John Millington Synge chose the remote Aran Islands as the locale for his tragic play Riders to the Sea. The choice was a conscious one and it yielded a surprising dividend for an artist who was, for years, groping for a fit subject matter. The very limitations of the space and time, which the play finds it bound in opened up vistas of possibilities for universal meaning. The smallness of the island makes it symbolic enough to contain the whole universe. The four people in the play ultimately grow big in size in such a manner that they become the prototypes of the whole humanity and its tragic fate.Their struggle against the cruel, hungry foam of the sea becomes the symbol of the eternal struggle of man against the odds of Nature. Riders to the Sea is simultaneously a play about a particular place on the map and a document of the universal human struggle.
W.B Yeats met Synge in Paris on 21v December 1896. He advised young Synge to go back to the island and study the life and the circumstances of the people of Aran Islands and find a possible subject matter for his writing. Acting on the advice of W. B Yeats, Synge paid several visits to the Aran Islands and studied the manners, habits, beliefs, and mode of life of the natives there. He drew much of the material for his plays from his first-hand knowledge of these islands and their people.
The local color of the setting of the ply is unmistakably sharp. The islands with their loneliness, poverty and forbidding surroundings are vividly portrayed. Situated on the Galway Bay, the island of Riders to the Sea consists mostly of barren, chalky lands grey rocks. There is no greenery to relieve the sense of weariness, and the landscape is desolate. The regional quality of the play is clear not only from the manner in which the characters speak but also from the way their beliefs and habits are depicted.These people live in shabby cottages too near the sea. Their hand-to-mouth survival depends on agriculture, pasturages, and fishing. Before leaving for the Galway fair, Bartley tells Cathleen to sell to the gobber the pig with the black feet if the price is good.
He also asks her to protect the rye fields from the sheep and to collect enough kelp or seaweeds. We see oil-skins and nets outside Maurya’s cottages and Nora mentions Michael as a great rower and fisher. The paraphernalia of living has been reduced to the minimum. The degree of their privation is suggested by numerous details scattered throughout the play. Pressed hard for money, Bartley cannot defer his fatal voyage for two weeks; he has no other shirt to wear than his dead brothers; after Bartley’s death, Maurya laments that they will have to live on a bit of wet flower and stinking fish.
Not only their economic condition but also their beliefs and customs give these particular people their local identity cut off from the mainstream of Irish civilization, they were shadowed by age-old customs and rituals. Like the primitive people, they attribute supernatural powers to inanimate objects. Omens and forebodings pervade the play because these are projected by their fears and anxieties. No wonder they believe in ghosts, demons, transmigrations of souls and the like.
But the local and regional appeal of the play should not stop us from seeing its universal quality; the tragedy in the play is not that of a woman belonging to one of the Aran Islands. It is a human tragedy which has relevance to all climes.The sea stands not only for itself but symbolizes the cosmic forces inimical to man. Riders to the Sea reminds us of the ancient classical tragedies in which fate was the principal foe of human beings. Maurya like Oedipus or Cassandra is also foredoomed to suffer.
When the play opens Maurya had just lost a son, Michael to the sea. Her last surviving son, Bartley, is getting ready to make the journey to the mainland. Maurya tries her utmost to prevent him from going because she fears that Bartley too may be lost. But fate has already decided that Maurya should have no son left, she has no way of escaping from his fate. While her fate deeply moves us, we also realize that her case is not a unique one. Women all over the world undergo a similar agony of sufferings. The feeling of loss for a mother, the anguish of the bereaved heart is everywhere the same. Maurya is the universal mother, whining and lamenting for the brave sons who go out to fight the world, never to return.