Here, incidentally, we get a foretaste of that preoccupation with death which heightens the tensity in so much of Synge’s work. There is a corpse on the stage in Riders to the Sea, and a man laid out as a corpse in In the Shadow of the Glen, and there is a funeral party in The Playboy of the Western World. Synge’s imagination dwelt much among the tombs. Even in his comedies, his laughter does not spring from an exuberant joy in life so much as from excitement among the incongruities of a world that is due to death. Hence he cannot be summed up either as a tragic or a comic writer. He is rather a tragic satirist with the soul of a lyric poet.
If he is at his greatest in Riders to the Sea, he is at his most personal in The Well of the Saints, and this is essentially a tragic satire. It is a symbolic play woven out of the illusions of two blind beggars. Mr. Howe says that “there is nothing for the symbolists in The Well of the Saints,” but that is because he is anxious to prove that Synge was a great creator of men and women. Synge, in my opinion at least, was nothing of the sort. His genius was a genius of decoration, not of psychology. One might compare it to firelight in a dark room, throwing fantastic shapes on the walls. He loved the fantastic, and he was held by the darkness. Both in speech and in character, it was the bizarre and even the freakish that attracted him. In Riders to the Sea he wrote as one who had been touched by the simple tragedy of human life. But, as he went on writing and working, he came to look on life more and more as a pattern of extravagances, and he exchanged the noble style of Riders to the Sea for the gauded and overwrought style of The Playboy.
“With The Playboy of the Western World,” says Mr. Howe, “Synge placed himself among the masters.” But then Mr. Howe thinks that “Pegeen Mike is one of the most beautiful and living figures in all drama,” and that she “is the normal,” and that
Synge, with an originality more absolute than Wordsworth’s, insisted that his readers should regain their poetic feeling for ordinary life; and presented them with Pegeen with the stink of poteen on her, and a playboy wet and crusted with his father’s blood.
The conception of ordinary life—or is it only ordinary Irish life?—in the last half-sentence leaves one meditating.
But, after all, it is not Synge’s characters or his plots, but his language, which is his great contribution to literature. I agree with Mr. Howe that the question how far his language is the language of the Irish countryside is a minor one. On the other hand, it is worth noting that he wrote most beautifully in the first enthusiasm of his discovery of the wonders of Irish peasant speech. His first plays express, as it were, the delight of first love. He was always a shaping artist, of course, in search of figures and patterns; but he kept his passion for