Fathers and Sons in The Playboy of the Western World
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Although the hostile reception in 1907 of Playboy has been attributed to Synge's slanderous portrayal of the Irish and the subversive implications of that portrayal--namely, that the Irish were unfit for self-rule--the most radical implication of all has escaped scholarly comment: the anti-patriarchal message found in the play's structure.
When, for example, Declan Kiberd in Inventing Ireland argues that "Father Reilly is so peripheral a figure to these fundamentally pagan people [the Mayoites] that Synge does not allow him to appear on the stage at all," he misses the significance of the priest's off-stage portrayal.
Admittedly, to this day, people cannot agree on the play's meaning. Like all great literature, Playboy lends itself to a number of readings: as a traditional comedy, in which a parent tries to obstruct the union of two would-be lovers; as a spoof of traditional comedy, in which the suitor rejects the woman and goes off with his father; as a stage demonstration of the Irish proverb "praise a lad and he'll prosper," in which the hero's propensity for poetry corresponds to his growth in self-esteem; as a biographical play, in which the poet repeatedly speaks of loss and loneliness, feelings that express Synge's own unhappy love affair with a young actress (Molly Allgood); as a reversal of gender roles, in which the men are feminized and t...