Synge, (Edmund) John Millington (16 April 1871–1909), writer, was born 16 April 1871 in Rathfarnham, Co. Dublin, into an Anglo-Irish family of ecclesiastics and landlords, descended from Bishop Edward Synge (qv) (d. 1678), whose fortunes had declined through the nineteenth century. His father, John Hatch Synge, was a landlord and full-time barrister, who specialised in conveyancing. His mother, Catherine (‘Kathleen’), was daughter of Robert Traill, rector of Schull, Co. Cork, and she inherited her father's deeply anti-papal and evangelical beliefs. The couple met and married in 1856, living first in a family property in Hatch St. (where their first three children were born) and later in Newton Villas, Rathfarnham, where their fourth and last child was born. Just a year later, in 1872, John Hatch Synge died, leaving an income of £400 a year from his holdings. The family soon moved to Orwell Park, Rathgar.
Early life and influences
J. M. Synge was a frail child, constantly prone to sickness; and he resolved at an early age never to have children of his own, lest they inherit his maladies. Nonetheless, he was a lover of nature and the outdoors, becoming an active member of the Dublin Naturalists’ Field Club (1886–8). He was educated mainly at home by a tutor, but at the age of 10 was sent to Mr Harrick's classical and English school, Upper Leeson St., Dublin. Ill health greatly affected his attendance and he was withdrawn after three years. He spent most summers on extended family holidays at Greystones, but was never allowed to swim, because of respiratory problems.
The powerful formative influence of his youth was Kathleen Synge. She preached a gospel of hellfire and damnation, warning her children that all strong language and exaggerations were sins against God, for which they must answer on the Day of Judgement. Hence the playwright's love of the vivid, colourful phrase and his delight in poetic heroes who became great ‘by the power of a lie’ (Collected works, iv, 165). As a keen walker and cyclist in the Wicklow hills, Synge loved to fall in with vagrants, tramps, and small farmers, whose Hiberno-English speech still bore syntactical traces of the vanished Irish language. His interest in animals, birds, and flora led to a detailed study of Charles Darwin's The origin of species. The classic of evolutionary theory helped to erode Synge's faith in religion, and that led to repeated clashes with his mother when he refused to attend church on Sundays. The recurrent tensions in many of his plays, poems, and prose works between pagan energy and Christian decorum may be traced not only to this crisis, but also to Synge's growing interest in Gaelic myth and folklore, whose debates between Oisín (qv) and St Patrick (qv) would have reflected his own clashes with his devout family. If Oisín and the Fianna stood for the vitality of an ancient oral culture, Patrick with his book and prohibitions seemed to epitomise the latter colonial codes based on print evangelism and restraint of impulse.
The land war was the uneasy backdrop to Synge's adolescent years. He was appalled by the strong-arm tactics used by his brother Edward in evicting tenants in Cavan, Mayo, and Wicklow. As Synge's faith in ‘the kingdom of God’ waned, it was replaced by a belief in ‘the kingdom of Ireland’, much nurtured by his study of ruins and antiquities, as well as reading the poems and ballads of Young Ireland authors. In February 1889 he entered TCD, but proved desultory in attendance, taking a modest ‘gentleman's’ BA degree in 1892. While there, however, he showed most enthusiasm for the study of Irish, a subject taken by Church of Ireland ordinands so that they might be able to preach to rural communities ‘in the vernacular’. Synge was taught Irish by the Rev. James Goodman (qv), a clergyman from Ventry in the Kerry Gaeltacht, who was also a keen piper and a considerable collector of traditional Irish music. In 1892 Synge came first in his Irish class, after intensive study of the text of ‘Diarmuid agus Gráinne’, and was awarded the college's Irish prize. By then, however, he had made it clear that he had no desire to enter holy orders. His rejection of his mother's faith cost him the hand of Cherrie Matheson, a member of the Plymouth Brethren, who twice spurned a marriage proposal.
By this time Synge was a violinist and composer, who also studied piano and flute at the Royal Irish Academy of Music, in whose orchestra he sometimes played. He longed for a career as a musical performer, but found it impossible to overcome shyness at public gatherings. Instead, he began to compose musical works, including a score for a Gaelic opera built around the lyric ‘Eibhlín a rúin’. In an age when all art was held to aspire to the condition of music, Synge would achieve remarkable effects with the tonal colouring of his plays, scoring entire speeches or acts ‘andante’ or ‘allegro’ as in an orchestral piece.
After graduation, he travelled to Germany, still hoping to perfect his skills as a violinist, and to Paris, where he attended lectures on Old Irish and Celtic civilisation by Henri d'Arbois de Jubainville (qv). The latter used a comparative method, exploring the analogies between Ireland and Europe, a technique which Synge himself would later use in his analysis of folklore in The Aran Islands (1907). Another major influence in this period was Anatole le Braz, whose books on Breton culture, such as La légende de la Mort en Basse Bretagne (1892), greatly conditioned Synge's own later writings about death.
Yeats and the Aran Islands
A meeting with the poet W. B. Yeats (qv) in the Hotel Corneille, Paris, in 1896 proved fateful. Yeats had just left Inis Mór, the largest of the Aran Islands, where his attempt to gather material for his projected novel, ‘The speckled bird’, had foundered, due to his total ignorance of Irish. In Synge he felt he had found the man who could ‘go to the Aran Islands and express a life that has never found expression’ (Yeats, Essays and introductions (London, 1961), 299). In saying this, Yeats underestimated the expressive achievements of the islanders in Irish over a millennium, but his famous sentence might also be read as referring to Synge's own desperate need to articulate his murky inner life. Up until 1896 and for some years after, his work failed to achieve articulacy, through a mixture of morbidity, vagueness, and subjectivity: but in May 1898, on his first visit to the Aran Islands, he seemed to find an ‘objective correlative’ for his inner moods in the vivid people and clearly defined landscape all around him. His visit to an island lacking basic medical services took some courage, for he was not only a chronic asthmatic but had also by then suffered the first bout of the Hodgkin's disease which would eventually kill him. It was no great surprise that he projected his inner melancholy onto the local fishermen, speaking of them as men already under sentence of death.
After two weeks Synge moved to Inis Meáin, where the use of Irish was more common, for his intention was to learn the language. He was also enchanted by the English spoken by the islanders, who still thought in Gaelic syntax even while using English words. Synge's own literal translations of Geoffrey Keating (qv) and other writers into English alerted him to the Gaelic substratum in Hiberno-English. He returned to the islands in the summers of 1899, 1900, 1901, and 1902, making notes for The Aran Islands, a work which supplied many plots and ideas for his plays. He also made visits to Mayo, Connemara, and west Kerry (some of them on a journalistic assignment with the painter Jack B. Yeats (qv)). Until 1903, however, he maintained his apartment in Paris – and it would not be an exaggeration to say that he mapped many of the radical, anarchist ideas encountered in the Left Bank onto the west of Ireland in his prose narratives. Throughout this period, he was hard at work translating many classics of Gaelic poetry and prose, notably ‘Oidhe Chloinne Uisnigh’ (‘The fate of the sons of Usna’). These literal renditions seemed to vindicate the claim that if Irish is translated word-for-word into English, the result is often poetic.
In working on these versions, Synge evolved a hybrid dialect that was a bilingual weave of Irish and English, which at its best proved more deft and eloquent than either the standard Irish or standard English between which it arose. This dialect represented a solution to the impasse of a literature caught between the pallid realism of Ibsen or Zola and the unearthly beauty of a Mallarmé or Huysmans. His Hiberno-English was both utterly real and wildly beautiful. It was also an answer (of sorts) to purists who asked how could the Abbey Theatre claim to be ‘national’ when all its productions were in the language of the coloniser. Synge may have written in English, but he made the English as Irish as it is possible for that language to be.
He had completed The Aran Islands in 1901. Progressively, through its four books, the consciousness of the visitor is overwhelmed by the lore of the islands, as his knowledge of Irish grows and he is integrated into a culture that is communal rather than individual in emphasis. Its qualities of classic stoicism, dignified reticence, and respect for nature pervade the text.
In 1902 Synge wrote ‘In the shadow of the glen’. This was performed in the next year and explored the trapped condition of a young Irish woman in a loveless marriage to an old farmer; her final decision to leave with an unnamed tramp was Synge's critique of the bourgeois morality overtaking rural Ireland, but also a radical rewriting of Henrik Ibsen's ‘A doll's house’. Synge claimed that many phrases in the play had been overheard by him when he listened through a chink in the floorboards of a Wicklow house. ‘Riders to the sea’ (also written in 1902 but not performed till 1904), an extended wake for doomed Aran fishermen and perhaps for the islands, is arguably the finest one-act tragedy of the twentieth century, in its memorable depiction of mankind at odds with wind and sea. These two plays were so admired that when the Abbey Theatre opened in 1904, it was axiomatic that Synge would be a leading contributor. He was appointed director in 1905. Sadly, his own pet project – a travelling company performing in Irish – never materialised.
‘The well of the saints’ (1905), Synge's first three-act play, was a signature production for the new National Theatre Society: it is a moving study of how a blind couple, once cured, find the ‘seeing world’ a sham, and of how their artistic vision disrupts conventional social values. Its opening act, set at a crossroads and filled with the talk of two static tramps, is a major and much acknowledged influence on ‘Waiting for Godot’ (1953) by Samuel Beckett (qv).
Synge's master-work, ‘The playboy of the western world’, provoked massive protests on its opening week at the Abbey in 1907. It is a satire on a hero-cult then promoted through the figure of Cú-Chulainn (qv) by revivalists (including Yeats and Augusta Gregory (qv), fellow directors of the Abbey). Its bitter, revisionist lesson – that there is ‘a great gap between a gallous story and a dirty deed’ (Collected works, iv, 169) – proved too much for many militant nationalists, committed as they were to the manufacture of heroism. The protestors rejected Synge's version of a drunken, feckless peasantry, arguing that a national theatre should have been showing a sober, trustworthy people ready for the responsibilities of self-government. The final expulsion of the poet-hero by a society incapable of self-renewal may also have been Synge's prophetic warning that the Irish might soon grow frightened of the bleakness of freedom.
The female lead in ‘The playboy’, Pegeen Mike, was yet another study of trapped Irish womanhood, for the play opens and closes with her plight. The role was created for the actress Molly Allgood (Máire O'Neill (qv)), to whom Synge was engaged, but they were never to marry, as his Hodgkin's disease got steadily worse. A sense of doom pervades his last, unfinished play, ‘Deirdre of the sorrows’, whose phrasing draws heavily on his translation of ‘Oidhe Chloinne Uisnigh’. Intended as another vehicle for Molly Allgood, it effectively permits her to speak the author's self-epitaph, in the speech uttered by Deirdre over the grave of her dead lover, Naisi. In making regal personages talk like contemporary peasants, Synge offered a critical investigation of the relation between the old tale and the people among whom it lingered. His mingling of the mythical with the matter-of-fact not only subverted earlier, more idealistic versions by W. B. Yeats and George Russell (qv), but may also have given James Joyce (qv) the method for his manipulation of Homeric saga in Ulysses (1922). The play, which treats the ancient tale as a psychological crisis in human relations, was performed to polite applause in 1910, a year after Synge's death (24 March 1909) at the Elpis Nursing Home, Dublin. As he lay dying, he had tried to convert one of his nurses to the cause of feminism.
Synge's Poems and translations were published, under the guidance of Yeats, in 1911. In the foreword, Synge regrets the mawkish poetry of the fin-de-siècle, anticipating modernism with his contention that poetry must become brutal if it is again to be fully human. His own poems, unfortunately, retain much of that mawkishness he sought to dispel, whereas his translations (from Petrarch, Walter Van der Vogelweide, and others) give us a sense of the man himself. He had a genius for translation, and in locating the ‘author without’ he managed also to unleash the ‘author within’. Under Synge's influence, Yeats's own lyrics became far more concrete and monosyllabic. Synge's plays have been vastly influential, not only on the playwrights George Fitzmaurice (qv), Brian Friel, and Tom Murphy, but also on talents such as Marina Carr and Martin McDonagh. His critical exploration of the relation between poetry and violence manifests itself in his conviction that these are less opposed than interdependent categories – gallous stories and dirty deeds need always to be separated, but only because they will always be found together. In a sense, the ‘Playboy’ protestors proved this very point, wishing to deny that the Irish were inherently violent, yet attacking the actors to make their case. Synge's vision was beautifully summed up in his statement that ‘style comes from the shock of new material’ (Yeats, Autobiographies (1955), 531).
His papers are held at TCD: see Nicholas Grene, The Synge manuscripts in the Library of Trinity College Dublin (1971). There are important portraits, notably by John Butler Yeats (qv) and by Jack B. Yeats, in both the National Gallery of Ireland and Dublin City Gallery the Hugh Lane. Synge's Collected works (general editor Robin Skelton) have been published in four volumes: i, Poems, ed. Robin Skelton (1962); ii, Prose, ed. Alan Price (1966); iii, Plays 1, ed. Ann Saddlemyer (1968); and iv, Plays 2, ed. Ann Saddlemyer (1968).