Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...©
Playboy of the Western World
is 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
humanity—for they have their faults and defects. The people who frequent
Flaherty’s country tavern are stuck in a boring corner of Ireland. But
except for Christy Mahon, they do nothing to improve their lot. Even Pegeen
Flaherty—an attractive and intelligent young woman who is full of spirit—fails
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.
of the Word Playboy
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 trickster—or
playboy—because 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 World’s 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 Yews.
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 story—namely 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.
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 her.
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.
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
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,
Girls who go gaga for Christy after hearing of his murderous talents.
Town Crier, Peasants,
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.
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.
Deceased local resident. It is her wake that Flaherty and his friends
Michael J. Cummings...©
is an autumn evening along the Irish coast in County Mayo. Shawn Keough
stops at Michael James Flaherty’s country pub to visit Flaherty’s 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 father’s 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.
father enters with Philly Cullen and Jimmy Farrell. They are on their way
to Kate Cassidy’s 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.
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."
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 wives?
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 all.”
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."
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."
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."
Flaherty, Farrell, and Philly Cullen leave, Shawn Keough—jealous—offers
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.
the Widow Quin, a woman of about thirty, stops by after hearing from Keough
about Pegeen’s 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.”
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.
the morning, three village girls—Sara Tansey,
Susan Brady, and Honor Blake—come 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 women’s prompting, Christy tells his murder
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."
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 neighbor’s 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 Keough’s 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.
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.
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 widow—who
is able to see Christy behind the door—questions
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. He’s “dark
and dirty,” says the old man, “an ugly young blackguard.”
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.
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 widow’s 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.
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 man’s 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 says—one 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
are impressed—but unaware that Mahon is Christy’s
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 Man—upon hearing about the local
hero, Christy—claims it was Christy who did
it. They believe her.
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 son—if
he is the fool that Mahon says he is—be 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
widow tells him he’d best leave, for the lads in the crowd don’t 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 jockey’s
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
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 daughter’s future husband.
old Mahon returns with a club, reveals himself as Christy’s 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."
has only one option—to 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.
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."
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 Mahon—wonder
of wonders—comes 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."
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."
willingly goes along but declares that henceforth he will be master of
the house. He is a changed man—confident now,
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
Mahon acts to change his life—first by cracking
his father’s 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 admirers—people
hungry for diversion from their humdrum life—do
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 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.
was 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 Gaelic—an
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.
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.
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.”
of the humor in the play grows out of the dialogue—but
not all of it. Synge also relies on situation comedy for humorous effect—having
a character hide behind a door or barge in unexpectedly. Old man Mahon
pulls off the ultimate surprise—coming 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.
Performance: Audience Riots
Playboy of the Western World
debuted 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;
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.
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 countries—perhaps even less of a problem.
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.
that as it may, there is evidence—in his own writing—that 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."
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 play.
Study Questions and Essay
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 qualities—no 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
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?