- Staging Ethnography: John M. Synge’s Playboy of the Western World and the Problem of Cultural Translation
With this full life the authors have worked out in their several ways their views of life, and they are fortunate in having for their interpreters a company of earnest actors and actresses eagerly desiring to put upon the stage the actual life and aims of the peasants they have so carefully studied in their native land.Program Notes, Abbey Players, 1906
Synge, Revivalism and the Invention of Culture
Much has been said about the role of folklore and legend in the various incarnations of the Irish National Theatre, but there is little discussion of how these indigenous materials come to be conscripted into dramatic productions and what this conscription tells us about Irish Revivalism generally. The Revival is usually understood to mean the group of writers surrounding W. B. Yeats, John M. Synge, and Lady Augusta Gregory who worked assiduously to restore and preserve the folk-cultural texts of the Gaelic-Irish peasantry. Revivalism as a cultural phenomenon (which encompasses historical, anthropological, and sociological discourses as well as literary ones) is so often characterized as a dramatic movement mainly because the early years of the National Theatre (1894–1916) are so strongly associated with the chief Revivalist writers, whose version of a national theatre was often rerouted through ostensibly non-political works.
For a number of reasons that are not always obvious to readers of Revivalist drama but which were notoriously so to contemporary audiences, the Irish National Theatre was not primarily a nationalist project; this is especially true in the early years of the [End Page 265] Abbey Theatre (opened in 1904). Playwrights like Synge, Yeats, and Lady Gregory produced dramatic works under constraints that led them to the creation of a national style that avoided explicitly nationalist sentiments, a style that was recognizably Irish, drawing on folklore, myth, and legend, but that avoided the partisan, polemical, and propagandistic tendencies of the various nationalist factions. Critical response to performances during the early years of the Literary Theatre (1898–1901) and the Irish National Drama Society (1902)—particularly the 1899 performances of The Countess Cathleen and the 1902 performances of that signature Revivalist play, Cathleen Ni Houlihan 1 —suggests a defensive reaction particularly in the minds of nationalists who felt that a national theatre ought to form but not to challenge national identity. They resented what many considered negative portrayals of the Irish peasantry, preferring instead to see plays that dramatized political sentiments and that represented myth and legend as revolutionary and patriotic allegory. Indeed, nationalist pressures sometimes led to self-censorship on the part of the Abbey Theatre directors, with the result that plays like Synge’s The Tinker’s Wedding were not performed for fear of the kind of violent public reaction that eventually greeted The Shadow of the Glen and The Playboy of the Western World. 2 These pressures were every bit as onerous and debilitating as those exerted by Annie Horniman, who financed the rebuilding of the Abbey Theatre and was its sole patron from 1904–1910. As Adrian Frazier has demonstrated, Horniman (often with Yeats’s blessing) was untiring in her struggle to keep the Abbey Theatre from staging any kind of nationalist drama. 3 The combined forces of Horniman’s injunctions and an apolitical aestheticism led to the formation of a purportedly ideologically neutral “folk drama,” which by 1917 had become, in Yeats’s view, a reliable “type” that “keeps the Theatre running.” 4
The Anglo-Irish affiliation of the Abbey Theatre directors certainly contributed to this state of affairs, but it was by no means the sole factor. Despite the fact that many Anglo-Irish writers identified themselves with the ancient and beloved file, or bard, that powerful amalgam of historian, genealogist, poet, courtier, educator, scholar, and wanderer, their cultural position in the privileged artist/intellectual class sets them apart from the mostly Catholic majority of which they write. They remain apart because their position is marked by a constitutive uncertainty: are they inside or outside the culture about which they write? Yeats and Synge compound this distance between Anglo-Irish directors...