It’s the birthday of Irish author John Millington Synge (books by this author), born in Rathfarnham, near Dublin, in 1871. He completed only six plays before his untimely death of cancer at the age of 37.
He considered it his first serious work, and he came to believe that under their Catholic exterior, the Irish rural poor still maintained a healthy dose of old-fashioned paganism. His time in the islands inspired his later plays, including In the Shadow of the Glen (1903), Riders to the Sea (1904), and The Well of the Saints (1905).
He’s perhaps best known for The Playboy of the Western World (1907). It’s the story of a peasant boy who becomes famous in his village after he boasts of killing his father, but ends in disgrace when it turns out his supposed victim is very much alive. Synge wrote the play in English, but used the rhythms and structure of Irish Gaelic. The play opened to riots at the Abbey Theatre; Irish nationalists didn’t like the image of their countrymen celebrating a murderer, braggart, and buffoon, nor did they think that Irish plays should be written in English, the language of the oppressor. Catholics were offended at the Protestant playwright’s portrayal of Catholic peasants. Nationalists called it “a vile and inhuman story told in the foulest language we have ever listened to from a public platform.” The Irish Times wrote: “It is as if a mirror were held up to our faces and we found ourselves hideous. We fear to face the thing. We scream.” Irish Americans also rioted at its openings in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia.
In 1909, Synge learned that the Hodgkin’s disease — which he had first been diagnosed with in 1897 — was no longer treatable. He began his seventh play, Deirdre of the Sorrows, as he was recovering from his last surgery. He died before it was finished.