The <em>Playboy</em> Riots
by Christopher Morash
‘I feel we are in the fight for our lives,’ Lady Gregory writes to Synge on 14 January 1907 while The Playboy of the Western World is in rehearsal, ‘We must make no mistakes.’
Rehearsals, December 1906 – January, 1907: The Abbey management, namely Yeats and Gregory, have been worried about the play from the start, closing rehearsals uncharacteristically to even their most devoted hangers-on. “There are too many violent oaths,’ Lady Gregory writes, ’… I do not think it is fit to put on the stage without cutting.’ But Synge was carefully guarding his play. Gregory wrote to Yeats after a run of the third act: ‘You never looked like a tiger with his cub as Synge did last night with Playboy.’
Saturday, 26th January, 1907: The auditorium is completely full for opening night, with box office receipts of £32.14.10, showing that every possible seat has been sold.
At the beginning of the 1906-07 season, the Abbey introduces six-penny seats in the front of the stalls, partly to meet the criticism that not many of ‘the people’ could afford to pass through its doors. Within a month Yeats broadcasts that a performance of Riders of the Sea ‘was all but destroyed, by the opening and shutting of the door to the stalls’ and demands quiet from audiences. On this occasion, Riders is listened to with reverential silence.
The Playboy of the Western World begins and the audience are receptive, laughing at most of the right moments. The audience applauds with the first-act curtain and Lady Gregory dashes off a telegram to Yeats in Aberdeen: ‘Play great success.’
In the second act, the audience’s laughter becomes more uneasy.
Fifteen minutes from the end of the final act, the mood in the play changes, the humour darkens, and at this point the audience begin to turn nasty. In quick succssion, Christy Mahon attacks his father with a loy, returns to announce that he would choose Pegeen even if offered ‘a drift of Mayo girls standing in their shifts itself’ (‘Mayo girls’ was the actor’s substitution for ‘chosen females’) and Sara Tansey pulls off her petticoat to provide him with a disguise. By now, there is a bedlam of hisses and yells in the auditorium, and when the house clears Lady Gregory sends Yeats the telegram: ‘Audience broke up in disorder at the word “shift”.’
Sunday: The theatre is dark.
‘The players had expected the piece’s downfall sooner,’ reports Willie Fay, the actor who played Christy Mahon, to Joseph Holloway, an Abbey devotee. ‘It was a fine audience to play to. It frankly did not like the play and frankly expressed itself on the matter,’ responds Holloway.
Monday: Riders is listened to politely and patiently by about forty members of the audience in the pit, identified by Yeats as supporters of Arthur Griffith’s Sinn Féin. These begin stomping, booing and hissing as soon as the curtain rises on Playboy. Willie Fay stops the performance at one point, announcing that he is a Mayo man and to listen to the play in silence or else the police would be called. Half a dozen officers arrive and stand around until Lady Gregory and Synge asked them to leave.
Tuesday: Lady Gregory asks her nephew to bring along to the theatre that night ‘a few fellow athletes’ from Trinity College.
7.00, a crowd begin to gather around the pit-door.
7.30, a posse of policemen are let in through the stage-door.
7.50, the house doors are opened, and there is a rush to the six-penny seats.
8.00, twenty Trinity students enter, inebriated, and are given free seats in the more expensive stalls.
8.15, the curtain goes up on Riders to an auditorium half-full, it is listened to in respectful silence.
9.03, the curtain goes up on Playboy and the opening scene is listened to politely. When Christy makes his entrance, those in the pit stomp and make as much noise as possible, those in the stalls cheer and clap with equal vigour, forcing management to turn up house lights. One person is ejected and Yeats appeals ‘to all of you who are sober to lsiten’ and, after a conference with Lady Gregory and Synge, calls in the police.
Lights go down, uproar again, with the stalls and pit just short of open warfare and cries of ‘That’s not the West’ are to be heard.
Wednesday: About 420 in attendance, the night is less rowdy, although it is still difficult to hear the play, and the police continue to arrest protesters.
Thursday: When Old Mahon refers to Christy as ‘a poor fellow would get drunk on the smell of a pint’, someone in the pit calls out ‘That’s not Western Life’.
Saturday: Final performance. Abbey decorum has re-esatblished itself.
There are no reports of anything being thrown in the theatre on any night of the disturbances. The real confrontation is between the lower-middle-class, predominantly nationalist, pit and the upper-middle-class, predominantly unionist, stalls. ‘There was a kind of opposition,’ as one policeman on duty put it, ‘between the occupants of the stalls and the pit.’
On the day after opening Synge writes to Molly Allgood, the actress playing Pegeen and soon to be his fiancé, ‘It is better any day to have the row we had last night than to have your play fizzling out in half-hearted applause. Now we’ll be talked about. We’re an event in the history of the Irish stage.’