John Millington Synge is considered the greatest playwright of the Irish Literary Revival, a movement in Ireland associated with the poet William Butler Yeats and other Irish writers. This revival took place at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. Irish-born, Synge studied at Trinity College in Dublin and received a scholarship to study music. He traveled to the Continent and lived in Paris, where he taught English and began writing poetry. In Paris, in 1896, Synge met Yeats, a leading writer and one of the founders of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, a theater dedicated to performing Irish plays. Yeats advised Synge to return to Ireland and take as a model for his writing the people of the Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland.
Synge followed Yeats’s advice. From this experience came Synge’s book, The Aran Islands (1907), a travel memoir recounting island folklore and daily events in the lives of the local people. From this same material Synge took inspiration and material for his plays. Writing of actual events, Synge used expressions and speech patterns of the old-fashioned local dialect to give a poetic, particularly Irish quality to his drama. The Aran Islands are the inspiration for Riders to the Sea. The details regarding the drownings are realistic; drownings were not uncommon there, and all the adult men regularly went to sea. A young woman wonders if a drowned man whose body has been found is her missing brother. She puts together information about his clothing and an object found on him to confirm that the dead man must be her brother Mike. Synge weaves this and other material into the tragic story of Maurya, her two daughters, and the lost men of the family. In doing so he takes the story beyond the local to a mythic level.
Riders to the Sea begins with the image of the daughter Cathleen at her spinning wheel. Later, when Cathleen and Nora examine the clothing of the drowned man, trying to determine whether it is Michael’s or not, Cathleen cuts the string that holds the bundle. Examining the stocking, Nora speaks of knitting, dropping and picking up stitches. These images of spinning, knitting, and cutting suggest the actions of the Fates, classical goddesses of destiny who determine the length of human life as they spin and cut the thread of life. Maurya’s speech of resignation at the end of Riders to the Sea has been compared to the ending of a Greek tragedy, Sophocles’ Oidipous Tyrannos (c. 429 b.c.e.; Oedipus Tyrannus, 1715), in which the chorus says that no mortal is happy until he has passed beyond life’s pain. Maurya’s vision of the dead Michael riding the gray horse as an omen of doom has a biblical flavor. It would be a mistake, however, to read Synge’s allusions too strictly. Some of these images may have been suggested by other sources. Synge does not force such parallels; rather, he uses them to add color and a mythic scale.
Synge also uses images of sacraments. Water, often a sign of baptism and life, here takes away life, but the people have no choice but to turn to it for their living. The bread of life, a cake that is baking on the turf fire, goes uneaten by Bartley as he leaves without his mother’s blessing. When she tries to correct this oversight he is already beyond her help.
Color images are also important. The few colors in the play stand out against a gray and stormy world. Nora speaks of “the green head” of land where the tide is turning and of the likelihood that Bartley will sail in spite of his mother’s wishes. Later Cathleen refers to Bartley riding “over the green head” on his way to the boat. The rope that Bartley wants to use to tie the gray horse has been chewed on by the pig with the black feet. The boards the mother is saving for Michael’s casket are white. The red mare and the gray pony are vivid images in an otherwise bleak landscape. Maurya cries out that when the black night falls she will not have a son left. When Nora tells of how Michael’s body was found by two men rowing past the black cliffs to the north, the birds that fly over the sea where his body was found are described as “black hags.” Maurya describes seeing the body of Patch, an older son, brought home dripping on a red sail. The women who come into the house to pray and mourn, like a tragic chorus, are wearing red petticoats, the color of the sail. Finally, Maurya says that Bartley will have a “fine coffin out of the white boards.” Green, black, red, gray, and white create a pattern of life, death, and resignation.
The humble cottage in which the play is set is like an island itself, small and vulnerable in comparison to the large, dangerous world outside. The beauty of Synge’s one-act play, which takes approximately half an hour to perform, is in its language and its simplicity. It presents the clear line of the tragedy itself, seen in its final hours. The players in this drama are not at fault for what happens to them. Instead, this is a tragedy of a fate that cannot be avoided and in the face of which there is no alternative but stoicism and acceptance.