At the beginning of the play the readers are told the play is set in a cottage situated on an island off the west of Ireland. The title Riders to the Sea becomes relevant when the play opens with Nora, one of the characters in the play tells her sister Cathleen that she has brought clothes of a drowned man given to her by the young priest for identification since their brother Michael had been missing and was suspected to have been drowned in the sea. From the beginning itself the premonition of death and destruction looms large in the play. The sea becomes a powerful symbol of both preserver and destroyer of life. The play revolves around the sea. In the beginning the suspense was whether the sea would return the body of Michael and towards the end the suspense was whether the last remaining son Bartley would also be engulfed by the sea. Maurya poignantly describes the havoc wreaked by the sea on her family and her stoic resignation at the cruel blows of fate that took away all her sons and her husband whenever they rode to the sea to eke out a livelihood. The realistic language used in the play strengthens the idea that such circumstances do take place in human life and we have to accept the inevitability of fate.
The entire play is set in a poor fisherman’s cottage. The story is about a family of four surviving members. Maurya, the matriarch had already lost four of her sons and husband in the sea. When the play opens she feared her fifth son Michael also to be drowned however his body was yet to be found. Maurya had already begun lamenting for nine days and was waiting for Michael’s body to be washed ashore. The last surviving son, Bartley had already procured white boards for his brother Michael’s coffin. In the mean time Bartley announces his intention to go to the Galway Fair to sell horses. Maurya desperately tries to stop him from venturing into this perilous journey as she has a premonition that Bartley too would never return home from this journey. Maurya follows Bartley after he leaves so that she can give him a cake and her blessings but on the way she has a nerve wrecking vision of Michael following Bartley. Maurya is convinced that she would never see Bartley alive anymore and incidentally her vision comes true with the arrival of Bartley’s dead body. J.M Synge has masterfully created this well-knit play by not allowing any digressions in the plot and this has helped build the intensity of the plot. An overwhelming foreboding of doom and destruction is build up right from the opening of the play. All past tragedies are skillfully reported by the characters to help lead the play to its conclusion and the dramatic unity of time and place is adhered to by restricting the action of the entire play to a cottage and in one day.
This one act play encompasses the essence of the constant struggle of the island people against the tumultuous sea and their stoic acceptance of their fates sealed by the elements of nature.
The language used in the play is realistic and is similar to the language used by the local people of the Irish islands. Many lines are very poetic as seen in the following lines said by Maurya: “May the Almighty God have mercy…everyone left living in the world“. These lines have a stark poignant beauty and an acceptance of the inevitable cycle of life and death. The recurring use of words and expressions ‘black night’, ‘black cliff’, ‘the pig with black feet‘ etc creates an atmosphere of doom and apprehension. There is a wondrous beauty in the speech of every character in this play. Synge has penned Maurya’s final lines with profound wisdom imbued with pathos: “Michael has a clean burial in the far north, by the grace of the Almighty God. Bartley will have a fine coffin out of the white boards, and a deep grave surely. What more can we want than that? No man at all can be living for ever, and we must be satisfied.”
This and other poetical and rhetorical lines that permeate this play highlight the clam that emerges in human mind after a great emotional upheaval. This play has a timeless appeal because of realistic depiction of human tragedies, resilience and acceptance. Thus Synge’s “Riders to the Sea” has been termed as one of the greatest modern tragedy in English. Riders to the sea is a realistic play as Synge has tried to present a slice of life in the islands; he has tried to incorporate Irish folklore in the play to depict human failure and helplessness in controlling the elements of the sea. The play revolves around the lives of few characters who are suffering after losing their members of the family who tried to eke out a living by venturing into the sea. This tragedy represents the pain of millions of islanders who continuously lose their dear ones to the powerful sea. The stage directions are also very vivid and elaborate so that any director while creating the set of the play would be able to visualize and create an exact replica of the writer’s vision if the play is enacted on the stage and the audience would also be able to identify with what they would be viewing on the stage.