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John Millington Synge Biography

(1871–1909), The Aran Islands, The Shadow of the Glen, Riders to the Sea

Irish play-wright, born in a Dublin suburb, the son of a barrister. After graduating in languages, including Celtic, from Trinity College, Dublin, he travelled in Europe and settled for some years in Paris. There, W. B. Yeats advised the aspiring writer to go to the Aran Islands, off the west coast of Ireland, in search of ‘a life that has never found expression’. Accordingly, he stayed there annually from 1898 to 1902, describing the peasant world he discovered in the nonfiction The Aran Islands (1907) and finding in it both language and inspiration for the plays he proceeded to write. The first, The Shadow of the Glen (1903), is a sombre one-act comedy in which an elderly husband feigns death, then leaps from his winding sheet and banishes the neglected young wife who has started discussing marriage with a local farmer. The equally short Riders to the Sea (1904), one of the few modern plays which can claim to be called a tragedy, involves the death of the sixth son of an old woman who has already lost all his brothers and her own husband to the sea. The Well of the Saints (1905) is a sardonic comedy about a beggar and his wife who, given their sight by a holy man, elect to resume their former blindness rather than cease pretending that they are both of exceptional physical beauty. The Playboy of the Western World (1907), which caused serious rioting at Dublin's Abbey Theatre on its first performance, was the last play Synge himself saw on the stage. He died of cancer at only 37, leaving unperformed the short Tinker's Wedding (1908) and the longer Deirdre of the Sorrows (1910), in which the title character, having eloped with the beautiful Naisi, is lured home and destroyed by the lustful King Conchubor.

Synge's is a slim œuvre, but a distinctive and distinguished one, partly because of the lyricism and simple power of his language, but mainly because of the grim yet ecstatic view of life his plays convey. Their overriding theme, and usually the source of dramatic tension, is the contrast between illusion, dream, fantasy—an Irish imagination he found ‘fiery, magnificent and tender’—and the more numbing aspects of an often sordid Irish reality.

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Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionEncyclopedia of Literature: St Juliot Cornwall to Rabindranath Tagore Biography