- “The Fearful Crimes of Ireland”: Tabloid Journalism and Irish Nationalism in The Playboy of the Western World
Near the beginning of act 2 of J. M. Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World (1907), Pegeen Mike returns to her father’s shebeen to discover her newfound beau Christy Mahon basking in the attentions of a throng of her female neighbors. After casting out her romantic competitors in a fit of jealous rage, she purges her irritation by intimating that word of his parricide has reached the ears of the authorities. She tells him, “I was down this morning looking on the papers the post-boy does have in his bag. . . . For there is great news this day, Christopher Mahon” (39). Following Christy’s panicked response—“Is it news of my murder?”—Pegeen continues to needle him: “Murder, indeed. . . . There was not, but a story filled half a page with the hanging of a man. Ah, that should be a fearful end, young fellow, and it worst of all for a man who destroyed his da, for the like of him would get small mercies. . . .” (39). Pegeen prolongs Christy’s punishment until, as he moves to flee the shebeen, she admits her charade: “I’m after going down and reading the fearful crimes of Ireland for two weeks or three, and there wasn’t a word of your murder. They’ve likely not found the body. You’re safe so with ourselves” (42).
To date, critical accounts of Playboy have said little regarding what, aside from its entanglement with Anglo-Irish colonial law, appears the most salient sociological aspect of Pegeen’s report: namely its engagement with the print culture of contemporary Ireland through the medium of “the papers.” This dearth of attention is especially striking considering that contemporary Irish nationalism—routinely adduced as the most significant context for interpreting the play—identified newspapers as a primary source of Irish Anglicization. Emphasis on [End Page 230] Synge’s dramaturgy as an ethnography of Irish peasant life or on his aesthetic practice as a kind of primitivism has obscured the play’s depiction of western Ireland as already immersed in the consumption practices of metropolitan Britain. Any reading that takes seriously the relevance of Irish cultural nationalism to Playboy’s concerns, however, must take this immersion into account. In what follows, I argue that our understanding of Playboy’s aesthetic design, from its ethnographic and primitivist implications to its postcolonial ones and beyond, can be significantly enriched by doing so.1
Specifically, this essay places Playboy in the context of what recent Irish Studies texts call fin-de-siècle Ireland’s metrocolonial or semicolonial condition.2 Such terms designate the extent to which early twentieth-century Ireland had been integrated into the domestic culture of Britain even as it continued to bear markers of a properly colonial sociopolitical position. Particularly in the economic domain of consumption, Irish life had become functionally indistinguishable from that of its imperial counterpart, to the point that Irish subjects shared a common popular culture with the occupying power.3 To nationalists seeking to foment a distinct cultural identity as a precursor to independence, forms such as the music hall song, the musical comedy, the lowbrow fiction of the “penny novelette,” the “penny dreadful,” and the “shilling shocker,” as well as the tabloid fare of British periodicals and newspapers, suddenly appeared as vehicles [End Page 231] of Anglicization—and therefore of colonial hegemony. Ireland’s metrocolonial condition, a state of simultaneous identity with and difference from Britain, is aptly emblematized by the Revivalist campaign to achieve a functional cultural independence by expelling such popular-cultural media from the national marketplace.
Synge’s richest play advances a very specific response to the nation’s enmeshment in the consumer economy of the British metropole. Playboy signals that its account of a parricide’s rise to and fall from social eminence is deeply engaged with contemporary concerns over the Irish consumption of British tabloid journalism. This reading suggests not only that Synge shared his contemporaries’ belief that Irish minds had become colonized by the popular-cultural forms of British capitalism but also that Playboy...