Riders to the Sea main character Maurya, an old peasant woman, standing on the coast

Riders to the Sea

by J. M. Synge

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Critical Context

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Using a lilting Irish brogue—one that the bookish John Millington Synge had to learn—the playwright took a two-thousand-year-old Irish literary tradition and wove from it a folk tragedy. The Irish critic Sean O Tuama identifies the characteristics of this tradition as the juxtaposition of lyrical changes of mood from situation to situation, the use of native dramatic monologues, and the employment of images with a sharp dramatic quality.

The play’s first critics, however, saw no such genius; instead, they denounced the play as morbid, influenced by the decadence of Europe, and based upon an ignorance of Irish Catholicism. Most of the attacks came from Irish magazines and newspapers.

One of the earliest critics to praise the drama was the Irish novelist James Joyce. He read the play in manuscript, translated it into Italian, and memorized Maurya’s last speech. The English critic Max Beerbohm pronounced the play a masterpiece.

Over the years, some critics have argued over whether the play qualifies as a tragedy according to Aristotelian concepts. Some, even Joyce, thought that the work was too brief. P.P. Howe criticized it for violating unity of time, contending that so many actions would have been impossible within a twenty-four-hour period. Most critics do agree on one point: Maurya emerges as a noble, tragic figure, the epitome of resigned suffering.

The playwright himself contributed some insight toward an evaluation of his work. He told Padraic Colum, another Irish writer, that the idea for the composition of the play came from his own feelings about death and the process of aging.

Riders to the Sea yields a richness to all who read or view it because of its many levels of interpretation. Synge has taken the life of one family, a family besieged with extreme poverty, and fused and blended a Christian view of death and resurrection with the folk imagination of Irish island people.

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Critical Evaluation