A Comparison of Riders to the Sea with Greek Tragedy

Greek tragedies of Aeschylus and Sophocles present spectacles of human suffering in the backdrop of the huge machinery of inscrutable fate or the ever turning and inexorable wheel of necessity. Greek tragedy shows the essential pre-determination of the human situation on earth. In modern times, this Greek concept of tragedy lost favor with many of the tragic dramatists like O’Neil or Arthur Miller. But at least one modern dramatist dealt with the theme of predestined fatalism and the hostility of eternal nature. Synge’s Riders to the Sea is clearly modeled upon the Greek tragedy of the Aeschylean type, both in structure and in theme.

For Synge, the form of one-act play yielded a fantastic opportunity for portraying the tragedy of fishing community on the remote island of Aran in Ireland. Aristotle divided the plot of a drama into three parts – beginning, middle, and end. In a one-act play, only the end of a story is portrayed. But so powerful is the dramatic act, its utmost concentration, and suggestiveness, that the whole story comes alive. Though a one-act play isolates and focuses on only a fragment of life, the vision itself conjures up and enchants up by its concreteness and intensity. This form is a modern invention that comes very close, structurally to the compactness and breath-taking speed of a Greek tragedy. We can compare the plot of Oedipus Rex which is concerned with the last day of Oedipus’ life, with that of Riders to the Sea, concerned with the tragic happenings of one day in the life of Maurya, the bereaved mother.

Synge has maintained the three dramatic unities strictly. This has lent the play the high intensity and concentration found in a Greek tragedy. The unchanging locale of the action is Maurya’sramshackle cottage which stands high on rocky plain exposed to the storms of the sea. The unity of time is another remarkable feature of a Greek tragedy. The entire action of Oedipus Rex covers less than twelve hours. 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. As in a Greek tragedy, the unity of action is also observed in Riders to the Sea. The two deaths round which the play moves are deftly telescoped. Bartley uses the rope preserved for Michael’s burial and wears the dead brother’s shirt. The thought of Bartley’s doom reminds Maurya of the other deaths she suffered in the past. Her monody calls up the past of the family and links it up with the present and future. One cannot expect a chorus in a one-act play like Riders to the Sea, yet Maurya herself performs the role usually taken by a chorus in a Greek tragedy. Maurya, the central character has the additional function of presenting the tragic doom of the whole family pitted against the cruelty of the sea which has snatched away from her everything.

But Riders to the Sea approximates a Greek tragedy most in its theme, in its exposition of the perennial tragedy of man in the context of the mysterious Nature.The play symbolizes a largely one-sided struggle between malignant Nature and the helpless islanders who have to wrest their living from it. The atmosphere of doom and fatality is all over the play from the start. Despite Maurya’s persistent objection, Bartley decides to go to Galway fair. He has no choice and Cathleen encourages him thus; “Is the life of a young man/to be going on the sea.” With Michael’s dead body still to be buried, Maruya feels deep within her that Bartley is doomed. Consequently, she is haunted by ominous signs and utters such words as turn out to be grim ironies.

Riders to the Sea can be compared with the great Greek tragedy in its symbolic nature, its universalization of the theme of human suffering and loss. Maurya’s extreme loss and Bartley’s predicament are inherent in the human condition. Maurya with her placid surrender to her fate attains a kind of noble heroes of Sophocles or Shakespeare.


Founder & CEO, Hamandista Academy  

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