Synge, John Millington (DNB12)
SYNGE, JOHN MILLINGTON (1871–1909), Irish dramatist, born at Newtown Little, near Rathfarnham (a suburban village adjoining Dublin), on 16 April 1871 was youngest child (in a family of one daughter and four sons) of John Hatch Synge, barrister-at-law, by his wife Kathleen, daughter of the Rev. Robert Traill, D.D. (d. 1847), of Schull, county Cork, translator of Josephus.
His father dying when he was a year old, his mother moved nearer Dublin to Orwell Park, Rathgar, which was his home until 1890, when he removed with his mother and brother to 31 Crosthwaite Park, Kingstown, which was his family home until shortly before his death.
After attending private schools, first in Dublin and then at Bray, he studied with a tutor between the ages of fourteen and seventeen. The main interest of his boyhood was an intimate study of nature. 'He knew the note and plumage of every bird, and when and where they were to be found.' In youth he joined the Dublin Naturalists Field Club, and later took up music, becoming a proficient player of the piano, the flute, and the violin. His summer vacations were spent at Annamoe, co. Wicklow, among the strange people of the glens.
On 18 June 1888 he entered Trinity 'College, Dublin, as a pensioner, his college tutor being Dr. Traill (now provost). He passed his little go in Michaelmas term, 1890 (3rd class), obtained prizes in Hebrew and in Irish in Trinity term, 1892, and graduated B.A. with a second class in the pass-examination in December 1892. His name went off the college books six months later (3 June 1893).
While at Trinity he studied music at the Royal Irish Academy of Music, where he obtained a scholarship in harmony and counterpoint in 1891. On leaving college he thought of music as a profession, and went to Germany to study that art and to learn the German language. He first visited Coblentz, and (in the spring of 1894) Würzburg. Before the end of 1894 he altered his plans, and, deciding to devote himself to literary work, settled by way of preparation as a student in Paris in January 1895. For the next few years his time was generally divided between France and Ireland, but in 1896 he stayed in Italy long enough to learn Italian. He had a natural gift for languages, and during these years he read much. From 1897 he wrote much tentative work, both prose and verse, in French and English, and contemplated writing a critical study of Racine and a translation from the Italian (either the ’Little Flowers,' or the 'Companions of St. Francis of Assisi'). In May 1898 he first visited the Aran Islands.
In 1899, when he was living at the Hôtel Corneille (Rue Corneille), near the Odéon theatre, in Paris, Synge was introduced to Mr. W. B. Yeats, one of the founders and the chief inspiration of the Irish Literary Movement. Mr. Yeats suggested that Synge should give up writing criticism either in French or English and go again to the Aran Islands off Galway, or some other primitive place, to study and write about a way of life not yet expressed in literature. But for this meeting it is likely that Synge would never have discovered a form in which he could express himself; his mind would have continued to brood without vitality upon questions of literary criticism. As a result of this meeting, Synge went again to the Aran Islands (September 1899); the visit was repeated in the autumns of 1900, 1901, and 1902. He lived among the islanders as one of themselves, and was much loved by them; his natural genius for companionship made him always a welcome guest. He took with him his fiddle, his conjuring tricks, his camera and penny whistle, and feared that 'they would get tired of him, if he brought them nothing new.'
During his second stay he began a book on the Aran Islands, which was slowly completed in France, Ireland, and London, and published in April 1907, with illustrations by Mr. Jack B. Yeats.
Meanwhile he wrote two plays, 'The Shadow of the Glen ' and the 'Riders to the Sea,' both founded on stories heard in Aran, and both finished, but for slight changes, by the winter of 1902-3. 'The Shadow of the Glen' was performed at the Molesworth Hall, Dublin, on 8 Oct. 1903. 'Riders to the Sea' was performed at the same place on 25 Feb. 1904. They were published in a single volume in May 1905. 'Riders to the Sea' is the deepest and the tenderest of his plays. 'The Shadow of the Glen' is the first example of the kind of tragically hearted farce which is Synge's main contribution to the theatre. Of two other tragic farces of the same period, 'The Tinker's Wedding' (the first drama conceived by him), was begun in 1902, but not finished till 1906, and only published late in 1907; the more beautiful and moving 'The Well of the Saints' was written in 1903-4. 'The Tinker's Wedding,' the only play by Synge not publicly acted in Ireland, was produced after his death at His Majesty's Theatre, by the Afternoon Theatre, on 11 Nov. 1909.
In the winter of 1902-3 Synge lived for a few months in London (4 Handel Street, W.C.). Afterwards he gave up his lodging in Paris (90 Rue d'Assas), and thenceforth passed much time either in or near Dublin. or in the wilds of Wicklow and Kerry, the Blasket Islands, and the lonely places by Dingle Bay. There he found the material for the occasional papers 'In Wicklow' and 'In West Kerry,' published partly, from time to time, in the 'Manchester Guardian' and the 'Shanachie,' and reprinted in the fourth volume of the 'Works.' From 3 June till 2 July 1905 he made a tour with Mr. Jack B. Yeats through the congested districts of Connemara. Some descriptions of the journey, with illustrations by Mr. Jack B. Yeats, were contributed to the 'Manchester Guardian.' Twelve of the papers are re-printed in the fourth volume of the 'Works.'
The Abbey Theatre was opened in Dublin 27 Dec. 1904, and Synge became one of its three literary advisers, helping to direct its destinies until his death. There on 4 Feb. 1905 was first performed 'The Well of the Saints' (published in December following). There, too, was first acted (26 Jan. 1907) 'The Playboy of the Western World,' written in 1905-6. This piece excited the uproar and confusion with which the new thing is usually received, but was subsequently greeted with tumultuous applause both in Dublin and by the most cultured audience in England.
During his last years Synge lived almost wholly in Ireland, mostly in Dublin. His health, never very robust, was beginning to trouble him. His last months of life, 1908-9, were spent in writing and rewriting the unfinished three-act play 'Deirdre of the Sorrows,' which was posthumously published at Miss Yeats's Cuala Press, on 5 July 1910, and was acted at the Abbey Theatre on 13 Jan. 1910. He also worked at translations from Villon and Petrarch, wrote some of the strange ironical poems, so like the man speaking, which were published by the Cuala Press just after his death, and finished the study 'Under Ether,' published in the fourth volume of the 'Works.' He died unmarried at a private nursing home in Dublin on 24 March 1909. He was buried in a family tomb at the protestant Mount Jerome general graveyard at Harold's Cross, Dublin. His 'Poems and Translations'—the poems written at odd times between 1891 and 1908, but most of them towards the end of his life—was published on 5 June 1909 by the Cuala Press.
Synge stood about five feet eight or nine inches high. He was neither weakly nor robustly made. He was dark (not blackhaired), with heavy moustache, and small goatee on lower lip, otherwise clean-shaven. His hair was worn rather long; his face was pale, drawn, seamed, and old-looking. The eyes were at once smoky, and kindling; the mouth had a great play of humour on it. His voice was very guttural and quick, and lively with a strange vitality. His manner was generally reserved, grave, courteous; he talked little; but had a bright malice of fun always ready. He gave little in conversation; for much of his talk, though often wise with the criticism seen in his prefaces, was only a reflection of things he had seen, and of phrases, striking and full of colour, overheard by him at sea or on shore; but there was a charm about him which all felt.
He brought into Irish literature the gifts of detachment from topic and a wild vitality of tragedy. The ironical laughter of his comedy is always most mocking when it covers a tragic intention. He died when his powers were only beginning to show themselves. As revelations of himself, his poems and one or two of the sketches are his best works; as ironic visions of himself, 'The Playboy,' 'The Shadow of the Glen,' and 'The Tinker's Wedding' are his best; but in 'The Well of the Saints,' in 'Riders to the Sea,' in the book on Aran, in the heart-breaking lyric about the birds, and in the play of Deirdre, he touches with a rare sensitiveness on something elemental. Like all men of genius he awakened animosity in those anxious to preserve old standards or fearful of setting up new ones.
Among the most important portraits (other than photographs) are: 1. An oil painting by Mr. J. B. Yeats, R.H.A., now in the Municipal Gallery in Dublin. 2. A drawing by Mr. J. B. Yeats, R.H.A. (the best likeness), reproduced in the 'Samhain' for December 1904. 3. A drawing by Mr. J. B. Yeats, R.H.A., 'Synge at Rehearsal,' reproduced as a frontispiece to 'The Playboy of the Western World,' and to the 'Works,' vol. ii. 4. A drawing by Mr. James Paterson (the frontispiece to the 'Works,' vol. iv.).
'The Works of John M. Synge' (4 vols. 1910), with four portraits (two from photographs), contain all the published books and plays, and all the miscellaneous papers which his literary executors thought worthy of inclusion. Much unpublished material remains in their hands, and a few papers contributed to the ’Speaker' during 1904-5 and to the 'Manchester Guardian' during 1905-6-7-8, and an early article in 'L'Européen' (Paris, 15 March 1902) on 'La Vieille Littérature Irlandaise,' have not been reprinted.
[Personal memories; private sources; Mr. W. B. Yeats's Collected Works, viii. 173; Contemp. Rev., April 1911, p. 470; art. by Mr. Jack B. Yeats in New York Sun, July 1909; Manchester Guardian, 25 March 1909; J. M. Synge: a Critical Study, by P. P. Howe, 1912; notes kindly supplied from M. Maurice Bourgeois's forthcoming study of the man and his writings; information from Mr. J. L. Hammond.]