J. M. Synge’s Riders to the Sea is evidently and unquestionably a play with a distinct regional interest whose setting is an island off the west of Ireland. This island is one of a group of an island known as the Aran Islands. Acting on the advice of W. B. Yeats, Synge pays several visits to the Aran Island and stays on each of the three islands in order to study 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 very idea, for instance, comes to him from a drowning incident which takes place during one of his visit to these islands.
A proper analysis of the play reveals the fact that the regional quality of this play is clear not only from the manner in which the characters speak here but also from the way their beliefs and habits are depicted. Maurya belongs to a family of peasants-cum-fishermen. These people earn their living partly by rearing animals, partly from sowing such crops as rye, and partly from fishing in the sea. They often have to visit the mainland to attend the cattle fairs there in order to buy and sell animals and also in order to dispose of their produce. These people also collect sea-weeds known as ‘kelp’ which is burnt to make manure for use in the fields. All these aspects of the life of these people have come known to us through our reading of this play.
As these people live close to the sea-shore and have to encounter the sea for various purposes in the course of the pursuit of their avocations. They are exposed to certain risks and hazards. Cases of drowning are necessarily very frequent. It is this particular danger from the sea which forms the theme of Riders to the Sea. We see that all the male members of Maurya’s family are devoured by the sea. The climax of the play comes when the last surviving son Bartley also gets drowned in the sea. But it is a noteworthy fact that the sea which devours all the male members of Maurya’s family; is also a source of their livelihood. Thus Synge has depicted the sea here in its dual characters and on the other a destroyer.
The family to which Maurya, Cathleen, Nora, and Bartley belong is a typical one representing the entire community of the island. This means that Maurya is not the only victim of the sea but that families and mothers must have gone to a similar experience. We are naturally struck by the fact that the people of this island find life to be a hard struggle and that they are engaged in a lifelong contest with the sea, with the odd situations against them. Thus the regional or local appeal of the play is perfectly clear.
But the play transcends its local or regional character. The tragedy in the play is not just that of a woman belonging to one of the Aran Island but is a human tragedy which has a universal appeal. Here the sea serves as a symbol of destiny or fate which is hostile to human beings. Maurya is any woman as a prey in the hands of fate. In this respect Riders to the Sea reminds us of the ancient classical tragedies in which fate is the principal foe of human beings which cannot be averted by any man. Oedipus, for instance, trying his utmost cannot avert himself from the hands of fate, and finally, he is doomed. Thus in Oedipus Rex, Oedipus represents every man in the world.
Like that of Oedipus, Maurya tries her best to prevent him from going to the mainland because she feels that a storm is likely to blow over the sea and that Bartley too may be lost. But fate has already decided to snatch Bartley away from Maurya. In spite of her earnest pleas to Bartley to give up his journey to the sea, Bartley insists on this and leaves, never to return alive. The result has been what Maurya thought. The sea devoured her only surviving son, Bartley. But while her fate deeply moves us, we realize that her cause is not a unique one. Women all over the world undergo a similar agony of suffering, a similar anguish. The circumstances may be different, the conditions of life may be different, but the fact of suffering remains the same in all cases because of the play Riders to the Sea attains a universal quality.
A critic has aptly summed up the universal significance of Riders to the Sea. According to this critic, the island of Riders to the Sea is Ireland but more than Ireland. Its predicaments are those of the Irish peasants, but also those of all men. Its beliefs are those of the Irish peasants but they are also those of all people who combine superstition with Christian belief, or who are troubled by thoughts of spiritual realities beyond their ability to understand and control. Whatever may be the fact, in the height of the arguments mentioned above, the local, as well as the universal quality of the play Riders to the Sea, cannot be avoided.