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Riders to the Sea is a famous one-act tragic play by John Millington Synge containing both modern and classical elements in it. 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, Riders to the Sea 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.
And while Greek tragedies tell the stories of kings and princes or people of kingly status, which do not resemble the sufferings of the whole mass of people of that country, a modern tragedy tells the story of a common man whose sorrows, sufferings and predicaments are not individual, rather resemble the sorrows and sufferings of the whole mass of people of the protagonist’s class in his/ her own country as well as in other countries. Therefore the story of a modern tragedy is general and universal but the story of a Greek tragedy remains the story of a particular man or a particular family; it is not general or universal.
Hence the story of Oedipus Rex is the tragic story of a particular king of a particular country, but the story of Riders to the Sea is the story of all families living in the Aran islands. It is also the story of those families in other countries where people are helpless like Maurya in the hands of nature. In Riders to the Sea, the tragic intensity of the life of Maurya, who falls a victim to her ill-luck losing all the male members of the family in the sea is also shared by other women of Aran Islands.
Therefore, Maurya is not an individual woman here; she is every woman of her community. Wretched and helpless women like Maurya are also found in other contexts in other countries. Thus the play ceases to be regional and becomes global in significance, which is the chief characteristic of a perfect modern tragedy. Riders to the Sea is a modern play from another important point of view. The stage and props management and the directions provided by the dramatist at different stages in the play are characteristic of a good modern play. Plays until 19th century were highly narrative. The stories of such plays were developed mainly through the speeches of characters.
In ancient plays, even in Shakespearean plays, stage-settings or props-management were not much important, having no role at all to develop the story. Only characters were important in these plays: they would move and speak and thus develop the story. But the story of a modern play is communicated to the audience not only through the speeches of characters but also through different symbols and images. In fact everything that is kept on the stage has the role of a character to develop the story of a modern play. In Riders to the Sea we come across different symbols and images which like characters help the story move forward.
For example, the different images that we find when the play opens clearly tell us that Maurya’s is a peasant cum fisherman family. At different other stages of the play we come across such symbols and images that contribute to the right mood of the story. Maurya’s puppet like helplessness in the hands of nature and her inescapable sufferings show the play dealing with the triviality and insignificance of human existence on earth, which has been an important theme of modern and post-modern plays.
Whenever a son of Maurya’s is in the sea, she remains awake all night praying for his safety and seeking God’s grace to save her son, but every time Maurya is betrayed in her prayer and expectation. The indifference of nature to Maurya’s prayer and hopes as well as her sufferings makes her existence on earth completely meaningless. At the end of the play, Maurya , defeated in the war of life, accepts an stoical surrender to fate: “No man at all can be living forever”. Despite being a modern play, Riders to the Sea contains a number of classical elements. The play deals with some basic and fundament points of classical tragedies.
Firstly, the play very strictly maintains the three unities of time, place and action. Only what happen in one day are shown on the stage and the events that occurred earlier are reported on the stage—which is a basic requirement of ancient plays. The play opens and ends in the same place and events that occur or are done in distance are off-staged, and the play holds the thread of a single plot very consistently—which are also the basic requirements of ancient plays. Secondly, Riders to the Sea deals with the classical concept of tragic conflict. Ancient critics and dramatists believed in fatalism for human sufferings. They held that people suffer not for their own faults and actions but for their fate. According to the concept of fatalism, everything is predestined and man’s efforts of changing or preventing it do not succeed.
Man is totally helpless in the hands of fate. InRiders to the Sea, all male members of Maurya’s family get drowned in the sea one by one but none of them is responsible for their death. The death of the male members causes untold sufferings for Maurya and her two daughters, but neither Maurya and her daughters are responsible for their sad fate nor could they prevent their sufferings in any way. Considering the aspects discussed above, it can be said that the play Riders to the Sea is a modern tragedy in classical form. It is modern in its theme, characterization and in the way it communicates the story to the audience and classical in its form and concept of tragic conflict. The blending of modern and classical elements in this play has made it a unique drama in the history of world literature.