John Millington Synge’s ‘Riders to the Sea’ : Ten Key Points

1. “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”- Herman Ould on one act play 

2. John Millington Synge (1871-1909)’s “Riders To the Sea” is characteristically so different yet great one act play. It is a one act play that discusses its natural setting, plot construction, characterization and overall impressions on life in a newly accomplish mood.

3. The plot centers around Aran Islands, also Arana Naomh, group of three small islands, western Ireland, in the Atlantic Ocean, at the mouth of Galway Bay. The islands, part of county Galway, are Inishmore, the largest, Inishmaan, and Inisheer. Fishing has always been the main industry, and some islanders still use the fishing methods of their ancestors. The rugged life of these island fishermen was the subject of the play Riders to the Sea (1904).

4. 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. Synge here also uses Hiberno-English which  combines English vocabulary with Irish syntax (sentence structure) and inflection.

5. The drama by virtue of being a one-act play necessarily limits Synge’s scope. Synge has to avoid all sorts of superfluities and unnecessary details. He has strictly adhered to the principles of compression, condensation and compactness.

6. 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. 

7. 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 coric mood.

8. 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.  The main thread is never lost sight of- the deaths in the fisher family. An overwhelming sense of doom haunts us from the very start. 

9. 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. 

10. 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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