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The play Playboy of the Western World as a tragi-comedy

Playboy of the Western World by Synge can be termed as a tragi-comedy. A tragic-comedy is a play which claims a plot apt for tragedy but which ends happily like a comedy. The action seems to end in a tragic catastrophe until an unexpected turn in events brings out the happy ending. In such a play tragic and comic elements are mixed up together. The play Playboy of the Western World ends in comedy though it might have well ended as a tragedy.

In one mood we may suggest that Playboy of the Western World is sheer extravagant comedy, with elements of strong farce in the resurrection of Christy’s father, and in the deflation of a boastful man. As such, it embodies the classic elements of reversal and recognition. And yet it is a comedy which ends unhappily for Pegeen who is unable to marry Christy, the Playboy. Another way of looking at this play is to regard it as a satirical comedy. It is a satire on the proverbial willingness of the West to give shelter to the criminal and murderer. In that case Christy, the Playboy, becomes a comic Oedipus, the man who killed his father.

A tragedy

But again we may see the play, if we wish, as a tragedy, with Pegeen as the heroine-victim. Pegeen found her man, made him, won him in the teeth of opposition from her own sex, and then lost him. Pegeen’s loss at the end is absolute and beyond comfort, because she has lost his body too; while the complacent Shawn sees the obstacle to his marriage with her removed.

A distorted tragedy

According to the critic, The Playboy has a very special place in the history of tragedy. This critic regards it as a deliberately distorted tragedy, all the joints wrenched out of place by a comic vision that Synge imposed upon it. This play contains in itself a number of the formal qualities of traditional tragedy. The hero possesses, or acquires through the story of his murder of his father, a Promethean virtue in his destruction of the “jealous old tyrant”, a tyrant who was about to force him into a hateful marriage. It is, however, a distorted tragedy because at the end we find ourselves face to face with the comic resurrection of the slain tyrant-father, and the dissolution of the heroism which had been built up by Christy’s imagination and the imagination of his listeners. The hero vanishes, the son is reconciled to his father, our interest, in so far as it is tragic, is transferred to Pegeen whose final speech is a lament reminding us of the lament of Dido, the Queen of Carthage, over the departure from her kingdom  of her lover, Aeneas.

Serious Elements in the Play: The Two Murders

Now, if we were to choose a label for this play, we would unhesitatingly describe it as a comedy, though we would at the same time admit that there are some tragic elements in it. The Playboy contains an abundance of fun, and at places makes us laugh heartily. The tragic elements in this play do not produce any lasting impression on our minds, and though Pegeen’s lament at the end at having lost her over is quite moving, it does not alter the character of the play as a comedy.

Christy’s Grievances against his Father

Christy’s complaints against his father in the course of his conversation with Pegeen in ActI have also a certain degree of seriousness about them. Christy describes his life in his native village as having been one of drudgery with few recreations. He tells Pegeen that his father was drinking and cursing all the time, and ill-treating him under the influence of a hard-hearted woman. Christy’s account of his past life and of his father’s callous treatment of him certainly gives rise to the kind of pity which we associated with a tragedy.

Old Mahon’s Grievances against His Son

Subsequently it is the father’s turn to complain against his son’s misbehavior. Talking to Widow Quin (in ActII), Old Mahon says that his son had driven him out in his old age when he had nobody to aid him. He tells Widow Qui that his son was an ugly young “streeler” with a murderous mouth, “a lier on walls”, a “talker of folly,” an idler who did not do any useful work at all, an ugly background. Even if half of what Old Mahon alleges against his son be true, we have every reason to sympathise with him.  We  are inclined to sympathise with the old man even more towards the end when he has to accept defeat at the hands of his son and when Christy tells him that he will be the leader from now on, the master of all flights, and that the old man will have to cook his oatmeals and wash his potatoes.

Widow Quins Futile efforts to Save Christy from the Crowd

Then there is something pathetic about Widow Quin’s efforts to save Christy. The  whole crowd has turned hostile to Christy, and he finds himself helpless. Widow Quin alone stands by his side and tries to take him away beyond the reach of the crowd, but Christy refuses to go away because he does not want to leave Pegeen. Widow Quin tries even to disguise his as a woman in order  to make it easy for him to slip away, but he is determined to stay on in the hope that Pegeen will marry him. This attempted disguise also has its comic side.

The Persecution of Christy

The persecution of Christy by the crowd is also a melancholy episode in the play. Without going into the merits of what Christy has done or not done, the manner in which the crowd, and especially Pegeen, treats him does arouse a feeling of sympathy in us. Pegeen declares that the world will see this man beaten like a schoolboy, and she refers to him as an ugly liar who was trying to play off as the hero. She goes to the extent of scorching his leg. Michael and others have bound Christy with a rope, and he lies struggling vainly on the floor. All this has a touch of tragedy. But even this situation has been enlivened by various comic touches.

Pegeen’s Lament at the end

But it is the final speech of Pegeen which lends to this play a certain distinctly tragic quality. After Christy has left, all Pegeen’s dreams vanish. She has told him earlier in this Act that she and he would make an excellent pair of “gallant lovers,” and she had said that she would be burning candles to celebrate the divine miracle which had brought him to her. She has also told her father that she was now determined to marry Christy, and she had obtained his consent. But all Pegeen’s hopes have come to nothing, and she finds herself deserted by her lover, though the fault is entirely her own. After having finished reading the play, out thoughts do remain with Pegeen for some time, and we share the grief to which she gives expression in her final speech.

Funny Situations

Some of the situations in the play are uproariously funny. For instance, Shawn slipping away from Michael’s hold and leaving his coat in Michael’s hands cannot fail to make the audience in a theatre roar with laughter. Other funny situations are Pegeen and Widow Quin each pulling Christy’s boots; Christ’s holding a mirror behind his back; Christy hiding himself behind the dooe when he sees his father alive and coming towards the shebeen; Philly searching for some more liquor when he is already semi-drunk; and above all, Christy’s biting Shawn on the leg and Shawn’s screaming with pain.

Humor of character

Most of the characters in the play make us laugh because of their absurdities or weakness. Drunkenness is most often amusing and we here have four heavy drunkards-Michael James, Philly, Jimmy, and Old Mahon. Michael and his friends make it a point to go to a wake in order to drink the free liquor that is served there. Old Mahon once drank himself almost to a state of paralysis when he was in the company of Limerick girls. Cowardice is another comic trait. Shawn Keogh of Killakeen amuses us not only by his refusal to fight Christy but by refusing even to feel jealous of “a man did slay his da.”

Humor of Dialogue

The dialogue in the play too is a source of rich comedy. Leaving aside a few speeches which may momentarily depress us or put us in a serious mood, the rest of the dialogue amuses us greatly. The verbal duel between Pegeen and Widow Quin is one of the comic highlights of the play. Widow Quin slanders Pegeen by saying that the latter goes “helter-skeltering” after any man who winks at her on a road, and Pegeen accuses the widow of having reared a ram at her own breast. Then there are the satirical remarks Pegeen makes to Shawn. She tells him that he is the kind of lover who would remind a grit of a bullock’s liver rather than of the lily or the rose. And then she  ironically advises him to find for himself a wealthy wife who looks radiant with “the diamond jewelleries of Pharaoh’s ma.”

A Boisterous Rollicking Comedy on the Whole

In spite of all this, The Playboy is a comedy, and a boisterous, rollicking comedy at that. A play which amuses us at every steps and makes us laugh again and again cannot be called a tragedy just because it ends in the frustration of the hopes of the heroine. The heroine’s frustration at the end is almost neutralized by Christy’s departing speech in which he thanks the people of Mayo for having transformed him into a hero.