Category: Archive

Book Review: A playwright’s bio that sings

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

JOHN MILLINGTON SYNGE, A BIOGRAPHY, by David M. Kiely, St. Martin’s Press. 305 pp. $23.95.

David M. Kiely’s “John Millington Synge, A Biography” is composed of 235 pages of jauntily written, loose-limbed prose, followed by no fewer than 70 pages of ancillary material, chronology, bibliography, notes, comments, an index, and the like, as though the author, a Wicklow-based freelancer, were trying to make up for the fact that he lacks the frequently intimidating credentials routinely trotted out by more conventionally seasoned biographers and historians.

Kiely, recently represented by a mystery novel, his first, “The Angel Tapes,” featuring a Dublin-based Special Branch detective named Blade Macken, teaches creative writing in Dublin and writes with great love and compassion for past practitioners of the craft he has chosen to follow.

Kiely’s tender, perceptive study of Synge, who was born in Rathfarnham, Co. Dublin, and died three weeks short of what would have been his 38th birthday, may not be the definitive biography of the writer, but it’s an extremely readable and enjoyable profile of one of Ireland most singular writers and the circle in which he moved, generally somewhat reluctantly, being, by nature, something of an outsider.

It is well known that William Butler Yeats, born just six years before Synge, but well-established in the literary world while Synge was still living the life of a dilettante, moving fitfully from Germany to Italy to France, played a significant role in steering the younger man onto the course which would earn him a measure of immortality.

Yeats was temporarily in residence in Paris in the winter of 1896, having visited the Aran Islands the previous summer, and it was during his French visit that he learned that another Irish writer had checked into the Hotel Corneille, and went to see him.

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At that time, Synge was convinced that any future he might have probably lay in the area of literary criticism, and, with that goal loosely in mind, he had signed up for a lecture series at the Sorbonne, intending to study Petrarch and French literature.

The powerful Yeats had another idea, and, bolstered by his memories of his own Aran days, he urged the younger man to reject academic study and to journey to the West of Ireland, the Aran Islands in particular, and familiarize himself with the verbal music of the hard-pressed, hard-working people he would encounter there.

Kiely tends to downplay to an extent Yeats’s influence on Synge, but the fact remains that Yeats later wrote, “I said, ‘Give up Paris. Go to the Aran Islands.’ ” Synge did, in fact, go, arriving in the harbor of Kilronan in May of 1898, and checking into the Atlantic, the only hotel on Inishmore.

The residents of the Aran islands were accustomed to visitors, but John Millington Synge must have seemed something of an oddity. For one thing, he wore a rather obvious black wig, made of his own hair, made necessary by the balding process which had beset him for a year, a side effect of the Hodgkin’s disease that would kill him in 1909.

Other visitors usually came to Aran in search of folklore. Synge was interested in the people themselves and the rough way they lived in their struggles against the sea surrounding them.

Perhaps more than anything else, Synge was fascinated by their speech, both the rich Irish Gaelic that was still their primary language, and their rather bizarre English, which could be traced back to the fact that Oliver Cromwell commanded a garrison of soldiers on Aran in the mid-17th century.

Synge was the youngest child of a pious Protestant Dublin couple, indulged because of his sickly nature, and subsidized throughout his brief life by the labors of the Irish tenant farmers who worked his family’s lands.

The slim body of work for which he is mainly remembered, one enduring full-length comedy, “The Playboy of the Western World,” and a quartet of shorter plays, “Riders to the Sea,” “The Tinker’s Wedding,” “The Well of the Saints,” and “In the Shadow of the Glen,” owes a great debt to the Yeats-inspired retooling the writer underwent and to the time he spent among the Aran Islanders.

Even “Deirdre of the Sorrows,” left unfinished at Synge’s death, has roots in Synge’s interest in the West of Ireland and particularly in his fascination with both the English and Irish tongues as they mutated there over the centuries.

In all, Synge spent some 18 weeks in the Aran Islands, but, as David M. Kiely’s tender little biography makes clear, the writer left an imprint on the islands as least as enduring as the one they had made on him.

— Joseph Hurley

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