The Fame Of J. M. Synge
( Originally Published 1919 )
THE most masterly piece of literary advertising in modern times was surely Mr. Yeats's enforcement of Synge upon the coteries—or the choruses—as a writer in the great tradition of Homer and Shakespeare. So successful has Mr. Yeats been, indeed, in the exaltation of his friend, that people are in danger of forgetting that it is Mr. Yeats himself, and not Synge, who is the ruling figure in modern Irish literature. One does not criticize Mr. Yeats for this. During the Synge controversy he was a man raising his voice in the heat of battle—a man, too, praising a generous comrade who was but lately dead. The critics outside Ireland, however, have had none of these causes of passion to prevent them from seeing Synge justly. They simply bowed down before the idol that Mr. Yeats had set up before them, and danced themselves into ecstasies round the image of the golden playboy.
Mr. Howe, who wrote a sincere and able book on Synge, may be taken as a representative apostle of the Synge cult. He sets before us a god, not a man—a creator of absolute beauty—and he asks us to accept the common view that The Playboy of the Western World is his masterpiece. There can never be any true criticism of Synge till we have got rid of all these obsessions and idolatries. Synge was an extraordinary man of genius, but he was not an extraordinarily great man of genius. He is not the peer of Shakespeare : he is not the peer of Shelley he is the peer, say, of Stevenson. His was a byway, not a high-road, of genius. That is why he has an immensely more enthusiastic following among clever people than among simple people.
Once and once only Synge achieved a piece of art that was universal in its appeal, satisfying equally the artistic formula of Pater and the artistic formula of Tolstoi. This was Riders to the Sea. Riders to the Sea, a lyrical pageant of pity made out of the destinies of fisher-folk, is a play that would have been understood in ancient Athens or in Elizabethan London, as well as by an audience of Irish peasants today.
Here, incidentally, we get a foretaste of that preoccupation with death which heightens the tensity in so much of Synge's work. There is a corpse on the stage in Riders to the Sea, and a man laid out as a corpse in In the Shadow of the Glen, and there is a funeral party in The Playboy of the Western World. Synge's imagination dwelt much among the tombs. Even in his comedies, his laughter does not spring from an exuberant joy in life so much as from excitement among the incongruities of a world that is due to death. Hence he cannot be summed up either as a tragic or a comic writer. He is rather a tragic satirist with the soul of a lyric poet.
If he is at his greatest in Riders to the Sea, he is at his most personal in The ,Well of the Saints, and this is essentially a tragic satire. It is a ,symbolic play woven out of the illusions of two blind beggars. Mr. Howe says that " there is nothing for the symbolists in The Well of the Saints," but that is because he is anxious to prove that Synge was a great creator of men and women. Synge, in my opinion at least, was nothing of the sort. His genius was a genius of decoration, not of psychology. One might compare it to firelight in a dark room, throwing fantastic shapes on the walls. He loved the fantastic, and he was held by the darkness. Both in speech and in character, it was the bizarre and even the freakish that attracted him. In Riders to the Sea he wrote as one who had been touched by the simple tragedy of human life. But, as he went on writing and working, he carne to look on life more and more as a pattern of extravagances, and he exchanged the noble style of Riders to the Sea for the gauded and overwrought style of The Playboy.
" With The Playboy of the Western World," says Mr. Howe, " Synge placed himself among the masters." But then Mr. Howe thinks that " Pegeen Mike is one of the most beautiful and living figures in all drama," and that she is the normal," and that Synge, with an originality more absolute than Wordsworth's, insisted that his readers should regain their poetic feeling for ordinary life ; and presented them with Pegeen with the stink of poteen on her, and a playboy wet and crusted with his father's blood.
The conception of ordinary life-,or is it only ordinary Irish life ?—in the last half-sentence leaves one meditating.
But, after all, it is not Synge's characters or his plots, but his language, which is his great contribution to literature. I agree with Mr. Howe that the question how far his language is the language of the Irish countryside is a minor one. On the other hand, it is worth noting that he wrote most beautifully in the first enthusiasm of his discovery of the wonders of Irish peasant speech. His first plays express, as it were, the delight of first love. He was always a shaping artist, of course, in search of figures and patterns ; but he kept his passion for these things subordinate to reality in the early plays. In The Playboy he seemed to be determined to write riotously, like a man straining after vitality. He exaggerated everything. He emptied bagfuls of wild phrases—the collections of years —into the conversations of a few minutes. His style became, in a literary sense, vicious, a thing of tricks and conventions : blank-verse rhythms—I am sure there are a hundred blank-verse lines in the play—and otiose adjectives crept in and spoilt it as prose. It became like a parody of the beautiful English Synge wrote in the noon of his genius.
I cannot understand the special enthusiasm for The Playboy except among those who read it before they knew anything of Synge's earlier and better work. With all its faults, however, it is written by the hand of genius, and the first hearing or reading of it must come as a revelation to those who do not know Riders to the Sea or The Well of the Saints. Even when it is played, as it is now played, in an expurgated form, and with sentimentality substituted for the tolerant but Mephistophelean malice which Synge threaded into it, the genius and originality are obvious enough. The Playboy is a marvellous confection, but it is to Riders to the Sea one turns in search of Synge the immortal poet.
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