On the west coast of County MayoChristy Mahon stumbles into Flaherty's tavern. There he claims that he is on the run because he killed his own father by driving a spade into his head. Flaherty praises Christy for his boldness, and Flaherty's daughter (and the barmaid), Pegeen, falls in love with Christy, to the dismay of her betrothed, Sean. Because of the novelty of Christy's exploits and the skill with which he tells his own story, he becomes something of a town hero. Many other women also become attracted to him, including the Widow Quin, who tries unsuccessfully to seduce Christy at Sean's behest. Christy also impresses the village women by his victory at the race, using the slowest beast.
Eventually Christy's father, Mahon, who was only wounded, tracks him to the tavern. When the townsfolk realize that Christy's father is alive, everyone (including Pegeen) shuns him as a liar and a coward. In order to regain Pegeen's love and the respect of the town, Christy attacks his father a second time. This time it seems that Old Mahon really is dead, but instead of praising Christy, the townspeople, led by Pegeen, bind and prepare to hang him to avoid being implicated as accessories to his crime. Christy's life is saved when his father, beaten and bloodied, crawls back onto the scene, having improbably survived his son's second attack. As Christy and his father leave to wander the world, Sean suggests he and Pegeen get married soon, but she spurns him. Pegeen then laments betraying and losing Christy, The Playboy of the Western World.
The fact that the play was based on a story of apparent patricide also attracted a hostile public reaction. Egged on by nationalists, including Sinn Féin leader Arthur Griffith, who believed that the theatre was not sufficiently political and described 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 rioted, causing the remainder of the play to be acted out in dumb show. Nevertheless, press opinion soon turned against the rioters and the protests petered out.
Years later, W. B. Yeats famously declared 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?".
The play was adapted for a 1994 TV movie entitled Paris or Somewhere. Set in rural Saskatchewan, it starred Callum Keith Rennie as Christy Mahon, a young American farmer who arrives in town and claims to have killed his father. He charms the town with his story, particularly Peg (Molly Parker), the daughter of a local store owner and bootlegger. The screenplay was written by novelist Lee Gowan.
An operatic rendition (2003), by Mark Alburger, was premiered from August 23 to 26, 2007, with GHP/SF Cabaret Opera at Oakland Metro Opera House, Oakland, CA.
A musical version of this play, written by Kate Hancock and Richard B. Evans, premiered at the STAGES 2005 musical festival at the Theatre Building Chicago.
In 2006, a Mandarin language version of the play set in a hairdressers shop in a Beijing suburb was performed at the Beijing Oriental Theatre. It was produced by the Irish contemporary theatre company, Pan Pan Again, the play attracted controversy when a member of the audience complained about the shortness of the skirt worn by Sha Sha, playing the Sarah Tansey character. Following the complaint, the play was attended by two policemen.
In September 2007 The Playboy returned to the Abbey in a modern adaptation by Bisi Adigun and Roddy Doyle. Set in a suburb of west dublin, it tells the story of Christopher Malomo, a Nigerian refugee who claims to have killed his father with a pestle.