Showing posts with label The Playboy of the Western World. Show all posts
Showing posts with label The Playboy of the Western World. 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, October 10, 2012

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.