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Use of Irony in Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World



At the highest intellectual level, we have the use of irony in writing a literary work .This may be inherent in the language, where we find the incongruous linking of holy terms with unholy actions: “Marcus Quin, God rest him, got six months for maiming ewes and he a great warrant to tell stories of holy terms with unholy actions: “ Marcus Quin, God rest him, got six months for maiming ewes and he a great warrant to tell stories of holy Ireland” (p.17); or, again: “Pegeen; Is it killed your father?Playboy: With the help of God I did surely ad that the Holy Immaulate Mother may intercede for his soul.”

More generally, the Catholic Church comes in for some hard knocks, whether through the absurd strictness and narrow orthodoxy of Father Reilly, or through the apparent failures of the faithful to understand his teaching. The most contemptible character in the play, Shawn Keogh, is also , outwardly at least, the most pious; whereas the more spirited Pegeen and widow Quin are prepared to question, even to mock, ecclesiastical authority. “ Stop tormenting me with Father Reilly” (p.17), says Pegeen to Shawn or, again, “Go on, then, to Father Reilly and let him put you in the holy brotherhoods” (p.27). The Widow Quin shows her independence from the spiritual adviser more sarcastically: “It isn’t fitting, says the priesteen” (p.32). The abundant use of holy names has already been commented on. Sara Tanse’s misconception of the function of confession went deeper: “When you’d be ashamed this place, going up winter and summer with nothing worth while to confess at all”.

The attitude to excessive drinking is not spared. Old Mahon’s descriptions of his own excesses are presented as an exploit (p.62) while Michael James’s idea of good wake is one where “there were five men, aye, and six men stretched out retching speechless on the holy stones.”(p.66)

Finally the double-think of the people’s reaction to the law and its apparatus is constantly evoked: “the peelers is….decent, droughty poor fellows” (p.26); “the juries……selling judgments of the English law”(p.41). Law-breaking is often a feat to be admired, respect for the authorities a matter of expediency, rather than of principle.

It should not be concluded that The Playboy is a satire on Irish moral life; but the range of comedy has something for all tastes, from broad farce to skilful irony. Very often the different levels of comedy meet and mingle to the delight of all.

The Irish audiences of the time were not largely mistaken in thinking that The Playboy of the Western World was an attack on the Irish character. They were wrong only in reaching violently to the attack. Synge in this play made fun of certain aspects of the Irish character and the Irish mentality of his day. Such criticism of a nation is often made by authors in their literary works. Satire and irony are freely employed by authors to attack living individuals and whole communities or groups of people. Dryden and Swift are outstanding examples of authors who made use of the weapons of irony and satire to attack their cotemporaries and even the nation to which they belonged. Synge was therefore exercising his right as an author to expose some of the absurdities, faults, and weakness of his countrymen. (He himself was an Irishman). The Irish audiences should have viewed The Playboy with tolerance and good humor. It is noteworthy that Synge’s criticism of the Irish people in this play is very subtle, but the Irish audiences were quick to perceive the criticism which was largely implied and covert and only occasionally open or overt.

An Attack on the Conventional Father-Daughter Relationship

The Playboy attacks some of the accepted values of the settled life of the Irish people of that time. It ridicules certain aspects of Irish domestic life, Irish social life, ad Irish religious life. It is first of all an attack on the conventional kind of relationship existing to submit to the authority of their parents, especially their father, unquestioningly. Now, Synge seems to challenge this aspect of the domestic life of his time. In the very beginning, we find Pegeen complaining that her father is bent upon going to attend a wake and leaving her alone in the shebeen for the night. Pegeen feels that it is not right for her father to leave her alone during the night when he is well aware that there are certain rowdy elements in that region and when she apprehends trouble from itinerant tinkers and cu-throat fellows in khaki. She also complains that her father has not provided her with a pot—boy to help her in her duties in the shebeen and also to stand by her when there is some trouble from any intruders. Her father, however, takes the matter very lightly. He tells her that a pot-boy is hard to find and that he is not going to make a proclamation through a town-crier of Castlebar that he needs a pot-boy. As for her feeling of insecurity, the utmost that he is willing to do for her is to suggest to Shawn that he should spend the night in the shebeen, a suggestion which gives rise to a lot of comedy in Act I. When her father says that she is a “queer” daughter to expect him to come back home during the night after he has taken liquor, she replies that he is a “queer” father to be leaving her alone for the twelve hours of the night. Thus there is a clash between father and daughter, though the clash is a very mild one because of the fact that Michael is a jovial and happy-go-lucky kind of man.

An attack on the customs of arranged Marriage

Then Synge seems to be attacking ironically of course, the custom of arranged marriages in Ireland of the time. Pegeen is engaged to be married to Shawn, but it is obvious that the engagement has been taken place not because she fell in love with him, but because her father found Shawn to be a man of substance and because Shawn had promised to give him a herd of bullocks. Subsequently, when Pegeen falls in love with Christy and tells her father that she has made up her mind to marry that young fellow and not Shawn, her father becomes furious and says that she is “a heathen daughter” to give him such a shock especially when he is already feeling overwhelmed by the excessive liquor that he had consumed at the wake. It is only because Shawn refuses to feel jealous of Christy and because he proves himself a thorough coward by refusing to fight Christy that Michael feels compelled to give his consent to Pegeen’s marrying Christy. It is another matter that events take a different turn, and Peggen is unable to marry Christy.
 
The Unsatisfactory relationship between Christy and his Father

The comic exposure of this, unsatisfactory relationship between fathers and their children is even more marked in the case of Christy and his father. In the course of his account of his life in the native village, while talking to Pegeen, Christy tells her that his father used to ill-treat him and used to force him to work too hard, that his father was a heavy drunkard who would drink for weeks together and throw stones at the stars, that all Christy’s brothers and sisters used to curse their father who was in the habit of constantly swearing like a military man, and that the old man was often locked  up in jail or in a lunatic asylum. Later, Old Mahon has a good deal to say against Christy, accusing the young man of being a good-for-nothing, worthless fellow who did no work but was a “lier on walls” and a “talker of folly”. In the course of a dispute, Christy had hit his father with a spade and the blow seemed to have killed the old man. Later we find that the old man had not died ad that he has now come in search of his son in order to “destroy” him for the attack which he had made upon his old father. Thus the relations between father and son have been extremely unpleasant, and both are full of grievances against each other. It is only at the end that the two become reconciled.

An Unsuitable Wife Proposed for Christy by his Father  

In the case of Christy also, Synge exposes in a comic means the undesirability of an arranged marriage. In Act II Christy tells the village girls and Widow Quin that his father wanted him to marry Widow Casey, a woman of forty-five, bulky, lame, blind of one eye, a woman of loose morals, “a walking terror from beyond the hills.” Christy adds that this woman had suckled him for six weeks when he was born, “and she a hag this day with a tongue on her has the crows and sea-birds scattered.” Christy’s account is very amusing and is part of the comedy of the play, but it also brings home to us the point that Old Mahon was acting in a most arbitrary manner in asking his son to get married to Widow Casey. Christy also tells his listeners that his father had certain selfish motives in wanting him to marry that particular woman. It was Christy’s refusal to marry her that had preoccupied the quarrel between him and his father ad had led Christy to attack the old man who had tried to hit him first with a scythe.

An Attack on the Irish People’s Sheltering a Murderer

Then the pay contains also an oblique attack on the Irish people for their strange attitude towards a parricide. The glorification of Christy by Michael, Pegeen, and the others seems to us to be most irrational. Synge has told us that the story of this play was based o an actual incident pertaining to some people in one of the Aran Islands giving shelter to a criminal. Now, it is possible for us to interpret the glorification of Christy by the people of Mayo have been as a satire on the mentality of those people. The people of Mayo have been leading a life of monotony and boredom. Besides, they seem to be very tolerant of violence and even brutality as is clear from Pegeen’s praise for a fellow who had “knocked the eye” from a police constable and for a fellow who used to maim ewes. To us, it seems both objectionable and ridiculous that a man should be praised for his capacity to inflit an injury on a policeman or to cripple dumb animals. Therefore when Christy receives plenty of praise from Philly ad Jimmy and afterwards from the village girls, Widow Quin, etc., just because he had killed his father with a single blow of the spade, we are both amused and disturbed. The attitude of the people of Mayo towards Christy’s murder of his father is by no means commendable. The author is obviously poking fun at all these people including Pegeen who is found praising Christy to the skies, “a man fit to be holding his head high with the wonders of the world.” It is another matter that, in Act III, when Christy once again “murders” his father, this time in the presence of the people, they react differently to his action, turning hostile to him and tying him up in order to hand him over o the police. But even this change in their attitude seems to be a satirical comment on their inconsistency. Pegeen’s remark that there is “a big gap between a gallous story and a dirty deed” is hardly a rational explanation of this change.

A Satirical Attack on religious Narrow-mindedness

The Playboy contains also a subtle attack on religious narrow-mindedness ad on false piety. Shawn is so “virtuous” and “pious” that he refuses to spend a night alone with an unmarried girl in a shebeen even to protect her. He may thus appear to be a model rectitude. But this over-scrupulous attitude makes him appear absurd, and the audience would no doubt roar with laughter at his refusal to spend the night with Pegeen because of the objections that Father Reilly might afterwards raise. The comedy of this situation is heightened by Shawn’s managing to slip away from Michael’s hold and running out of the Shebeen, leaving his coat in the hands of Michael. Shawn’s behavior at this time is most funny and Michael makes us laugh still more when he points out to Pegeen the absurdity of Shawn by assuring her that, when she is married to that fellow, she would not have to keep a watch on his conduct even if he spends a lot of his time in the company of young girls. What Michael means is that Shawn is the kind of man who will never prove unfaithful to his wife. Indeed, Shawn’s subservience to Father Reilly is made to appear extremely preposterous and highly comic. About a dozen times Shawn names the priest, invoking his authority and exhibiting his reverence for the Church. All this devotion on the part of Shawn to the priest, and his compliance with the priest’s moral injunctions, are made to appear comic and contemptible. In this way Synge makes fun of excessive religiosity and exaggerated piety.

A Satire on Excessive Drinking

Synge seems also to be attacking, again in a comic manner, the evil of excessive drinking. We have a number of heavy drunkards in the play. They are Michael James, Philly, James, and Old Mahon. The chief reason why Michael and his friends are keen to attend the wake is that plenty of free liquor flows there. Next morning Jimmy and Philly, who are already semi-drunk, are seen searching for some liquor in the cupboards of the shebeen, and Michael comes home singing in a state of intoxication. Towards the end, when Jimmy and Philly feel afraid of handling Christy, Shawn scolds them for their feeling nervous in going near Christy. On this occasion, he again invokes the authority of Father Reilly, so that his remark becomes comic even though it has much sense in it. Says he: “Isn’t it true for Father Reilly that all drink’s a curse that has the lot of you so shaky and uncertain now?” This remark has considerable truth in it, because excessive drinking certainly makes a man shaky and uncertain. Then there is Old Mahon about whom Christy says that he used to drink for weeks and then, getting up at dawn, used to go out into the yard “as naked as an ash-tree in the moon of May,” in order to throw clods at the stars in the sky. Old Mahon himself tells Widow Quin that on one occasion he drank so much in the company of the Limerick girls that he had almost become a paralic. Both Christy’s account of his father’s drunkenness and Old Mahon’s own account of this drunkenness are a satire on the evil of drinking.

A Satirical Attack on the attitude to English Policemen    

Synge also seems to be making fun of the attitude of the Irish people towards the English policemen who were in charge of law and order in Ireland of the time to which this time pertains. Pegeen describes the “peelers” or the police constables in very contemptuous terms, and so does Michael. Speaking to Christy, Michael says that the peelers in this place are decent, thirsty, poor fellows who would not touch even “a cur dog,” much less arrest a dangerous murderer like Christy. May be, Synge shared this attitude of contempt towards the English policemen who were regarded as aliens and foreigners by the Irish and to whom the people at large were bitterly hostile.

Widow Quin’s Murder of Her Husband

Finally, there are satirical touches in the portrayal of Widow Quin who is believed to have murdered her husband and who, on several occasions, admits that she had “destroyed” her man and buried her children. Now this insistence on Widow Quin’s criminal action might have some purpose behind it. Widow Quin herself shows no sense of guilt at all. In fact, she refers unashamedly to her action in having killed her husband. The village girls are also quite tolerant towards her. It is only Pegeen who condemns her but perhaps even Pegeen does so because Widow Quin has become her rival for Christy’s affections. Perhaps Synge seems to imply that Widow Quin’s action in attacking her husband was not, after all, very reprehensible because the fault might have been that of the husband. Under certain circumstances, if a woman hits her husband, she may be justified. There is nothing to show that Widow Quin’s intention in hitting her man was to murder him.   

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