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Examine Synge’s treatment of the theme of escapism in Playboy of the Western World

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  • Category: Play

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The “Playboy of the Western World” was written in 1907, and set in Ireland. At this time, Ireland was still suffering tragically from the potato famine that had hit the country in 1848. In order to escape the famine, many emigrated to the world powers of the time, mainly Britain and America. As a result, Ireland lost many of its citizens, and this is shown in the play when Shawn Keogh says, “and I could hear the cows breathing, and sighing in the stillness of the air”, emphasising the isolation of the location.

It was primarily because of the famine that there was such a low population in the country, but it can also be seen that those who did leave the country were ambitious, and wanted to grasp new opportunities in other parts of the world. As a result, the people who were left largely consisted of those that had no optimism or ambition. This explains why in the play, the location is so isolated and remote, and the society we are invited into is both small in size and lacks vitality.

Within this society, it can be seen that the characters lead monotonous, tedious lives, and it is clear in the play that as a result the characters have found their own individual forms of escapism. The activities chosen within the play seem to be boundless. This is evident when Philly says, “there was a graveyard beyond the house with the remnants of a man… I’d put him together for fun”, showing that even playing with the dead was acceptable in his eyes. A form of escapism present in all of the characters is that of the love and admiration for rebelliousness.

This is due principally to the country’s status at the time of the play. Ireland was under heavy oppression from the British, and was under British rule. As a result of this, the Irish became very fond of those who rebelled against the authorities, or who could tell stories of such events. In the play, Pegeen makes reference to the bailiffs, “I was a great hand at coaxing Bailiffs”. The Bailiffs were powerful people who were capable of evicting people out of their homes. Christy is rebellious, and this is why he so accepted.

Christy is an interesting character, and is the only character to benefit by the end of the play. Christy knows that he has changed for the better, “Ten thousand blessings upon all that’s here, for you’ve turned me a likely gaffer in the end of all, the way I’ll go romancing through a romping lifetime from this hour to the dawning of judgement day”. Christy finds his escapism through change, as he goes from having nothing and leading a lonely, boring life, “If he saw a red petticoat coming swinging over the hill, he’d be off to hide in the sticks”

According to his father, Mahon, to having everything and becoming a confident person “I will then, like a gallant captain with his slave… for I’m master of all flights from now”. Christy is unlike the rest of the characters in the play, as he accepts change and becomes the hero he has been made up to be by the surrounding characters, who themselves are seeking a hero. The rest of the characters are too conservative to accept change, and would much rather prefer to keep things the way they are.

Christy becomes this hero, a man of confidence, excellence, and optimism, as he says, “I’ll have great times if I win the crowning prize I’m seeking now”. Christy has already begun his transformation, as he explains to the characters at the beginning of the play, “I killed my poor father”, to which is replied, “There’s a daring fellow”. Christy’s escapism originates from here, since he has escaped from his father after supposedly killing him with a “loy”. Pegeen finds her escapism in a similar way to Christy, as her life is altered as soon as Christy arrives on the set.

Pegeen’s life is distorted more than once, and really ends up going in a large circle, because she does not end up any better than she started out. Despite this, Pegeen has changed from a loveless arranged marriage, only going through for the fact that there were absolutely no other people to marry, and “only waiting these days on Father Reilly’s dispensation from the bishops, or the court of Rome”. This emphasises the fact that the location was isolated and that there were not many people around, and also that all the ambitious people had emigrated.

Pegeen leaves this lifestyle behind when she meets Christy, when she becomes rapturously in love with him, “with real tenderness, the like of you, who has such poet’s talking, and such bravery of heart”. As well as Pegeen escaping from monotony via her love for Christy, she also treats Christy as a hero. This is evident throughout the play, as she treats him as a Christ figure, “radiantly, wiping his face with her shawl”, making reference to when Jesus was walking with the cross and Veronica wiped his face with her shawl.

Not sure how to write about Palm Sunday, the Epiphany, Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Shawn finds his escapism largely through the Church, although he also admires the rebelliousness of others. This is made clear when he says, “Pull a twist on his neck”, to which he later responds, “I’m afeared of him. (To Pegeen. ) Lift a lighted sod, will you, and scorch his leg”. This shows that he dislikes Christy and wants to remove him from their community so the peace they once had can be retained, although he does not want to participate in it, probably because he is “afeared of Father Reilly”.

This makes Shawn a hypocrite, as he promotes violence, yet does not want to participate in anything of the sort. Shawn constantly makes references to the church, and especially to Father Reilly. Shawn says, “and what at all would the Holy Father and the cardinals of Rome be saying if they heard the like of that? “, emphasising the fact that his life is run by the church. The characters notice this to such an extent that Pegeen, his wife-to-be at the time says, “Go on, then, to Father Reilly (in a jeering tone), and let him put you in the holy brotherhoods”.

Shawn feels that his life has more significance Even though this is contradictory; this is clear all throughout the play. The most common form of escapism is alcohol. Alcohol is a common form of escapism, of which almost all characters happily make use and abuse of, with the exception of Shawn, who plays a mature role, almost mothering the drunken. This is clear when Philly says, “I sent Shawn Keogh with the ass cart… to bear him home”. The abuse of alcohol in the play is emphasised when there is a celebration after a funeral, “and a couple more are going along with him to Kate Cassidy’s wake”.

Alcohol is Michael Flaherty, Philly Cullen, and Jimmy’s favourite form of escapism, although like the rest of the cast enjoy hearing stories about the rebellious side of life, as the stage directions imply when Michael talks to Christy, “with great respect”. It is also clear within the text itself, that there is a hidden form of escapism, that of language. This is apparent in the love scene between the characters of Christy and Pegeen.

In the scene itself, the characters enter a world of love and dreams, and there speeches reflect this, “spearing salmons in the Owen, or the rowmore? . Christy’s language develops as the play goes on, becoming more detailed and taking poetic forms, such as “when the airs is warming” using pathetic fallacy, and “making mighty kisses” using alliterative terms. Undoubtedly, the theme of escapism is presented strongly in “The play of the Western World”. Within the play, I feel that there are two forms of escapism, personal escapism, by which the characters have there own individual ways of finding change, and shared escapism, by which there is a common interest in a form of escapism.

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