Druid Theatre and John Millington Synge
by Patrick Lonergan
In 1982, Garry Hynes described John Millington Synge as Druid Theatre’s ‘house playwright’. That statement was intended to be humorous – but there’s a lot of truth in it too. Druid’s development from being a regional theatre to the internationally acclaimed company we know today has been intimately interconnected with its work on Synge. Similarly, our knowledge of the playwright himself has been refined – and redefined – by the company’s productions of his dramas. And of course there are echoes of Synge in Druid’s productions of other important Irish dramatists, such as John B Keane, M.J. Molly, Martin McDonagh, and others.
The history of Druid Theatre begins in 1975, with a production of The Playboy of the Western World. Two of the company’s three founders – actor Marie Mullen and director Garry Hynes – had recently completed their studies at University College Galway, where both had been active in the student drama society. The third founder, Mick Lally, was teaching in Tuam, and acting with Galway’s Taidbhearc na Gaillimhe, the national Irish language theatre. A decision had been made to produce summer theatre for Galway, and The Playboy was chosen as an ideal inaugural production.
The play opened on 3 July 1975, and was an instant success, receiving attendances of up to 200 people a night at Galway’s Jesuit Hall. The company’s founding members had central roles both on and off-stage, with Mick Lally and Marie Mullen playing opposite each other as Christopher Mahon and Pegeen Mike, while also taking on stage-management and costume design respectively. Garry Hynes directed, designed lights and, for a limited time, played Sara Tansey.
The company had been struck during this first production by the power of Synge’s work, and resolved to return to it at the earliest opportunity. This happened the following year, when Druid presented The Glens of Rathvanna, an adaptation of Synge’s prose, which included performances of The Tinker’s Wedding (receiving only its second ever Irish production), and The Shadow of the Glen. In 1977, another production of The Playboy of the Western World was presented in Flaherty’s pub – where the real turf fire brought a (somewhat hazy) air of authenticity to the performance.
Arguably the most significant – and to date the most influential – production by Druid of The Playboy appeared in 1982. Regarded by many of the definitive Playboy, it did a great deal to revitalise Synge for Irish audiences, presenting the play’s sexuality and violence with an unflinching realism. Revived throughout the 1980s, this production made history in many ways. It firmly established Druid’s national and international reputation, picking up a host of awards during visits to Edinburgh, London, New York, and Sydney. It also toured throughout Ireland, including a celebrated visit to each of the three Aran Islands – showing how Druid pioneered the development of regional theatre in Ireland.
Druid’s decision to stage all of Synge’s works together – a task never before attempted– was first mooted in the late 1990s, and has been eagerly anticipated since that time. Rising Irish film-star Cillian Murphy took on the role of Christy in the first DruidSynge performance – a 2004 Playboy, which toured to Geesala, Co Mayo, the Aran Islands, and Dun Chaoin in West Kerry – while also travelling to Castlebar, Ennis, Tralee, and Dublin. In March 2005, Druid brought that production to the Perth Arts Festival in Western Australia, with Aaron Monaghan taking over the role of Christy. Productions of The Tinker’s Wedding and The Well of The Saints appeared in 2004, touring to the Dublin Theatre Festival.
Documentation of previous Druid productions of Synge has been generated both privately within Druid, and in the public domain. A televised version of the stage production of Playboy was recorded at the Donmmar Warehouse in 1985, while a 1982 RTE documentary captures the visit of Playboy to Inis Meáin.
Adrian Frazier, Playboys of The Western World (Carysfort Press, 2004)
Druid Theatre, Druid – the First Ten Years, (Druid, 1985).