On the back of an envelope: new manuscript of Synge’s ‘Playboy’ found hiding in plain sight

The letter and envelope, TCD MS 4424-26.167, was originally sent to John Millington Synge from Henri Lebeau, a young French writer and great admirer of Synge, who visited the west of Ireland together with the Breton folklorist Anatole Le Braz in the spring of 1905.  The letter is postmarked 20 May 1905, so sent at the end of his trip. It is largely a personal letter with a request by Lebeau to Synge to remind him of an address and contact for lodgings while he is in London. Notably, he goes on to mention his memories of his visit to Ireland and offers his ‘impressions’ on ‘the rare qualities of heart of the Western peasants’. 

On the back of the envelope Synge has written notes on changes he intends to make to his drafts of The Playboy of the Western World.  These notes appear to be hastily written when compared to the handwriting of Synge’s personal notes elsewhere.  He uses shorthand and abbreviations such as ‘WQ + Ch’ indicating the characters Window Quinn and Christy.  Although scrappily written there is a sense of order in that he writes notes for Act 1 at the top of the envelope and works anticlockwise progressing through the play up to notes on Act 3 scene II, with lines drawn to separate notes for the differing acts and scenes from each other.  It is well documented in the TCD manuscripts website that Synge drafted many possible variations and endings for Playboy, and this document stands to how immediate some of these inspirations were captured by him.  There is a doodle in the left corner which merges into the first word of the note beginning ‘If necessary’, indicating that Synge was doodling with his pen as he developed these thoughts.  Of course, it cannot be said that Synge wrote these amendments as a direct response to Lebeau’s comments.  In my consultations with Professor Nicholas Grene at Trinity, it is estimated that Synge’s notes on the envelope are from late 1906, when Synge was well advanced on the composition of the play and used this envelope to make a quick note to point up motifs in individual scenes.

Nevertheless, the content of the letter still stands as an example of the type of representations of the Western peasant Synge was in conversation with as he was writing the play which would go on to spark riots partly due to its iconoclasm of the Western Irish peasant.

Again with help from Professor Nicholas Grene, the following is an attempt at deciphering Synge’s notes:

Top centre: ‘Work WQ’s [Widow Quin] pity into last scene of I [insertion] and keep [insertion] his deed through it to the fore’

Left below: ‘If necessary use motif of the trick she WQ. [insertion with caret mark] is playing on Pegeen keeping his [word illegible] II’

Right below: ‘If possible preserve Pegeen’s charm in end of 3.II when she pets him’.

Bottom left: ‘Work her pity very fully in same scene II but make it [illegible word underlined] the pity of reality’.

Bottom centre: ‘You have WQ. and Ch [Christy] face to face through scene with old man and they are face to face again’

A point worth noting is the address on the envelope, ‘31 Crosthwaite Park, Kingstown’.  Synge lived in a large Georgian town house in Kingstown, now Dun Laoghaire in Dublin, an area then noted for its middle- and upper-class Protestant Anglo Irish population, not unlike Synge’s own background.  In my exploration of correspondence being an influencing factor on Synge’s development of the play, this brought my attention to the importance of considering the context of the physical world from which Synge wrote the play.  Indeed, the society of Kingstown was the opposite end of the Irish societal spectrum from the Catholic, rural peasantry Synge was depicting.

While this envelope is not listed within most published notes of Synge’s writings, it is still a fascinating and revealing document on the development of one of Ireland’s most radical yet canonical plays.

Wayne Kavanagh, postgraduate student at the University of Birmingham