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Classical Elements in The Playboy of the Western World
“Classicism is the following of ancient Greek or Roman principles and style in art and literature, generally associated with harmony, restraint, and adherence to recognized standards of form and craftsmanship, especially from the Renaissance to the 18th century.” A classical play is one that holds classical elements in its subject matter or form. The Playboy of the Western World contains several classical elements.
The Playboy of the Western World, by John Willington Synge, is a dramatic, classical masterpiece. One of its outstanding characteristics is its unity of structure. Digression or superfluities are non-existent in this play. There is only a single plot that develops without deviating from the major theme. The theme of this play is the change of a man’s character from a weak person to a hero through committing patricide. In addition to the unity of action, we have the unity of time and place. Although we have the feeling that a long time has passed, the action of the play covers just the span of a day. As far as the unity of action is concerned, the entire action takes place in a shebeen located near the seashore of Mayo.
Love scenes are essential to the main theme. Part of the plot is the love affair, which develops between the major character, Christy, and the important female character, Pegeen. The main love-scene between them is one of the most poetic scenes in the play. However, this love-scene does not disrupt the unity of action and does not interfere with the development of the main plot, which is the development of Christy’s character. In fact, the idea of love and marriage is put to support the main action. The love-scenes (Christy’s relationship with Pegeen) contribute(s) considerably to Christy’s change of character.
Just like the classical way, the opening dialogue serves as an introduction to the hero, Christy. Pegeen is writing a letter that shows her marriage to Shawn is approaching. After Shawn enters the shebeen, the writer reveals to us that Pegeen does not like him. She mocks him saying that “It’s wonder, Shaneen, the Holy Father’d be taking notice of the likes of you …” She maintains that there are only insignificant, coward people in the village, and it seems that Shawn is one of them. At the same time, we learn that Pegeen’s father, Michael, is going to a wake and leaving her alone in the shebeen for the entire night. Shawn refuses to stay with her because he is afraid of Father Reilly .This, in turn, contributes to her resentment of him. He tells Pegeen of “a kind of fellow”, he heard groaning in a ditch.It is clear that Pegeen is welcoming any brave man. Furthermore, the conversation of the characters in the shebeen foreshadows that Michael will hire a pot-boy. Consequently, it prepares us for the coming of the main hero, Christy.
The plot begins to unravel more and more; and the foundations for Christy becoming a hero are laid. After Michael and his friends enter the shebeen, they are followed by “a kind of fellow”, Christy. Because of Christy’s suspense-evoking investigation by Michael, Pegeen, and the others, he reveals that he had killed his father with a loy (a spade). The reaction of his listeners is encouraging to him. Philly says that Christy is not “a common week-day kind of murderer”. Even “the peelers” are afraid of him. Jimmy says that he is capable of facing a devil from hell. Pegeen says that he is both wise and brave. Moreover, she says that he is suitable to be hired by her father as a pot-boy in the shebeen. Then, he is offered the job, and he accepts the offer after being convinced that he will be safe there from the police. The foundations of Christy becoming a hero are laid in this scene where he receives praise from all those around him in the shebeen save Shawn, who criticizes him for committing a murder.
Christy’ story of his past life is crucial to the play. Christy has already overcome his fears. Furthermore, his morale is raised by Pegeen, who admires his small feet, his name, and his ability to speak like a poet, “And I’ve heard all times it’s the poets are your like, fine fiery fellows with great rages when their temper was aroused.” Consequently, he tells her about his past, saying that he was insignificant person in his village and no one took notice of him except beasts. This tale of his past life is significant because it makes us notice how the change in his personality (peripeteia: the reversal of the situation) will transpire. It also gives rise to the sort of pity we associate with a tragedy. We as audience feel sorry for him because of his father’s ill-treatment for him and at the same time, we are afraid to be in his own shoes.
The fight between Widow Queen and Pegeen over Christy is important simply because it contributes to Christy’s realization and recognition of himself. Widow Queen arrives at the shebeen although it is too late at night. She attempts to convince the” queer fellow”, Christy, to spend the night at her house. The fight starts between the two women. This clash gives Christy more confidence .At the end of Act I, Christy expresses his satisfaction of the fact that the two women fight over him. Therefore, this new feeling of self-esteem marks an important step in Christy’s transformation. The previous soliloquy represents the first climax (turning point) in the play.
Propriety is a classical characteristic of the hero. Christy behaves according to his status. Act II begins with Christy’s soliloquy that shows that he is satisfied with his job .He finds also that the mirror there shows him to be more handsome than the mirror in his village. After the girls and Widow Queen came to see him, he tells them his tale trying to make it sound as grand as he could. He includes some more details of his story. Susan says that his story is grand and Honor admires his way of telling the story. Christy, as a hero, is also true to life. Christy, as an ordinary person, is made more self-assured by the girls’ praise. Afterwards, Pegeen comes and tells Christy that he is in danger because he is narrating his story to everyone. Demoralized, he readies himself to leave, but Pegeen says that he will be safe as far as he keeps himself away from everybody and especially the girls. This is the first anti-climax in the play.
Just when Christy is feeling happy and self-assured, something happens to snatch that happiness and self-assurance away from him. Upon seeing his father coming to the shebeen, he hides himself behind the door. Widow Queen tackles the matter by telling Old Mahon wrong information about Christy. This coming back of Old Mahon is essential to the play because it gives a comic relief. If the patricide were actually committed, this would have been a gloomy effect on us. It also introduces a new character, whose speech is so comic.
Although, according to the standards of classicism, the writer should use lofty, sophisticated diction, Synge used the language of common people selectively. Christy receives prizes for his victories in the sports and finds himself alone with Pegeen, who feels proud of him. There is a highly rhetorical love-scene between them. Although it is full of the use of figurative speeches on both sides, Christy’s and Pegeen’s, we cannot admit that the hero only use this rhetorical kind of language because Christy uses a simply language when we first met him in the first Act. Christy now reaches the peak of his achievement in Mayo by getting the promise from Pegeen that she would marry him within fortnight. Michael objects their proposed marriage, but he changes his mind upon seeing that Shawn is a coward and incapable of defending himself. This is also another climax in the play.
Then, another comic reversal, which has tragic implications, takes place. Old Mahon comes back and begins to beat Christy. Upon seeing that Christy’s father is alive and beating him, Pegeen says that he must quit the place because he has told her lies. The people of the village have also turned against him for the same reason. In order to regain the esteem of Pegeen and the people of the village, he kills his father for the second time. However, they regard him as a criminal and not as a hero. This is another anti-climax in Christy’s career. The village people tied him up with ropes in order to hand him over to the police. Nevertheless, not having been killed by the second blow, Christ’s father comes back again. Christy is reunited with his father and agrees to go back to his village on one condition: that he will be the leader from now on. Finally, he makes his speech, which shows that his change from a weak person to a hero is complete. He departs and leaves Pegeen with a broken heart. This is the final climax in the play. We can associate the melancholy of the heroine as tragic because she has lost her champion whom she made.
1-The original book: Synge,The PLAYBOY OF THE WESTERN WORLD, York Press,Immeuble Esseily,Place Raid Solh,Beirut,1998.
2-RAMJI LALL, THE PLAYBOY OF THE WESTERN WORLD by J.M.SYNGE, RAMA BROTHERS,Twelfth Edition 2000.