In Brief

The Irish playwright John Millicent Synge does not walk the pages of Ulysses, but as a talented and recently accomplished Irish writer he is much on the minds of the literati in Scylla and Charybdis. It is fitting that a chapter concerned with drama should mention the most promising dramaturge on Dublin's nascent theatrical scene. Synge also seems to serve as a kind of foil to Stephen Dedalus, who is equally talented but younger and not yet accomplished. Stephen has some history with Synge, and several details in the chapter suggest that he feels envious rivalry, as Joyce did at the same age.

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Born to suburban Dublin parents in 1871, eleven years before Joyce, Synge played the violin and studied music, and after graduating from Trinity College in 1892 he went to Germany to continue those studies. But he decided to become a writer instead and moved to Paris to study literature and languages at the Sorbonne. There, William Butler Yeats advised him to return to his own country and visit the Aran islands, where traditional Irish language and ways of life might give him worthy subject matter. Synge took the advice, living in the islands each year from 1897 to 1902 for months at a time. He became fluent in Gaelic, listened carefully to the distinctive rhythms of local speech, collected folklore, and heard ancient pagan beliefs persisting in modern Catholic mouths. Raised Protestant himself, Synge had lost his faith after reading Darwin at the age of 14. He found a new kind of faith in the islands' rural inhabitants, who led hard lives and endured them with dignity.

In 1901 Synge wrote a nonfiction book titled The Aran Islands (published in 1907) and by 1902 he was writing plays. He finished two one-act dramas in 1903: In the Shadow of the Glen and the masterful Riders to the Sea. Both were performed at Molesworth Hall in Dublin, Shadow in 1903 and Riders in 1904. Buck Mulligan, who appears to have attended a performance of Riders, gaily imitates its speeches with only a bit of his usual mockery in Scylla and Charybdis. Synge produced several longer plays in the next few years: The Well of the Saints (1905), The Playboy of the Western World (1907), and The Tinker's Wedding (1909). All of his plays roused objections from Irish nationalists and conservative Catholics, and the opening performance of Playboy at the Abbey Theatre in January 1907 sparked a riot over its supposed indecency. Two years later, Synge lay dying from the Hodgkin's lymphoma that had afflicted him since 1897. He left behind a manuscript, Deirdre of the Sorrows, that some contemporaries saw as an unfinished masterpiece.

When Russell stands up to leave the library office, briefly interrupting the Shakespeare talk, Stephen listens to the others chatting: "Synge has promised me an article for Dana too. Are we going to be read? I feel we are. The Gaelic league wants something in Irish." Synge did not write in Irish—he was afraid that the language was doomed to extinction—but these sentences suggest that his first plays had raised high hopes for Irish literature, and perhaps also for the dramatic value of Hiberno-English speech. Several pages later, Mulligan enters the office and, asked if he has any thoughts on Shakespeare, replies, "I seem to know the name." Lighting up, he says, ah sure, "The chap that writes like Synge."

One might suspect some mockery here, and one would be correct, but the joke is really on Yeats, who had given some over-the-top praise to Synge's work. Oliver St. John Gogarty recalls this reverence in As I Was Going Down Sackville Street: "One of the first meetings of the Irish Theatre, or rather of those who were about to produce Irish drama, took place in the Nassau Hotel. Maud Gonne sat on the opposite side of the table. Synge was at one end by Lady Gregory. Padraic Colum sat next to me. Suddenly Yeats exclaimed in admiration of a scene he was reading: / 'Æschylus!' / 'Who does he mean?' Colum whispered, amazed. / 'Synge, who is like Æschylus'. / 'But who is Æschylus?' / The man who is like Synge!'" (299-300).

As the young James Joyce prepared to move to Paris in January 1903, Lady Gregory wrote to Synge there asking him to help Joyce find cheap rooms in the city. Synge assisted in this and other ways, advising Joyce about how to deal with editors and with starvation. According to Ellmann, "he warned Joyce not to fast too long; his own protracted spells of hunger had obliged him, he said, to undergo a £30 operation" (124). The two brilliant artists inevitably were drawn to one another, and inevitably they clashed. Ellmann notes that Joyce thought Synge "a great lump of a man who could not be argued with, but since Joyce was equally doctrinaire they in fact argued a great deal. Sometimes the dispute was over nothing," as when Synge called Joyce bourgeois for proposing that they go visit the carnival. Other arguments were more substantive, as when Joyce read Riders to the Sea and responded harshly. Unlike Yeats who thought of Aeschylus, Joyce said that Riders was "a tragic poem, not a drama": men drowning in the sea and families being ruined were tragic enough, but a little one-act mood piece could not satisfy Aristotelian standards. Ellmann concludes his summary by observing that "They parted amicably on March 13, respecting and disdaining each other" (125).

These clashes, and his inability to form a lasting friendship with Synge, are recalled in Scylla and Charybdis when Stephen thinks of the "Harsh gargoyle face that warred against me over our mess of hash of lights in rue Saint-André-des-Arts." Imagining their meetings as comparable to the mythical meeting of Oisin and St. Patrick, the one representing the old heroic age and the other announcing the new Christian order, Stephen thinks, "His image, wandering, he met. I mine." Here he draws on his Shakespeare theorizing, which holds that we solipsistically walk through the world encountering versions of ourselves, and that "His own image to a man with that queer thing genius is the standard of all experience, material and moral. Such an appeal will touch him. The images of other males of his blood will repel him. He will see in them grotesque attempts of nature to foretell or repeat himself." Both he and Synge, Stephen fancies, experienced this repulsion in Paris. There was no room for the other in either man's universe.

But Joyce was not half so dismissive of Riders to the Sea as his youthful rivalry drove him to suggest. In 1909 he translated the play into Italian and tried to have it produced in Trieste. Unlike Gabriel Conroy, whom he represents in The Dead as being unwilling to visit the Aran islands, he did go there with Nora in 1912 and wrote two articles about his experience for Piccolo della Sera. Ellmann observes that he "came round to sharing Ireland's primitivism. He depicted Aran with the affection of a tourist who has read Synge, noted the peculiarities in the islanders' dialect, and described curious local customs and history" (325). In 1918 he "persuaded Nora to play a minor role" in a production of Riders to the Sea; "She had never acted before and was timid at first, but her rich contralto voice, with its strong Galway accent, gradually acquired confidence. Joyce trained the other actors to imitate her speech and the Aran speech rhythms" (440). In Scylla and Charybdis, Mulligan is given the job of imitating the Aran speech rhythms yet once more.

Mulligan implies that he and Stephen have had interactions with Synge in Dublin, though his remarks amount to little more than mockery of the playwright's eccentricities: "— The tramper Synge is looking for you, he said, to murder you. He heard you pissed on his halldoor in Glasthule. He's out in pampooties to murder you. / — Me! Stephen exclaimed. That was your contribution to literature." Glasthule is a part of Kingstown where Synge was living in the summer of 1904. He used the word "trampers" in The Tinker's Wedding and elsewhere as a name for tinkers, and by extension for his own itinerant ways. "Pampooties" are shoes made of undressed cowhide that were worn by Aran islanders at the time. "The implication," Gifford notes, "is that Synge has gone native." (The OED cites an 1884 folklore journal's theory that this local word was an import, brought to Aran long ago by "an East Indian ship-captain" who settled there.) Near the end of Scylla and Charybdis one final element of personal mythology comes up: "Synge has left off wearing black to be like nature. Only crows, priests and English coal are black." The third photograph here shows the severe effect that this sartorial choice achieved.

One other detail reflects Joyce's involvement with Synge, though the chapter does not make the connection explicit. Ellmann records that for a time in 1904 Joyce socialized with the actors of the National Theatre Society, who rehearsed "in a makeshift theater, really a large storehouse behind a grocery shop in Camden Street," accessed by a long dimly lit hallway. He had been there on June 10 "when Synge announced to the society that he had a new play ready for them, The Well of the Saints. Synge's productivity probably encouraged Joyce to demonstrate splenetically his continued contempt for the Irish theater, for he arrived so drunk on June 20 that he collapsed in the passageway." One of the actresses came out into the hallway with her mother and stumbled over the body. She alerted the company's directors, Frank and William Fay, who evicted the loudly protesting Joyce and locked him out. Joyce soon retaliated with a short poem, whose second stanza reads:

But I angered those brothers, the Fays,
Whose ways are conventional ways,
For I lay in my urine
While ladies so pure in
White petticoats ravished my gaze.  (160-61)

In Scylla and Charybdis this account enters only slightly changed in Mulligan's recollection: "— O, the night in the Camden hall when the daughters of Erin had to lift their skirts to step over you as you lay in your mulberrycoloured, multicoloured, multitudinous vomit! / — The most innocent son of Erin, Stephen said, for whom they ever lifted them."

JH 2021
Photographic portrait of John Millicent Synge, date unknown. Source:
Synge on the island of Inishmaan during his residence there in 1898. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Synge's "harsh gargoyle face" and black clothes. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Nora Barnacle in costume as an Aran islander in a 1918 performance of Riders to to the Sea. Source: Ellmann, James Joyce.