THE FAME OF J.M. SYNGE
The most masterly piece of literary advertising in modern times was surely Mr. Yeats’s enforcement of Synge upon the coteries—or the choruses—as a writer in the great tradition of Homer and Shakespeare. So successful has Mr. Yeats been, indeed, in the exaltation of his friend, that people are in danger of forgetting that it is Mr. Yeats himself, and not Synge, who is the ruling figure in modern Irish literature. One does not criticize Mr. Yeats for this. During the Synge controversy he was a man raising his voice in the heat of battle—a man, too, praising a generous comrade who was but lately dead. The critics outside Ireland, however, have had none of these causes of passion to prevent them from seeing Synge justly. They simply bowed down before the idol that Mr. Yeats had set up before them, and danced themselves into ecstasies round the image of the golden playboy.
Mr. Howe, who wrote a sincere and able book on Synge, may be taken as a representative apostle of the Synge cult. He sets before us a god, not a man—a creator of absolute beauty—and he asks us to accept the common view that The Playboy of the Western World is his masterpiece. There can never be any true criticism of Synge till we have got rid of all these obsessions and idolatries. Synge was an extraordinary man of genius, but he was not an extraordinarily great man of genius. He is not the peer of Shakespeare: he is not the peer of Shelley: he is the peer, say, of Stevenson. His was a byway, not a high-road, of genius. That is why he has an immensely more enthusiastic following among clever people than among simple people.
Once and once only Synge achieved a piece of art that was universal in its appeal, satisfying equally the artistic formula of Pater and the artistic formula of Tolstoi. This was Riders to the Sea. Riders to the Sea, a lyrical pageant of pity made out of the destinies of fisher-folk, is a play that would have been understood in ancient Athens or in Elizabethan London, as well as by an audience of Irish peasants to-day.