Prof. S. N. Zeba
21st October, 2018
Riders to the Sea as a Modern Tragedy
Synge’s play Riders to the Sea is possible one of the most acclaimed play of the twentieth century. The play has been lauded for its tragic intensity and structural perfection as well as criticised for its lack of ‘magnitude’ in the Aristotelian sense. Raymond William, for example feels that:
Riders to the Sea is a tragic chorus which draws its strength from the quality of acceptance which Synge had discovered in the Islanders among whom he lived. It moves on a limited plane; the inevitability of the conflict between men and sea and the inevitability of the men’s defeat. (p.143)
The play is modern in that it deals with the sorrows and predicaments of a common human being and it is classical in that it maintains the classical principles of drama as laid down in Aristotle’s Poetic. Simply we can say that Riders to the Sea is a modern tragedy in classical settings and with classical overtones. Unlike Greek tragedies, play deals with the sufferings of a common human being named Maurya who is the head of an Irish peasant-cum fisherman family. While Greek tragedies dealt with the sufferings of high-born people, modern tragedies deal with the sufferings of common people. Its setting and theme are very simple, taken from the Aran Islands of Ireland, isolated from its mainland, ‘it wins its own time’ and becomes universal because of the main character’s turning from a simple and common mother to universal mother and of having a universal philosophy. In this sense, it is also a classical art.
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. By 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.
The play also follows the unity of ‘place’. As in King Oedipus, the actions take place in front of the royal palace, in Riders to the Sea, the action takes place in the kitchen of the family. Though many incidents take place at different places but they are told by other people. The play also follows the unity of ‘action’ as there is only single plot and story. Like in classical literature, fate plays an important role in this play also. The time of action in the Riders to the Sea is as brief an imaginable. It begins with a hushed mourning over the identification of the clothes of frowned Michael, followed by a brief debate on the advisability of Bartley’s sea voyages, his setting out and the speedy arrival of his corpse on the sea-shore.The characters fate is fixed. Though the play do not have definite ‘chorus’, the characters act like chorus.
Riders to the Sea is the sui generis of twentieth century literature and is perhaps the greatest of the modern one act play. R. J. Rees rightly calls the play “a masterpiece of our dramatic literature.”