Monday Musings – J.M.Synge and Cultural Appropriation

John Millington Synge

I’ve been reading Joseph O’Connor again. This time, a book published a decade ago. Before Christmas I purchased his latest, Shadowplay which I reviewed here. At the time I was not aware of Ghost Light or the evident similarities between the two. I picked up my copy of the earlier book in a charity shop in Galway last month but did not begin reading until about a week ago.

Both books have a theatrical setting and are based on the lives of Irish theatrical and literary superstars. Shadowplay chronicles the life of Bram Stoker and his long relationship with, and work for, Irving Welsh and Ellen Terry. Ghost Light is about the actress Molly Allgood (aka Maire O’Neill) and her love for the playwright J.M.Synge.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 2736a195b0dc862a0ce6525b7ca5b352.jpg
Portrait of Molly Allgood, 1913, by John B. Yeats RHA

There are several passages in both books that detail the exigencies of life on the road in a theatre troupe and of the background to theatre productions: the rehearsals, the disputes between writer, actor and director as to the correct interpretation of roles and speeches.

A particular controversy, which O’Connor raises in relation to Synge, is one that I have seen frequently discussed among writers and critics, the matter of cultural appropriation. Specifically, can a writer truly represent the lives of people from a demonstrably different background from his own?

It crops up in relation to Synge’s masterpiece The Playboy of the Western World, in which Molly was cast as the female lead, a role that made her name as an actress at the time. The problem with the play was that Synge was a city based, well educated protestant from a family with a privileged, land owning, background, writing about the lives of Catholic peasants from the rural West of Ireland. There were riots outside the theatre where the play was performed in Dublin and when it toured America.

The truth was that Synge had lived in the West of Ireland, learned the Irish language and believed that he understood what drove the behaviour of the people of that place and class. History has proved that he was correct. As the website Classic Irish Plays states, “Not only were Synge’s plays great works of art; they also critiqued genuine quirks in the Irish “national character” (many, such as a distrust of “law and order”, the result of centuries of unjust colonial rule).”

A related question is whether it is possible for a man to write from a woman’s point of view and vice-versa. O’Connor, with his portrayal of Molly in later life, demonstrates that it is possible. Much of the book is a stream of consciousness monologue in second person as she spends the last day of her life before descending into the final illness that killed her on my 11th birthday, 2nd. November 1952. For me it certainly rings true, as do the passages in Shadowplay that relate Ellen Terry’s perambulations on the last day of Stoker’s life.

They are written with extraordinary empathy and laced with Irish wit.

I think the truth is that we are all pretty much the same under the skin, whatever our religion, ethnicity or gender. If a writer is unable to tap into his own emotional centre in order to imagine the inner being of another human, he or she is not truly a writer. As Lionel Shriver has put it: “fiction helps to fell the exasperating barriers between us, and for a short while allows us to behold the astonishing reality of other people.” At least, it should. It can’t do that if writers are condemned to write only what they have experienced themselves.

I have also indulged in some further musings about coronavirus Covid 19. You can find them here. The link should enable you to bypass the pay wall which, in any case, only applies if you access more than 3 Medium stories in a month.

2 thoughts on “Monday Musings – J.M.Synge and Cultural Appropriation

  1. Quote: ” can a writer truly represent the lives of people from a demonstrably different background from his own?”
    When at the age of 16 I was suddenly uprooted from my non-technological open wilderness and homesteading village community to a large city I became an avid observer and experimenter of what a modern city was like and what it had to offer. Because of the violent contrast of lifestyle (and to some extent I have to admit, the ability to put my thoughts on words in both official languages) I know from experience that I was a keener interpreter of city life than those who were born and raised in it. I wrote from “shock” what they took for granted. I questioned what they did not even see and I had something real, something other than books or TV to compare my observations to: my own upbringing in a world that has now basically disappeared. But I remain leery of “The City” as I wrote in a poem years ago, quoting part of it:
    “The City Hurts People, Mom
    [a poem by ~burning woman~ Sha’Tara]

    Mom? Why do we live here? In the city?
    Why can’t we live somewhere, anywhere, else?
    The city hurts people, mom.

    Children say the darnedest things,
    ask the toughest questions.
    Why? because they’re not tough questions at all,
    not to them. They need input. Real information.
    and what can I say? Can I speak the truth here?
    Can I untangle my responses quickly enough
    to come up with more than half-truths?
    Something honest, something even I
    am not too poor to buy?

    What’s wrong with here? is what comes out.
    Defensive, even to my own child,
    that has to say something about me, yes.
    You don’t like our apartment? Your friends at school?
    More defensiveness, now an attack. On my own child,
    What am I hiding under the bed?

    It doesn’t feel right, mom. There are places
    (he watches nature shows a lot)
    where there are rivers, where grass grows
    and animals live in holes in the rocks.
    There are places with long, wide shores
    along blue-green seas and the waves thunder
    but it’s not like, noise, it’s like, music, mom. And
    if you stand on a rock you can see out forever.
    I like those places. Here it’s just people,
    and endless ugly buildings that hold in the smog.
    It’s noisy and smelly. The wind is cold, dirty.
    the sun is all wrong and the insects are ugly too.
    When I think about it I’m scared.
    The people here are dead mom. They just don’t know it.”


  2. Great comment, Sha’ and a perceptive poem that expresses exactly my own feelings about cities. And, bad as they were 30, 40, 50 years ago, they have got(ten) worse now, even wiothout Covid 19. I feel blessed to be living in a house with a garden on the edge of a small town in a rural area where we can walk out and about, easily keeping a safe distance from any neighbo(u)rs we encounter. I feel desperately sorry for city dwellers, those in flats/apartments, in this time.
    Stay safe, stay well.

    Liked by 1 person

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