Social and cultural developments are interrelated processes that influence and presuppose each other. Thus, the culture may represent some aspects of the social climate, in which it exists; in line, the society serves as a material base for its existence. In this way, it is possible to interpret art as a reflection of social relationships and tendencies described in various forms depending on specifics of a concrete art. This detail makes the historical and social context extremely important conditions for the proper interpretation of different pieces of art created in those settings. For example, John Millington Synge wrote his plays in the early XX century when the Irish national revival started to develop, and the national spirit acquired distinctive cultural forms. At the same time, it was the epoch of many other movements and initiatives except the Irish national one. In this way, there is no enough reason to limit the cultural ground, on which Synge’s plays appeared, by only the Irish revival. The Modernist experiments with the literature that took place in the first decades of the XX century are a well-known part of the general tendency of people from all over the world to break social and behavioral stereotypes of the past. At the time, there was, at least, one nationally-indifferent movement in the Western society, namely, feminism that was based on the social criticism in general. The Playboy of the Western World by Synge goes beyond the Irish national context and reveals the general passion of human beings to freedom that is partly realized by the feminist movement.
The play The Playboy of the Western World does not concern any political issues directly despite its common association with the issue of Ireland’s independence that was sharp in the first half of the XX century. The main evidence of the play’s political indifference is the author’s strong standpoint that could not allow him to create a play that contradicted his worldview, especially regarding his masterpiece. Synge wrote this play to be staged in the Abbey Theatre that was known for its connection with the Irish nationalist movement. The first performance took place in 1907 and caused a very controversial social reaction, especially concerning the burning question of the independence or autonomy of Ireland that was a part of the Great Britain in the period. According to Ansari, “Though the Irish Dramatic Movement was a part of the general National Movement, it differed from its source in regard to the propagandist part which was either considerably played down or totally absent” (66). This position of the author was not evident for the masses that organized so-called Playboy riots in Dublin while being influenced and inspired by the play. It is clear that the general interpretation of any piece of art always depends on the most popular and sharpest issues of the concrete epoch. In this way, the nationalists considered that the play makes a mockery of the idea of the country’s independence and the Irish people’s potency to rule their state without the English influence. The activists organized Playboy riots because they believed that Synge tried to belittle the locals by representing them through an ironic prism. According to them, in this way, the author discredited the idea of the independence of Ireland. The play was especially offensive to them because the main function of the Abbey National Theatre was to promote the mentioned ideas. Nevertheless, the base for such interpretations was only the Irish nationalists’ concentration on these issues while the author made no direct reference to the politics. In such a way, despite social protests against the performance, the play itself passed no evident political message to the masses.
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The relationships between the play’s main characters demonstrate a conflict between a weak male character and a dominant female one. The play describes an event when an Irish peasant kills his father and runs away from the law enforcers. This man, Christy Mahon, is the main character of the play; when the story about his deed spreads, he becomes very popular and attractive to women in the village. At the end of the play, the reader gets to know that the father of Christy survived. Ultimately, he forgives his son and takes him back to their home. As the result, the main female character, Pegeen, sighs, “I've lost the only Playboy of the Western World” (Synge). This statement is very important for the general understanding of the play. In such a manner, Christy knew no person except his father before the incident, after which he run to Pegeen’s village. Christy himself claims, “I’m my whole life with my father only” (Synge). This detail partly justifies the man’s naïve behavior toward other people, especially female characters. On the other hand, Pegeen does not trust him because she has already created a perfect image of a hero and does not want to leave it. Thus, she responds to one of Christy’s compliments, “Would you have me think a man never talked with the girls would have the words you've spoken today?” (Synge). In fact, Christy is a truthful person, and the only reason as to why the girl treated him in an improper way is a result of her own will. The appearance of Christy’s father destroys all the delusions and shows the real face of the man, who possesses no qualities expected by Pegeen. In this way, the play considers a separate example of relationships between a man and a woman that are based on the delusions of the latter one.
The play transforms the conservative image of a woman; it passes a clear feminist message and criticizes patriarchal moral milestones of the English society in the early XX century. Throughout the play, it is clear that the real social power belongs to women. Synge’s males become dominant mostly through the positive self-representation that makes females choose the most attractive of them. For example, Christy’s stories about the murder of his father made him a kind of hero that attracted Pegeen. It is clear that the act of the man is not great, and he deserves no respect for it. Furthermore, even such a doubtful deed that was described by Christy to peasants appears to be lies. In this way, Christy is an empty person who looks decent because of the two reasons: his ability to tell stories and, to a higher degree, the women’s desire to believe in these stories. Pegeen is disappointed because her dreams are crushed, and the man she loved uncovered himself as a false hero. The character of the young woman is very ambivalent. On the one hand, she is a very strong person; on the other hand, she needs a dominant husband at the same time. It is the reason as to why she tries to create and believe in an illusion of Christy’s virtues. Here, the message of the true female social dominance is clear, and it does not concern the Irish society, in particular, but any society, in which men look dominantly because of the women’s need to live in the illusion of strong support. Synge’s women “produce features that are usually associated with masculine speech, such as conversational control, interruption, lack of attenuation, violence, intimidation, superiority, or self-imposition”(Tenorio 442). Thus, for example, Tenorio claims that Pegeen uses the most dominant lexicon in the play. In contrast, Christy speaks very moderately and modestly and always uses the words of politeness and other devices that soften his speech. It is clear that the brightest persuasive device of a dramatist is the way, in which the characters speak. Thus, in the case of Synge, it is possible to claim that the dominance of his women, which is proved by differences in the lexicon of his characters, is one of the main messages of the play. Through both the analysis of the story that the play tells, as well as a deep textual analysis provided by Tenorio, it is possible to recognize the feminist message of the play.
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The feminist message of The Playboy of the Western World is clear through some elements of the social context, in which it was created and staged. Thus, the early XX century became the epoch of the women’s suffrage movement in the Western word. In this way, this issue was much more universal and actual than the problem of the Irish independence that directly concerned only the Irishmen and the Englishmen. In this way, despite the standpoint of the Irish nationalists, who protested against the play’s staging, the main point of Synge is providing social criticism instead of a political metaphor. According to John Synge’s correspondence with Lady Gregory that also participated in both the Abbey Theatre and the Irish national revival, the feminist message of the play was clear to her. In such a manner, she wrote to Synge before the play was staged, “I feel we are beginning the fight for our lives” (Morash 130). The social criticism is the main idea of the play; it is explained in the conclusion that Morash provides, “Synge’s Playboy may have helped change what would be performed on Irish stages, but equally its first run would change what happened in Irish auditoria” (138). Here, Morash claims about at least three important outcomes of the play. Firstly, The Playboy of the Western World was Synge’s masterpiece that helped the further Irish dramatists to carry out new experiments based on the experience and ideas realized by the author. In this way, this influence mostly concerned the sphere of the Irish national revival because the play was one of the most representative pieces created by the Irish dramatists. Another aspect of its influence concerns the domain of the theatre itself (without its national form). Here, the point is that the experiment, which allowed Synge to interchange the roles of his actors and watchers; the same was emphasized by Morash. In this way, the main point in this regard has a methodological character. At last, Synge reflected some social tendencies of his epoch that had not achieved the realization never before. It is clear that the feminist movement only started when the play was staged, but the author succeeded in the prediction of its development. In this way, the play demonstrates the problem of relationships between women and men, and this message was obvious for some contemporaries of the author. In addition, it is more universal than the Irish nationalist issue.
The famous play, The Playboy of the Western World, criticizes the fundamentals of the rigid patriarchal society, in which it was created. The author shows the real dominance of women in the social life; in this way, his play attracts the mass attention. Besides, the actuality and importance of the political issues that concerned the Irish nationalism and the independence of Ireland caused some misinterpretation of Synge’s text and provoked the so-called Playboy riots in Dublin. Today, while the Irish nation has already built its independent state, the issue of women’s repression in the patriarchal world has become more evident and appropriate for the discussion. Therefore, the feminist message of Synge’s text looks much clearer, as well as the author’s concentration on social problems instead of political issues is evident.