March 17, 2001: Synge, Playboy of the Western World

National Theatre, Cottlesloe

Performed by Derbhle Crotty and other Irish members of the NT ensemble. Directed by a young, new director, Fiona Buffini.

An authentic-looking rustic interior (except for the extraordinarily high, if thatched, ceiling, a concession to the steep rake of the auditorium.
First impressions: very dark, the only light emanating from candles and a realistic-looking peat fire; the slow pace of life. Derbhle Crotty as Pegeen Mike takes plenty of time, at first, and we are struck by the oppressive ordinariness of life in this community — and by Pegeen Mike’s deep unhappiness and frustration, which give an edge to her voice and a certain rigid tension to her body. She is at the end of her patience and is also vulnerable, if skeptical that anything good can happen, especially to her. We get a glimpse of her motherless upbringing in her remark about her only having had a father. We infer the mother died in child­birth, though Synge is tacit on this point. The situation is thus skillfully prepared by Synge, and Fiona Buffoni does his opening pages justice. We are so convinced that life in this place will never change that when Christy Mahon (pronounced “man”, with some ‘h’ in it) slinks in through the doorway in the dim light, an old shawl thrown over his shoulders, his clothes wet through, his face so dirty as hardly to be recogniz­able, we are not inclined to believe that this unlikely fellow will make things any different.

Buffoni is sensitive to the verbal qualities of Synge’s text: the darkness on stage is simply an extension of the thick “darkness” outside; Pegeen Mike’s presence, alone in this large room, establishes the theme of loneliness iterated by the repeated use of the words “lonely” and “lonesome.” Even God, in Christy’s view, sits “lonesome” in his golden chair. — This, in contrast to the relative crowd of persons young and old (Buffoni introduces a young boy and a tiny young girl into the dozen or more townspeople who press onto the stage at crucial moments in the last two acts), very well managed and realistically distributed on the stage in discrete clusters joined together by one or two “linking” characters.

Patrick O’Kane gives a marvelously energetic performance as Christy, even if his face shines a bit too brightly after he has cleaned himself up and put on the clothes Sean Keogh (pronounced “Kyo”) has given him. The gathering crisis of Christy’s exposure, scapegoating, and eventual turning of the tables on his father is generally skillfully managed, especially the roping and tying up of Christy. But the biting of Sean in the ankle went by too quickly, and the burning of Christy’s foot by Pegeen Mike with a burning sod taken with tongs from the fireplace was somehow not convincing despite Christy’s yowl of pain.

In fact, in the closing moments of the play I began to sense a vagueness in Crotty’s Pegeen Mike. The ending of this play is one of the most complex endings of all modern comedy. Is Pegeen Mike a “fool,” like all the other Mayo dwellers that Old Mahon categorically condemns? She certainly does not seem so. She is clearly a cut above the others. She has agreed to marry the spineless Sean Keogh in the absence of any able-bodied and -brained man in the district. And she is clearly drawn to Christy, who finally, by Act III, has overcome her natural inhibitions and acquired skepticism and has persuaded her of how attractive she would be, lying in the grass with Christy pressing kisses onto her “puckered lips.” But the moment of disillusionment comes, and her voicing of it says much about who she is and what she is. The ostensible patricide who has stolen her heart turns out to be no such wonder at all, and his clumsy attempt after the fact to do in his da with a loy (an Irish spade, a word unknown to American diction­aries), is not only abortive (as it turns out) but is disgusting to Pegeen as it is to the rest. She explains why, in a memorable speech: “There’s a great gap between a gallous story and a dirty deed.” As long as Christy was all talk, he was the darling of Mayo, the “walking playboy of the western world.” But his attempt to authenticate his words with a deed, a “dirty deed,” forces the Mayo people to confront their own gullibility in having taken him in.

And it makes them furiously angry. The savior who promised to rescue them from a humdrum life has been shown up as a fraud. The disillusionment is painful, and they take a cruel vengeance on him, tying him up and threatening to take him to the “polis” to be hanged as a murderer — if murderer he is. But he is none. Old Mahon comes back “to be killed a third time,” and this time Christy, completely alienated by his treatment at the hands of his captors, turns the tables on his father, forcing him into servitude and heading off in triumph, without so much as a fare-thee-well to Pegeen. She has lost the man along with the myth, and her bitterness is deep and wrenching. “Quit my sight,” she orders Sean Keogh, realizing the depth of her loss.

What was it she lost? As she puts it, she has lost “the only playboy of the western world.” Her savior, her deliverer. But that salvation was based on a pretense, a falsehood she badly needed to believe in: a “playboy” who would liberate all in her that needed liberating.

The minute that the old father, bloodied and bandaged but still alive, puts his head in the door, imprisoning Christy behind it, we know that Pegeen Mike is in for a rude awakening. Old Mahon’s advent happens — for the first time — in Act II, and it is not until Act III that Christy finds the opportunity to make love to Pegeen. In fact, it is not until then that he grows up enough to be able to do that, able to abandon his adolescent, masturbatory fantasies of lines of women standing in their underwear (“shifts,” the riot-inciting taboo word) awaiting his pleasure. It is a rich scene, that brief scene of love-making in Act III: in that very moment Christy realizes himself, finds a true, adult identity for himself; in that same moment, Pegeen allows herself to see in him the realization of her most potent fantasy: a potent lover who will take her away from her sordid, humdrum existence. And she is caught up in the delirium of the moment.

We the audience want that for her too: this is the moment, the declaration of true love, the consummation of longing and desire, the definitive banishment of loneliness, that every young man and woman in love hope for, and so richly deserve. But it is not to be, and we the audience know that too. And so we sense the deep irony that underlies the ostensibly idyllic innocence that marks the scene. But, as we sense, Synge has other fish to fry. He is more a Molière than a Shakespeare, and this play is not A Midsummer Night’s Dream, nor a Romeo and Juliet either, for that matter. It is a play in which fools, not lovers, get their just deserts. Synge has it out for the fools of Mayo, who are surrogates for the fools of Dublin who have paid good money for seats in what was once a morgue in Abbey Street and is now a theatre. And so, unfortunately for Pegeen Mike, and so for our sympathies as well, she must be tarred with the same brush that heaps such gross indignities upon the fools of Mayo (and their urban counterparts).

So: how do you play the character of Pegeen Mike, given that understanding of Synge’s bitterly satirical agenda? I think you have to play her as profoundly needy of sexual arousal and fulfillment. That is, finally, what the playboy offers her, just as it is what we want for her too (as for ourselves). We see she is going to be cheated of it before she herself sees it, and we dread the consequences. They come speedily enough. Pegeen Mike has a whale of a temper, and a short fuse. We saw that from almost the opening moment of the play. When she suddenly finds herself cheated of her desires, her disillusionment arouses — or should arouse — an anger every bit as tempestuous as the passion Christy was inspiring in her. That anger sends her so far out of control that in her fury she seizes on a glowing slab of peat from the fire and brands Christy with it, on the ankle, as if he were a demon come to destroy her soul. And in a real sense he has quite unintentionally done just that. Her rage is boundless, and it is only when Christy goes off, exulting in his newfound mastery of father and of self, that Pegeen lets herself express what she knows has been her loss from the moment the Act III love scene was interrupted by Synge’s stand-in (I have to look to remember who the character was, but the character’s function is clear all the same). And that is how the character of Pegeen Mike goes such a remarkable distance from burning her almost-lover’s ankle to breaking down, after her last angry swipe at the hapless Sean, and wailing over the loss of her one chance for sexual fulfillment.

Well, that is a lot to ask of even so accomplished an actress as Derbhle Crotty. That’s why the character is so deucedly difficult to do well. Crotty’s acting, at a certain point, began to be vague — my oversimplified term — because neither she nor the director saw clearly and unambiguously enough what moves Pegeen through the last third of the play.

Still, there were many good moments, and the cast was consistently comp­etent. I liked the director’s willingness to risk a very slow pace to begin with — a good marker from which the action slowly but surely accelerates, down to the frenzy of the end. The audience was quite pleased. Generally, I think, audiences are quite pleased with this play. Presumably they never figure out, anymore, what the Dublin audience instinctively felt and rioted over at the first production, namely, that the play is aimed — and Synge’s aim is deadly — at them, and where they live.


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An American Playgoer in London by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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