Of the Western World
By John Millington Synge (1871-1909)
A Study Guide
Cummings Guides Home..|..Contact This Site
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2005
Type of Work
.......The Playboy of the Western Worldis a comedy with satiric and tragic elements. Synge wanted his audience to laugh at his characters, but he also
wanted the audience to notice their humanityfor they have their faults and defects. The people who frequent Flahertys country tavern are stuck in a boring corner of Ireland. But except for Christy Mahon, they do nothing to improve their lot. Even Pegeen Flahertyan attractive and intelligent young woman who is full of spiritfails to extricate herself from the humdrum life of rural Mayo County.
The reader is led to believe at the end of the play that she will end up with the spineless lout Shawn Keough for her husband.
Meaning of the Word Playboy
.......In early twentieth-century Ireland, playboy did not have the meaning it has today. Rather, it meant hoaxer or trickster. The widow Quin calls Christy Mahon the playboy of the western world after discovering that his father is still alive. Her epithet for him is, in effect, a euphemism for great liar or fraud, expressing her belief that he
concocted the story about killing his father. However, playboy as the early twentyieth-century Irish used the word had a light-hearted, whimsical nuance to its meaning. So the Widow Quin is actually complimenting and condemning Christy at the same time. Christy, of course, is an accomplished tricksteror playboybecause of his gift
for spinning a good tale. He is so convincing in his description of the murder that no one doubts his story until his dead father shows up. The title of a French version of the play, Le Beau-Parleur du vaste monde (which loosely translates as The Worlds Greatest Storyteller), reflects the view that Christy is an ingenious trickster because of his talented
action takes place in the early 1900's in a rural tavern (called a public house, a pub, or a shebeen) along the Atlantic coast in County Mayo, Ireland. Among the major industries in County Mayo, located in Connacht province, are farming and fishing. The name Mayo is derived from the Gaelic words Maigh Eo (also spelled Mhaigh Eo), meaning the Plain of the
Christopher Mahon:Young man
who claims to have murdered his father. At the beginning of the play, Christy is ordinary and undistinguished except in his ability to tell a good storynamely the story of how he killed his father. His tale turns him into a hero to his listeners. Their admiration for him improves his self-esteem. By the end of the play, he is a better man.
Margaret Flaherty:Pretty, quick-witted pub owner's daughter who takes a fancy to Christy Mahon. Her friends call her Pegeen Mike, or simply Pegeen. She is a bit of a tragic figure at the end of the play, when Christy leaves her community without reconciling with
Michael Flaherty:Father of Margaret (Pegeen) Flaherty and owner of the pub in which the action of the play takes place. He enjoys attending wakes (night-long viewings of corpses before funerals), where liquor and lively talk flow freely. During most of the onstage
action of the play, he is offstage attending a wake with his friends.
Shawn Keough:Dull, spineless young farmer who has Michael Flaherty's approval to marry Margaret (Pegeen), his second cousin. She despises Shawn.
Philly Cullen, Jimmy Farrell: Friends of Michael Flaherty who attend the wake with him.
Widow Quin: Crafty, opportunistic 30-year-old who makes a play for Christy.
According to rumors, her husband died by her hand.
Sara Tansey, Susan Brady, Honor Blake:Girls who go gaga for Christy after hearing of his murderous talents.
Town Crier, Peasants, Farmers
Old Mahon: Christy Mahon's father. Thanks to his thick skull, he survives Christy's attempts to kill him. Although he has always looked down
on his son, he comes to respect him at the end of the play after Christy reveals himself as a man of nerve and derring-do.
Father Reilly:Local Roman Catholic priest. He does not appear in the play, but his presence is nevertheless felt because of Shawn Keough's frequent
references to him. Because Shawn is a relative (second cousin) of the object of his affection, Pegeen, he needs the approval of the Catholic Church to marry her. Therefore, Shawn is forever worrying about how his conduct will be perceived by Father Reilly, apparently a by-the-book cleric.
Kate Cassidy:Deceased local resident. It is her wake that Flaherty and his friends attend.
By Michael J. Cummings...©
.......It is an autumn evening along the Irish coast in County Mayo. Shawn Keough stops at Michael
James Flahertys country pub to visit Flahertys daughter, Margaret, called Pegeen Mike by her family and friends. Keough, a fat young fellow devoid of wit or talent, means to marry pretty Pegeen, a spirited colleen of twenty who is minding the tavern in her fathers absence. But she entertains no fancy for Shawn. When he pesters her about the good bargain she would have in becoming his wife,
she tells him to stop tormenting her while she is doing her job.
.......Her father enters with Philly Cullen and Jimmy Farrell. They are on their way to Kate Cassidys wake. Flaherty and his friends enjoy wakes, which are among the few lively activities in
the Mayo countryside, and they generally stay for the whole night to watch the corpse while imbibing spiritous glee.
.......Pegeen is upset about having to tend the pub alone. After all, who knows what evildoer might steal in from the shadows to set upon
her. She complains, "It's a queer father'd be leaving me lonesome these twelve hours of dark, and I piling the turf [peat] with the dogs barking, and the calves mooing, and my own teeth rattling with the fear."
.......When Flaherty suggests that Keough
keep her company, Shawn begs off, saying he would incur the wrath of Father Reilly for staying alone with her the whole night.
By and by, a slight young fellow named Christy Mahon stumbles in, tired and dirty, and asks for a glass of porter. When he inquires whether the police frequent the establishment, Michael Flaherty thinks he might be on the run. Flaherty and his friends question Christy. Did he commit larceny? Did he stalk a young girl? Did he fail to pay his rent? Is he a counterfeiter? Does he have three
.......Christy, who speaks in a wee voice, says he is the son of a well-to-do farmer and therefore has no need of money. And, says he, he is a decent fellow who would never do wrong to a woman. When Flaherty and the others continue to pump
Christy, Pegeen comes to his defense: "You did nothing at all. A soft lad the like of you wouldn't slit the windpipe of a screeching sow." But Christy balks at that observation, as if she had accused him of not being man enough to commit a crime. Then he reveals that he is indeed on the run, for he has killed his father, who was getting old and crusty, the way I couldn't put up with him at
.......Flaherty, intrigued, motions for Pegeen to refill Christy's glass, then asks Christy how he did the deed. Christy says, "I just riz [raised] the loy [club] and let fall the edge of it on the ridge of his skull, and he went down at my
feet like an empty sack, and
never let a grunt or groan from him at all."
.......After he buried him, he hit the road, walking for eleven
days, facing hog, dog, or divil. . . . Jimmy Farrell praises him for his bravery, and Pegeen joins in: "It's the truth they're saying, and if I'd that lad in the house, I wouldn't be fearing the . . . cut-throats, or the walking dead."
.......Christy swells with pride, and Flaherty offers him a job in the tavern. Keough objects, but Pegeen silences him. Christy, feeling safe and welcome, decides to stay at least for the night. Jimmy Farrell says, "Now, by the grace of God, herself [Pegeen] will be safe this night, with a man killed his father holding
danger from the door, and let you come on, Michael James, or they'll have the best stuff drunk at the wake."
.......After Flaherty, Farrell, and Philly Cullen leave, Shawn Keoughjealousoffers to
stay with Pegeen, but she pushes him out the door and bolts it. Pegeen now has a brave man, a hero, to protect her, and she and Christy warm to each other, exchanging compliments about their looks and other qualities.
.......Meanwhile, the Widow
Quin, a woman of about thirty, stops by after hearing from Keough about Pegeens visitor. Widow Quin is locally famous for reportedly having murdered her husband. Eyeing Christy, she says, Well, aren't you a little smiling fellow? It should have been great and bitter torments did rouse your spirits to a deed of blood.
.......She wants to take Christy with her to her place. Pegeen tells Christy that the widow killed her husband with a worn pick, and the rusted poison did corrode his blood the way he never overed [got over] it, and died after. That was a sneaky kind of murder did win
small glory with the boys itself. Mrs. Quin retorts that a woman who has buried her children and murdered her husband is a better match for Christy than a girl the like of Pegeen. But Pegeen fends her off, for she is determined to keep Christy for herself.
.......In the morning, three village girlsSara Tansey, Susan Brady, and Honor Blakecome by the tavern with gifts for the brave man that killed his father. Sara has duck eggs, Susan has butter, and Honor has cake. Widow Quin enters after them, saying she has registered Christy in a local athletic competition featuring
racing, leaping, and pitching. At the womens prompting, Christy tells his murder story.
.......He first points out that his father tried to make him marry the Widow Casey, a 45-year-old walking terror who weighed 205 pounds, had a bad leg and a blind
eye, pursued both young and old men, and suckled him after he was born. When he refused to marry her, his father swung at him with his scythe. I gave a lep to the east," says Christy. "Then I turned around with my back to the north, and I hit a blow on the ridge of his skull, laid him stretched out, and he split to the knob of his gullet."
.......Pegeen comes in, well knowing what the women are up to, and chases them off. Later, Shawn Keough comes back, followed by Widow Quin, to tell Pegeen some of her sheep have strayed into a neighbors field to eat cabbage. While Pegeen runs off to fetch the sheep,
Keough offers Christy a new hat and coat, as well as breeches and ticket to the western states, if he will just go away so that Shawn can resume courting Pegeen. The widow butts in, telling Christy to try the clothes on. He can decide later, she says, whether to accept Keoughs offer. When Christy goes into another room to try them on, Keough tells the widow he thinks that Christy is just
dressing up for Pegeen and has no intention to leave.
.......The widow then offers Shawn a bargain of her own: Shawn must give her his red cow, a ram, the right-of-way across his rye path, and a load of dung at Michaelmas. Shawn not only agrees to
her demands but also says he will throw in a wedding ring, a suit for Christy for the wedding day, and various wedding gifts, including two goats for the wedding dinner.
.......After Christy comes back out wearing the new clothes, Shawn leaves so the
widow can go to work on Christy. But Christy, spying a fearsome sight coming toward the pub, hides behind a door. It is his father, still alive! After old Mahon enters the pub, he asks Mrs. Quin whether she has seen a young man on the run. She tells him hundreds pass by each day to catch the Sligo boat, then asks why he is looking for him. Mahon says, "I want to destroy him for breaking the head
on me with the clout of a loy. (He takes off a big hat, and shows his head in a mass of bandages and plaster, with some pride.) It was he did that, and amn't I a great wonder to think I've traced him ten days with that rent in my crown?"
villain, he says, is his own son. When the widowwho is able to see Christy behind the doorquestions old Mahon about his son, Mahon says his son is a good-for-nothing lout who is afraid of women, gets drunk on the mere smell of liquor, and once required medical treatment for drawing on a pipe of tobacco. Hes dark and dirty, says the
old man, an ugly young blackguard.
.......Widow Quin tells him she did see such a young man on his way to catch a steamer. She then gives him directions that send him on a wild-goose chase. After old Mahon leaves, the widow scolds Christy, mildly, for
pretending to be the Playboy of the Western World. Then she invites him to marry her and live in her house, where she will protect him from inquiries about whether he committed murder.
.......Outside, young ladies are calling for Christy. They want
to escort him to the sporting competitions. Christy, meanwhile, tells the widow he has his heart set on Pegeen. He would be forever in the widows debt if she helped him win Pegeen. The widow says she will if he promises to give her a ram, a load of dung at Michaelmas, and a right-of-way across land. Christy promises to do so.
.......Later in the day, Jimmy and Philly return from the wake, both tipsy, and enter the tavern. They speculate about how Christy killed his father and buried him, wondering what will happen if someone discovers the old mans bones. While they are talking, Old Mahon
comes in and sits at a table, for he has had no luck finding Christy. Continuing his conversation with Philly, Jimmy says that when he was a boy he found the bones of a man in a graveyard and tried to put them together like a puzzle. What a sight those bones were, Jimmy saysone would never again find the like of them. Overhearing that part of the conversation, old
Mahon gets up and shows them his skull, saying, Tell me where and when there was another the like of it. He tells them it was his own son who struck him.
.......They are impressedbut unaware that Mahon is Christys
father. The window Quin comes in again, aghast to see old Mahon. He tells her he had no luck tracking down his son. Mrs. Quin gives him a drink and seats him out of earshot of the others. Then she tells Jimmy and Philly that old Mahon is daft. It was a tinker who split his skull, she says, but the old Manupon hearing about the local hero, Christyclaims it was Christy who did it. They believe her.
.......Cheering is heard. Everyone in the tavern looks out the window and sees Christy winning the mule race. When the spectators raise him onto their shoulders, old Mahon identifies him
as his good-for-nothing son. Widow Quin pronounces Mahon mad for thinking so, for how could his sonif he is the fool that Mahon says he isbe such a great sportsman and win the admiration of so many people? Mahon admits he has not been himself lately: "There was one time I seen ten scarlet divils letting on they'd cork my spirit in a
gallon can; and one time I seen rats as big as badgers sucking the life blood from the butt of my lug."
.......The widow tells him hed best leave, for the lads in the crowd dont take kindly to madmen. When he goes on his way, Philly goes with him, saying
he will give the old fellow some supper and a place to rest, then check to see if he is as mad as the widow says.
Meanwhile, with the continuing cheers of the crowd following him, Christy enters the tavern in his jockeys uniform with Pegeen and other girls. The people present him
prizes, including bagpipes and a fiddle. Christy, riding the glory of the moment, asks Pegeen to marry him, and she consents.
Michael Flaherty Returns
.......Michael Flaherty returns then from the wake and congratulates Christy for his great victory in the race. When Pegeen tells him she plans to marry Christy, her father at first objects. But moments later, when Shawn Keough is afraid to fight Christy for Pegeen, old Flaherty renounces Keough as a coward and welcomes
Christy as his daughters future husband.
.......Then old Mahon returns with a club, reveals himself as Christys father, and begins beating Christy. The crowd then turns on Christy for posing as a murderer. Even Pegeen condemns him, saying, "And to
think of the coaxing glory we had given him, and he after doing nothing but hitting a soft blow and chasing northward in a sweat of fear."
.......Christy has only one optionto kill his father again. The two men fight. Christy grabs the club and chases Old Mahon outside. In the center of the crowd, Christy brings down the club. There is a cry, then dead silence. Christy returns to the tavern in a daze. This time the crowd, having witnessed a real murder close up, is horrified at the deed. Pegeen says:
......."I'll say, a strange man is a marvel, with his mighty talk; but what's a squabble in your back-yard, and the blow of a loy, have taught me that there's a great gap between a gallous story and a dirty deed."
.......After the people tie Christy up, he asks Pegeen to release him, but she refuses. Then they burn his leg with sod. A moment later, though, old Mahonwonder of wonderscomes back from the dead one more time.
When he asks Christy why he is tied up, Christy says, "They're taking me to the peelers [police] to have me hanged for slaying you."
.......Old Mahon, who now admires his son for his bravery, unties him and says, My son and myself will be going our own
way, and we'll have great times from this out telling stories of the villainy of Mayo, and the fools is here."
.......Christy willingly goes along but declares that henceforth he will be master of the house. He is a changed manconfident now, self-assured.
.......Shawn Keough declares that a miracle has been worked in his favor. Now, he says, he can marry Pegeen. She boxes his ears and tells him to go away. Then, throwing a shawl over her head and weeping, she
says, Oh my grief, I've lost him surely. I've lost the only Playboy of the Western World.
Theme: Escaping a Humdrum and Suffocating Life
.......Christy Mahon acts to change his lifefirst by cracking his fathers skull and second by telling a grand tale that endears him to his listeners. Neither action, of course, is how a young man in the real
world should go about improving himself. But The Playboy of the Western World takes place in a fanciful world that allows the author to do the implausible and the outrageous. So Christy describes himself as the most admirable of murderers to the rural folk of County Mayo. Ironically, though, Christy really does transform himself in response to the adulation heaped on him. However, his
admirerspeople hungry for diversion from their humdrum lifedo not change; the closest they get to an exciting life is to drink, listen to exciting stories, or attach themselves to a hero, Christy, from the outside. After he returns home, they return to their monotonous life.
Climax Synges Style
.......The climax of a play or another literary work, such as a short story or a novel, can be defined as (1) the turning point at which the conflict begins to resolve itself for better or worse, or as (2) the final and most exciting event in a series of events. The climax of The Playboy of the Western World occurs when the local residents discover that Christy's father is still alive.
According to the second definition, the climax occurs when Christy "kills" his father a second time but reconciles with him after the old man recovers.
a master at writing lively dialogue laced with exaggeration and colorful imagery. In The Playboy of the Western World, he infuses the speech of his characters with the rich English-language dialect of the Mayo County Irish, a dialect influenced by the syntax and vocabulary of Gaelican ancient Celtic tongue of Ireland and Scotland. To learn the intonations and
speech patterns of the people of western Ireland, Synge lived several years in the Aran Islands off the Atlantic coast, in Galway Bay. Gaelic and Gaelic-tinged English have been spoken there for centuries. It was not uncommon for Synge to take notes when he heard Aran denizens speaking.
.......When writing the dialogue for Playboy, Synge laced it with authentic western-Irish regionalisms and vulgarisms, as well as inflections and rhythms characteristic of western-Irish speech. However, he also peppered the dialogue with words or phrases common in other parts of Ireland. Synge explained his writing scheme in
the preface to the play. The preface says, in part:
In writing The Playboy of the Western World, as in my other plays, I have used one or two words only that I have not heard among the country people of Ireland, or spoken in my own nursery before I could read the newspapers. A certain number of the phrases I employ I have heard also from herds and fishermen along the
coast from Kerry to Mayo, or from beggar-women and balladsingers nearer Dublin; and I am glad to acknowledge how much I owe to the folk imagination of these fine people. Anyone who has lived in real intimacy with the Irish peasantry will know that the wildest sayings and ideas in this play are tame indeed, compared with the fancies one may hear in any little hillside cabin in Geesala, or
Carraroe, or Dingle Bay. All art is a collaboration; and there is little doubt that in the happy ages of literature, striking and beautiful phrases were as ready to the story-teller's or the playwright's hand, as the rich cloaks and dresses of his time. It is probable that when the Elizabethan dramatist took his ink-horn and sat down to his work he used many phrases that he had just heard, as he
sat at dinner, from his mother or his children. In Ireland, those of us who know the people have the same privilege........As to the imagery, it relies heavily on vivid metaphors and hyperboles. For example, when Michael Flaherty asks Christy Mahon whether he has committed larceny, Christy replies that he has no need to stoop to thievery, for his father could have bought up the whole of your old house a while since, from the butt of his
tailpocket, and not have missed the weight of it gone.
.......Most of the humor in the play grows out of the dialoguebut not all of it. Synge also relies on situation comedy for humorous effecthaving a character hide behind a door or barge in unexpectedly. Old man Mahon pulls off the ultimate surprisecoming back from the dead. In making the transition from one conversation to the next, Synge demonstrates superlative writing skill. Never do the transitions seem forced or contrived; instead, one conversation flows smoothly into the next.
The trick is that Synge steers the dialogue in one conversation toward a subject of interest to a person who initiates a new conversation. The theatergoer or reader hardly notices that the author has been tugging at his marionette strings.
First Performance: Audience Riots
.......The Playboy of the Western Worlddebuted on January 26, 1907, at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. The National Theatre Society produced the drama and W.G. Fay directed and played the part of Christy Mahon. Riots and protests followed this opening performance after
many theatergoers charged that the play (1) capitalized on the stereotype of the Irish as heavy drinkers, brawlers, and boasters;
(2) depicted the rural Irish as simpletons, (3) intentionally fostered bigotry against the Catholic Church by describing the
parish priest in the play as a tyrant and by implying that all Catholics are as dim-witted and weak-minded as the character Shawn Keough, and (4) presented offensive language and behavior, including the scene at the end in which an angry crowd ties up the main character, Christy Mahon, and then blisters him with the embers of burning turf.
.......After a company from the Abbey Theatre took the play to the United States in 1911, many Irish-Americans protested on the same grounds. The mindset of the Irish and American protesters was shaped, in part, by the following: At the time
the play debuted, the Irish were striving for a respectable national identity after enduring prejudice, economic exploitation, and severe poverty. The world had looked down on them, and now they were attempting to look up to a better day. Alcoholism was no greater a problem in Ireland, they contended, than in other countriesperhaps even less of a problem.
.......Many Irish believed Synge despised Catholicism. Here's why: Synge was raised a Protestant by a family known for anti-Catholicism dating back at least to his grandfather, a Protestant clergyman and confirmed anti-Catholic. Synge's
uncle was an evangelist who tried to convert Catholics of western Ireland, in the Aran Islands. The islanders kicked him out. However, Synge himself is said to have rejected the Protestantism of his youth in favor of becoming an atheist.
.......Be that as it may, there is evidencein his own writingthat Synge did harbor anti-Catholic sentiments. When describing a funeral he observed, he compared Catholic rituals to pagan observances. After the protests against his play, he wrote: "The attacks upon me have rather disgusted me with the middle-class Irish Catholic. As you know I have the
wildest admiration for the Irish Peasants, and for Irish men of known or unknown genius ... but between the two there's an ungodly ruck of fat-faced, sweaty-headed swine."
.......On the other hand, Synge fell in
love with a Catholic, Molly Allgood, who played Pegeen in a performance of The Playboy of the Western World. Also, he centered the preponderance of his writing on Catholics, not Protestants. Today, Catholics who appreciate good literature generally regard Synge's play as outstanding drama. Whether or not Synge was anti-Catholic or anti-rural Irish, he wrote a good
Study Questions and Essay Topics
- Why does Christy readily tell strangers that he killed his father?
- Did Christy's father have a good reason for being cranky with his son?
- Shawn Keough appears to have no commendable qualitiesno wit, no talent, no courage. Does he have anything in common with Christy Mahon?
- To what extent is the humor in the play a result of the way the characters speak rather than what they say?
- The custom of holding wakes has a long history in Ireland. Write an expository essay outlining the history and development of Irish wakes.
- What accounts for Old Mahon's acceptance of his son at the end of the play?
- Why does Christy go home with his father instead of remaining and marrying Pegeen?
More To Explore