Buck Mulligan thought, puzzled:

-- Shakespeare? he said. I seem to know the name.

A flying sunny smile rayed in his loose features.

-- To be sure, he said, remembering brightly. The chap that writes like Synge.

-- James Joyce, Ulysses, p 195 in what seems to be the canonical pagination


John Millington Synge (pron. "sing") was an Irish Literary Revival playwright. He was born in 1871 in the village of Rathfarnham, south of Dublin. He died in 1909. He had Hodgkin's Disease; history neglects to record whether Hodgkin had his.

It's fun to say "Irish Literary Revival" because that gives us a place to sit while we're looking at him. Context is good, but the "Irish Literary Revival" writers aren't a matched set of fully-posable action figures any more than the Lost Generation writers were. Lady Gregory did her thing, Yeats did his, and so on. They clustered loosely around the Irish National Theatre Society, and founded the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. They mostly knew each other, and they shared a desire to create a modern and genuinely Irish literature, in both English and in the Irish language itself. A lot of them were Protestants, but Wolfe Tone was one too so I guess that's okay. Anyhow, if they'd been real Irishmen, they would have lived in Boston and put the "r" in the right place at the end of "theater".

Synge graduated from Trinity College, Dublin and spent a few years on the Continent, idly turning his hand to literary criticism. There he met Yeats, who talked him into moving to the Aran Islands in the west of Ireland. This Synge did, and it determined the course of his life and work thereafter. He wrote a book about the place and his time there, The Aran Islands. He also made up his mind about language, living and dead. The "folk imagination", as he called it, was in his view the wellspring of creativity:

...in countries where the imagination of the people, and the language they use, is rich and living, it is possible for a writer to be rich and copious in his words... In a good play every speech should be as fully flavoured as a nut or apple, and such speeches cannot be written by anyone who works among people who have shut their lips on poetry.

-- From the author's preface to The Playboy of the Western World

Synge's wellspring was the language and the imagination of the common people of rural Ireland, or rather his perception of that language and imagination. He didn't spend his whole life among them, and some critics (Brendan Behan was one, as I recall) have suggested that Synge's common rural Irishmen were more caricature than reportage. Nevertheless, to these American ears, the language and imagination of Mr. Synge's work are very pleasing indeed. During his lifetime he had a fine and growing reputation -- enough to draw harrassing fire from Joyce, as above. Since his death, it has been a commonplace to suggest that he might have ended up on equal terms with Shakespeare if he had lived. That might be stretching it, but the question really can't be answered.

So here's what the man wrote.

  • The Aran Islands (published 1907): An account of life and myth in Irish-speaking rural western Ireland.

  • In the Shadow of the Glen (1903): A play in one act, "an offence to Irish womanhood" concerning an unfaithful wife, her paranoid husband, and her inconstant admirers.

  • Riders to the Sea (1904): A tragedy in one act, canonically considered his best work. More enthusiastic fans call it one of the best tragedies ever written. Well, I sure like it, anyway. The men of a poor fishing family are lost at sea; the women mourn. It's grim stuff.

  • The Well of the Saints (1905): A comedy in three acts. In the republican political atmosphere of the time, this one was controversial because it was perceived as ridiculing the common people of Ireland.

  • The Playboy of the Western World (1907): Another comedy in three acts, and another offence against the Home Rule sun rising among the theatrical reviewers. It's the best of his comedies, an accelerating mass of parricide, compounded errors, and implausible misunderstandings, all amplified and illuminated by the cheerful perversity of the characters' minds.

  • The Tinker's Wedding (1908): A comedy in two acts, not produced at the time because everybody knew it would piss people off. My understanding is that "tinkers" (have you heard "The Body of an American"?) are the Gypsies of Ireland, no better loved than Gypsies elsewhere in Europe.

  • Deirdre of the Sorrows (1909): A tragedy in three acts. The author died before finishing it. It was performed at the Abbey Theatre in 1910. Nobody worried about riots over his tragedies.


Synge's entire dramatic output fits comfortably into a 268-page paperback anthology. There would have been a lot more but for the lymphoma thing, but we'll take what we can get.

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