their mode of expression that nothing like a literal rendering from the one language to the other is possible.

It is true that there has come into being a literary dialect, sometimes used for translation from Irish or for the purpose of giving the effect of Irish speech, which in books or on the stage has met with considerable applause. And in skilful hands this mixture of Irish and English idioms has often an effect of great charm. It does not to my ear, however, convey the character of the language as naturally spoken by those to whom it is their only speech.

The White Strand was covered with beams of red and white deal, white planks, a fragment of a wrecked ship, a chair, a stool, apples and all sorts. The boat in which my father worked got twelve baulks. The passages in which he translated the direct speech of the islanders are very different, however. They were a merciless, savage lot in those days. Thanks be to God, again and again, that that world is passed away! But I think that Synge, consciously or less so, came across a fact not often alluded to: the written literary tradition for the normal Irish speaker in the nineteenth century was a distant and unattainable thing.

They had folktales, of course, often the shards and detritus of a greater tradition. They had their beautiful songs, and song composition was still very much vibrant and creative. Their literacy in Irish for most of the century was virtually nil. As a result, they poured their creativity and invention into talk itself. Conversation became an art form. Banter and daring and bold chatter were raised above the mundane.

It was often as if talk had become detached from its moorings and wandered away without reference to anything in particular. Even the maddest folktale has a drive and a narrative and ensures that continuous meaning is being alluded to. Tales, for all their fancy, are nailed to the ground. But chatter goes nowhere and is an end in itself. It is a diary which he kept as a kind of apprentice writer, noting conversations and encounters in the daily life of the Great Blasket island.

Folklorists from the middle of the nineteenth century, whether in Ireland or in Scotland, were a lot more interested in the big folktales, or, when not so distracted, local history often described as seanchas. What they were not determinedly interested in was just talk. And the talk of the normal Irish person, unmediated by literature, by story, by poetry, by local tale, unstructured by preordained moulds, went forever unrecorded.

We have not the least clue what an Irish speaker spoke about in the nineteenth century, Synge and the Irish language what a conversation sounded like, what it was that was going on. And the dearth, or near non-existence of drama in Irish, compounded this ignorance. The stones of the road know you going on your old white horse every day, just as the Packer used to go away with the donkey and his little bag down on his shoulder and another little bag down on his tail! Did anyone speak like this?

His attempts at poetic drama were not hugely successful, but when he wrote prose they became poetry because of the rhythm of the sentences, of the cadence of the speech. They worked within the logic of the imaginative world he had created. His greatest poetry, at least that in translation, employs the same idiom. His translations from Villon, from Leopardi, from Muset, alan titley from Petrarch in this new language touch a chord which they could not do if rendered in more standardised English.

There are undoubtedly major unresolved issues. But his poetry, verve, invention, courage and character override any of the cultural arguments that we may wish to bring to our criticisms. This is more properly used to describe the Irish language in Scotland. Synge himself uses both terms, but not consistently. Stopford A. Fisher Unwin, See, for example, J.

This is the only published version of an Irish translation of his plays as far as I am aware. The English translation is my own. Robin Flower Dublin: Talbot Press, , p. Arland Ussher, Cainnt an tSean-Shaoghail. This is an entirely random choice out of a book of nearly pages. It out-Synges Synge in its extravagance, but is not cut into any artistic shape or whole. The translation is my own. His treatment of gender and sexuality is, however, credited with starting the most notorious theatrical controversy in the riotstudded history of Irish theatre.

Sexual intercourse can easily serve as a metaphor for both the violence of the initial conquest and the unchosen and intimate contact between coloniser and colonised that follows. They sought to restore a pre-colonial, authentic Irish culture by reviving the Irish language along with Irish music, Irish sports, Irish crafts, and Irish dress.

Ireland had not yet fully recovered from the population crash triggered by the Famine. It was understood that though the man of the house made the money, it was the woman who spent it. It was thus vitally important to keep the Irish woman in that home and doing that work. Clearly, Nora had no chance of making this house a home as long as Dan was living in it. For Deirdre of Deirdre of the Sorrows , home always and only means captivity.

It is by keeping Deirdre at home — in her isolated hut or in his palace at Emain Macha — that the aging Conchubor seeks to keep her bound to him. Marriage is represented not as a sacrament but as a social arrangement whereby a woman barters her youth, beauty and freedom for the home that promises security. As an institution whose function is to regulate the transfer of property, marriage is reserved for those who have property to transfer. So much for chastity, marriage and the home. Motherhood fares no better.

When Pegeen Mike and Christy imagine their future in The Playboy, their vision of life together never includes children. CW IV, These bizarre breastfeeding references render the nurturing aspect of motherhood grotesquely corporeal and shockingly transgressive. For motherhood, as for marriage, chastity and the home, Riders to the Sea is the exception that proves the rule.

Maurya and her two daughters, Nora and Cathleen, live in a home built of authentic Irish materials. After bearing eight children to her husband, Maurya has certainly done her reproductive duty. Nora and Cathleen are wholly concerned with caring for their failing mother and their remaining brother. From an Irish-Ireland perspective, these women are perfect. Not coincidentally, Riders to the Sea is the one Synge play that was always respected by Irish audiences.

So, in Riders, Synge shows Irish women following all the rules — and the results are catastrophic. The next generation of Irish patriots will not emerge from this Irish home. I lay down and writhed in an agony of doubt … It seemed that I was become in a moment the playfellow of Judas. Incest and parricide were but a consequence of the idea that possessed me.

Young and healthy male characters are typically paired with and overshadowed by these not-quite-dead bodies, who represent their futures as old men. In The Playboy, Christy is stalked not by the ghost but by the angry undead body of his wounded father. This veneration of fertility is the foundation of the religion into which Colm inducts Eileen — a form of nature worship derived as much from Wordsworth and the English romantics as from pagan Celtic mythology.

In no other play will Synge use pregnancy, childbirth or children to symbolise hope or the future. Not coincidentally, the balance of power between the lovers is reversed, with Deirdre pursuing and persuading Naisi. As Deirdre depicts it for Naisi, theirs is a love that has, as Lee Edelman might put it, no future; it leads not to birth but to death.

Deirdre rejects this imagined future as mother and grandmother, and instead embraces death. See also ibid. Multiliterate Ireland. Tina L. Contemporary Irish Poetry and the Canon. Kenneth Keating. The Contemporary Irish Novel. Professor Linden Peach. Edward Bond: A Critical Study.


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