Riders to the Sea: The Character/Role of the Sea
The sea plays a vital role in the life of the Aran islanders in Synge’s one act play “Riders to the Sea” (1904). Their life and story are set up against the background of the sea. Its unseen presence fills the mind of both the characters and the audience. As a background, as a living character, as a force of nature, as an agent of destiny, as a villain, the sea plays a great role throughout the play.
The demonic wild Sea that they had to depend on for their fish, cheap minerals and trade with the mainland, was both the giver and taker of life, assuming the role of Fate in the island. Its power is the main theme of the play: illustrated for the audience by the tearing open of the door at the beginning, and by the descriptions given by the girls. Their sense of time, of direction is determined by the sea. The fishermen struggle to get a living out of the sea in tiny, frail boats made of tarred canvas, which they make themselves. The islanders had to ride to the sea to earn their livelihood. And they had to pay a tremendous price for their survival.
The play depicts the misfortune of a family that has lost all its seven male members to the Sea, and is about to lose its final bread-winner, Bartley. At the very opening of the play, the sea enters as a terrorizing agent. The sea as a ‘character’ is never off the stage, nor is it for a moment off the mind of inmates of the cottages. The old mother Maurya who has had the mortifying experience of seeing all male members of her family getting drowned into the sea, tries her best to dissuade her only surviving son Bartley from crossing over the sea. Maurya gets the signal of Bartley’s death. She says—
“I’ve seen the fearfullest thing any person has seen since the day Bride Dara seen the dead man with the child in his arms.”
She knows the sailing would be dangerous if the wind rises from the south, Maurya says—
“A star is up against the moon and it rising in the night.”
Bartley has to set sail over the sea to earn their bread. Mother’s words are futile to dissuade Bartley. Cathleen, the practical minded girl knows and she says— “It is the life of a Youngman to be going on the sea,” thereby bringing out the association of the sea with the life of the islanders.
Thus the sea is the inscrutable and powerful force which causes endless tragedy. Synge juxtaposes the sea with fate. The sea becomes the Nemesis, against whom the doomed mankind must fight. And through this fight man attains dignity. Oedipus and Hecuba must suffer, but they emerge as greater human beings in the end. Maurya rises in dignity as she learns to accept. The sea is the agent of destiny, through which Maurya learns the wisdom and the truth. The tidings of the sea turn the tidings of Maurya and her two daughters. She suffers, she experiences and she learns from the sea.
The dramatic structure of the play centres around the sea: in the beginning there is suspense as to whether the sea has given back the dead body of the young man it has taken. At the end there is suspense as to whether the last remaining son will survive the storm. The main epic speech (Maurya's) describes the destruction of the men of the family. As the old woman tells of past tragedies, the next and last one is re-enacted. This shows the audience that her presentiments and fears were justified; it shows the struggle with the elements and the cycle of death most dramatically; it presents the ancient ritual of the community in the face of death; it shows the stoic resignation and dignity of the old woman.