February 23, 2018

The Abbey and The Playboy

On this day in 1904 Dublin's Abbey Theatre opened, premiering W. B. Yeats's "On Baile's Strand" and Lady Gregory's "Spreading the News." Growing out of the general Irish literary renaissance of the time, the Abbey quickly rose to international fame for both the quality of its productions and the controversies which often surrounded them. Yeats, Gregory and the others who ran the Abbey had a political agenda, and for whatever religious, class, or nationalistic reasons, some segment of Irish society was always taking offense.

The riot which consumed the 1907 Abbey premiere of J. M. Synge's The Playboy of the Western World is perhaps the most famous example of such clashes. Synge was a city boy with a Sorbonne education, but he spent many summers in the Aran Islands, and a number of his plays take the farming and fishing villages of the western isles as their setting, sometimes with a smile. Playboy is a comic inversion of the Oedipus story wherein young Christy Mahon's tall tale of having heroically done -- in his father brings him fame and advantage with the excitement-starved village girls, those who go "winter and summer with nothing worthwhile to confess at all":
    SARA. And asking your pardon, is it you's the man killed his father?
    CHRISTY. I am, God help me!
    SARA. Then my thousand welcomes to you, and I've run up with a brace of duck's eggs for your food today. Pegeen's ducks is no use, but these are the real rich sort. Hold out your hand and you'll see it's no lie I'm telling you.
    CHRISTY. They're a great and weighty size.
    SUSAN. And I run up with a pat of butter, for it'd be a poor thing to have you eating your spuds dry, and you after running a great way since you did destroy your da.
    CHRISTY. Thank you kindly.
    HONOR. And I brought you a little cut of cake, for you should have a thin stomach on you, and you that length walking the world.
    NELLY. And I brought you a little laying pullet -- boiled and all she is-was crushed at the fall of night by the curate's car. Feel the fat of that breast, Mister.
    CHRISTY. It's bursting, surely.
Some of those present on opening night enjoyed the innuendo and satire in such early scenes -- enough for a relieved Lady Gregory to send a telegram to Yeats at the end of Act II saying, "Play a great success." But then Christy came on in Act III to declare that he was not interested in Sara or Susan or Honor or Nelly: "It's Pegeen I'm seeking only, and what'd I care if you brought me a drift of chosen females, standing in their shifts itself, maybe, from this place to the eastern world." The commotion that this line touched off prompted a canceling telegram to Yeats -- "Audience broke up in disorder at the word shift" -- and his hurried return from Scotland. Unwilling to give in to the moral or ultra-nationalist majority, or to reviews which decried an "unmitigated, protracted libel upon Irish peasant men and, worse still, upon Irish girlhood," Yeats had to call in ever-increasing numbers of police for the remainder of the Playboy run.

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