J.M.Synge's Riders to the Sea is unique as a re-construction of the Classical tragedy in the form of a one act play. In so far as the play dramatises the uneven battle between the inimical sea & a virtually isolated community on the distant Aran Islands, it breathes an atmosphere of tragic premonition & foreboding. But Synge has chosen the brevity & precision of a one-acter in which the real time & the dramatic time are closely matched with each other.
The play, set in old Maurya's cottage-kitchen on one of the Aran Islands, deals with the destiny of a mother & her children going through a terrible ordeal of suffering, alienation & death. Living away from modern civilisation at the mercy of an all-devouring sea, a tyrant-god exacting a heavy toll of human lives, the Aran fisher-woman watches passively a long series of death by water in her family, as her husband, father-in-law, and as many as six sturdy sons get drowned in the sea. The sea functions as dark fatality, and riding to the sea means riding to death.
Synge's long stay on the Aran Islands & his familiarity with the life of the Aran fisher-folk & peasantry lends a rich local colour to the play. The topographical details & landmarks, religious rituals & superstitions as observed by the islanders, their legends & beliefs and, above all, their language as fashioned by Synge--all contribute to the play's inimitable poetic realism.
As the play begins, we see the old mother, Maurya, waiting restlessly for the body of her fifth son, Michael, to be washed ashore so that she can give him a clean burial. Still, her last surviving son, Bartley, decides to ride on his red mare followed by Michael's grey pony, to the sea, to go to the Galway fair to sell the horses at a good price. Bartley dies, his horse being pushed into the sea by Michael's. The long-suffering mother senses a paradoxical victory over the sea, for the sea can do no more harm to her. The flesh and blood Aran mother transforms herself into a mythical embodiment, accepting the fact of death as unavoidable.