John Millington Synge
April 16, 1871 – March 24, 1909
John Millington Synge was born on April 16th, 1871, in Rathfarnham, Ireland.
Synge was a key figure in the Irish Literary Revival, contributing prose, poetry, and drama to the literary community. He was a founding member of the Abbey Theatre along with Lady Gregory and
W.B. Yeats. Synge is best known for his play, The Playboy of the Western World, which caused
riots in the streets of Dublin after its opening performance at the Theatre. Considered one of the
foremost English-language dramatists, Synge was the most highly esteemed playwright at the turn
of the twentieth century (Poetry Foundation). He developed Hodgkin’s lymphoma during the end of
his life and died shortly before his 38th birthday.
Born the last of five children, Synge and his siblings were raised by their deeply Protestant mother
after their father died in 1872 (Poetry Foundation). He was a part of a well-off, upper class family and
his mother was able to afford to send all five children to private school. Synge attended school beginning
at age ten for four years, but he soon developed health problems that prevented regular attendance. He
spent most of his childhood outside, observing nature and watching birds, while his mother hired a tutor
to teach him from home (Stair Na Heireann). In 1892, Synge earned his degree from Trinity College in
Dublin in music. At this time in his life, J.M. Synge was an ambitious musician with a focus in violin,
theory, and composition. It was also around this time that Synge began writing poetry. In 1893, Synge
moved out of his mothers home and traveled to Germany to study music. He soon found he was too
nervous to perform, and moved to Paris in 1894 to study language and literature instead. It was here
that Synge met his good friend and mentor, W.B. Yeats, in 1896. Upon reading Synge’s poetry, Yeats
urged his friend to leave Paris in order to further develop his writing. The advice of his friend led Synge
to travel back and forth to the Aran Islands for a number of years.
During these travels, Synge was already living with the early effects of the lymphoma that ended his
life (Britannica). His observations and impressions of life on the Aran Islands were recorded and later
inspired one of Synge’s most famous plays, The Playboy of the Western World.The play, with its
unsentimental treatment of Irishmen’s love for boasting and their tendency to promote ruffians and
outcasts, caused riots in the streets of Dublin during it’s first run at the Abbey Theatre (Britannica).
Notably, one of Synge’s best works came as Riders to the Sea, a short, one act play written in 1904.
Despite its length, Riders to the Sea was hailed as “almost perfect” by critics. Synge had captured the
true plight of the rural Irish (Poetry Foundation).
As the lymphoma grew, Synge continued to write. He was able to draft, but not complete, his final play
Deirdre of Sorrows before the cancer took his life on March 24, 1909. The draft was given to Synge’s good
friends, W.B. Yeats and Lady Gregory, who performed the play as-is in Synge’s memory (Poetry Foundation).
In the years to follow the success of the play, many critics came to reason if the Deirdre of Sorrows had
been finished by Synge, it would have been his masterpiece (Poetry Foundation). John Millington Synge had
grown as an artist throughout his lifetime – changing and shaping his writing abilities through hard-pressed
observations. This lifetime of realistic, powerful writing is why J.M. Synge is considered one of the foremost
English-language dramatists in the twentieth century.
- 1871- Born April 16th, 1871. in Rathfarnham, Dublin.
- 1872- His father, John Hatch Synge, dies of smallpox.
- 1893- His sonnet, “GlenCullen” is first published.
- 1897- Writes ‘”Under Ether”; undergoes operation on neck in Dublin.
- 1900- Published “A Celtic Theatre” in Freeman’s Journal.
- 1902- Writes “In the Shadow of the Glen” and “Riders to the Sea”.
- 1903- “Riders to the Sea” is published in Samhain; first public performances of “In the Shadow of Glen”.
- 1904- First Dublin production of “Riders to the Sea”.
- 1907- First performances of “Playboy of the Western World” in Dublin; “The Tinker’s Wedding” is published by Maunsel.
- 1909- Suffers fatal illness, dies in the Elpis Nursing Home on March 24th.
Here is a clip of an operatic version of Riders to the Sea:
Analysis of Riders to the Sea:
The way in which Synge presents this – the most harsh and crippling of realities – is one that sticks with the
reader. While being introduced to Maurya, it is easy to determine she has been through some tough times.
With the loss of her husband, father-in-law, and four of her six sons, she was not all thrilled with Bartley’s
decision to go the horse fair and be a participant in something that has taken what was most dear to her. Nora
and Cathleen, her two daughters, make an important – and quite frankly – selfish decision to hide the clothes the
priest gave to Nora that is presumably Michael’s, one of her two sons left, that had died at sea. Maurya, after
quickly learning the harsh truth that Michael did in fact die, has no time to grieve. She is then dealt an even worse
truth that her only son left, has died when his pony kicked him off and the tide of the sea took him away. The
untimely death of Bartley, coupled with the discovery of Michael’s death would be enough to send anyone crazy.
Ultimately, after all the trials and tribulations, Maurya sends off her only sons left with the remark that “No man at
all can be living forever”.
This was truly one of Synge’s best works as he introduces such a rich plot with such little writing. He was able to
tell us a story that could be told for centuries in such short amount of time and still give somewhat of the same
impact as reading a Shakespearean tragedy. His inspiration for this is truly remarkable as well, considering this same
source of inspiration made him create possibly his best work, The Playboy of the Western World.
Below are links to e-texts of some of Synge’s plays:
- In the Shadow of the Glen, 1903
- Riders to the Sea, 1904
- The Well of the Saints, 1905
- The Aran Islands, 1907
- Playboy of the Western World, 1907
- The Tinkers Wedding, 1908
- Poems and Translations, 1909
- Dierdre of the Sorrows, 1910
- In Wicklow and West Kerry, 1912
Return to Drama in the Twentieth Century
- John Millington Synge. N.d. Rathfarnham, Dublin, Ireland. Stair Na Heireann – History of Ireland. Web. 10 Oct. 2016.
- “J. M. Synge.” Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation, n.d. Web. 08 Nov. 2016.
- Synge, J. M. “Biography of J. M. Synge.” J. M. Synge. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 Nov. 2016.
- Kiely, David M. John Millington Synge: A Biography. New York: St. Martin’s, 1995. Print.