43 pages 1 hour read

John Millington Synge

The Playboy of the Western World

Fiction | Play | Adult | Published in 1907

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Summary and Study Guide


The Playboy of the Western World is a comedy written by Irish playwright John M. Synge. The play was first produced in 1907 at the Abbey Theatre, or the National Theatre of Ireland. Although his work was largely criticized during his lifetime, Synge is one of Ireland’s most famous 20th-century playwrights. He wrote only six plays during his relatively short career; the most notable among his works are The Playboy of the Western World and Riders to the Sea (1904). Synge’s writing style employs traditional Irish vocabulary and rhythm, and the phonetics of the play are distinctly rooted in Irish culture, called Hiberno-English or Irish English. The play was initially met with outrage from Irish Nationalists who believed the play was a slander on their homeland and their people. Despite its rocky beginnings, The Playboy of the Western World continues to be a widely studied text. In 1962, the play was adapted for film, directed and co-written by Northern Ireland’s famous Brian Desmond Hurst.

The edition of the play cited in this guide is from The Complete Plays of John M. Synge, published by Vintage Books in 1960.

Plot Summary

The Playboy of the Western World takes place in the early 1900s at a local bar in County Mayo, Ireland. In Act I, the fiery Margaret Flaherty, known as Pegeen Mike, runs her father’s bar alone at night. Her father, Michael James Flaherty, is away at a wake. Shawn Keogh, Pegeen Mike’s self-proclaimed fiancé, enters to tell her that as he was walking up, he heard a man groaning from a nearby ditch. Pegeen Mike asks why he didn’t stop to check on the man, but Shawn tells her he was too afraid to be alone with the man in the dark.

Soon, Michael James, along with his friends Philly and Jimmy, stop at the bar for a pint before returning to the wake. Pegeen Mike scolds her father for leaving her alone all hours of the night, and he replies that Shawn should stay with her. Shawn, a devoutly religious man, believes it is amoral to stay the night with Pegeen Mike and fears recourse from his priest, Father Reilly. He rushes out of the bar only to run right back inside, followed by the man from the ditch.

The dirty, worn stranger asks for a drink. The group inquires as to who he is and why he is there, and the man, who goes by the name of Christopher (Christy) Mahon, admits that he is on the run after killing his father with a loy (an Irish spade). The people at the bar are impressed with this act of violent disobedience, and Michael James hires him to watch over Pegeen Mike and the bar, staying on as their pot-boy (a server at a bar). Christy accepts the offer, and the men leave. Alone, Christy and Pegeen Mike exchange flatteries and flirtations.

After a while, the Widow Quin—an older woman of about 30 who readily admits to killing her husband—arrives at the bar. Shawn and Father Reilly, the village priest, were nervous about leaving Pegeen Mike alone with a murderer and sent the widow to the pub with the intention of having Christy lodge with her. Although older than him, Widow Quin is taken with Christy, and this leads to her fighting with Pegeen Mike over Christy’s attention. Although Widow Quin is initially sent to retrieve Christy, she is unsuccessful and leaves the bar alone. Christy goes to bed that night in awe of two women fighting over him. He wonders why he didn’t kill his father sooner.

In Act II, the next day, a swarm of eligible village girls invade the bar, eager to see the brutish man who killed his father. Widow Quin isn’t far behind them, and the group of women gathers around Christy as he tells his tale of murder. Pegeen Mike enters and grows jealous at the group of women who are fawning over Christy. She ushers them out, then does her best to convince Christy to leave as well. He uses his poetic language to woo her, and Pegeen Mike allows him to stay.

Shawn and Widow Quin return to tell Pegeen Mike that her sheep have escaped and are eating a neighbor’s cabbages. She rushes out, leaving Christy alone with them. Shawn bargains with Christy, trying to encourage him to leave County Mayo so that he can marry Pegeen Mike as planned. As soon as the dispensation from the church arrives, they will be set, and Christy’s arrival threatens their impending marriage. Christy contemplates Shawn’s offer but refuses.

Christy is about to leave the bar in search of Pegeen Mike when he sees what he thinks is the ghost of his murdered father, Old Mahon. He runs back into the bar and hides while Old Mahon asks after his son, the lazy and vain young man who hit him on the head with a loy. Eventually, he leaves, and Christy is beside himself at the thought of being seen as a “cowardly” liar. He and Widow Quin hatch a plan to keep Christy’s secret, which will ultimately help him win Pegeen Mike’s heart.

In Act III, Christy competes in multiple sporting events and wins each one. Jimmy and Philly come into the bar and complain that Christy must be lucky, and his bragging about his murder has grown irritating. Suddenly, Old Mahon reappears and tries to get anyone to listen to his story about his wayward, murderous son. Widow Quin brushes him off, insisting he must be thinking irrationally. When Old Mahon sees Christy outside playing sports, Widow Quin convinces him otherwise. Old Mahon leaves, fearful he has gone “mad,” and Jimmy and Philly follow to make sure he is alright.

Christy only needs to win one more event and Pegeen Mike will agree to marry him. Just then, Michael James and Shawn arrive with the dispensation they’ve been waiting on from the church: Shawn and Pegeen Mike are to be married today. Pegeen Mike refuses, stating that she will marry Christy instead. Michael James greatly opposes this at first, but when Shawn runs out before a fight breaks out, Michael James realizes that he’d rather have a “brave” murderer for a son-in-law than a “cowardly” Christian.

Michael James is barely outside the door when Old Mahon arrives and tackles Christy. He reveals the secret of who he is to Pegeen Mike, who is furious at discovering Christy hasn’t actually murdered his father. The entire village is shaken up by the story and how they were fooled. Christy, determined to save his reputation, takes a loy and chases his father outside of the bar to kill him. Everyone believes that Old Mahon is once again dead. Now, the villagers are determined to take Christy to the gallows, fearful that they’ll be hanged themselves for being involved with him.

The crowd has tied Christy up and is about to drag him away when Old Mahon, who again did not actually die, reappears. He releases his son and announces that the two of them are leaving, full of new stories to tell people of the “evil” mobs in County Mayo. Christy agrees to go with his father but first exerts his newfound dominance. Christy proclaims that he has become the man he pretended to be and thanks the crowd for their part. Shawn, delighted to be able to marry Pegeen Mike, rejoices in the “miracle” of Christy’s exit. However, Pegeen Mike snubs him. She gazes at the door and laments that she has lost her chance to be with the “Playboy of the Western World."

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Related Titles

By John Millington Synge