Why are people like John Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde, and Billy the Kid so powerful in our cultural imagination? All were violent criminals, but they achieved a notoriety and popularity not in spite of, but because of their crimes. Why do we sometimes venerate those whom, under different circumstances, we would abhor?
This question was central to this week’s Great Books group’s discussion of “The Playboy of the Western World,” a play by Irish playwright John M. Synge, first performed in Dublin in 1907. As Act 1 begins, the young Margaret Flaherty (“Pegeen”), who with her father, Michael, runs an illicit pub out of her house, is being courted by her cousin, Shawn Keogh, who is pious, naïve, and frightfully boring. But one evening, a bedraggled young man named Christy Mahon shows up, and tells everyone that he has been running for 10 days from the law because he murdered his own father in the fields with a potato hoe. Christy immediately becomes the most eligible bachelor in the community: not only does Pegeen want him, but the Widow Quin—who is rumored to have killed her own husband—also has designs for him. Christy is so pleased with his notoriety that he ends Act 1 saying, “It’s great luck and company I’ve won me…two fine women fighting for the likes of me…wasn’t I a foolish fellow not to kill my father in the years gone by?”
Christy’s fame only grows in Act 2. Though other women throw themselves at Christy, Christy and Pegeen are madly in love and plan to marry. But this fantasy is shattered when Christy’s father, old Mahon, shows up alive (with a bandaged head). “What’ll Pegeen say when she hears that story? What’ll she be saying to me now?” frets Christy to the Widow Quin, once he realizes that his social capital will disappear once the town finds out he’s not a real killer. Quin promises to keep it a secret, and Christy goes down to the shore to participate in a horse race and other games with the admiring townsfolk.
Things only get worse for Christy in Act 3. Mahon tells Widow Quin that his son has always been a dunce and a coward—he suggests that Christy couldn’t even murder him properly. Meanwhile, Christy has won all the games, returning with most of the town to the stage even more of a hero—only to see that his secret is out, that Mahon, by the impertinence of not being dead, has ruined him. The townspeople, now knowing the truth, turn on Christy, and more disturbingly, so does Pegeen: “It’s all lies you told, letting on you had him slitted, and you nothing at all,” she says, and later, “And to think of the coaxing glory we had given him, and he after doing nothing but hitting a soft blow and chasing northward in a sweat of fear.” In a rage, Christy picks up a potato hoe and chases his father offstage, then strikes him dead—again—in front of the whole town. But the town doesn’t want the blame for the crime, so they rope Christy to deliver him to the police. In the nick of time, Mahon crawls back in (Christy fails to kill him once again) and frees his son, and the two leave reconciled, promising to have “great times from this our telling stories of the villainy of Mayo, and the fools is here.” The play ends with Pegeen weeping, “I’ve lost the only Playboy of the Western World!”
What are we to make of such dark comedy?
The play holds up a mirror, asking us to think about why we are so easily attracted to violent stories, but repulsed if we witness the same events firsthand: “The blow of a loy [a potato hoe] [has] taught me that there’s a great gap between a gallous story and a dirty deed,” says Pegeen when she witnesses Christy’s “killing” of Mahon. Similarly, the play also dramatizes the power of storytelling and poetry more broadly: for people like Pegeen, Michael, the Widow Quin, and their whole town, the fantastic yarn and the beautifully turned phrase—the idea of a criminal on the run rather than the reality of it, for instance—can make tolerable, and even exciting, an existence that is all too often bleak and empty in its hard, mundane, and unforgiving truths.