Edition: The Playboy of the Western World and Other Plays (The Complete Plays of J. M. Synge)
J. M. Synge's Playboy of the Western World premiered in 1907 at the Irish National Theater and has become famous largely because of the riots surrounding its performance. The play was nearly shut down by radical nationalists (Sinn Fein was founded in 1905 by Arthur Griffith) who felt the play to be an offensive portrayal of Irish identity.
All three acts of Playboy take place at a public house owned by Michael James Flaherty.
Act I: As the play opens, Pegeen (Margaret Flaherty, Michael's daughter) is ordering supplies for the pub and for her wedding. Shawn, whom she is set to marry once a bishop's dispensation has been received, comes in and it is revealed that he is no match for her. He fears that the parish priest, Father Reilly, will disapprove of his visiting, and also fears a man that he has heard outside. Pegeen's father arrives, with his friends, Jimmy and Philly. They are off to Kate Cassidy's wake, where they plan on getting drunk; Shawn is afraid to go with them and the men make fun of him. Suddenly, Christy Mahon breaks in, a shy, timid and "slight young man" who asks for a glass of porter. Christy asks if the police come by there, and so they all begin to speculate about what he has done to be running from the police. Christy can barely get a word in but finally he admits he has killed his father. Amazed, more speculations follow as to what weapon he has used; it turns out to be a loy (a club). Christy immediately becomes of great interest to the party, and potentially even useful, as Jimmy notes, "Bravery's a treasure in a lonesome place, and a lad would kill his father, I'm thinking, would face a foxy divil with a pitchpike on the flags of hell." They decide to let him stay with them as their pot-boy, and the men leave. Shawn tries to stick around, but Pegeen sends him away, clearly interested in Christy. Encouraged by Pegeen's imaginings that he has been on the road regaling many girls with his story, and that he is a fiery soul much like a poet, Christy begins to come out of his shell. He tells her that his father ill treated him. The Widow Quin now arrives, and is also interested in Christy; the two women argue over who should keep him, and timidly, Christy expresses a preference to stay with Pegeen.
Act II: In the morning, Christy is cheerfully cleaning a pair of boots, when a group of village girls come in, having heard from Shawn that a murderer was at the Flaherty's. They too are delighted with Christy, and bring him suggestive gifts--"I brought you a little laying pullett--Feel the fat of that breast, mister," one village girl says. The widow comes in again, and proclaims that she is going to engage him in the sports of the town. Christy, happy with the attention that he is getting, tells them that his father was going to wed him to an old, overweight widow who had suckled him, and that thus he had gotten up the courage to kill him. Pegeen returns, and is angry at the visitors, and with Christy for entertaining them. Christy talks to her about how he is lonely in the world, but she dismisses him as merely posturing. They come to an understanding of their mutual interest in each other and Pegeen says she is single, when Shawn comes running in to tell Pegeen that the sheep are eating cabbages in Jimmy's field. She goes out, and Christy "with a new arrogance" (as the stage directions indicate), resists Shawn who tells him that he will give him some of his nice clothes if he will quit the town. The widow, meanwhile, has re-entered and she suggests to Shawn that she marry Christy, and then in return, Shawn should give her some material rewards. Shawn leaves, and as the widow and Christy are talking, Old Mahon bursts in--he is not dead but merely injured. Christy hides and the widow gets from Mahon that his son is a poor, timid idiot. The widow sends him off of Christy's track. She then finds out that Christy is stuck on Pegeen, so makes a deal with him that she won't reveal his secret and aid him, if he will promise her "a right of way I want...a mountainy ram, and a load of dung at Michaelmas" after he becomes master.
Act III: Jimmy and Philly come into the pub later in the day, drunk, and encounter Mahon lurking around. Widow Quin allays their suspicions that this may be Christy's father by suggesting that Mahon is mad. Meanwhile, Christy has been engaged a race, which he triumphantly wins atop an old mule. Mahon discerns Christy and runs after him. The widow, thinking quickly, gets the men to restrain him and manages to convince Mahon that he is mad, because he had said his son was an idiot, and clearly, the man on the mule was "the wonder of the Western World." Mahon is sent on his way as Christy returns, victorious, with Pegeen, other girls, and men surrounding him. Pegeen sends them all away, and Pegeen and Christy exchange some loving words. Pegeen's father returns drunk from the wake (with Shawn in tow) and informs them that the bishop's dispensation has been gotten, so that she must then marry Shawn. Pegeen rejects him and informs her father that she will be marrying Christy instead. Michael and Shawn fight over who should attack Christy--Shawn, of course, is too cowardly to do so and flees. Michael, seeing how cowardly Shawn is, agrees to the marriage: "A daring fellow is the jewel of the world, and a man did split his father's middle with a single clout, should have the bravery of ten." Just then, Mahon rushes in and all is revealed. A crowd, which has accompanied Mahon to the pub, eggs Chrsity and Mahon on in a fight. Outside, it seems that Christy has killed his dad this time for sure. Horrified, and fearing that they will be accomplices, Pegeen, Michael and the others decide to hang Christy with a rope. Christy by this time seems a changed character; fierce, and insolent. Mahon returns one more time, still not dead. He tells his father that they are taking him off to be hanged because he has killed his father. Mahon suggests that he and his son go away together, and so off they go, but in the words of Christy, "like a gallant captain with his heathen slave," himself ascendant over his father. Shawn expects to wed Pegeen after all, but the play ends with her lament that she has "lost the only Playboy of the Western World."
Ireland at the beginning of the twentieth century was politically wracked with competing sentiments as to how the Irish were to define themselves independently of British colonial subjugation. Fervent nationalists resented Synge's portrayal of Irish peasant life because they felt he was suggesting that they possessed such degraded and savage morals that they would deem a murderer of his own father a hero.
As George Cusack points out, however, the villagers make Christy in a hero largely because there is such a lack of bravery in the town--Pegeen makes fun of Shawn and upholds the likes of "Daneen Sullivan" and "Marcus Quinn," two figures who oppose British authority (Source: LitEncyc). The biggest surprise in Synge's drama is that this desire actually has a transformative effect: Christy begins a timid man but then actually becomes confident (in love and in fighting--he becomes both a poet and a warrior) because everyone has believed him to be so. Synge's play reveals the power of words in forming identities even when these words are not actively intended to form any sort of identity. Although the hero leaves town, Pegeen's lament that she has lost "the only Playboy of the Western World" suggests her awareness of Christy's transformation by their words--perhaps Synge suggests to his audiences a more conscious and careful use of language to forge a lasting Irish identity. As he indicates in his own preface to the work (January 1907), his own words are chosen carefully: "In every good play every speech should be as fully flavoured as a nut or apple, and such speeches cannot be written by anyone who works among people who have shut their lips to poetry." He is talking about the "joyless and pallid words" of modern drama such as that, specifically, of Ibsen and Zola--against this, Synge draws from the "fiery and magnificent" quality of the "popular imagination," locating in Irish peasant life the power necessary for forging together a Irish identity that they all might be proud of.