Play, Desire, and the Anti-Imperial Imagination

in John Millington Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World

by: Dylan Hartman

Cover art by Lulu M. Fleming-Benite (BC ’25)

Around the turn of the 20th century, influential Irish playwrights, scholars, artists, journalists, and poets disseminated works seeking to revive Gaelic cultural and literary traditions in Ireland. The proximity of this revival to, and the occasional involvement of its contributors in, the revolutionary acts which ultimately severed Ireland’s imperial bonds to the British government–particularly the 1916 Easter Rising and the Irish War of Independence (or Anglo-Irish War) of 1919-1921– has suggested that the Irish cultural revival constitutes a necessary moment in the development of Ireland’s anti-colonial revolution. While the return to Gaelic traditions manifested an assertion of the sovereignty of the Irish people against colonial governance by the British, the revival’s political content was nevertheless neither the singular cause of nor a reliable foundation for the anti-colonial nationalism which motivated the Easter Rising and the War of Independence. Throughout the revolutionary period, as R. F. Foster observes, “the relationship between the revolutionaries of 1916 and the literary revivalists remained ambiguous.” (193). Moreover, the very works which most conspicuously contributed to the political ambitions of the literary revival often undermined the beliefs and practices of those who shared such ambitions.

One of the seminal, and most controversial, texts of the Irish Literary Revival is J. M. Synge’s 1907 comedy Playboy of the Western World. As the riots which accompanied the play’s premiere at the Abbey Theater imply, the play assumed a critical, often hostile posture toward the anti-imperial and revolutionary politics which the Revival broadly endorsed. The play is centered around the changing appearance of an anonymous young farmer, Christy Mahon, who resides in a rural peasant community in County Mayo. The narrative follows the community’s odd celebration of Christy after he recounts for them a fabricated tale of in which he brutally murders of his father. But when his (still living) father arrives in the village, the villagers violently renounce him.The first time Christy is enunciated as the “Playboy of the Western World” (Synge 94) occurs just after his father enters the play: a villager proclaims to Christy “you’re the walking Playboy of the Western World, and that’s the poor man you had divided to his breeches belt” (94). The parallel gesturing toward “you” (Christy) and “that” (Christy’s father)– the former of which is the “Playboy of the Western World,” and the latter of which is a dead man “divided to his breeches belt”– denies the object-correspondence of each claim. “That” man who is walking out of the room cannot be the mangled corpse to which Christy supposedly reduced his father, and thus, through the logic of parallelism, “you”– Christy– cannot be “the walking Playboy of the Western World.” Throughout the remainder of the play, various speakers attribute the word “playboy” to Christy,  culminating in the final tragic eruption from the young villager (and Christy’s lover) Pegeen: “Oh my grief, I’ve lost him surely. I’ve lost the only Playboy of the Western World” (112). As a signifier– a mere textual sign distinct from its meaning (or the signified)– “playboy” becomes thoroughly attached to Christy, even as its meaning apparently does not apply to him. It is tempting to suppose that despite the new signifiers attached to Christy– “daring fellow” (106), “fool of men” (107), “good-for-nothing” (107), “ugly liar” (108), “idiot” (108), “holy terror” (110)– somehow “playboy” resists displacement, recuring even though so many other signifiers seem to negate it. However, if “playboy” is first enunciated at the moment that Christy’s self-narrative is breached, and if it is enunciated in a claim that rhetorically denies its own object-correspondence, then “playboy” may be a signifier that is iterable because of the presence of contradictory signifiers, because of the destabilization of signification itself. In this case, Christy is a “playboy” because he is inciting and accenting the act of play, compelling an awareness of the play of language– the lack of stability in a signifier’s attachment to an object– in a people who fiercely resist such awareness. Through Christy’s transformation, Playboy dramatizes the movement, in Homi K. Bhabha’s terms, from cultural diversity to cultural difference, from the constructed “separation of totalized cultures that live unsullied by the intertextuality of their historical locations” (50) to that play which “undermines our sense of the homogenizing effects of cultural symbols and icons.” (52) The radical debunking and re-writing of Christy Mahon’s origins– and the accompanying disruption of the symbolic order of desire for the inhabitants of the Mayo village– produces an awareness of cultural difference, representing the potential for a liberated, playful mode of anti-colonial identity construction which avoids the homogenizing and polarizing characteristics of Irish nationalism.

When Christy first enters the shebeen– long before he is named “playboy”– the villagers rapidly attach various signifiers of crime or violence to him, hoping that the reason for Christy’s sudden appearance is because he is on the run from the law. When Pegeen laments the punishment of the men who “knocked the eye from a peeler” and “got six months for maiming ewes” (Synge 70), her glorification of violence is inseparable from a life under colonial law in which “no such heroes remain in the village, because the very acts that would allow them to emerge would also cause them to be imprisoned, executed, or forced to emigrate” (Cusack 579). In this entanglement of desire and oppression, the colonial law is the set of prohibitions which make signifiers of violent action function as paths toward pleasure. Jacques Lacan claims that the notion of an extremity of pleasure– jouissance– depends on the existence of prohibition: “transgression in the direction of jouissance only takes place if it is supported by the oppositional principle, by the forms of the Law” (177). Those who live under an oppressive colonial law, then, experience a collective, social desire for those acts which transgress against such a law. When Pegeen’s father Michael eagerly asks Christy, “Is it yourself is fearing the polis?” and enthusiastically concludes “If it’s not stealing, it’s maybe something big” (Synge 73), he– like many others in the village– pursues a pleasure of political transgression, a communal pleasure which presupposes the existence of an unjust, overbearing law to transgress.

Nevertheless, the speeches of the villagers do not represent their object of their collective desire– the destruction of colonial authority– but crucially approximate and gesture toward that object. When the villagers conjecture that “maybe the land was grabbed from him, and he did what any decent man would do,” or that Christy “beat Dan Davies’ circus, or the holy missioners making sermons on the villainy of man,” or that he did “strike golden guineas out of solder,” or that he did “marry three wives” or “went fighting for the Boers” (Synge 74), these representations point to the absence, and precisely not the presence, of what the villagers principally desire. If the human-crafted signifier is that which “creates the void and thereby introduces the possibility of filling it” (Lacan 120), then the signifier does not represent the filling of the void but is “an object made to represent the existence of the emptiness at the center of the real” (Lacan 121). Accordingly, the villagers generate a mass of signifiers which bring a void into being but do not fill that void; the source of colonial authority, and violence toward it, are conspicuously absent from their violent, impassioned speeches. The reason Christy’s declaration,“I killed my poor father” (Synge 74), captivates those in his presence is that it metaphorically gestures toward the object they seek. It mirrors the destruction of the colonial father, the authority from which colonial law derives, but it still only represents the future possibility of obtaining that object. The enunciation of Christy again and again as “the man [that] killed his father” (84) makes Christy (temporarily) the embodiment of this potent signifier, to the (temporary) pleasure of the young women and old men of the village.

Christy’s embodiment of this created signifier ceases in the third act when Christy’s father emerges into the shebeen to claim that he is “His father, God forgive me,” after which Pegeen almost immediately exclaims to Christy that “it’s lies you told, letting on you had him slitted, and you nothing at all” (Synge 107). In this spontaneous reversal, “the crowd’s fury at the Mahons stems from the fact that the two tramps dispelled the community’s collective fantasy which they structured around Christy as their object cause of desire” (Murphy 135). The rapidity with which Pegeen re-enunciates Christy as “nothing at all,” one whose speech is only “lies” and “letting on,” one whose origins really are “doing nothing but hitting a soft blow and chasing northward in a sweat of fear” (Synge 107), demonstrates the insufficiency and instability of any created signifier. Because the construction of Christy as the killer of his father only points to an absence– will never be that something else which Pegeen, as a member of a community living under an oppressive colonial law, centrally desires– Pegeen can easily dismiss it when it ceases to suggest that void. Similarly, the other villagers “jeeringly” call out to Christy “There’s the playboy!” (107). By enunciating Christy as “playboy” instead of “man [that] killed his father,” the villagers identify a rejected signifier that has no means of sustaining their desire for the destruction of colonial authority, which is why Pegeen implores Old Mahon to “take him on from this, or I’ll set the young lads to destroy him here” (108). While the “man killed his father” encircles and introduces the possibility of filling the lack that is their collective object of desire, the “playboy” must be removed or destroyed, as it represents not a specific emptiness but something far more fragmentary and discontinuous: that instability which is the condition of all signifiers, that limitation of any national myth– any origin story– to preserve unity and continuity. 

The traumatic crisis of The Playboy of the Western World’s conclusion– wherein the villagers torture and attempt to execute Christy– is implicated in the very nature of the metonymic chain of signifiers, which only encircle but do not lead toward obtaining the object of desire. Christy’s attempt to actually murder his father by “doing it this time in the face of all” (Synge 110) does not represent the absence of the destruction of colonial rule but rather brings the villagers too close to that imagined object, threatening them with the knowledge that the transgressive objects they seek out are not, in fact, the object cause of their desire. In facing a violent and actively parricidal Christy “the villagers become agents of colonial control: out of fear for the English authorities, they enforce that authority themselves” (Cusack 585). The claim made by Michael that “if we took pity on you, the lord God would, maybe, bring us ruin from the law to-day” (Synge 110) suggests a sudden increase in the authority of the English colonial father, which has been made into that “lord God” that would punish the villagers “from the law.” In a space which supposes the murder of a father, the father becomes all the more powerful, all the more prohibitive: “not only does the murder of the father not open the path to jouissance that the presence of the father was supposed to prohibit, but it, in fact, strengthens the prohibition” (Lacan 176). When Pegeen suddenly moves toward Christy and “burns his leg” after exclaiming “God help him so” (Synge 111), she is acting under and as an extension of the redoubled force of the prohibitive colonizer now made into that very “God” she implores to aid the one she punishes. In an attempt to prevent a signifier which too closely approximates the transgressive object of desire from demonstrating that signification itself inhibits the attainment of the object signified, Pegeen and the others enact the authority of that very law which the transgressive object would destroy.

This framework for reading Playboy intersects with critical controversy concerning the political potential of the play. Edward Hirsch states that “Synge’s claims to linguistic and ethnographic fidelity created expectations (the audience after all had its own pastoral vision of the western world) which were then exploded by the violent and unrealistic mode of Playboy.” (“The Gallous Story” 91). The play contains an essential ambivalence: it is to be read as representative of the structure of desire intrinsic to life under imperial rule, while its characters, far from naturalistic representations of “real” Irish peasants, function as farcical metaphors for nationalist constructions of narratives of originality. Benedict Anderson describes nationalism as “a project for coming home from exile, for the resolution of hybridity, for a positive printed from a negative in the dark-room of political struggle,” but in which “home as it emerged was less experienced than imagined” (319). If colonial law in the Playboy is an ever-present reminder of that which is decidedly non-Irish– and is a force which puts many formerly dominant figures from the village into exile– then the desire for the destruction of colonial authority is a desire for “coming home from exile” in one’s own country. The signifiers of transgression which the villagers create are a resistance against that cultural hybridity which is so apparent in an exile-like state: the imagination of a home is achieved by the filling of a space with constructed signifiers that represent the possibility of a destructive event which would eliminate colonial authority. 

That the villagers’ chain of desire replicates a nationalist impulse to construct an identity in response to a lack runs up against Kiberd’s claim that Playboy represents the condition of a dying peasant culture, in which Synge “knows that that condition cannot last and so it has, therefore, the added charm of an exquisite, dying thing” (172). The villagers in Playboy do not act as if they were themselves a mythical, authentic people, but rather they act as mythologizers themselves, those who seek to construct an authentic culture, to turn back to their past. As Hirsch notes, “the Middle-class Catholics of Dublin formed a ready audience for the Irish theater movement because the idealization of the peasant instilled a sense of pride in the native culture and fit in well with their social and economic aspirations” (“The Imaginary Irish Peasant,” 1125). Playboy does not represent the peasant as the preserved, originary “native culture” which the Dublin audience would have expected, but rather integrates the ideal image of the “peasant” with the desires of those who idealized it– manifesting a critique of nationalist cultural constructions by farcically representing nationalists as their own constructions.

While the instability of cultural difference and hybridity deconstruct the order which nationalism had supplied, the effects are not merely negative: Christy and Old Mahon suggest the possibility of a new anti-colonialist, anti-nationalist, liberated and hybridized framework for understanding and living through Irish culture. The chief evidence for an optimistic, revolutionary vision of the future lies in Christy’s sudden declaration that he will depart with Old Mahon, but only “like a gallant captain with his heathen slave,” to which Mahon exclaims “with a broad smile” that “I am crazy again!” (Synge 111). While Kiberd reads this exchange as emblematic of “a revolutionary community” in which “the old take their cue from the young (rather than the other way round): so the stage directions emphasize Old Mahon’s delight at this new assertiveness of his offspring” (175), the “broad smile” does not necessarily signify delight at mere “assertiveness.” Only a couple lines earlier Christy had been “kicking and screaming” before “scrambling on his knees face to face with OLD MAHON” (111); Christy’s sudden construction of himself as “master of all fights from now” is not for a moment stabilized as a believable identity.  Rather it inhabits the Third Space, “the discursive conditions of enunciation that ensure that the meaning and symbols of culture have no primordial unity or fixity; that even the same signs can be appropriated, translated, rehistoricized and read anew” (Bhabha 55). And yet, Kiberd is right to note “Old Mahon’s delight”: a new pleasure emerges as the unstable signifier plays in the space of enunciation– a pleasure of the rapid construction and deconstruction which prompts a glimpse toward the excess of difference which cannot be contained in any single identity construction. In delightedly submitting to the unbelievable assertion of authority in Christy’s commands “Not a word out of you. Go on from this” (111), Old Mahon is playing along with Christy, allowing identities to be constituted and reconstituted within that Third Space. The implication is that these roles are unstable: Christy will not be contained in “gallant captain” and Old Mahon will not be contained in “heathen slave.” Rather, the two will play in the instability of the sign as such– recognizing a manifold of difference which would be concealed and forbidden in a static binary. 

Christy and Old Mahon neither retreat into “social exclusion” (Murphy 136), nor do they constitute merely another construction in which “the old man is now happily tractable to the son’s future designs” (Kiberd 187)– rather, they point toward the potential for those who are called Irish to “elude the politics of polarity and emerge as the others of ourselves” (Bhabha 56), the potential for the affirmation of difference as such. Christy has brought Old Mahon– the embodiment of that authority whose destruction the villagers so desire– into an in-between space, where father and son are not bound within a merely differential opposition, where identities can be adopted and discarded without the threat of traumatic collapse. In this, the play hopefully proposes the further potential for a rearticulation of the terms of the colonizer-colonized relation, wherein liberation can be achieved without the (impossible) destruction of the father, but through a process of renegotiation. Because the play’s focus on the failings of the peasant community only hints at the possibility of liberation, the character of that liberation itself is largely critical and immaterial. Nevertheless, this suggestion of a notion of culture which may sustain desire and permit difference in a way that nationalism cannot is a necessary, albeit limited, critique of those who too dogmatically believe in the stability of the signifiers they construct. And yet, the text of the play itself– as a created signifier– is just as unstable as the construction of Christy-the-father-slayer: it has provoked spirited praise, bitter criticism, utopian visions, and riots.

Works Cited:

Anderson, Benedict. “Exodus,” Critical Inquiry, vol. 20, no. 2, U of Chicago P, 1994, pp. 314-27. 

Bhabha, Homi K. “The Commitment to Theory.” The Location of Culture, Routledge, 1994, pp. 28-56.

Butler, David. “Hamlet, Carnival, and The Playboy of the Western World,” Irish University Review, vol. 42, no. 2, Edinburg UP, 2012, pp. 236-53.

Cusack, George. “’In the Gripe of the Ditch’: Nationalism, Famine, and The Playboy of the Western World,” Modern Drama, vol. 45, no. 5, U of Toronto P, 2002, pp. 567-92.

Foster, R. F. “The Irish Cultural Revival.” The Cambridge History of Ireland: Volume IV, 1880 to the Present, edited by Thomas Bartlett, Cambridge UP, 2018, pp. 168-195.

Hirsch, Edward. “The Gallous Story and the Dirty Deed: The Two Playboys,” Modern Drama, vol. 26, no. 1, U of Toronto P, 1983, pp. 85-102.

Hirsch, Edward. “The Imaginary Irish Peasant,” PMLA, vol. 106, no. 5, MLA, 1991, pp. 1116-33.

Kiberd, Declan. “J. M. Synge – Remembering the Future.” Inventing Ireland: The Literature of the Modern Nation, Vintage, 1995, pp. 166-88.

Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: Book VII – The Ethics of Psychoanalysis 1959-1960. Translated by Dennis Porter, edited by Jacques-Alain Miller, Norton, 1992. 

Murphy, Paul. “J. M. Synge and the Pitfalls of National Consciousness,” Theater Research International, vol . 28, no. 2, 2003, pp. 125-142. 

“playboy, n.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, September 2020, Accessed 4 November 2020.

Synge, J. M. “The Playboy of the Western World.” Modern and Contemporary Irish Drama, edited by John P. Harrington, Norton, 2009, pp. 68-112.