John Millington Synge’s play The Playboy of the Western World was first produced on January 26, 1907, at The Abbey Theatre in Dublin. It received a very hostile and violent reception from Irish nationalists and republicans who objected to Synge’s less than flattering portrayal of his fellow countrymen.
Rioting and brawling broke out inside the theatre and later on the streets outside. The performers had to act out much of the later parts of the play in pantomime because of the noise and confusion.
The leader of Sinn Féin, the Irish nationalist party, declared the play to be “a vile and inhuman story told in the foulest language we have ever listened to from a public platform.” The protests continued for several days before being put down by the police.
The play is set mostly in a rural pub in County Mayo, Ireland, and revolves around a young man, Christie Mahon, who turns up at the pub saying he is on the run after just having killed his father by splitting his head open with a turf spade. Christie has the gift of the gab and his wild story at first makes him a hero to the drunken men in the pub a love interest to the women.
This was not the image of Irish man and womanhood that those fighting for Irish independence wanted to see promoted, especially at The Abbey, Ireland’s national theatre.
They also objected to Synge’s use of English tainted by Irish expressions and poor diction rather than the “purer” classical Irish language. There were also objections that Synge, a Protestant, was portraying Catholics as violent drunks.
Synge’s friend, the poet W.B. Yeats, lamented that “Whenever a country produces a man of genius, that man is never like the country’s idea of itself.”
On the play’s second night protester rushed the stage and began assaulting the actors. Many of the actors were themselves conflicted about the play since many of them were themselves nationalist sympathizers.
The protests eventually died down and in later decades the play would go on to be recognized as a masterpiece around the world. I first read it in high school and found it humorous in parts but utterly depressing.