The Play (Masterplots II: Drama)
Riders to the Sea begins in a cottage where two sisters are conspiring to hide a bundle from their mother. The small bundle, wrapped in a shawl, consists of a shirt and a stocking removed from a drowned man at Donegal. They fear that the clothes may belong to Michael, their brother, whose body has not been recovered from the sea. He has been missing for a week.
They and their mother, Maurya, have been in deep mourning. Their brother Bartley then becomes the subject of the girls’ conversation. Cathleen asks Nora whether their brother will be sailing with the horses that are to be taken to the mainland. There will be a fair in Galway where animals can be sold or purchased. Nora strikes an ominous note when she answers her sister: “God won’t leave her destitute . . . with no son living.”
Because the sisters have no wish to sadden their mother further, they decide to hide the bundle of clothes in a turf loft. As they are climbing down from the loft, the mother arrives; she pretends that she was getting turf for the fire. The conversation then turns to Maurya’s worries about her son Bartley. She fears that he, too, will be lost in the sea, just as his five brothers were. She is aware of his desire to go to the fair, but she is sure that the young priest will dissuade him from going. The weather is not at all propitious: high tide and extreme winds.
Nora confirms her mother’s fears by telling her that Bartley has...
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Dramatic Devices (Masterplots II: Drama)
Riders to the Sea, by using a single setting, directs the playgoer’s attention to the intense emotion built up within the four principal characters: Maurya, Cathleen, Nora, and Bartley. The single setting also allows a close look at certain symbols that John Millington Synge uses to reinforce his themes and meanings: the hand-knitted stocking, a piece of string, a rope, new clothes, the gray pony, and the boards. Attention is directed first toward the bundle of clothes taken from a drowned man in the sea. It is the hand-knitted stocking that identifies the clothes of the missing Michael:Nora, (who has taken up the stocking and counted the stitches, crying out): It’s Michael, Cathleen, it’s Michael; God spare his soul, and what will herself say when she hears this story, and Bartley on the sea? Cathleen (taking the stocking): It’s a plain stocking. Nora: It’s the second one of the third pair I knitted, and I put up three score stitches, and I dropped four of them. Cathleen (counts the stiches): It’s that number is in it.
The piece of rope that has been hanging on a nail since the beginning of the play takes on a symbolic meaning when Bartley asks for it to make a halter for the horse. The substitution of rope for a real halter signifies the poverty of the family. One critic, Mary C. King, has noted that the fact that...
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Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
Cottage. Island home within sight of the sea that is the home of the play’s main characters. The play’s entire action takes place in a single room that serves as a kitchen, workroom, and storage area. The room is sparsely furnished; its most essential features are its fireplace, a spinning wheel, and its front door. The fireplace provides immediate evidence of the simplicity of the family’s existence; it serves both as a cooking oven and as the cottage’s sole source of heat. The fireplace’s fuel is turf, which is stored in a loft beside the fireplace. The primitiveness of these arrangements is crude, even by the standards of the late nineteenth century, when turf-burning ovens were found only in places of extreme isolation and poverty.
The room’s spinning wheel is clearly not decorative since Cathleen begins working at it immediately. The fact that some pieces of clothing are handmade is important in the identification of Michael’s belongings. John Millington Synge makes strong use of the door, through which each drowned member of the house has come, with seawater dripping a trail to the door.
*Aran Islands. Group of small islands off the west coast of Ireland, near the entrance to Galway Bay, on one of whose islands the cottage stands. Exposed to the full fury of the open North Atlantic Ocean, the waters around these islands are extremely dangerous, and the constantly...
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Gerstenberger, Donna. John Millington Synge. New York: Twayne, 1964. Excellent basic reference book on Synge with one chapter devoted to Riders to the Sea. Points out that Riders to the Sea was the only one of Synge’s plays that did not occasion angry outbursts from Irish audiences. Discusses imagery and symbolic use of color. Selected bibliography.
Grene, Nicholas. Synge: A Critical Study of the Plays. New York: Macmillan, 1975. Discusses Synge’s Aran experience. Extensive discussion of Riders to the Sea and how it differs from Synge’s other plays. Praises the economy of the play and delineates way in which props such as the spinning wheel, the bread, the bundle, the boards, and other objects are used for dramatic effect. Cautions against overemphasizing comparisons to classical tragedy and argues for authenticity and originality of the play.
Skelton, Robin. J. M. Synge. Cranbury, N.J.: Bucknell University Press, 1972. A summary of Synge’s background and analysis of the plays, including Riders to the Sea. Chronology and bibliography.
Skelton, Robin. The Writings of J. M. Synge. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1971. Chapter on Riders to the Sea discusses folklore and mythology referred to in the play.
Thornton, Weldon. J. M....
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