Rider to the Sea as a Classical Tragedy

Greek Tragedy has an influence on Irish theatre that is only second to that of its own myth and folk literature.  Although a one-act play, Synge’s Rider to the Sea is very akin to classical tragedy, both structurally and thematically.

Synge’s strict maintenance of the unities (unity of place, of time and of action) lends the play the high intensity and concentration, found in a Greek tragedy. The unchanging locale of the action is Maurya’s remarkable cottage which stands high on a rocky plane exposed to the howling gales and resonant with the thundering sound of the vexed sea. The desolation of the surroundings certainly sets the tragic tone. The breadth of this play is only a day. Unity of action is also observed here because we know about the death of Bartley from an unknown woman but it is not staged.  

The fatal conflict between the fishermen of Aran Island and the sea has an inexorable tragic inevitability similar to that between man and fate in classical Greek tragedy. “It’s the life of a young man to be going on the sea,” Cathleen, the eldest daughter, tells her mother Maurya when the latter tries to prevent Bartley, her youngest and only surviving son, from taking a sea journey to a horse fair in Galway. In fact, the paradox of the sea as a source both of livelihood and destruction, sustenance and death, removes the element of choice, both physical and moral, in this play.

Like the tragedies of Sophocles and Euripides, Synge created a powerful tragic atmosphere by the premonitions of the future and dramatic ironies. The symbols of black cat, white boards, baked bread and the new rope have tragic associations. The symbols of grey pony, red-mare and the resurrection image of dead Michacl create the powerful feeling of inescapable fate for the Riders to the Sea. The climax of the play is reached when Maurya sees Michael passing before her riding on the grey pony. She has the hallucination of dead Michael and borne down by the sense of impending calamity. Irony of fate is another part of classical play. Nobody can avoid it. Here, Bartley also does not escape from his fate.   

The central protagonist of the play, Maurya, stands not as mere peasant mother who has lost her all at the hands of stern sea-monster. In her courage, endurance and stoical calm with all passions spent, she becomes a grand tragic figure like Sophocles’s Oedipus. She consoles herself by saying “No man at all can be living for ever and we must be satisfied”. This stoic resignation to fate combines the play with Greek tragic pattern.

Chorus, a group of person who give much information of the present, past and future to the audience to increase the play, is a part and parcel of classical plays. It is true that there is no separate existence of chorus but we can say Nora, Cathleen and especially Maurya play an important role of chorus in this play. From Maurya we know that she had a husband and a husband’s father, and six sons in her house. Some of their dead bodies were found and some of them were not, but they were gone.

The play’s strong sense of paganism over Christianity is also ascribed to its classical elements. “It’s little the likes of him knows of the sea,” remains Maurya’s assessment of the priest at the end of the play. The sea is indeed the “Almighty God” of the play, an older and more formidable spiritual power than Christianity, represented by the priest who, it is emphasized, is “young” and who never enters into the action of the play, remaining, spiritually, a stranger to this world.

 Riders to the Sea can be compared with the great Greek tragedies in its symbolic nature, its universalization of the theme of human suffering and loss. Maurya with her placid surrender to her fate attains a kind of noble grandeur which could be attained only by the heroes of classical playwrights like Sophocles.