Early in the twentieth century, the Abbey Theatre was founded in Dublin, Ireland. The Abbey was brought about by the combined efforts of the Irish National Dramatic Society and the Irish National Theatre Society (INTS). William Butler Yeats was the first president of the INTS. The Abbey was sponsored by the English heiress Annie Horniman, “who ‘detested all things Irish’ but was fond of Yeats” (Frazier). Horniman bought the Hibernian Theatre of Varieties and Mechanics’ Institute on Abbey Street, Dublin, and “let it rent free and fully refurbished to the INTS” (Frazier). The Abbey Theatre opened in 1904. The theater was conceived as the first national Irish theatre, where questions of importance to the Irish could be raised and acted out.
The Abbey Theatre was part of the larger Irish Revival. As Bruce McConachie explains, “Several groups looked to a revival of one or several aspects of Irish culture—its mythic heroes, hardy peasants, Catholic tradition, or its Gaelic language—as the key to eventual national independence” (292). The independence of Ireland was at stake at the Abbey. Irish writers and dramatists sought to break away from their imperial bondage by expressing what they believed was the core of Irish culture. Yeats called for a return of the Muses back to Ireland (Hirsch 1120). The nation craved literature and drama that was distinctly Irish.
In January 1907, the Abbey Theatre mounted the first production of John Millington Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World. The play sought to fulfill the promise of the Irish National theatre by creating “an authentic expression of Irish life, myth, poetry, and history” (Leeney). However, for the audiences of the Abbey, Playboy did not portray what they thought it meant to be Irish. The performance of Synge’s play led to riots that lasted throughout its brief run. As Neil Blackadder notes, the actors often could not be heard, the play would be stopped to restore order, and many people in the crowd were arrested (69). The people of Dublin were outraged. One Irish citizen called out Synge’s play as “‘a deliberate attack on the national character’” (qtd. in McConachie 296). The very heart of the Irish national character, the Irish peasant, was at stake for the Playboy rioters. Synge’s play had criticized the life and image of the Irish peasant, and the Irish middle class people of Dublin would not stand for it.
The Playboy of the Western World features the character Christy Mahon, who arrives at a tavern in County Mayo, in western Ireland, and explains to the locals that he has just killed his father. The villagers do not turn Christy over to the “peelers,” the English police, but instead they celebrate Christy’s “act of rebellion against an oppressor” and praise him (McConachie 293). The villagers welcome Christy, and he becomes part of their community. According to McConachie, however, “[C]omedy turn[s] to grotesquerie at the start of Act 3” (293). Christy’s “dead” father enters the same tavern in County Mayo, injured but alive. “Christy’s heroic killing of his father, his youthful rebellion against authoritarian tradition, abruptly lost its glamor” (McConachie 293). Christy then strives to win back the villagers and a local girl by trying to kill his father again. It is then that the villagers turn on Christy, tie him up, and “vengefully [torture] him” (McConachie 293). Christy’s father then returns from the dead for a second time. Synge’s play ends in “a comic reconciliation between father and son” (McConachie 295). This is what caused the audiences of the Abbey Theatre to riot in January 1907.
The audiences of Synge’s play felt their national character had been violated. The playwright had questioned with the character of Christy Mahon, the holiness of the Irish peasant, a modern foundation of Irish culture. As Edward Hirsch notes,
[M]ost Irish writers had a common belief in a single undifferentiated entity called ‘the peasants.’ This process of turning the peasants into a single figure of literary art … may be termed the ‘aestheticizing’ of the Irish country people. Such aestheticizing takes place whenever a complex historical group of people is necessarily simplified by being collapsed into one entity, ‘the folk’ (1117).
Despite the reality that the Irish countryside was filled with a diverse population, the writers of Ireland created a myth of the Irish rural “folk.” Writers made “the peasant a spiritual figure, the living embodiment of the ‘Celtic’ imagination, a ‘natural’ aristocrat” (Hirsch 1119-20). This image of the noble Irish peasant was at stake when the audiences of the Abbey Theatre participated in the so-called “Playboy riots.”
The “Playboy riots” were more than a reaction to Synge’s play; they were an attempt to defend the Irish nation. As Benedict R. Anderson writes in Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, “[A] fundamental change was taking place in modes of apprehending the world, which, more than anything else, made it possible to ‘think’ the nation” (22). Despite centuries of oppression by the imperial British, the Irish held on to an “Ireland” that was their own. As part of this imagined community, they imagined a pre-industrial, pre-Christian nation that lived in myths and lyrical ballads. The people of Ireland idealized the noble peasant “and by defining [the peasants] as the essence of an ancient, dignified Irish culture—the Revivalists were specifically countering the English stereotype” (Hirsch 1120). This English stereotype, often called “Paddy,” was a subhuman creature. The “Paddy” character was “a comic, quaint, drunken Irish buffoon” (Hirsch 1119). The Irish hoped to reclaim their national identity, to move away from the English image of “Paddy” and toward the noble Irish peasant.
The audiences of the Abbey Theatre, the rioting Dubliners, felt attacked. As Hirsch explains, “[T]he recurrent objection to … to Synge’s work … was that, in Daniel Corkery’s summary charge, the ‘plays were not Irish plays inasmuch as they misrepresented the Irish peasant’” (1126). To misrepresent the Irish peasant, the image of Irish national identity, was to misrepresent the Irish themselves. This misrepresentation led the Irish audience to “call into question one’s own essential Irish identity” (Hirsch 1126). Synge’s play challenged what it meant to be Irish.
However, there was another element at stake in the “Playboy riots.” The founders of the Irish National Theatre Society were, strictly speaking, not truly Irish. Synge, Yeats, and Lady Augusta Gregory were all Anglo-Irish, descended from English citizens who were transplanted to Ireland. And like many of their fellow Englishmen, the Anglo-Irish were often Protestant. Hirsch clarifies this conflict by noting, “[T]he Catholic audience for [the] new modern literature could easily feel betrayed by Anglo-Irish Protestant writers who had a significantly different structure of feelings about Irish life” (1125). Hirsch goes on to explain, “For the Catholic middle class…the Irish country people functioned as … the source of all authentic Irish life” (1125). These Anglo-Irish Protestant writers were not a part of Ireland’s imagined community.
In the eyes of the mainly Catholic audiences of the Abbey, the founders of the theatre could not know what it truly meant to be Irish. As Lucy McDiarmid notes, “The writers associated with the Abbey have long been classes as a Protestant elite who were not ‘an integral part of the culture they sought to develop and foster’” (28). How could these “Protestant elite” know what an Irish peasant’s life consisted of; and how much was at stake for the Playboy audience when that same peasant was questioned? Synge wrote about the Irish peasant without connecting to the soul of Irish national identity. Gregory Castle explains, “Synge combined a Romantic temperament, and its attendant glamorization of the West of Ireland, with a sense of detachment … to produce a sensitive and astute observer, but one whose Anglo-Irish affiliations constantly threatened to alienate him from the very culture into which he desired entry” (267). The struggles of the Irish working- and middle-classes had created a bond over the development of Irish history. However, as an Anglo-Irish man, Synge was a part of the elite other, neither fully Irish nor fully English. The Anglo-Irish writers who sought to express Ireland were always caught in this liminal space; they did not completely belong to either nation.
Despite this status as other, the Anglo-Irish did not shy away from envisioning a new, wholly Irish nation. Yeats wrote, “‘We three,’” speaking of himself, Synge, and Lady Gregory, “‘have conceived an Ireland that will remain imaginary more powerfully than we have conceived ourselves’” (qtd. in Castle 267). Yeats and others sought to create an imagined Irish nation that encompassed both Anglo-Irish and Irish citizens. Yeats wanted a mythic Ireland, an Ireland of folks and legends, an Ireland that lived in the mind. Such an Ireland would bond every citizen of Ireland together. Anderson speaks of such a nation, stating, “It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion” (6). In other words, one Irishman may not personally know another Irishman but because they believe in the same imagined Ireland, they recognize each other as Irish.
Yeats imagined Ireland would be rooted in a pagan, pre-Christian time. This would cross religious boundaries and create an imagined Celtic Ireland. Seamus Deane notes, “Once the Irish Revival had … established that this Celtic spirit was Protestant as well as Catholic, a form of Protestant dissent that repudiated the modern world just as much as Catholic loyalty to ancient forms had resisted it, the cultural version of the solidarity of the Irish national community was complete” (125). This stand of anti-modernity created a link between Catholic and Protestant, a shared dislike of the present. The act of reaching back in time to find stories to tell in the present lead to the creation of the national Irish theatre movement and the founding of the Abbey Theatre.
The rioters at the Abbey only responded to the surface of what bothered them. The deeper cause of the riots was hidden in their collective memory, their shared Ireland. Perhaps, Synge’s observations and questions about the Irish peasant needed to be stated in order to stir the minds of the audiences so they too would begin to question the myths of their nation. Soon, the nation of Ireland would face new challenges and new divisions would be set in motion. In time, the physical nation of Ireland would be split, but the imagined Irish nation would still live on.
Anderson, Benedict R. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. 3rd ed. London: Verso, 2006. Print.
Blackadder, Neil. Performing Opposition: Modern Theater and the Scandalized Audience. Westport: Praeger, 2003. Print.
Castle, Gregory. “Staging Ethnography: John M. Synge’s Playboy of the Western World and the Problem of Cultural Translation.” Theatre Journal 49.3 (1997): 265-86. JSTOR. Web. 10 Nov. 2012.
Deane, Seamus. “The Production of Cultural Space in Irish Writing.” boundary 2 21.3 (1994): 117-44. JSTOR. Web. 22 Nov. 2012.
Frazier, Adrian. “Abbey Theatre.” The Oxford Encyclopedia of Theatre and Performance. Ed. Dennis Kennedy. 2012. N. pag. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Theatre and Performance. Web. 10 Nov. 2012.
Hirsch, Edward. “The Imaginary Irish Peasant.” PMLA 106.5 (1991): 1116-33. JSTOR. Web. 10 Nov. 2012.
Leeney, Cathy A. “National theater movement, Ireland.” The Oxford Encyclopedia of Theatre and Performance. Ed. Dennis Kennedy. 2012. N. pag. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Theatre and Performance. Web. 10 Nov. 2012.
McConachie, Bruce. “Case Study: The Playboy riots: Nationalism in the Irish theatre.” Theatre Histories: An Introduction. Ed. Phillip B. Zarrilli, Bruce McConachie, Gary Jay Williams, and Carol Fisher Sorgenfrei. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2006. 292-98. Print.
McDiarmid, Lucy. “Augusta Gregory, Bernard Shaw, and the Shewing-Up of Dublin Castle.” PMLA 109.1 (1994): 26-44. JSTOR. Web. 22 Nov. 2012.