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New Hibernia Review 7.4 (2003) 85-102
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In the Shadow of the Glen:
Synge, Ostrovsky, and Marital Separation
Nelson Ó Ceallaigh Ritschel
Massachusetts Maritime Academy
After witnessing a rehearsal for the 1903 premiere of John Millington Synge's In the Shadow of the Glen, John B. Yeats remarked that it was indeed time for Ireland to "begin the work of self-examination and self-accusation" as he heralded the new play and its author. 1 Notwithstanding J. B. Yeats's view of Synge, most have seen In the Shadow of the Glen's dramatist as a romantic visionary rather than as a social realist or advocate for political and social change in early twentieth-century Ireland. As the centennial of Synge's first performed play has just passed, perhaps the time has arrived for a reassessment of Synge. An exploration in this direction will reveal not a romanticized view of unfulfilled and potential love in In the Shadow of the Glen, but, instead, a stark social commentary on Ireland's necessity for accessible and legalized marital separation devoid of social consequences—an issue that other practitioners of early modern Irish theater would also embrace. Provocatively, these additional practitioners numbered among Ireland's most ardent nationalists.
To begin a general exploration of Synge as a social realist, it might be prudent to start with one of his 1905 articles on Ireland's rural West for the Manchester Guardian. "From Galway to Gorumna" reveals a commentator disturbed by the economic depression that he encountered in communities like Spiddal: "[O]ne saw the destitute in still the same clothes, but this time patched and threadbare and ragged, the women mostly barefooted, and both sexes pinched with hunger and the fear of it." 2 Privately, Synge observed that the culprits [End Page 85] responsible for such destitution were the pseudorespectable middle-class capitalists:
[The] general-shop-man who is married to the priest's half-sister and is second cousin once removed of the dispensary doctor, . . . [they] are horrible and awful . . . while they're swindling the people themselves in a dozen ways then buying out their holdings and packing off whole families to America. The subject . . .[is] beastly. 3
Such commentary from Synge was not limited to his Manchester Guardian articles and personal correspondence; it can also be found in his plays. For example, the above "type" of unsavory Irishman is found in the form of the wealthy Shawn Keogh in The Playboy of the Western World (1907). The excessively pious Shawn, described in the stage directions as "fat," must have been intended to offer a stunning visual contrast to the young, barefoot women Susan Brady, Honor Blake, and Sara Tansey. 4 Of course, Shawn's attempts to "buy out" Christy and send him to America intimates that Keogh was no stranger to such tactics with those of less financial resources than himself.
Greedy, self-serving characters function negatively throughout Synge's dramatic canon, from the priest in The Tinker's Wedding to Michael Dara in In the Shadow of the Glen. True to Synge's distaste for that character type, Nora rejects Michael Dara's marriage proposal made while he counts the money he believes is now Nora's owing to her husband's supposed death: "Why would I marry you, Michael Dara?" 5 Nora makes her rejection after she admits she had married Dan Burke for material reasons, but now recognizes her mistake: "I do be thinking in the long nights it was a fool I was that time, Michael Dara, for what good is a bit of farm with cows on it and sheep on the back hills?" (ISG 41). Nevertheless, economic commentary was not the main thrust of In the Shadow of the Glen.
When viewing Synge's dramatic canon as a whole, one is struck by such recurring notions as the failure of Catholicism and Christianity in modern Ireland. Briefly, this is evident from the religion's subversion in favor of a Gaelic pagan mourning ritual in Riders to the Sea—accented by the priest...