From An Claidheamh Soluis, February 9, 1907.
If it is unlikely to have any other happy outcome – as we fear it is – the tragi-comedy which ran its absurd course at the Abbey Theatre last week will at least concentrate the attention of Gaels on the absolute necessity for the foundation of an Irish Theatre in the capital of Ireland. Anglo-Ireland has shown at its worst, and a very unlovely worst it is. We cannot congratulate either the Theatre or its critics on the way in which they have acted in face of a crisis. On both sides there have been mock-heroics and hysterics; on both a shameful lack of tolerance and broadmindedness; on both an even more painful want of that saving sense of humour which in his most tense and electric moments never deserts the genuine Gael. If “Art” has contrived to make itself look ridiculous, so have the raucous cryers-down of “Art.” And both are of Anglo-Ireland; wherein the true Gael who “sees life steadily and sees it whole” may find a certain grim satisfaction.
Mr. Synge’s play was indefensible. But it was defensible – and was ably defended – on almost every ground on which it was attacked. The objections to certain plain-spoken expressions which occurred in the dialogue as it was originally spoken were simply puerile. The serious resentment of the play as a libel on Irish character was almost as inept. Irish character does not need to be vindicated against Mr. J. M. Synge; and if it did, the audience went a passing strange way about vindicating it. But we do not believe that Mr. Synge intended his play either as a picture or a caricature of Irish life. The charge which we bring against him is graver. Whether deliberately or un-deliberately, he is using the stage for the propagation of a monstrous gospel of animalism, of revolt against sane and sweet ideals, of bitter contempt for all that is fine and worthy, not merely in Christian morality, but in human nature itself. He lays the scenes of his plays in Ireland merely because Ireland is the country with whose scenery and life he is best acquainted; but it is not Ireland he libels so much as mankind in general, it is not against a nation he blasphemes so much as against the moral order of the universe.
In “The Shadow of the Glen” we find Mr. Synge preaching contempt of what he would doubtless call the “moral convention”; in “The Well of the Saints” he railed obscenely against light, and sweetness, and knowledge, and charity; in “The Playboy of the Western World” – not so much perhaps in the mere story or plot as in the amazingly powerful dialogue – he has produced a brutal glorification of violence, and grossness, and the flesh. In these three plays humanity is in savage revolt. In the beautiful and wonderfully impressive “Riders to the Sea” humanity is represented as passive and despairing in the hands of some strange and unpitying God. A sinister and unholy gospel, truly.
The Anglo-Irish dramatic movement has now been in existence for ten years. Its net result has been the spoiling of a noble poet in Mr W. B. Yeats, and the generation of a sort of Evil Spirit in the shape of Mr. J. M. Synge. “By their fruits ye shall know them.”
“The Playboy of the Western World” was not a play to be howled down by a little mob. It was a play to be left severely alone by all who did not care to listen to it. The course taken by the objectors was not only undignified, but, as events proved, ineffective. It was, therefore, bad tactics, as well as an infringement of the liberty both of the author and players and of the public. On the other hand, the action of the Theatre authorities in introducing the police, in personally denouncing members of the audience, and in pressing their vindictiveness so far as to go down to the police courts in order to secure convictions, can only be described as lamentable. The author of “Cathleen Ni Houlahan” at the head of a column of D.M.P men was a sight which will long haunt the memory with that mixture of the odious and the ludicrous which clings to the recollection of the mean deeds of men made for fine things.
Mr. Yeats triumphs for the moment; but he has lost far more than he has gained. As for Anglo-Irish drama – it is the beginning of the end.