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Plot Summary | Genre | General Vision or Viewpoint | Cultural Context | Themes and Issues

The Playboy of the Western World
J.M. Synge

Plot Summary

The play is set in County Mayo in a country shebeen or pub. Pegeen Mike is engaged to Shawn Keogh a rich farmer, but she is not in love with him.  Pegeen’s father Michael James owns the pub, and spends his time going to wakes and getting drunk. A young man arrives one evening as Michael James and his two pals Jimmy Farrell and Philly Cullen are about to go off to a wake. This young man calls himself Christy Mahon and claims that he has killed his da. Everyone including Pegeen are fascinated and admire Christy for this heroic deed.

The men set off for the wake leaving Pegeen with Christy. The widow Quinn a local woman who is supposed to have murdered her husband arrives and tries to get Christy to stay the night in her hut. Pegeen has taken control of Christy at this stage and refuses to let him go.

The following morning some local girls arrive to visit Christy and bring him presents. Christy is a hero in the eyes of the villagers and they beg him to participate in their local games. In the meantime Old Mahon who is Christy’s father arrives and meets the widow Quinn. Old Mahon has suffered a blow on his head from being hit by Christy and wishes to punish him. He tells the widow about Christy and describes him as a weak character, ‘a dirty stuttering lout who would get drunk on the smell of a pint. ‘

When Christy meets his father towards the conclusion of the play he gives him another blow on the head and it truly looks as if he is dead. The villagers including Pegeen decide to capture him and bring him to prison. Pegeen disowns him for being a liar. Old Mahon recovers however and he and Christy leave the shebeen mocking the villagers who are unable to accept reality when it lands on their own door. The play concludes with Pegeen lamenting the loss of the ‘only playboy of the western world.’ She is left with her loveless alliance to Shawn Keogh.


This is a play which is written in three acts. The action of the play takes place over a period of one day.

The imagery and language used in the play is rich, colourful and based on the juxtaposition of incongruous elements such as maiming a ewe and Holy Ireland.

The Language is used as a dynamic force in the play whereby the people transform their dull lives into heroic feats of grandeur and courage.

General Vision or Viewpoint

Christy Mahon has made himself a hero in this small village in County Mayo on the basis of a lie. This lie is based on the fact that he believes he murdered his father by hitting him a blow on the head with a loy or stick. When the lie is exposed at the end of the play, Pegeen who was about to marry him rejects him while at the same time lamenting that she has lost ‘the only playboy of the western world.’ The dramatic irony inherent in this statement is that he is truly the hero they had imagined him to be at the conclusion. Christy Mahon is a man who has conquered his earlier fear and timidity.

The villagers in this community have generated this growth within Christy, but they are unable to face reality. Christy is the ‘master of all fights,’ ‘a gallant captain’ one who has emancipated himself from his earlier shackles of fear and insecurity and the dominant one in his relationship with his father. Both Christy are at one in their contempt for the fools of Mayo. All the villagers on the other hand are represented as truly tragic figures. They are left to resume their drab and uneventful lives with Pegeen struggling to reconcile herself with her grief and loneliness.

Cultural Context

Set in the west of Ireland in the early 20th century.

The quality of life is dull and uneventful. Marriage is seen to be a bind. Violence is a hallmark of this society and is highly esteemed.

There are many religious references used. These are absurd as they are used in the context of paganism and violence.

The reference to wakes and funerals is also bizarre, as these seem to be the opportunity for large drinking bouts.


Community Life
The community represented in this play come from a small rural village in the west of Ireland. This community are described at the conclusion of the play as ‘the fools of Mayo’ by Christy’s father Old Mahon. These people become major victims of irony and satire in the play.  The moral standards of this community is ambiguous and contradictory. They glamorize a man because he claims he has murdered his da. They are unable to accept the true reality at the conclusion. Christy is a hero and man at the conclusion. Yet the villagers fail to see that. At the conclusion of this play these people are force to return to their village more imprisoned than ever.

Fantasy and Reality
Storytelling is an important aspect in this community. It is not the actual deed which exalts Christy in the eyes of the community but the manner in which he tells it. This is clear from comments  of Pegeen Mike’s ‘ such poet’s talking and bravery of heart.’ These people are stifled by the dull, drab quality of their lives and so they use the imagination to escape from reality. They chat themselves out of reality and into fantasy.
At the sports Christy truly does win the games and here fantasy is translated into fact. By the time Old Mahon turns up and exposes the hollowness of his story, Christy is changed in such a way that nothing will displace this new self. From now on he will be the master of all fights. However, the villagers are unable to face reality. They expel Christy, as they are unable to accept the fact that they have created the fantasy and now it has become reality.

In this community the idea of heroes and Heroism is truly ambiguous and ironic. Pegeen’s heroes are dangerous and violent men who are set against the background of Holy Ireland,’ Marcus Quin got six months for maiming ewes, and he a great warrant to tell stories of Holy Ireland.’
Great talkers are synonymous with bravery and heroism in this community. By the end of Act I, Christy becomes fully conscious of his heroic status and his new self flourishes after this. It is through the power of eloquent and exaggerated language that the community make a hero of Christy Mahon.  This community are starved of heroism and so they encourage him and develop within him the illusion that he really is the hero he thinks himself to be. The central fact throughout this play is that Christy is convincing himself and the community that he is truly the hero of all he says he has done. Bravery of talk is an adequate substitute for brave deeds in this somewhat sterile community. At the conclusion Christy has emancipated himself from all forms of dominance and achieved true heroism and freedom.

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