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105 THE SURPRISE ENDING: ONE ASPECT OF J. M. SYNGE-S DRAMATIC TECHNIQUE By Robert H. Orr (United States Naval Academy) One does not usually associate the surprise ending with literature of serious intent. Perhaps because of its frequent employment in works of little substance - the detective story or the "suspense" drama - this device is all too often thought of as a tool of the author whose major concern lies in achieving the cheap and easy thrill, or as a sort of literary or theatrical tour de force which has less to do with the essence of the work itself than with the author's ability to manipulate plot imaginatively, or, worst of all, as a last minute bit of trickery designed to rescue an otherwise bland or inept effort. And yet, there is nothing inherently demeaning in the use of a surprise ending, especially if in that final unexpected moment the author provides a true "shock of recognition ." As employed by John Millington Synge in his plays, this technique constitutes far more than empty gesture. Indeed, Synge·s surprise endings invariably provide his audience with quintessential distillations of the themes and motives which have been implicit in his dramas from their opening moments. As such, they represent anything but the sort of gimcrackery mentioned above in that they fulfill what has always been a requirement of significant drama: its events must unfold in a manner which makes the inevitable seem unexpected. Only in Riders to the Sea and Deirdre of the Sorrows does Synge dispense with the unexpected conclusion which may be called one of his most characteristic techniques as a dramatist. In these two plays, of course, the playwright strives to make his audience experience the intensifying awareness of ineluctable doom which the characters themselves feel. This involves a certain projection of the course of events to follow and, obviously, the ruling out of the use of the element of surprise in any significant manner. But in this respect these two plays differ markedly from those we are about to consider, In The Well of the Saints, for example - Synge·s cynical, yet poignant examination of the types of illusion sometimes necessary to sustain life - the playwright surprises his audience with a turn which proves upon closer scrutiny to be much more than a powerful way to ring down the curtain. Martin Doul, a few moments before the play ends, seemingly having been coerced by the villagers and the Saint into having his sight restored, "with a sudden movement strikes the can (of holy water) from Saint's hand and sends it rocketing across stage."1 This gesture, in its total disregard of conventional religious decorum, is disconcerting to any audience, but would be especially shocking to Irish viewers at the turn of the century, In fact, one early critic declared that Martin Doul·s act is so outrageous that it constitutes a flaw in Synge·s delineation of his protagonist's character; "we regard as utterly untrue to the Irish nature Martin Doul·s gesture when he dashes the holy can from the saint's hand« an Irish Catholic would no more do 'the 106 like of that· than would a priest like Father Hart in Mr. Yeats·s Land of Heart's De s ire consent to hide a crucifix at the request of an evil fairy."2 While this statement reveals the powerful reaction which the act should evoke in its audience, it nevertheless exhibits a startling lack of perception in this particular critic in that it reveals an inability to assess the fundamental change in Martin·s nature which occurs during the drama. The blind beggar - ignorant, and hence guiltless, happy, and gentle - whom we see at the beginning of Synge·s play is not the same man who strikes out at the Saint. In the interim, Martin gains knowledge of the world; is dissatisfied with what he sees; conceives a desire which, if realized, will make his perception of the flawed world supportable; has this desire frustrated when Molly refuses and betrays him; and seeks to re-erect the structure of illusion which sustained him earlier. The Martin Doul who lashes out at...


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pp. 105-115
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