Synge at the Abbey

On this day in 1904 Dublin's Abbey Theatre opened, premiering one-act plays by W. B. Yeats and Lady Gregory, both of them Abby founders.  Growing out of the general Irish Literary Revival of the time, the Abbey quickly rose to international fame for both the quality of its productions and the controversies which often surrounded them. Perhaps the most famous example of such clashes is that which consumed the 1907 premiere of The Playboy of the Western World by J. M. Synge, another of the Abbey’s founders.


A number of Synge’s plays take a critical or at least humorous look at the farming and fishing villages of Ireland’s western isles. In Playboy, young Christy Mahon tells the tall tale of having heroically done-in his father, whereupon the excitement-starved village girls, those who go "winter and summer with nothing worthwhile to confess at all," line up to see him:

SARA. And asking your pardon, is it you's the man killed his father?

CHRISTY. I am, God help me!

SARA. Then my thousand welcomes to you, and I've run up with a brace of duck's eggs for your food today. Pegeen's ducks is no use, but these are the real rich sort. Hold out your hand and you'll see it's no lie I'm telling you.

CHRISTY. They're a great and weighty size.

SUSAN. And I run up with a pat of butter, for it'd be a poor thing to have you eating your spuds dry, and you after running a great way since you did destroy your da.

CHRISTY. Thank you kindly.

HONOR. And I brought you a little cut of cake, for you should have a thin stomach on you, and you that length walking the world.

NELLY. And I brought you a little laying pullet — boiled and all she is — was crushed at the fall of night by the curate's car. Feel the fat of that breast, Mister.

CHRISTY. It's bursting, surely.

When Christy later imagines “a drift of chosen females, standing in their shifts itself, maybe, from this place to the eastern world,” a riot broke out. The next day’s reviews decried the play’s “unmitigated, protracted libel upon Irish peasant men and, worse still, upon Irish girlhood," and ever-increasing numbers of police were required for the remainder of the Playboy run.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at

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