Bruce Arnold

Critic of Public Affairs, writing about art, theatre, music and politics

Book Review: Synge- A Celebration

SYNGE: A CELEBRATION, Edited by Colm Toíbín. Published by the Carysfort Press in Association with Druid Synge.

In the third volume of Hail and Farewell, published in 1914, George Moore wrote the definitive portrait of John M. Synge. Brief, succinct, deeply moving, it presents the man and his nature, his work and the giant scale of his talent, and then goes on to detail the cruel fate that so overshadowed his life, made him unhappy and surrounded his plays with misfortune.

Before writing any of those plays, Synge wrote ‘I am five-and-twenty to-day; I wonder will the five-and-twenty years before me be as unhappy as those I have passed through’. He lived for only eight of them and Moore tells of him dying with tears in his eyes.

Moore berates Yeats, in the same passage, for misrepresenting Synge, and tells him also, in the inimitable way Moore had of castigating the poet in print, ‘If you aren’t very careful, Yeats, the Academic idea will overgrow the folk’.
Readers planning to engage with Synge: A Celebration [Edited by Colm Toíbín. Published by the Carysfort Press in Association with Druid Synge] need have no fear of either possibility. It is neither ‘Academic’ (why did Moore use a capital A?) nor folk. It is a very mixed bag of views on Synge, heavily impregnated by views on the different writers by themselves with Synge getting something of a look in, but not much.

The editor of the collection, Colm Toíbín, uses that rather tired ploy of suggesting that the true Synge has only recently been discovered. ‘Once he would have been viewed by many readers and writers as an old-fashioned figure whose influence was harmful, whose stage Irishness was not to be taken seriously. Now he has become a fascinating and ambiguous genius, whose language is rich with wit and nuance and unpredictability.’

This is demonstrably nonsense. Synge has always been known for what he is. This has been achieved through his plays. It is evident from their first performance until the brilliant presentation of the whole oeuvre by DruidSynge this year. He was never old-fashioned. He was always taken seriously. He was feared as harmful at the very beginning, but by the rabble, that demonstrated against him, and this was for very good reason. His stage Irishness – if we take the words at their face value – was always taken seriously because it was so good.

Toíbín’s own essay is a superficial survey of the life. It is rather sloppily written, showing little or no evidence of any wide reading of the very substantial range of Synge literature. It cannot, therefore, be described as ‘Academic’. It is loosely based on the Edward Stephens biography – as almost all Synge information has to be – but it does not clearly examine this huge central problem of why we will never get to the heart of the man save through his plays. Nor are they much help. Synge was far too much the patrician to have any truck with self-revelation. Toíbín writes: ‘If a writer were in the business of murdering his family, then the Synges, with their sense of an exalted and lost heritage and a strict adherence to religious doctrine added to a very great dullness, would have been a godsend’. It is difficult to interpret quite what this tangled sentence means, but it clearly indicates no first-hand knowledge of the family, other members of which were intellectually distinguished, courageous and clear-headed. Even Synge’s mother – blamed for an awful lot – was an interesting woman of great strength of character and determination. And unless these matters are recognised, writing about John M Synge is a rather wasted activity.

Anthony Cronin contributes a lengthy essay, ‘Apart from Anthropology’, which is reasonably well-grounded in literary history. He starts with the Yeats point of view. There is no harm in that. It is, after all, where Moore starts. But Cronin over-rates Yeats – ‘a man of supreme genius’ and ‘a great theorist of art and artistry’ gifted with ‘percipience’. And what he has to say turns the examination of Synge into a very heavy piece of critical appreciation. It is still further weighed down by material from Myles na Gopaleen which is anything but celebratory. It is also rather marginal.

What is worse is Cronin’s characterisation of Synge’s roots as ‘the narrowest, most bigoted, bible-thumping, proselytizing, peasant-despising while yet peasant-exploiting kind of Protestant, ascendancy, landlord stock’. This is a travesty of the truth and reveals class ignorance of a truly monumental degree, as well as an ignorance of the Synges.

The third essay of substance is Fintan O’Toole’s ‘A Gallous Story’, which gives due credit to the impact of Gary Hynes on our modern appreciation of Synge and provides a valuable contextual analysis of her work. He presents the political circumstances during the time she was working towards her interpretation of The Playboy and then of the other plays. He appears to subscribe to the editorial idea of the book, that somehow this was new and revelatory: ‘It announced that someone who had seemed defunct was riotously alive’. That is not my own personal recall of Synge from the 1950s up to the time about which O’Toole writes. Synge was always riotously alive. Productions were sometimes flawed. But then Gary Hynes’s Deirdre is flawed. And I am not sure that the rhetorical question posed by O’Toole when he asks, ‘What was the national mood of Ireland in the late 1970s and early 1980s?’ can be satisfactorily answered or answered to general agreement ever. It leads on to the linking of Synge with the IRA, the hunger Strikers, Charles Haughey and the instability of government in that period.

Marina Carr imagines a dialogue between Synge and Chekov. Vincent Woods writes a diary about himself in Paris, thinking of Synge. Roddy Doyle tells us what a doddle teaching Synge is compared with other writers. And there are other pieces by Mary O’Malley, Anne Enright, Joseph O’Connor, Hugo Hamilton and Sebastian Barry. None of the contributors seems to reveal any real love of Synge or any special desire to celebrate him.

Synge was a solemn, thoughtful, brooding man. He dragged comedy out of a wracked heart. He was unhappy and he suffered greatly. Two very substantial artists who truly understood him – Jack Yeats and George Moore – are not mentioned from one end of the book to the other, yet both wrote affectionately and with deep understanding of this man of genius. The names of others who did no such thing are liberally scattered throughout. Moore and Jack Yeats, unlike his brother, set a standard in celebrating Synge’s short life. It has not been followed here.