INTERVIEW: John Millington Synge finds his muse in ‘The Aran Islands’

Brendan Conroy stars in The Aran Islands, an adaptation of the story by John Millington Synge’s classic work. Photo courtesy of Carol Rosegg.

John Millington Synge is one of the most influential playwrights in the history of Irish drama, and that’s saying something given the theatrical output of this beautiful emerald island. His most famous play is no doubt The Playboy of the Western World, a show that has been revived around the world for generations.

Now, dedicated theatergoers can learn the story behind the story. One of Synge’s lesser-known, but still pivotal, works is The Aran Islands, a testimony of the playwright’s time living on the remote islands off the coast of Galway, Ireland. His journey to the islands was a suggestion of W.B. Yeats, and the trip acted as a muse for the Irish playwright, offering him ideas on future works and a unique view of rural communities and storytelling by the fireside.

The Irish Repertory Theatre in Manhattan is currently staging an adaptation of Synge’s The Aran Islands. The piece, adapted by Joe O’Byrne, features accomplished actor Brendan Conroy and has been extended through Aug. 6. Conroy has been working on stages for decades and is also well known for his TV work. He starred in The Irish RM, The Ballroom of Romance, The Lilac Bus, The General, A Man of No Importance and The Bounty. His stage credits include roles in The Playboy of the Western World, The Field, Bent, Moonshine, Talbot’s Box and Translations.

Recently Hollywood Soapbox exchanged emails with Conroy about the new play and his history with Synge’s work. Questions and answers have been slightly edited for style.

What do you like most about the writings of John Millington Synge?

I like the sharpness of his observations of human behavior. I find his connection to the primitive heart and soul of his characters to be extraordinary, and he portrays them without judgment very much like Pedro Almodovar does in his films. From my Irish perspective, I find Synge to be very European in his style, and he asserts the power of the imagination as a mighty force in the existence of the human spirit.

In terms of Irish drama and literature, how important and influential a work do you believe The Playboy of the Western World is? Is it the quintessential Irish play?

I think that The Playboy of the Western World is … beyond national boundaries as has been demonstrated by its translation into many languages and many different adaptations over the years. It anticipates the concept of celebrity founded on some sense of notoriety, the passing entertainment value of that for the inhabitants of a culture that is static and fixed. The boredom of life is lifted for all the community by a man who has a story to tell, and until they actually see the attempted killing of the playboy’s father, the community is complicit in making a hero of the playboy because it serves its purpose in different ways. But when the actual fact of murder, as against the story of it, is presented, then the world of the imagination is confronted with a dirty deed, and the community reject[s] the playboy. However, the genius of the play is that they cannot reverse the transformation that has taken place in Christy Mahon. His newly discovered self takes on its own momentum even though it may have been based on false praise.

How was it working with Joe O’Byrne on The Aran Islands?

I had worked with Joe O ‘Byrne once before on The Drum by Tony Kavanagh. I had an understanding of his way of working, and I had a great trust of his judgment. I knew I had my work cut out for me to arrive at a point where we might be confident that this presentation of The Aran Islands would carry across the years to a modern audience. I think both of us in different ways had a huge belief in the possibility of this work, and I found it amazing to be bringing this work to life with just two people in a room. It was intense and remains so. I would be my own worst critic, and sometimes live theater has to accommodate the nuances of an audience as you look them in the eye. And rehearsals cannot cover every possibility. … Every night has its own climate within the room.

Were you familiar with these islands before beginning work on the play? Can you see how the islands and their storytellers inspired Synge?

Yes, I come from inland county Galway. I know Irish people. … We are very fortunate that Synge found so much freedom in them and took notice, but he did not invent them. And maybe we are the last speakers of the English language that use it creatively in the act of speaking.

Do you find solo shows more demanding than ensemble pieces? Is it a challenging play for those 100 minutes on stage?

Yes, yes … for every one of those minutes.

By John Soltes / Publisher /

The Aran Islands continues its extended run through Aug. 6 at the Irish Repertory Theatre in Manhattan. Click here for more information and tickets.

John Soltes

John Soltes is an award-winning journalist. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Earth Island Journal, The Hollywood Reporter, New Jersey Monthly and at, among other publications. E-mail him at

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