The Playboy of the Western World, a three-act play written by Irish playwright John Millington Synge, is first performed at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, on January 26, 1907. The play is set in Michael James Flaherty’s public house in County Mayo during the early 1900s. It tells the story of Christy Mahon, a young man running away from his farm, claiming he killed his father. The locals are more interested in vicariously enjoying his story than in condemning the immorality of his murderous deed, and in fact, Christy’s tale captures the romantic attention of the bar-maid Pegeen Mike, the daughter of Flaherty. The play is best known for its use of the poetic, evocative language of Hiberno-English, heavily influenced by the Irish language, as Synge celebrates the lyrical speech of the Irish.
The Playboy Riots occur during and following the opening performance of the play. The riots are stirred up by Irish nationalists who view the contents of the play as an offence to public morals and an insult against Ireland. The riots take place in Dublin, spreading out from the Abbey Theatre, and are finally quelled by the actions of the Dublin Metropolitan Police.
The fact that the play is based on a story of apparent patricide also attracts a hostile public reaction. Egged on by nationalists, including Sinn Féin leader Arthur Griffith, who believe that the theatre is not sufficiently political and describes the play as “a vile and inhuman story told in the foulest language we have ever listened to from a public platform,” and with the pretext of a perceived slight on the virtue of Irish womanhood in the line “a drift of females standing in their shifts” (a shift being a female undergarment), a significant portion of the crowd riots, causing the remainder of the play to be acted out in dumbshow. Nevertheless, press opinion soon turns against the rioters and the protests peter out.
Years later, William Butler Yeats declares to rioters against Seán O’Casey‘s pacifist drama The Plough and the Stars, in reference to the Playboy Riots, “You have disgraced yourself again. Is this to be the recurring celebration of the arrival of Irish genius?”
In the 1965 film Young Cassidy, a riot occurs during a play by the fictitious playwright Cassidy, following which the character W.B. Yeats refers to Synge and speaks similar words, starting with “You have disgraced yourselves again.”
The production of Synge’s play meets with more disturbances in the United States in 1911. On opening night in New York City, hecklers boo, hiss and throw vegetables and stink bombs while men scuffle in the aisles. The company is later arrested in Philadelphia and charged with putting on an immoral performance. The charges are later dismissed.