Analysis of J. M. Synge’s ‘Riders to the Sea’ as a One Act Tragedy

Herman Ould defines one act play as, “it may be neat, compact and rigid; but it may also be wayward, expansive and flexible. So long as it does not conflict with the fundamental principles of drama, it may venture into a hundred different directions and exploit almost as many themes as the ingenuity and inventiveness of the author can suggest”. Such rules are never fixed and may change its degree of intensity. Sometimes the setting or impression or character does play vital roles in one act play. For example, W.W. Jacob’s “The Monkey’s Paw” or Galsworthy’s “The Little Man” or J. M. Synge’s “Riders To the Sea” are characteristically so different yet great one act plays. Let’s focus our discussions on J. M. Synge’s “Riders To the Sea” as a one act play and discuss its natural setting, plot construction, characterization and overall impressions on life. 

In analyzing J. M. Synge’s“Riders To the Sea” veteran critic A.C. Word has rightly said, “Riders To the Sea”, a one-act tragedy drew on Irish subject matter in portraying the tragedy of an Aran woman who loses her husband and her five sons to the sea, must be ranked as Synge’s greatest achievement and perhaps as the only true tragedy in modern literature for it truly cleanses by pity and terror”. Synge’s superb mastery in handling the form of one-act play to embody his unique tragic vision with minimum means is very much evident in the drama. Radical experiments within a basically realistic framework were undertaken here by J. M. Synge who objectively observed and shown on stage the Irish lives and relationships to sea fully and accurately.

The drama by virtue of being a one-act play necessarily limits Synge’s scope. But, in that limited scope Synge has achieved tremendous effect of tragic impact. The result is one of the most deeply moving tragedies ever written. B y the very compulsion of the form of the one-act play, Synge has to avoid all sorts of superfluities and unnecessary details. He has strictly adhered to the principles of compression, condensation and compactness.

Brevity in plot construction, characterization and dialogue is the hall mark of a successful one-act play. Synge has ruthlessly avoided subplot, multiplicity of characters and unnecessary happenings. The whole action is concentrated on a poor fisherman’s cottage. The story is about a family of four. Maurya, the old peasant woman had already lost nine male members of her family including five of her sons in the sea. The fifth son whom she has just lost is Michael. His body has not yet been found. Maurya has been lamenting for nine days and is lying down exhausted and disconsolate. The sea is rough and a strong wind is blowing. Maurya and everyone else in the family are waiting for a favourable wind when the boy may be washed ashore. The only surviving son, Bartley has procured white boards for Michael’s coffin and a piece of new rope for tying up the body is hanging by the boards. The scene-opens with Cathleen and Nora, the two daughters of Maurya talking about the restlessness and tension of the mother who is spending sleepless nights since Michael is missing in the sea. The two sisters talk in a hushed tone so that their mother can not know what they are talking about. Nora, the younger sister comes with a bundle of shirt and stockings found on a dead man washed ashore in Donegal. The priest has given the bundle to Nora to ascertain whether they are Michael’s. Hearing the unsteady footsteps of their mother they hide the bundle, so the specter of death and destruction looms large from the beginning. Maurya learns from Bartley that he will go to the Galway Fair to sell horses. She tries frantically to dissuade him from undertaking the perilous journey. The moon with a star close by is to Maurya’s mind an evil omen. But, Bartley has the compulsion to go out. On the eve of his departure, she forgets to utter the words of blessings and give him the piece of cake. She decides to go to the spring well on foot through a shorter route to meet.

Maurya is on his way to the sea shore for giving him the cake and blessings. While waiting for Bartley to pass by she has a horrible vision of dead Michael riding on a grey pony behind Bartley. And to her the vision means nothing but the doom of Bartley. She saw in vision the ghost of Michael riding the grey pony behind Bartley on his red mare. While describing her experience to the daughters Maury says that her vision is much more horrible than what Bride Dara had experienced in vision. In Irish legend it is told that Bride Dara had the vision of a dead man holding a child in his arms. Maurya’s vision comes true very soon as Bartley’s dead body is carried home. Thus, Synge has built up the tragic atmosphere and prepared us adequately for the Catastrophe, namely the death of Bartley, the last surviving son of Maurya.

This is how Synge in his one-act play has achieved tremendous success in sustaining the unrelieved pathos by concentrating on a single scene in a cottage. No digression is allowed to hamper the unity of impression. This has given the drama a unique intensity. Synge has not allowed anything to be long drawn. The main thread is never lost sight of. An overwhelming sense of doom haunts us from the very start. The structural compactness in Synge’s drama reminds us of the same in the Greek tragedies. The dramatic unities are scrupulously observed here. The action takes place in a fisherman’s cottage and in one day. Synge has prepared the tragic background by reporting the past tragic incidents and not by making them happen on the stage. Strikingly, The Aran Sea on the background is always rolling as Destiny bringing us step by step through hints and forebodings to the catastrophe of the drama.

Indeed, Synge’s ‘Riders to the Sea’ has duly been acclaimed by all as the most ideal specimen of one-act play that can only be compared to Lady Gregory’s “The Gaol Gate” in point of the conscience of Destiny. 

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An English Teacher;    M. A.(English) , D. Ed., B. Ed., UGC- NET Qualified

"Dear Readers/ Students, I am a huge fan of books, English Grammar & Literature. I write this blog to instill that passion in you." 

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