"His Native Homespuns ... Become Him": Synge's the Playboy of the Western World and Performative Identity
Wilson, Steve, The Midwest Quarterly
WHAT MAKES A PERSON a member of a cultural group? Is it something "essential" that separates, for instance, Greeks from Turks, Croatians from Slovenes? As peoples attempt to shape a destiny of their own, throwing off the repressions of colonization--as did the Irish at the end of the nineteenth century--these questions inevitably arise. To seek one's self in this context is to long for the discovery of what is unique to one's own ethnic group or culture. It is to sift authenticity from corruption. However, postmodernity offers the possibility that essentialism is a myth of the Romantic past, where self struggled to exist against environment: "Self" becomes a desire for coherence, and "identity" a collage of histories and contexts. J. M. Synge's The Playboy of the Western World, coming at the volatile juncture of the Irish Renaissance and the opening years of the twentieth century, provides a telling case in point.
As we learn from Edward J. O'Brien in his 1911 introduction to Synge's The Aran Islands, Synge's excursions to the rugged west of Ireland comprised the writer's attempt to reject "the art of the decadents, based as it was on the complicated experience and adjustment of modern life, for a return to nature as fresh and sincere in its courage and originality as the previous return had been to Coleridge and Wordsworth ..." (viii). Thus, The Aran Islands, one of the central texts of the Irish Revival, can be read as a typical Romantic story of a man's search for his essential self among the "primitives." Like works by fellow Irish Revivalists such as Yeats and Lady Gregory, Synge's travel memoir helped to define as well as argue for an Irish identity at that moment when Ireland was struggling for its independence. Read in this context, the book offers the Aran Islanders as the last "authentic" Irish: resolute, moral, in touch with the world around them, and--above all--proud and defiant. However, one finds in Synge's more famous work, The Playboy of the Western World, a character who represents qualities far from authentic. Christy Mahon's main trait is his changeability as those he meets in a small western village create their idea of him based upon erroneous information as well as local values and fears. Mahon's identity matches others' expectations of him, undergoing literally overnight a complete reversal from weakness to strength.
Judith Butler asserts in her influential book, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, that we should reconsider identity "as an effect, that is, as produced or generated" by context, rather than as essential to an individual (147). Expanding on Butler's concept, Jonathan Culler notes, "If identity is an effect, of subject positions and of actions, then to act is to take on a role, to take up a relation to it. Butler, writing of gender identities that are constructed and of gender as a performance or an act, locates agency in the variations of action, the possibilities of variation in repetitions that carry meaning and create identity" (221). Considering notions of identity within the parameters of this essay (Ireland as it struggles toward independence), one discovers that the nature of the variations to which Butler alludes will fluctuate with the shifting of situation; of cultures; of location; and, significantly, of preconceptions about identity itself. Meanings change as these various elements change, leaving characters, and the Irish, without stable centers of identity. "Irishness" cannot be defined; only context can be examined. Thus, balanced between Irish Romanticism / Nationalism and Postmodern fragmentations of the individual, Synge's Playboy represents a prescient exploration of identity as performante, a theme that appears in much modern Irish Literature.
Although The Aran Islands has been read by most scholars and general readers as a Romantic text, the concept of "performative identity" appears there as well, albeit only briefly. …