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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
John Millington Synge (1871–1909)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Lloyd R. Morris (1893–1954)
JOHN MILLINGTON SYNGE was born at Newtown Little, near Dublin, on April 16th, 1871. His early education was somewhat desultory; he attended private schools in and near Dublin until, at the age of fourteen, ill health forced him to leave school. From 1885 until 1888, when he entered Trinity College, Dublin, he read at home with a private tutor. Three interests of his childhood and youth, however, endured throughout his later life and exercised a profound effect upon his art as a writer. He was much given to solitary wanderings as a child, and explored the nearby Wicklow mountains, learning about birds, flowers, and trees, and picking up a knowledge of Irish from the peasantry. He also evidenced a passionate love for music, taught himself to play the flute, and studied piano and violin. While at college he studied harmony and counterpoint at the Royal Irish Academy of Music, and won a scholarship in 1891. His third major interest was the study of languages, for which he possessed an unusual capability. While at Trinity he acquired a working knowledge of several modern languages and obtained prizes in Irish and Hebrew. His aim, after his graduation (1893), was to fit himself for the profession of music, and with this end in view he went to Germany, staying first in Darmstadt and Coblentz, and later in Würzburg. He likewise visited Munich and Berlin, but renounced the profession of music and drifted to Paris. Between 1895 and 1902 he spent much of his time in France, visiting Ireland frequently, and making a trip to Italy in 1896. From 1895 to 1898 he formed one of the circle of Irish men and women who made their homes in Paris, and during this period he studied ancient Irish at the Collège de France, read widely in modern French literature, and wrote occasional criticism for various periodicals in both English and French. The most important event in his Paris life took place in March, 1898. He was introduced to William Butler Yeats, to whom the credit must be given of having discovered the most widely discussed of contemporary Irish playwrights. Yeats had just spent a day at Aranmore, the largest of the Aran Islands, and was enthusiastic about the charm and the atmospheric local color of the primitive island life. He strongly discouraged Synge from making any further attempt to achieve distinction as a critic of literature, and urged him to visit Aran and record a life which had found no expression in literature.  1
  Yeats’s advice bore fruit in Synge’s visit to Aran in May, 1898, during which he began the composition of his book ‘The Aran Islands.’ He paid subsequent visits to the islands in 1899, 1900, 1901, and 1902, traveled through West Kerry and made an excursion to the Blasket Islands in 1903, and toured through the “Congested Districts” with Jack B. Yeats in 1905. These trips, together with his memories of his boyhood wanderings among the Wicklow mountains, and other journeys about the Irish countryside, provided him with the subject matter of his art. The extent of his contribution to literature and the drama can be indicated by a brief bibliography. He wrote two one-act plays, ‘In the Shadow of the Glen’ (published 1904) and ‘Riders to the Sea’ (published 1903, though written later than ‘In the Shadow of the Glen’); one two-act play, ‘The Tinker’s Wedding’ (published 1908); and three three-act plays, ‘The Well of the Saints’ (published 1905), ‘The Playboy of the Western World’ (published 1907), and ‘Deirdre of the Sorrows’ (published 1910), the last of which he was completing when he died. ‘The Aran Islands’ was published in 1907, ‘Poems and Translations’ in 1909, and some travel-sketches and an essay, ‘In Wicklow,’ ‘In West Kerry,’ ‘In the Congested Districts,’ and ‘Under Ether’ were collected from the various periodicals to which they had originally been contributed, in the fourth volume of his collected works, published in 1910.  2
  Synge was one of the directors of the Abbey Theatre from its opening, in 1904, and took an active interest in the productions made there. He died on March 24th, 1909.  3
  Synge’s plays exhibit the curious, though not unusual, conjunction of a sensitive and delicate physical constitution and a love for the quickened emotional reaction produced in contest with the primitive and elemental experience from which its very weakness precludes it. In each of his plays there is emphasized the aspiration to a deeper and more complete personal experience of the passionate moments of life; it is the compelling motive of all choice and activity, and is forced into relief with tragic intensity by the irony of circumstance which alone obstructs its progress. But although this fundamental concern with an eagerness for more complete experience is an obvious projection of Synge’s own personality into his art, it is likewise an attribute of the life of which that art is the expression. In ‘The Aran Islands’ and ‘In Wicklow and Kerry’ are to be found the sources, not only of the plots of his plays, but of the background and frequently of the actual dialogue. In their sharp and comprehensive recreation of the life of the peasantry, in their finely etched description, and in the dialogue recorded they illustrate that ability to convey the quality of concrete impression which is one of the most important elements in Synge’s dramatic equipment. He loved chiefly what was wild and primitive in Irish life, and he had little interest in the modern age of industrialism, believing that it was robbing life of those climactic moments of surging passion and bitter contest which his dramatic instinct led him to value alone. He was in no sense a philosopher; his art offers no solution to the problem of life, and his only comment lies in the merciless irony with which all of his plays, with the exception of ‘Riders to the Sea’ and ‘Deirdre of the Sorrows,’ are pregnant.  4
  His theories of the playwright’s art are stated in the prefaces to ‘The Tinker’s Wedding,’ ‘The Playboy of the Western World,’ and ‘Poems and Translations.’ Primarily his art was a reaction against the influence of “neo-Celticism,” the chief exponents of which were William Butler Yeats and A. E. (George W. Russell), whose thought and writing had been productive of a school of imitators and whose fundamental conceptions had begun to crystallize into a literary and dramatic tradition. Synge felt that mysticism and a concern with the life of the spirit which excluded the conditions of homely reality were not characteristic of Irish peasant life; the poetry of legend, seeking refuge from the experience of common life in a world of dreams and in the beauty of the past, proved too remote from reality for one who believed that art has “strong roots among the clay and worms.” “On the stage,” he wrote,
        “one must have reality, and one must have joy; and that is why the intellectual modern drama has failed and people have grown sick of the false joy of the musical comedy, that has been given them in place of the rich joy found only in what is superb and wild in reality.”
He rebelled against the standards of the didactic drama, the play of intellectual problems, and the theory that art could be made the vehicle of propaganda. “The drama, like the symphony, does not teach or prove anything.” And finally, the “drama is made serious not by the degree with which it is taken up with problems that are serious in themselves, but by the degree in which it gives the nourishment, not very easy to define, on which our imaginations live.” His conception of character is most clearly expressed in a little essay on ‘The Vagrants of Wicklow.’ The gist of that conception is that variations from normal life are made interesting, in art, to the ordinary man, and such art is universal. This art, however, is not preoccupied with “the antics of the freak,” which can never be made interesting to the ordinary mind. “To be quite plain, the tramp in real life, Hamlet and Faust in the arts, are variations; but the maniac in real life, and Des Esseintes and all his ugly crew in the arts, are freaks only.”
  Synge’s art is just as surely the art of the variation as is that of Shakespeare or Goethe. In so far as he founded his plays upon reality of experience as he had observed it, he may be termed a realist. It is also true, however, that his very cult of the variation made him seek the unusual, and his preoccupation with the aspects of experience which are sharply delineated from the common tenor of daily life prove him as largely a romanticist. It is difficult, likewise, to reconcile to the profound irony of his art, and to the bitter pessimism of his own view of life as it finds expression in his poems, the intense joy in life and beauty which is one of its most apparent characteristics. A delight in nature, in the physical beauty of women, in the wild life of the roads, in whatever was pungent and grotesque and primitive in experience, is joined with a morbidly keen consciousness of the brevity of life and its futility, and the imminent prospect of death. But although Synge’s view of life was pre-eminently tragic, he has employed tragedy as the unrelieved and dominating mood in but one play, ‘Riders to the Sea.’ It is to his poems that the reader must turn for the purely personal expression of Synge’s reaction to life. They reveal him most completely; in them there is the mordant irony, the passion for elemental reality, the sense of the tragic incompleteness of life, the naturalistic revolt against the etiolated spiritual beauty cultivated by Yeats and by A. E., and the abiding love of nature and of life with which his plays are so thoroughly informed.  6
  The primary truth of his plays to Irish life lies in their expression of the conflict between the actual world and the world of the imagination, which is the fundamental theme common to them all. In ‘Riders to the Sea’ we have Maurya grieving in the intuitive foreknowledge of her son’s death. In ‘In the Shadow of the Glen,’ Nora, the young wife married to an old husband, dreams of the passion of youthful love, and goes out into the wild night on the roads with a tramp in quest of the larger experience of which her imagination has told her. In ‘The Well of the Saints’ the blind couple, having discovered their own ugliness in reality, prefer to return to the world of imagination in which they both are beautiful, even at the cost of again giving up their sight. In ‘The Playboy of the Western World’ Christy is persuaded by the villagers’ belief in his prowess into thinking himself a hero, and the irony is apparent when he learns the difference between “a gallous story and a dirty deed.” Synge was neither the first nor the only contemporary Irish playwright to employ this theme; it is implicit in the work of Yeats, in which it assumes an autobiographic meaning; it has been satirized by Lady Gregory, and conceived in a purely dramatic vein by many of the younger generation of dramatists. The chief infidelity of his work to contemporary Irish life is, as M. Bourgeois has pointed out, his total disregard of the religious life of the people in a country in which that phase of experience plays one of the greatest rôles in the daily life of the people. But for this obvious defect there is good and sufficient reason. Synge was interested in the life of the peasants only in so far as that life represented a survival of the life of the ancient Gael. He had no desire to embody a social content in his art; his business was with folk-lore and folk-history, and especially with folk-tradition in its most primitive forms. He clearly asserted that he did not wish his work to be understood as a comment upon, or criticism of, modern Irish life.  7
  It was this interest in the ancient Gael, combined with a lively sense of the value of peasant idiom as a medium for artistic expression, which led him to write in a prose which can best be described as a literal translation of Gaelic into English. Earlier experiments with this form had been made by Douglas Hyde in his translations of the songs of Connacht, and by Lady Gregory in ‘Cuchulain of Muirthemne,’ and to the work of Hyde in particular Synge was greatly indebted. He labored incessantly at the vehicle of his expression, adding, as he learned, to its exuberance, to its fantasy, to its poetry, and finally he achieved that perfect harmony of form and content which is the index of true and noble art. It is one of these curious coincidences in literary history that when he felt he had sufficiently prepared himself to deal with the material for which he cared most deeply, the prehistoric legend of Ireland, he began a play in which the most poignant tragedy is that of love and youth and power interrupted by death, and that death itself interrupted him at his task. He conceived his tale of Deirdre in his wonted naturalistic vein, and wrote it out in folk-dialect, bringing the legend out of the land of mystic vision to which it had been relegated by Yeats and by A. E., into the realm of reality and common experience.  8
  His contribution to literature is a bitter, almost gruesome humor, a rich sense of the poetry of common experience, a savage irony that is mellowed by his love for beauty and for nature, and a prose style distinguished, by its poetic texture, its musical quality and its rhythm above all other contemporary prose. His plays have two analogues in literary manner. On the one hand they resemble the mediæval French farces, and the pungent raciness of Rabelais. On the other, they partake of the satire and sophisticated cynicism and irony of the novels of Anatole France. We know that Synge was familiar with this material and it may be counted, just as the work of Pierre Loti has been counted, an influence upon his art. But in the final analysis Synge is a clearly original, and not a derivative, writer.  9
  BIBLIOGRAPHY.—The standard authority on Synge is Maurice Bourgeois, ‘John M. Synge and the Irish Theatre’ (1913), containing an excellent bibliography. See also W. B. Yeats, ‘Synge and the Ireland of His Time’ (1911); John Masefield, ‘Dictionary of National Biography,’ 2nd Supple., and Contemporary Review, April, 1911; Lady Gregory, ‘Our Irish Theatre’ (1911).  10

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