On this day 115 years ago Playboy of the Western World premiered at the Abbey Theatre. Instead of being applauded at by an appreciative audience, it was met by a booing hissing and stamping of feet, in what became known as the “Playboy Riots”. The play caused much consternation among Nationalists who were affronted by Synge’s depiction of Irish peasantry. The moralistic members of society were scandalised by the mention of the word ”shifts” (lady’s undergarments).
Playboy of the Western World, main character Christy Mahon was based upon the life of notorious Achill man, James Lynchehaun. Although when asked if Lynchehaun was his muse, Synge did not confirm nor did he deny leaving critics of the time guessing. “Well, all I can say is, that it if he based it on the true facts of Lynchehaun’s escape he could have made a play that would at least be good melodrama” one proclaimed.
Synge, who was too ill to attended the opening night was eventually forced to write to the press to defend his work:
Abbey Theatre manager, W.B. Yeats, who was also absent on the opening night due to a commitment in Scotland, invited a live audience to an open discussion on “The Freedom of the Theatre and Mr. Synge’s Play”.
It is difficult to say how Emily, who was a good friend of J M Synge felt about the controversy surrounding his latest work. She was a dyed in the wool Nationalist, suggesting that she might have disapproved of his portrayal of the Irish peasantry. Emily, always loyal where her friends were concerned may very well have been happy for his unconventional success.
Dundee Courier 31 August 1903 p 3
Irish News and Belfast Morning News 31 January 1907
Dublin Evening Telegraph 31 January 1907