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Summary of the play Riders to the Sea by John Millington Synge
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The play begins with Maurya, who has fallen into a fitful sleep. She is certain that her son, Michael, has drowned, even though she has no proof, and has been constantly grieving for nine days. Cathleen, her daughter, is doing household chores when Nora, another daughter arrives. She quietly slips into the kitchen with a bundle that had been given to her by a young priest. In the bundle are clothes taken from the body of a man who drowned in the far north. They were sent to Maurya’s home, hoping that she would be able to identify the body. Maurya begins to look as if she is going to wake up soon, so the daughters hide the bundle until a time when they are alone. Maurya awakes, and her fear for losing her only remaining son Bartley intensifies her grieving for Michael. Keep in mind, she has already lost five sons and a husband to the sea.
The priest claims that that “insatiable tyrant” will not take her sixth. However, Bartley proclaims that he is going to venture over to the mainland that same day, in order to sell a horse at the fair, despite knowing of the high winds and seas. Maurya begs Bartley not to go, yet he insists despite her pleas. In a flustered state of irritation, Maurya bids him gone without her blessing. Upon seeing these events unfold, the sisters tell Maurya, that she should go out and search for Bartley in order to give him the lunch that they he had forgotten to bring, and while at it, give him her blessing. Maurya agrees to go, and once she is gone, the girls open the bundle. They find that they were indeed Michael’s clothes, but at least they have the comfort of knowing he got a respectable Christian burial where he washed up in the north. At this point, Maurya returns even more flustered and terrified before. She has seen a vision of Michael riding on the lead horse behind Bartley.
Because of this, she is sure Bartley is doomed to die at sea. The girls then show her Michael’s clothes, and she exclaims that the nice white boards she had bought for Michael’s coffin may now be used for Bartley’s instead. As she says this, the neighbors (women) enter, their voices raised in what the play calls a “keen”, or wailing lament for the dead. Men follow the women, who bring in the body of Bartley, who, sure enough, is dead. He has been knocked off a cliff into the surf below by the horse he was leading. The play ends with Maurya’s fatal submission as she says, “They’re all gone now and there isn’t anything more the sea can do to me.”
This play resulted in the public having an interesting outlook to the sea. Whereas beforehand the sea was always mysterious and adventurous, it now became melodramatic and depressing. This had a somewhat similar effect to “Jaws” in the mid 70s, changing peoples’ views of water and the ocean, but on a lesser scale. SYNGE’S “RIDERS TO THE SEA”:
The Colonial Image Refuted
Riders to the Sea is a tragedy portraying the sort of poor Irish peasant family which had previously supplied material for comedies on London stages. Though set in contemporary Ireland, the play provides a window into the life of the people in ancient times: the life of the Aran community is archaic: untouched by modern life, untouched by colonialism. The power of the sea is the main theme of the play: it is both provider and destroyer; it provides life, connection with the mainland, but it takes life. The dramatic structure of the play centres around the sea: in the beginning there is suspense as to whether the sea has given back the dead body of the young man it has taken. At the end there is suspense as to whether the last remaining son will survive the storm.
The power of the elements is demonstrated to the audience in the opening scene as the wind tears open the door of the cottage. The main epic speech describes the destruction of the men of the family. As the old woman tells of past tragedies, the next and last one is re-enacted. This shows the audience that her presentiments and fears were justified; it demonstrates the struggle with the elements and the cycle of
death; the ancient ritual of the community in the face of death; the stoic resignation and strength of the old woman. Many elements of the play remind one of the classical tragedies of antiquity: the compelling structure, the foreshadowing of the tragedy and its inevitability, the element of guilt which is not personal guilt, the stoic acceptance of fate, the great simplicity and dignity of the main character.
The play is not a political parable, but it had a significant political impact. It counteracted the colonial view of the Irish as a rather savage, primitive uncultured people. It shows a family struggling against overwhelming odds to survive, and maintaining dignity in defeat. It shows that poverty does not of necessity mean poverty of spirit. The richness and spirit of the Irish language is recreated in English modelled on Gaelic speech patterns. The play reduces the colonial period to an episode in the history of the Irish, as it provides a picture of how the people lived down the centuries. It could have given the audience a sense of hope: if a people survived thousands of years battling against the elements, then surely a struggle against mere human unreason could ultimately be successful.
NOTES ON SYNGE’S “RIDERS TO THE SEA”
1. The life of the Islanders:
A subsistence life: tiny cottage, no windows, they have what they can make – make their own clothes from their own wool; live on fish and potatoes; they buy only flour and tea from money made selling a horse or a pig; they burn turf they cut themselves; make their own fertilizer from seaweed. They live very isolated lives: if a stranger comes by, they remember not only what they bought from him, but exactly what he said. Their contact with and knowledge of the world, and indeed of Ireland, is very limited: it is the traveller who tells them how far away County Donegal is – distance is measured in the time needed to walk it. There is a strict divison of labour between men and women: women do not fish or sell; they farm, mind animals and house, prepare food and clothes. 2. The dominance of the sea:
The sea is both provider and destroyer: provides life, connection with the mainland, but it takes life. Its power is the main theme of the play: illustrated for the audience by the tearing open of the door at the
beginning, and by the descriptions given by the girls. Their sense of time, of direction is determined by the sea. The fishermen struggle to get a living out of the sea in tiny, frail boats made of tarred canvas, which they make themselves. The dramatic structure of the play centres around the sea: in the beginning there is suspense as to whether the sea has given back the dead body of the young man it has taken. At the end there is suspense as to whether the last remaining son will survive the storm. The main epic speech (Maurya’s) describes the destruction of the men of the family. As the old woman tells of past tragedies, the next and last one is re-enacted. This shows the audience that her presentiments and fears were justified; it shows the struggle with the elements and the cycle of death most dramatically; it presents the ancient ritual of the community in the face of death; it shows the stoic resignation and dignity of the old woman.
The type of English used is modelled on Gaelic speech and demonstrates the richness and poetry of Irish. The life of the people is presented as being archaic in many respects. It is true that the characters are shown to be Catholics, but the beliefs of ancient times are seen to be very much alive: black hags and spirits haunt the seas; Maurya sees the ghost of her dead son, and all interpret this as a sign that the last son is doomed. The dead man takes the last remaining son with him. (This ancient belief in the malevolence of the dead and the threat they constitute to the living led to the placing of heavy stones on graves in the hope that the spirit of the dead would not be able to get out and haunt the living.)
The priest is almost pitied by Maurya as a young man who doesn’t really know what he is talking about and who can offer neither sound advice nor comfort, though he tries his best. There is a great sense of the world of the spiritual, Catholic and older elements intermingling without conflict. Many elements of the play remind one of the classical tragedies of antiquity: the compelling structure, the foreshadowing of the tragedy and its inevitability, the element of guilt which is no personal guilt, the stoic acceptance of fate, the great simplicity and dignity of the main character.