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Showing posts with label Synge. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Synge. Show all posts

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Is 'The Playboy of the Western World' a farce or a comedy?


Farcical element in The Playboy of the Western World

The Playboy of the Western World is a comedy rich in farcical elements. In fact the play is a boisterous comedy which keeps us amused and laughing throughout. The comic elements, many of which are coarse and crude, are so abundant in the play that sometimes it seems that the play is more a farce than a comedy. Moreover, like a comedy the play does not end with the ringing of the marriage bells. The play may also seem to have no definite purpose or aim. For these reasons, I think it would not be a crime if we term The Playboy of the Western World as a farce.

In theatre, a farce is a comedy which aims to entertain the audience by means of unlikely, extravagant, and improbable situations, verbal humour of varying degrees of sophistication, which may include sexual innuendo and word play. Farce is also characterized by physical humor, the use of deliberate absurdity or nonsense, and broadly stylized performances. In dramatizing Playboy of the Western World Synge does not disdain the effects of farce on the sage, the primitive appeal to eye and ear, which transcends nationality and education. Indeed it is likely that his close acquaintance with the plays of Shakespeare and Moliere encouraged him to include so many farcical scenes in his own comedies.

There seems to be a steady increase in the number of farcical scenes as the play progresses. The humour of situations in this play is often farcical.

There are two ludicrous scenes in the first act: The first situation is when Shawn trying to escape from the clutches of Michael in order to avoid sleeping at the shebeen for the night, manages to run away, he leaves his coat behind in Michael’s hand. He is so terrified of having to spend the night alone with Pegeen, an unmarried girl, that he has to make a run from shebeen in order to avoid being forced to stay by Michael. There are undertones of subtler comedy on each occasion.

Another situation is Pegeen and Widow Quin each pulling Christy in her own direction because of their rivalry over the young man. We have known of two men fighting over a woman but here we have a farcical situation because here two women fight over a man and each pulls him toward herself. It is an indignified physical situation which immediate appeal is primitive and visual.

In Act 2 there are more such scenes. Christy hiding a mirror behind his back when the village girls come to see him, constitutes a funny sight for the audience while this situation becomes even more comic when one of the girls says that Christy is so vain that he even wants to look at the reflection of his back side in the mirror, adding that probably men who murder their fathers become conceited. 

Sara putting on Christy’s boots is funny too. Then we feel amused to find Philly who is already semi-drunk searching for more liquor and, on finding all the cupboards in the shebeen locked, cursing Peggen as the devil’s own daughter.


Christy hiding behind the door when he sees his father is alive and coming towards the shebeen locked is another comic situation. Here the comedy arises from Christy’s discomfiture at finding his father to be very much alive and also from the contrast between what Christy has proclaimed and what turns out to be the real fact. The appeal is till mainly visual in this swift series of comic sketches, and, highly-colored language is a delight to the ear.

In Act III, where we move from one farcical incident to another at bewildering speed: Jimmy and Philly, slightly drunk, talking nonsense about skulls and bones; Old Mahon’s second entrance; Michael James’s drunken return from the wake; Shawn Keogh fleeing from Christy’s threats of violence; Old Mahon beating his son before the assembled villagers; Sara’s petticoat being fastened on Christy; Christy biting Shawn; Pegeen scorching Christy; Old Mahon’s last return on all fours.

The efforts of Widow Quin and Sara to fasten a petticoat on Christy in order to disguise him as a woman so that he may be able to escape from the wrath of the crowd is also funny, because they are trying to convert a supposed hero into a female.

One of the most amusing situations which is bound to evoke a roar of laughter from the audience is Christy’s managing to bite Shawn’s leg and Shawn’s screaming with pain.

But perhaps the most amusing situation in the whole play is the second resurrection of Old Mahon. The old man comes back into the shebeen on all fours not having been killed even by the second blow which Christy has given him, this time again with a spade. Apart from Synge’s obvious delight in farce, such scenes often have a clear dramatic function: the hero is being humiliated and ridiculed as a very proper punishment for his vanity, boasting and lies.

Thus, we see that Playboy of the Western World is a farce in a good sense of the word. The play has the capacity to entertain the audience to the utmost satisfaction with its comic and farcical elements.



'The Playboy of the Western World' as a Tragi-comedy



The Playboy of the Western World by Synge can be termed as a tragi-comedy. A tragic-comedy is a play which claims a plot apt for tragedy but which ends happily like a comedy. The action seems to end in a tragic catastrophe until an unexpected turn in events brings out the happy ending. In such a play tragic and comic elements are mixed up together. The play Playboy of the Western World ends in comedy though it might have well ended as a tragedy.

In one mood we may suggest that The Playboy of the Western World is sheer extravagant comedy, with elements of strong farce in the resurrection of Christy’s father, and in the deflation of a boastful man. As such, it embodies the classic elements of reversal and recognition. And yet it is a comedy which ends unhappily for Pegeen who is unable to marry Christy, the Playboy. Another way of looking at this play is to regard it as a satirical comedy. It is a satire on the proverbial willingness of the West to give shelter to the criminal and murderer. In that case Christy, the Playboy, becomes a comic Oedipus, the man who killed his father.

A tragedy

But again we may see the play, if we wish, as a tragedy, with Pegeen as the heroine-victim. Pegeen found her man, made him, won him in the teeth of opposition from her own sex, and then lost him. Pegeen’s loss at the end is absolute and beyond comfort, because she has lost his body too; while the complacent Shawn sees the obstacle to his marriage with her removed.

A distorted tragedy

According to the critic, The Playboy has a very special place in the history of tragedy. This critic regards it as a deliberately distorted tragedy, all the joints wrenched out of place by a comic vision that Synge imposed upon it. This play contains in itself a number of the formal qualities of traditional tragedy. The hero possesses, or acquires through the story of his murder of his father, a Promethean virtue in his destruction of the “jealous old tyrant”, a tyrant who was about to force him into a hateful marriage. It is, however, a distorted tragedy because at the end we find ourselves face to face with the comic resurrection of the slain tyrant-father, and the dissolution of the heroism which had been built up by Christy’s imagination and the imagination of his listeners. The hero vanishes, the son is reconciled to his father, our interest, in so far as it is tragic, is transferred to Pegeen whose final speech is a lament reminding us of the lament of Dido, the Queen of Carthage, over the departure from her kingdom  of her lover, Aeneas.

Serious Elements in the Play: The Two Murders

Now, if we were to choose a label for this play, we would unhesitatingly describe it as a comedy, though we would at the same time admit that there are some tragic elements in it. The Playboy contains an abundance of fun, and at places makes us laugh heartily. The tragic elements in this play do not produce any lasting impression on our minds, and though Pegeen’s lament at the end at having lost her over is quite moving, it does not alter the character of the play as a comedy.

Christy’s Grievances against his Father

Christy’s complaints against his father in the course of his conversation with Pegeen in ActI have also a certain degree of seriousness about them. Christy describes his life in his native village as having been one of drudgery with few recreations. He tells Pegeen that his father was drinking and cursing all the time, and ill-treating him under the influence of a hard-hearted woman. Christy’s account of his past life and of his father’s callous treatment of him certainly gives rise to the kind of pity which we associated with a tragedy.

Old Mahon’s Grievances against His Son

Subsequently it is the father’s turn to complain against his son’s misbehavior. Talking to Widow Quin (in ActII), Old Mahon says that his son had driven him out in his old age when he had nobody to aid him. He tells Widow Qui that his son was an ugly young “streeler” with a murderous mouth, “a lier on walls”, a “talker of folly,” an idler who did not do any useful work at all, an ugly background. Even if half of what Old Mahon alleges against his son be true, we have every reason to sympathise with him.  We  are inclined to sympathise with the old man even more towards the end when he has to accept defeat at the hands of his son and when Christy tells him that he will be the leader from now on, the master of all flights, and that the old man will have to cook his oatmeals and wash his potatoes.

Widow Quins Futile efforts to Save Christy from the Crowd

Then there is something pathetic about Widow Quin’s efforts to save Christy. The  whole crowd has turned hostile to Christy, and he finds himself helpless. Widow Quin alone stands by his side and tries to take him away beyond the reach of the crowd, but Christy refuses to go away because he does not want to leave Pegeen. Widow Quin tries even to disguise his as a woman in order  to make it easy for him to slip away, but he is determined to stay on in the hope that Pegeen will marry him. This attempted disguise also has its comic side.

The Persecution of Christy

The persecution of Christy by the crowd is also a melancholy episode in the play. Without going into the merits of what Christy has done or not done, the manner in which the crowd, and especially Pegeen, treats him does arouse a feeling of sympathy in us. Pegeen declares that the world will see this man beaten like a schoolboy, and she refers to him as an ugly liar who was trying to play off as the hero. She goes to the extent of scorching his leg. Michael and others have bound Christy with a rope, and he lies struggling vainly on the floor. All this has a touch of tragedy. But even this situation has been enlivened by various comic touches.

Pegeen’s Lament at the end

But it is the final speech of Pegeen which lends to this play a certain distinctly tragic quality. After Christy has left, all Pegeen’s dreams vanish. She has told him earlier in this Act that she and he would make an excellent pair of “gallant lovers,” and she had said that she would be burning candles to celebrate the divine miracle which had brought him to her. She has also told her father that she was now determined to marry Christy, and she had obtained his consent. But all Pegeen’s hopes have come to nothing, and she finds herself deserted by her lover, though the fault is entirely her own. After having finished reading the play, out thoughts do remain with Pegeen for some time, and we share the grief to which she gives expression in her final speech.

Funny Situations

Some of the situations in the play are uproariously funny. For instance, Shawn slipping away from Michael’s hold and leaving his coat in Michael’s hands cannot fail to make the audience in a theatre roar with laughter. Other funny situations are Pegeen and Widow Quin each pulling Christy’s boots; Christ’s holding a mirror behind his back; Christy hiding himself behind the dooe when he sees his father alive and coming towards the shebeen; Philly searching for some more liquor when he is already semi-drunk; and above all, Christy’s biting Shawn on the leg and Shawn’s screaming with pain.

Humor of character

Most of the characters in the play make us laugh because of their absurdities or weakness. Drunkenness is most often amusing and we here have four heavy drunkards-Michael James, Philly, Jimmy, and Old Mahon. Michael and his friends make it a point to go to a wake in order to drink the free liquor that is served there. Old Mahon once drank himself almost to a state of paralysis when he was in the company of Limerick girls. Cowardice is another comic trait. Shawn Keogh of Killakeen amuses us not only by his refusal to fight Christy but by refusing even to feel jealous of “a man did slay his da.”

Humor of Dialogue

The dialogue in the play too is a source of rich comedy. Leaving aside a few speeches which may momentarily depress us or put us in a serious mood, the rest of the dialogue amuses us greatly. The verbal duel between Pegeen and Widow Quin is one of the comic highlights of the play. Widow Quin slanders Pegeen by saying that the latter goes “helter-skeltering” after any man who winks at her on a road, and Pegeen accuses the widow of having reared a ram at her own breast. Then there are the satirical remarks Pegeen makes to Shawn. She tells him that he is the kind of lover who would remind a grit of a bullock’s liver rather than of the lily or the rose. And then she  ironically advises him to find for himself a wealthy wife who looks radiant with “the diamond jewelleries of Pharaoh’s ma.”
 
A Boisterous Rollicking Comedy on the Whole

In spite of all this, The Playboy is a comedy, and a boisterous, rollicking comedy at that. A play which amuses us at every steps and makes us laugh again and again cannot be called a tragedy just because it ends in the frustration of the hopes of the heroine. The heroine’s frustration at the end is almost neutralized by Christy’s departing speech in which he thanks the people of Mayo for having transformed him into a hero.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Elements of Classical Tragedy and Modern Theathre in 'Riders to the Sea' by John Millington Synge

 'Riders to the Sea'  by John Millington Synge combines both modern and classical elements in it. The play is modern in that it deals with the sorrows and predicaments of a common human being and it is classical in that it maintains the classical principles of drama as laid down in Aristotle’s Poetic. Simply we can say that Riders to the Sea is a modern tragedy in classical settings and with classical overtones. A brief discussion on how both modern and classical elements are blended in Riders to the Sea is presented below.

Unlike Greek tragedies, Riders to the Sea deals with the sufferings of a common human being named Maurya who is the head of an Irish peasant-cum fisherman family. While Greek tragedies dealt with the sufferings of high-born people, modern tragedies deal with the sufferings of common people. And while Greek tragedies tell the stories of kings and princes or people of kingly status, which do not resemble the sufferings of the whole mass of people of that country, a modern tragedy tells the story of a common man whose sorrows, sufferings and predicaments are not individual, rather resemble the sorrows and sufferings of the whole mass of people of the protagonist’s class in his/ her own country as well as in other countries. Therefore the story of a modern tragedy is general and universal but the story of a Greek tragedy remains the story of a particular man or a particular family; it is not general or universal. Hence the story of Oedipus Rex is the tragic story of a particular king of a particular country, but the story of Riders to the Sea is the story of all families living in the Aran islands. It is also the story of those families in other countries where people are helpless like Maurya in the hands of nature. In Riders to the Sea, the tragic intensity of the life of Maurya, who falls a victim to her ill-luck losing all the male members of the family in the sea is also shared by other women of Aran Islands. Therefore, Maurya is not an individual woman here; she is every woman of her community. Wretched and helpless women like Maurya are also found in other contexts in other countries. Thus the play ceases to be regional and becomes global in significance, which is the chief characteristic of a perfect modern tragedy.


Riders to the Sea is a modern play from another important point of view. The stage and props management and the directions provided by the dramatist at different stages in the play are characteristic of a good modern play. Plays until 19th century were highly narrative. The stories of such plays were developed mainly through the speeches of characters. In ancient plays, even in Shakespearean plays, stage-settings or props-management were not much important, having no role at all to develop the story. Only characters were important in these plays: they would move and speak and thus develop the story. But the story of a modern play is communicated to the audience not only through the speeches of characters but also through different symbols and images. In fact everything that is kept on the stage has the role of a character to develop the story of a modern play. In Riders to the Sea we come across different symbols and images which like characters help the story move forward. For example, the different images that we find when the play opens clearly tell us that Maurya’s is a peasant cum fisherman family. At different other stages of the play we come across such symbols and images that contribute to the right mood of the story.

Maurya’s puppet like helplessness in the hands of nature and her inescapable sufferings show the play dealing with the triviality and insignificance of human existence on earth, which has been an important theme of modern and post-modern plays. Whenever a son of Maurya’s is in the sea, she remains awake all night praying for his safety and seeking God’s grace to save her son, but every time Maurya is betrayed in her prayer and expectation. The indifference of nature to Maurya’s prayer and hopes as well as her sufferings makes her existence on earth completely meaningless. At the end of the play, Maurya , defeated in the war of life, accepts an stoical surrender to fate: “No man at all can be living forever”.

Despite being a modern play, Riders to the Sea contains a number of classical elements. The play deals with some basic and fundament points of classical tragedies. Firstly, the play very strictly maintains the three unities of time, place and action. Only what happen in one day are shown on the stage and the events that occurred earlier are reported on the stage—which is a basic requirement of ancient plays. The play opens and ends in the same place and events that occur or are done in distance are off-staged, and the play holds the thread of a single plot very consistently—which are also the basic requirements of ancient plays.

Secondly, Riders to the Sea deals with the classical concept of tragic conflict. Ancient critics and dramatists believed in fatalism for human sufferings. They held that people suffer not for their own faults and actions but for their fate. According to the concept of fatalism, everything is predestined and man’s efforts of changing or preventing it do not succeed. Man is totally helpless in the hands of fate. In Riders to the Sea, all male members of Maurya’s family get drowned in the sea one by one but none of them is responsible for their death. The death of the male members causes untold sufferings for Maurya and her two daughters, but neither Maurya and her daughters are responsible for their sad fate nor could they prevent their sufferings in any way.

Considering the aspects discussed above, it can be said that the play Riders to the Sea is a modern tragedy in classical form. It is modern in its theme, characterization and in the way it communicates the story to the audience and classical in its form and concept of tragic conflict. The blending of modern and classical elements in this play has made it a unique drama in the history of world literature.

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