In what ways have Irish authors criticised and complicated the Revival Project?
An analysis of J.M. Synge's "The Playboy of the Western World" and George Moore's "In the Clay"
Seminar Paper 2011 10 Pages
J. M, Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World and The Un tilled Field by George Moore were round highly controversial by their contemporaries. The question is, how these critical works fitted into the Irish Revival project which aim it was - among others - to improve the public image of Ireland.
The purpose of this essay is to analyse, discuss and evaluate the critique of the Irish Revivalgjoject by j. M. Synge and George Moore. For this reason, Í will take a close look at The Playboy of the Western World by Synge and In the Clay by Moore after giving a brief introduction to the Irish Revival project.
The Irish Revival Project
The Irish Revival Project had various aims. Some of these were the revival of the Gaelic language, the rediscovery of Ireland's ancient cultural heritage and the correction of the public image of Ireland and its people. At the beginning of the 20,h century, the Irish had a dreadful public image which had been consciously produced by their British colonisers for centuries. Later, in the Victorian era, people tended to connect internal to external characteristics, which led to strong racist stereotypes with regard to the Irish people. The Irish Paddy figure represented the Irish home-rule movement and was depicted as "a creature manifestly between the Gorilla and the Negro" (Foster, 184). The aim of this depiction was to justify British efforts to fight the Irish home rule movement. Hence the probably most important taskgjj the Irish Revivalists was to present a new irishman to the world. They wanted to "show that Ireland is not the home of buffoonery and of easy sentiment, as it has been represented, hut the home of an ancient idealism" (Gregory, 378). The revivalists believed to achieve their common aims by the means of literature and the theatre. W. B. Yeats wrote: "Literature is (...) the great teaching power of the world" (390). Thus, it is able to change public perception. Writing literature and drama, the revivalists aimed at correcting the concept of Irishness. Moreover, the rediscovery of the Irish cultural heritage and de-anglicization were seen as means of achieving authenticity and political independence (Cusack, 150). Thus, the Irish National Theatre had a number of nationalistic benefactors at the beginning of its existence. But soon certain controversies were to emerge, which were to decrease the support by the Irish nationalists.
J. M, Svnge: The Playboy of the Western World
When The Playboy of the Western World had its premiere in 1907, the relationship between the Irish National Theatre and the Irish nationalists was already rather strained (Cusack, 149). Synge's controversial play In the Shadow of the Glen in 1904 had already driven off some of the Abbey's nationalist benefactors, including Arthur Griffith and Maud Gonne, as they found it to show a pejorative picture of Western Ireland that was opposing their cause. Irish nationalist associations like the Gaelic League believed in a return to the Irish cultural heritage as a means of achieving more national consciousness in the Irish public, which - so they assumed - would ultimately lead to Irish independence (Cusack, 15If.). They expected this Irish cultural identity still to be preserved in the Irish peasantry in its pre-colonial form unspoiled by the consequences of British imperialism. The citizens of Dublin in general had a very pious picture üf the people in the We^j This is why Synge s representation of Western Ireland as violent and savage in The Playboy of the Western World caused riots in the Abbey theatre. The audience broke up in disorder at the word 'shifts' and cried out that what they saw on stage was not the West of Ireland that they knew (Holloway, 455). The play started a big controversy in the national newspapers that accused Synge of defaming Irish morality and femininity (Cusack, 149). Although Synge believed his depiction of the Irish peasantry to be realistic (Synge, Ilf.), whether it really was, stays controversial. What is more obvious is that Synge did not help to correct the Irish stereotype by his pejorative depiction ofWestern Ireland. Hence, there was a conflict between the vision of the Revival and the message of Synge's play.
Furthermore, George Cusack argues that Synge's critique also went against the nationalist idea of hero figures that could serve as models for the Irish people to achieve more nationalistic consciousness in the Irish population (Cusack, 153f.). In the Playboy, the peasant community sees such a hero in Christopher Mahon whom they regard as "a strong masculine figure that can revitalize their community" (Cusack, 153). The women are amazed at and attracted by Christy's 'bravery' that he showed by killing his father, bring presents to catch his attention (Synge, 36ff.), and at the end of the play, Pegeen still regrets having lost "the only Playboy of the Western World" (Synge, 77). But when Christy turns out to be a liar only, the peasantry suddenly has to face reality. The idea of a hero figure as a bringer of salvation is shown to be only ideology and therefore non-existent in real Ireland. Representing the Irish peasantry as immoral people did not help the nationalists either, who rather wanted the Irish to be seen as strong and moral people who had the ability to break free from their chains of servitude and rule their own country (Cusack, 152). Therefore, the nationalists were neither delighted nor amused by Synge's depiction of their countrymen. This is why by defending The Playboy of the Western World on artistic grounds W. B. Yeats and Lady Gregory did not only act against their own vision of improving the image of the Irish, but also distanced themselves from the Irish nationalist cause and many of their former benefactors, supporters and friends (Cusack, 149).
George Moore: In the Clav, from The Untilled Field
At the first glance, Moore's collection The Untilled Field sheds a bad light on Ireland which he represents as a pathetic country populated by uncivilised peasants, whose minds are ruled by Catholic priests. In his story In the Clay, the young artist Rodney becomes a spokesman for Moore's contempt for Ireland as a hopeless country situated far away from art and high culture. Rodney leaves Ireland to study art which he deems cannot be found in Ireland. When he returns to Ireland, he finds a perfect model to pose for a sculpture of the virgin Mary, but in the end, his work is destroyed by two ignorant boys who listened to a priest complaining about Rodney's attack on Catholic morals. The artist Rodney is outraged when he finds his work of art destroyed and blames it on the immorality of the Catholic Church that he believes to control the minds of the Irish. For this reason, the people are not able to think freely and fail to recognise beauty or art. Thus, Ireland as depicted in Moore's stories cannot be a "country for an educated man” (Moore, 212) and "is a terrifying example of what becomes of a country when it accepts prejudices and convention and ceases to inquire out the truth" (Moore, 223). Altogether, Moore draws a very negative picture of Ireland and does act against the aim of the revivalists, who wanted to show that Ireland is more than a country of "easy sentiment" (Gregory, 378). In fact, Moore's character Rodney expresses his opinion about the Celtic Renaissance very clearly when he says that "(t]he Gael has had his day. The Gael is passing" (Moore, 200). He goes on saying that he feels "a damp, religious atmosphere in which nothing flourished but the religious vocation" (Moore, 201) and that "there can be no renaissance without a religious revolt" (Moore, 208).
Kenneth B. Newell argues that there is also a more subtle message to be found in the story. He writes that by turning his back on Ireland, its people and the church, Rodney "loses a human quality for which he was fighting and comes to show qualities of which he has accused the enemy” (Newell, 125). Rodney's obsession with art makes him incapable of staying with Lucy whom he only treats as an instrument for his profession. It is his decadence that alienates him from his countrymen. His profession controls his thoughts as strong as religion influences Father McCabe and his followers. It renders him unable to recognize Ireland's potential as an untilled field that is only longing to be cultivated. In a letter to his brother, Moore once wrote that because Ireland had no Revival yet, it might be interesting for artistic cultivation (Newell, 133). And by writing The Untilled Field, Moore himself showed that he "can do what Rodney deems impossible - artistically till the field of native Irish materials" ( Newell, 134).