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Chapter 4 investigates the social and political possibilities opened up by the (re)emergence of counter-modern modes of embodiment in the midst of a prominent institution of modernity: a national theatre. It argues that the apparently illegible behavioural patterns of the characters ‒ in The Playboy of the Western World, especially ‒ may be read as tangible traces of forms of embodiment that are incommensurate to modernity. While Synge’s dramatic writing sometimes flirts with stereotypical representations of the Irish body, it does so in order to better submit such representations to critical reappraisal. These forms of embodiment actualize alternative ways of being that both the colonial state and the proponents of middle-class, anti-colonial nationalism strove to suppress. The wild physicality associated with cultural practices, such as keening or faction fighting, stands in sharp contrast to the hegemonic and early twentieth century conception of the modern body. In Synge’s plays, these other expressions of corporeality offer traces of an alternative to the modernity of the (Abbey) theatre as an institution. They register the enduring recalcitrance of peasant popular culture and of ways of being that exist athwart modernity. In this, they allow for a vestigial survival and dissemination of alternative social and cultural possibilities.
Chapter 1 is concerned with the ethnographical leanings of Synge’s work. It focuses on the material culture which Synge chose for the production of his plays, Riders to the Sea especially, and highlights the degree to which Synge’s plays were aligned with a narrative of modernity and progress. It effectively reads Synge’s plays as cultural performances of modernity. By transposing to the Dublin stage objects conjuring rurality and by giving centre-stage to a commodity-poor culture, the plays contributed to generating and articulating a fundamental difference between the modern, urban audience of the Abbey Theatre and the agrarian or fishing communities, which the plays represented. Thus, they participated in the construction and display of cultural difference, which is so central to modernity’s agenda. The chapter pays special attention to Synge’s quest for, or recreation of, the authentic, and argues that this should be situated within the broader context of the commodity culture emerging in late nineteenth and early twentieth-century Ireland. It also relates Synge’s work for the theatre to other art practices ‒ notably, photography and more specifically Jane W. Shackleton’s ‒ that were similarly informed by an equally strong ethnographical desire to document the lives of putatively primitive people.
Chapter 3 argues that the cultural and performance practices of the Irish peasantry written into Synge’s plays celebrate the living on of rural Ireland’s residual culture. It focusses on 'keening' ‒ or 'caoineadh' in Irish ‒ in Deirdre of the Sorrows, The Playboy of the Western World and Riders to the Sea. The frame that Synge chose for his adaptation of the ritual of the Irish lament, that is, the stage of an institutional theatre, contributed to some degree in hollowing the practice out of its agency and ran the risk of transforming the ritual into a mere spectacle. However, as keening was part of a performance tradition, it also possessed abilities to resist this form of disempowerment. The stage directions relating to the performance of the lament ritual in the three plays are very much open to interpretation and leave the director free to fashion the performance of the keen as he or she pleases. Depending on the directorial choices then, the performance of the stage keen will either seal the irrevocable loss of a cultural formation or highlight its residual living on and encourage a perception of loss as a creative process, containing germs for a reconfiguration of the collective.
This study is interested in the transformative potentialities of theatrical performance. It is conjointly preoccupied with the various ways in which the plays of J. M. Synge (1871–1909) problematize performance and, in so doing, possess the potential to unsettle narratives of progress and modernity. Performance is a slippery notion, embracing a large spectrum of social and cultural activities. Famously defined by Richard Schechner as ‘twice-behaved’ or ‘restored’ behaviour,1 performance, in the theatrical sense of the term, explores a repertoire of existing embodied practices which it repeats, combines anew and even re-invents in the present. From that perpetual movement of re-composition and re-creation alternative ways of being and thinking can and do emerge. The theatre stage is a privileged site where these fluctuating alternatives can be elaborated, tested and played with. If theatre is inherently an art of repetition, its repetitions are indeed by essence singular and differential, insofar as the gap between one performance iteration and the next testifies to the individual and collective choices which have been made by actors and stage directors.
Chapter 5 is concerned with the ways in which Synge’s plays engage with and interrogate the temporal disjunctions of Edwardian Ireland. It highlights the specifically performative means to which Synge has recourse and implicitly contrasts the plays with the ethnographic dimension of his prose record in The Aran Islands. The chapter explores the moments of disrupted linearity in plays such as Riders to the Sea, The Playboy of the Western World and Deirdre of the Sorrows and highlights the ways in which they give theatrical expression to the sense of temporal disjunction, which modernity fostered and which Edwardian Ireland’s colonial situation accentuated. Even though the narratives of Synge’s plays follow a linear pattern and, in that sense, appear to endorse the conception of chronology and time upheld by a dominant modernity, they also leave room for other, alternative temporalities to be explored. Through discordant bodily movements, linearity and its corollary, progress, can be questioned; alternative sequencing can be envisaged and different rhythms allowed to unfold concurrently. Now and again vignettes erupt in Synge’s plays which disrupt the linear flow of time and open up the possibility of other temporal configurations.
One of the important points that the plays of J. M. Synge demonstrate is that, even when adapted to the modern stage, storytelling, keening and the performance practices associated with Irish peasant culture retain the ability to unsettle or at least challenge our western conception of mimesis and representation. By juxtaposing heterogeneous modes of performance without attempting to subsume their differences, Synge’s plays manifest a self-awareness of their own performativity and theatricality and also of the complex relation of theatrical performance to other forms of performances, including ritual or social performance. Thus, from a study primarily concerned with Synge’s plays and the theatrical culture for which they were written, the book evolved into a study of the plays ‘as’ performance. Modern and comptemporary theatre is overtly preoccupied with performance, which it problematizes; and one of the aims of the book has been to discern incipient traces of the complex relation of performance to theatre and representation in the work of a dramatist usually considered to be a realist.
Chapter 6 focusses primarily on Synge’s interest in the productive potential of the counterfactual. By embracing what modernity regards as failure ‒ social outcasts, for instance ‒ or as illogical ‒ a community welcoming a man who says he killed his father ‒ Synge’s plays challenge the dominant ideas of rationality that underpin modernity’s overarching frame. By ending on the exclusion of the characters that stand for other, non-rational, non-productive modes of being and knowing and by presenting the death of the cultural formation they represent as impending, the narratives of plays such as The Well of the Saints and The Shadow of the Glen highlight the depleting effects of the suppression or annihilation of these alternate epistemologies. Contrary to such narratives, however, the performance practices that are embedded within the plays advocate for the coexistence of a diversity of modes of vision and of knowledge. Embodied behaviour, which is at the heart of the theatrical performance, functions itself as an alternative epistemology. Through the shift of epistemology which they encourage, Synge’s plays celebrate the wonderful, utopian possibilities and alternatives to a capitalist modernity that performance opens up.
Chapter 2 looks into the ethical and political issues attached to the performance of ethnicity. It relates Synge’s engagement with Ireland’s national theatre project to the larger historical and cultural context in which performances of ethnicity were given: international exhibitions, for instance. This is all the more relevant as Ireland itself was still at the time the objects of such performances. The chapter starts by considering the 1907 Dublin International Exhibition at Herbert Park as a public display of Ireland’s modernity. It then ties Synge’s adaptation to the modern stage of a ritual performance practice such as keening to his interest in the ethnographic sideshow of the Somali Village that he witnessed as he visited the Dublin International Exhibition. The chapter reads Synge’s fascination for the war-song of the Somali performers, which in a letter to Maire O’Neill he compares to 'some of the keens on Aran', as evidence of his preoccupation with the capacity of ritual performance to undermine the potentially subjugating structures within which such performance is sometimes framed, whether those structures be the stage of a national theatre or the performance space of a native village in an international exhibition.
Irish Revivalist playwright J. M. Synge is often regarded as a realist. Yet what happens when his work is analysed through wider performance studies and situated alongside less familiar historical contexts? By addressing this question, Hélène Lecossois offers new and valuable perspectives on Synge's plays while at the same time engaging with the complexity of his treatment of a range of performance practices – from keening at rural funerals to the performances of 'native villagers' in the entertainment section of International Exhibitions. What emerges from her study is a dramatist acutely aware of the ability of theatre in performance to counteract relentless forward-moving narratives of modernity. Through detailed, contextualized case studies, the book simultaneously makes meaningful contributions to performance studies and opens up theoretical questions of performance relating to the status of the object on stage, the body on stage and theatrical time.