The Playboy of the Western World

The Western World is a Hopeless Romantic
A Paper by Joanna D.
Spring ’10

The Playboy of the Western World tells the story of a man who kills his father. In the act of fleeing from the police, he discovers that murder is not only one of the bravest things that he could have ever done, but that he is now attractive to every female in the neighborhood. This sense of exhilaration and pride at his own daring is somewhat diminished when Christy Mahon discovers that his father is looking for him. The townsfolk also discover that murder is not as romantic as they once thought, when, full of the spirit of the moment, Christy turns around and murders his father again. The play is almost a farce, illustrating the absurdity of our romanticism of crimes that would disturb us if we ever saw them committed.

It is a dark, windy night, and Margaret Flaherty is to be in her father’s pub alone. She wants her fiancé, Shawn Keogh to stay with her and protect her from neighborhood harvest boys, the traveling tinkers, and the militia men, but Shawn will not stay. He is “afeared of Father Reilly” and what he might think if Shawn stayed the night. Her father agrees that she needs some protection, and they try to keep Shawn there. As if to prove the point, a stranger called Christy Mahon comes in and timidly asks if the police come here often. When they coax him, he admits that he has just killed his father by hitting him on the head with a loy, a kind of spade. “That man should be a great terror when his temper’s roused,” they marvel, comparing the stranger to Solomon and saying he has the courage to face demons and kharki cut-throats. Margaret’s father consequently hires Christy to stay with Margaret. “Now, by the grace of god, herself will be safe this night, with a man killed his father holding danger from the door”. Shawn, ever the voice of reason, questions the wisdom of leaving Margaret with the stranger, but they tell him to go home. As Margaret’s father leaves, he realizes that he does not even know the stranger’s name and comes back to ask it. Men perceive murder to be a proof of bravery and honesty, even to the extent that a man would leave his daughter with a murderer whose name he did not even know.

Nor does this infatuation with crime only affect men. Margaret first suggested that Christy stay with her. She tells him “And I thinking you should have been living like the king of Norway or the Eastern world.” She is a flirt. She tells him that she’s unmarried and says that he’s, “a fine, handsome young fellow with a noble brow”. She has romanticized him too, and there is nothing other than his crime that should make him attractive. Christy is timid, very much like Shawn, although Shawn is only afraid of the priest and of Christy. Neither Shawn nor Christy are very bright—Christy, “never reached his second book” in school. There is no way to gauge his looks, but if we are to believe Christy, no one had even hinted that he was handsome before. If we are to believe his father, he was ugly and, “the laughing joke of every female woman where four baronies meet”. This gains further credibility next morning when we see Christy shaving and admiring his face in the mirror. Four girls come to the pub, not for a drink, but to see Christy. They have not ever seen him. They have heard that there was a man that killed his father staying there, and they have brought him breakfast. Even the old Widow Quin makes insinuations and attempts to propose to Christy. “There’s maybe worse than a dry hearth and a widow woman and your glass a night,” she hints. When Christy’s father shows up, his head none the worse for wear, and disproves Christy’s story, the Widow hides Christy and says that he’s left. However, Christy will not leave. He is in love with Margaret. He asks the widow, “Aid me for to win Pegeen [Margaret’s nickname]. It’s herself only that I’m seeking now.” After saying this, he goes down to the contests held on the beach below and endears himself to the townsfolk by winning most of the events.

What with Old Mr. Mahon roaming around town, Christy’s fame cannot last long. Christy is carried up to the pub from the contests and hailed as “The Playboy of the Western World”. Margaret’s father consents to their marriage. In the midst of these celebrations, Old Mahon bursts in and starts beating Christy. He had only broken his father’s skull ran off before looking to see whether his father was alive. The crowd turns on him. He isn’t a murderer, only a filthy liar! Margaret is outraged, and the Widow won’t help him. His father tries to take him home and beat him, but Christy grabs a loy, runs after his father, and hits him again. His father appears to be dead. At this point, the crowd is at first confronted with an actual, honest-to-goodness murder, conducted in almost the same way as the first. This time, however, the crowd turns on Christy and gets ready to hang him. They tell him, “If we took pity on you, the lord God would, maybe bring us ruin from the law to-day, so you’d best come easy, for hanging is an easy and a speedy end.”  They knew of his supposed crime before, and they heaped praise on him. What is the difference?  Margaret sees it clearly. “I’ll say, a strange man is a marvel, with his mighty talk; but what’s a squabble in your back-yard, and the blow of a loy, have taught me that there’s a great gap between a gallous story and a dirty deed.” The difference was the reality of the deed. When it was an abstract story of daring, Margaret was amazed, but when it was a murder, she was shocked. She puts the noose over Christy’s head for the townsfolk. They are dragging Christy out when Old Mahon comes in again, still alive. Christy now perceives that his is stronger than his father, and does not need to fear him anymore. He leaves with Mahon, proclaiming, “Ten thousand blessings upon all that’s here, for you’ve turned me a likely gaffer in the end of all, the way I’ll go romancing through a romping lifetime from this hour to the dawning of the judgment day.” “Oh my grief,” Margaret laments, I’ve lost him surely. I’ve lost the only Playboy of the Western World.”

Sometimes what we want is not what we expect. What seems to be a glorious deed in a story may really be a cowardly bid to escape responsibility. How many people would read Robin Hood if it told of a man who reformed the government by becoming Sheriff rather than robbing the rich and giving to the poor? Margaret wanted to marry Christy because he was daring and exciting and new. Shawn was ordinary and cautious. She had probably known him her entire life. What Margaret would have really gotten if she married Christy would have been a prideful and rash husband. After Christy realized that he had mastery over his father, he left Margaret. Shawn did not.

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