Bad Advice Wednesday: It’s a Brave Old World

categories: Bad Advice / Cocktail Hour / Reading Under the Influence


Just what I pictured: Public House

A couple of months back, at a reading by Kate Miles at Devanney, Doak, and Garrett Booksellers here in Farmington, Maine, I found myself seated across from the Dover Editions rack.  These are decent paperback editions of classics, or at least just work in the public domain, priced to reach the masses.  While I listened to Kate beautifully read from her new book of the sea, All Standing, my eye kept returning to that rack.  And after the reading among the milling crowd I made my way to it, the old bibliomania surfacing.  I bought Kate’s book (which she signed to someone else, long story) and grabbed J. M. Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World, one of those books I’ve meant to read lo these many years, first entering my consciousness in college (I thought it might be the Hugh Hefner story then, but was disappointed), and growing there over the years (various Irish kicks), blooming when A. Walton Litz mentioned it in a great Yeats and Joyce seminar I joined in graduate school.  Something about the repression and stifling and conformity of Irish society, back in the day.  I didn’t read it then, but I did read Ulysses, finally, A. Walton Litz having loaned me a complete set of cassette tapes: the Irish National Theatre doing a complete reading on Bloomsday, 25 hours.  Finally I heard the Joyce’s voices, glorious; finally I could read and understand the book, the secret being to listen.

John Synge

Anyway, I was cleaning my desk yesterday and in the piles and piles of books accumulated there found The Playboy of the Western World.  It looked invitingly short, and so I sat down (the desk cleaning still hasn’t progressed), and started in.  It took a few scenes to realize (or perhaps remember) that it was a comedy, and that helped, publican’s daughter Pegeen Mike Flaherty (“a wild-looking but fine girl), heart of Ireland, around 1900, her suitor, the country people, and a new arrival, a handsome boy who claims to have murdered his father.

Funny, but reading a novel I dream into it, fully picture the places, the people.  Reading a play, I dream into it, too, but what I picture is something taking place on a stage, and the people actors.

The Dover Edition has no notes, so a wild Irish vocabulary might have flummoxed me.

Enter the Internet.  First, I found that playboy would have meant something like hoaxer when the play was written, or liar, or storyteller.  You can see how the meaning might have made its way to ours.  Very helpful.  But the strange Irish words, in fact, didn’t come up on a simple Google search.  And so I wished the book had a glossary.  And read, and wished.  Then did what I often forget to do when wishing for a library, I typed in “Playboy of the Western World glossary” and up it came, no attribution. ( But the link contained the name of the professor who had originated it, my terrific colleague Terence Odlin at Ohio State, now emeritus, the list posted for his students and now for posterity.  I’ll paste it below, just because it’s a lot of fun.)

This actor looks like my imagination of the hoaxer, for sure.

Anyway again, I read the play and pictured the set and the actors and even the theatre, and I remembered Terry Odlin and felt fairly dazzled by Synge’s play, all the crazy turns it takes, the wildness of the imagination as it explored Irish complacency at the turn of the last century.

When I was done, it was as always: the classics are beloved for a reason.

I wished I could see the play.  Wondered if there was a movie.  And so to the Internet once again, where on YouTube I watched scenes from amateur productions and then the entire 1963 film, nothing to write home about (though I write on Bill and Dave’s about it).  Except for one thing: the accents.  I heard the accents, got them in my head, wonderful.

Then I read the play again, and it all came alive, my imaginary actors replaced not by the actors in the movie or in the scenes I’d watched but by people, real people (who were a dream), lovely, all puzzlement falling away.

So that’s the bad advice, something I think most people younger than I already do, and most people older maybe not: read with the world at your fingertips, read with your laptop at hand.

But don’t forget how to use the library and go to plays and find actual Irish people to talk to: you’ll need those skills when the grid goes down!

And that’s the real advice.

Glossary for
The Playboy of the Western World
by John Millington Synge (1871-1909)

Achill = an island off the west coast of Ireland
bad cess = bad luck
banbhs = young pigs
baillif = agent for a landlord
barony = subdivision of a county
bell-man = town crier
blackthorn = a type of stick
boreen = narrow road
cleeve = basket
cnuceen = small hill
cot = cottage
creel = wicker frame
curagh = boat made of canvas or hides sewn together
dray = cart
drift of heifers = herd of cattle
furzy = describes a bush with yellow blossoms
gallous = gallows
gamy = high-spirited
ha’p’orth = amount worth half a penny
hooshing = sound to urge an animal on
Kilmainham = a jail in Dublin
lepping = leaping
liefer = rather
long car = cart
making mugs = making faces
mitch = hide
old hen = flu
parlatic = paralytic drunk
pater = Pater Noster (the Latin “Our Father”)
peeler = policeman
polis = police
pot boy = helper in a pub
riz the loy = raised the spade, shovel
settle = seat, bench
shebeen = a pub, similar to the American speakeasy of the 1920’s
shifts = petticoats
skelping = spanking, beating
streel = wander, stroll; also, a slut
streeleen = idle talk
swiggling = wiggling
thraneen = wisp, bit
turbary = land with bogs and turf
turf = fuel used for fires
wake = traditional gathering for mourning the dead
wattle = stick, wicker
winkered = blinkered (as done with horses)

  1. Bill writes:

    Well, it’s the chickens, then! I’m going to look for a performance anywhere at all… Even if back in time to see you!

  2. Paula writes:

    Oh wonderful. About 50 years ago — or more — I had a bit part in Playboy at a local summer stock theatre. I don’t remember much about the play. But I remember holding up a cooked chicken by its legs–a chicken provided by the prop people every night–and saying “and I brought ye a little layin’ pullet, broiled and all she is” (or some such) before handing it to the recipient. Once, the little layin’ pullet had been overcooked, and as I held it up by its legs the drumsticks separated from the body, which landed in a greasy mess on stage.