‘Riders to the sea’ is a tragic play of the sea in the life of a woman who eventually resigns to her fate. It is written by John Millington Synge and was first staged on February 25th 1904. The venue was Molesworth Hall in Dublin and its performers belonged to the Irish National Theatre Society. It is a one act play and this Irish playwright, in most of his plays uses the rustic and poetic dialogues of rural Ireland. Aran Islands is where the play is set and this play depicts the fruitless struggle of people against the unyielding cruelty of the sea.
On stage there are only four main characters but they mention a whole lot of others. The four characters are Maurya, her two daughters Cathleen and Nora and her son Bartley. There are men and women who gather around in the end and the coffin maker. There is a young priest mentioned who gives vital information but is not brought on to the stage; it is for the audience to picture the young priest. The dialogues are different as it is rural dialect of Ireland. But when it is read carefully or scene on stage, it becomes very clear.
The scene starts with Cathleen wondering if Michael has been taken by the sea. Its been nine days and the body had not washed ashore. So there is a small hope that he might be alive. At different times in the play, Maurya mentions that she lost her husband, father-in-law and four other sons to the sea and so she strongly believes that Michael might also be taken; yet she hoping against hope. At this point, her daughter Nora enters with a bundle and she goes straight to the kitchen. Maurya is sleeping and does not see Nora.
Bartley’s Decision To Go
Nora and Cathleen speak in hushed tones lest they wake up Maurya. The bundle Nora has is given by a young priest who sees a body wash ashore in the north side. The body was given a decent burial but as he could not identify he had given it to Nora to see if it was Michael’s clothes. Since the mother was around they could not open it as she would wake up any time. How could a mother who is so worried about her son have a sound sleep? So Cathleen climbs up to the turf loft to keep the bundle and just then Maurya wakes and asks her what she was doing up there. Cathleen manages an answer and she does not suspect anything wrong.
Bartley walks in announcing there is a horse fair and there is boat going for the fair. He wanted to sell his horse and this was the last boat trip for two weeks. When Maurya wakes up she can talk about Michael alone. She knows his body will be washed ashore but nine days is too long they know. The ways of the sea is well known to all of them. She then realizes that her remaining son is again venturing into the sea in bad weather. She tells him not to go but Bartley cannot listen as it is only way to make some money. Maurya warns and finally Bartley leaves without the blessings of the mother.
The Vision Of The Apparition
The daughters chide Maurya and ask her to take the bread cooked for Bartley and wish him a safe journey. She goes out with the bread to wish her son. When she is gone they open up the bundle and they realize that it was Michael’s clothes. The socks were stitched by Nora and she identifies it quickly and they confirm Michael’s death. In a while Maurya returns with the bread. She does not give it Bartley. She walks in a total daze.
Maurya tells her daughter that as she saw her Bartley, she saw Michael behind riding the pony which followed Bartley’s horse. With this she confirmed that she was going to lose her last son to the sea. Nora comforts her saying that the young priest had said that the sea was not so cruel to take all her sons and that Bartley would come back soon. Soon he did come, but as a dead person. No sooner had he left, the pony which was coming behind him pushed him into the rough seas and killed him. This was told by the men and women who come along with the body.
Though unsure of Michael’s death, Maurya had made ready the planks for his coffin. She says now it can used for Bartley as Michael was dead and given a burial in north. The daughters tell her Michael’s news when she gets back. She is resigned to her fate; does she have a choice? She tells that now the sea cannot do anything. “They’re all gone now, and there isn’t anything more the sea can do to me…. I’ll have no call now to be up crying and praying when the wind breaks from the south, and you can hear the surf is in the east, and the surf is in the west, making a great stir with the two noises, and they hitting one on the other. I’ll have no call now to be going down and getting Holy Water in the dark nights after Samhain, and I won’t care what way the sea is when the other women will be keening.”
The dominance of the sea forms the main theme of the play and the life of the islanders is also seen. While Maurya is lamenting, Cathleen and Nora have grimly accepted their fate and it there are many families in the island who face almost a similar fate. Maurya accepts the truth that no man can live forever and who can be a better person than her to declare it? She had seen all perish in a short time. The sea is the hero and the villain. This one act play needs a good stage setting and sound effects to make it appealing.