John Millington Synge Drama Analysis

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

When, in 1893, John Millington Synge was choosing between musical and literary careers, two seminal documents were published that would profoundly affect his decision and form the character of his subsequent work. These were Stopford Brooke’s lecture “The Need of Use of Getting Irish Literature into the English Tongue,” and Douglas Hyde’s Love Songs of Connaucht (1893). Brooke’s lecture identified four tasks essential to the development of an Irish national literature: the translation of ancient Irish texts, the molding of the various mythological and historical cycles into an imaginative unity, the treatment in verse of selected episodes from these materials, and the collection of folk stories surviving in the Irish countryside. Some of these tasks had already been undertaken, but none had an impact on the developing revival to equal that of Hyde’s slim volume of the same year. He showed that the living song tradition in the Irish Gaelic-speaking areas was rich, complex, and sensitive; that a strong link with an ancient cultural tradition still persisted; and that a translation of these songs into Hiberno-English opened new avenues of expression to the literary artist.

By the early 1890’s, Yeats was already committed to some of the tasks outlined by Brooke, and he also greeted Hyde’s work enthusiastically. Yeats wrote in an 1893 issue of The Bookman: “These poor peasants lived in a beautiful if somewhat inhospitable world, where little has changed since Adam delved and Eve span. Everything was so old that it was steeped in the heart, and every powerful emotion found at once noble types and symbols for its expression.” When Yeats encountered Synge in Paris three years later, it was with these principles and sentiments that he persuaded him to abandon the French capital for the Aran Islands. The plays that resulted do indeed constitute a distinguished translation of folk and heroic materials to the modern stage.

Synge set himself not only against the mystical excesses of the Irish writers of his time but also against the intellectual drama of Henrik Ibsen and George Bernard Shaw and produced works of narrow but intense passion. Synge’s plays realize, more successfully than those of any of his contemporaries, Yeats’s dictum that Irish writers should seek their form among the classical writers, but their language at home.

Riders to the Sea

Riders to the Sea was the first play Synge wrote, and it draws most heavily and directly on his experience of life on the Aran Islands; many of the details, along with the main incident on which the play is based, can be found in the journals Synge kept during his visits there. It was Synge’s first successful use of Hiberno-English to serve his own dramatic and poetic purposes, and it is regarded by most commentators as one of the finest short plays in that literature.

The action of the play is simple and highly compressed. An old woman of the Aran Islands, Maurya, has lost her husband, father-in-law, and four sons to the sea. She now awaits news of the fate of Michael, another son, as her last and youngest son, Bartley, prepares to make the crossing to Galway with two horses. Maurya’s two daughters have just received a bundle of clothes which they identify as those of Michael. As the young women attempt to keep the news from her, she attempts to dissuade Bartley from the hazardous journey—in vain, for just as Bartley must play the provider’s part, Maurya’s timeworn experience has taught her to anticipate the truth. While her daughters find confirmation of Michael’s death in the bundle of clothes, Maurya sees a vision of what is about to happen: Bartley’s drowning. As the daughters tell Maurya of Michael’s death, the neighbors carry in Bartley’s body. The play climaxes with Maurya’s lament for these and all her menfolk, ending with a prayer for all the living and the dead.

Although it requires less than thirty minutes to perform, the play encompasses a succession of moods and a universe of action. By contrasting the young women’s particular, objective attitudes (their preoccupation with the physical evidence of Michael’s death) with Maurya’s subjective, universal, even mystical, consciousness (her forgetting the blessing and the nails, and her visionary experience), Synge establishes a pattern of dramatic ironies. Maurya’s feelings in regard to the external action of the play, moreover, are seen to evolve from a subdued disquiet, to a higher anxiety, to a visionary sympathy with her last two sons, and finally to a threnody of disinterested compassion for the mothers and sons of all humankind. Maurya is, therefore, not only a credible individual character but also an archetypal figure: She is cast among domestic details yet is inattentive to them because her awareness of commonality and community eventually obscures particular concerns. Only her indomitable attitude in those eloquent, passionate speeches offers a nearly adequate human response to the implacable antagonist, the sea.

The sea that surrounds the bare islands is both the islanders’ source of sustenance and their principal natural enemy; in the play, it insistently reminds the characters that, contend with it or not, they are doomed. Synge has carefully selected the domestic details to develop his themes—the bread, the nets, boards, knife, rope, and knot—details which establish a practical and symbolic relationship between the smaller and larger worlds of action, onstage and offstage, practical and moral. Other elements in the play act as religious or mystical allusions: the apocalyptic horses, the fateful dropped stitches, the ineffectual young priest, the omens in the sky and in the holy well. Many aspects of the setting—the door, the colors, the blessing—repeat and reverse themselves as images of the life-and-death ritual that sets Maurya and the sea against each other again and again. Maurya’s maternal mysticism is solemnly expressed by her prayers, blessings, gestures, litanies, and pitiful elegy for the cavalcade of death.

Although Maurya’s speeches are interlaced with Christian invocation, her response to the catastrophe does not, at its most profound depths, derive from conventional Christian feelings. Maurya confronts a system of natural elements that confounds all human aspirations, and her response is in the tradition of characters from grand tragedy. Thus Synge has written a play that combines elements from Greek tragedy (it reminded Yeats of the plays of Aeschylus), the attitudes of primitive Gaelic society (its fatalism and impersonality), and the modern world, with its nihilism and cultivation of a sense of the absurd. There has been considerable argument over the compatibility of these ethics with one another, but there is no disagreement over the intensity and complexity of the emotions engendered by the play, whether read or staged.

In the Shadow of the Glen

Synge’s second produced play, In the Shadow of the Glen (written under the title The Shadow of the Glen) is set in the Wicklow Mountains south of Dublin, a remote area familiar to Synge, in which he had a cottage and about which he had written several essays gathered under the title In Wicklow (1910). The play shows the influence of Ibsen’s Et dukkehjem (pr., pb. 1879; A Doll’s House, 1880), but its direct source is “An Old Man’s Story,” which Synge had heard from the Aran Island storyteller Pat Dirane; it is found in Synge’s prose work The Aran Islands. The question of the play’s origin is significant because it was immediately attacked for its depiction of an unfaithful wife and its unfair portrayal of Irishwomen. Synge unquestionably took considerable liberty with his raw materials—drawing, for example, on an episode from Petronius’s Satyricon (c. 60 c.e.; The Satyricon, 1694), “The Widow of Ephesus”—and the result was an original, concise, complex comedy.

A “Tramp” is admitted to a lonely cottage by one Nora Burke, whose husband is laid out as if for a wake. Conversation between the two reveals that Nora has been living unhappily with her relatively well-off but aged husband, a situation that has led to...

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