Question: Justify Riders to the Sea as a tragedy.
Or, in what ways is Riders to the Sea comparable to Greek tragedy?
Riders to the Sea is one of the notable tragic plays of the modern age. Tragedy is a type of play that represents the problems and sufferings of human life. The confrontation of conflicting forces in the human mind and the bitter human suffering constitute the essence of tragedy. Riders to the Sea succeeds in representing human sufferings which raise pity and fear among us and make us to decide that the play is a great one in its tragic effect.
Similarities with Greek tragedy
Riders to the Sea by an Irish playwright John Millington Synge (16 April 1871 – 24 March 1909) is almost similar to the Greek tragedy setting in the modern context. Here is the comparison in detail with reference to the play.
According to Aristotle, tragedy originated from Greek literature. Tragic theme that means pathos is the fundamental condition for a play being tragedy. The tragic theme of Riders to the Sea moves round with the deep pathos of a mother-heart Maurya. The tragedy of the play is simple and straight-forward but sublime and universal. And the message of the play that is akin to Greek tragedy is –
“No man at all can be living forever, and we must be satisfied”
Attainment of unique tragic grandeur
The play has the magnificence of a classical tragedy in its attainment of unique tragic grandeur. The tragedy of Maurya is an unforgettable one though she is an old, unlettered, superstitious, and peevish woman. It is factual that Maurya has nothing of the brilliance or the personality like that of Lady Macbeth and Cleopatra but she touches our hearts with pathetic feelings.
More Notes Of Riders to the sea
From the technical standpoint, Riders to the Sea also comes closer to the classical tragedy. The principal of the three unities (unity of time, place, and action) of the classical tragedy is scrupulously followed here. The play has a single plot of the acute suffering of an old mother. The duration of the play does not cover more than an hour. The action of the play is laid in a lonely seacoast cottage.
Role of chorus
Riders to the Sea has not the conventional chorus of the classical tragedy. But the conversation of the two sisters, Cathleen and Nora, represents the prosaic chorus of the play.
“She is lying down. God helps her and may be sleeping”.
Thus, it is akin to Greek tragedy in modern context.
Greek tragedy is out and out fate based. Like Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, Riders to the Sea is also completely a fate-based tragedy. All the characters who are visible or invisible are forced to submit themselves before fate. The tragic figure of the play Maurya has lost her six young sons, husband, and father-in-law who were really helpless. The supernatural agent of the play ‘sea’ symbolizes inscrutable fate.
Dramatic or tragic irony
Dramatic irony occurs when the audience knows something that the characters do not know. Irony has been used in this play to create tragic anticipation. Bartley says the very opposite of what will happen. He says that he will come back from Galway Fair in two or four days. Similarly, there are uses of premonitions and forebodings which appeal to our senses of pity and terror. Simpler but still classical use of foreboding speech occurs when Maurya says to Bartley:
“What way will I live and the girls with me,
and I an old woman looking for the grave?”
When Bartley leaves, Maurya makes another foreboding comment which suggests that the sea or fate is working against her and Bartley will be killed.
“He’s gone now, God spare us, and we’ll not see him again. He’s has gone now,
and when the black night is falling, I’ll have no son left me in the world”.
It is quite clear from the above discussion that in a very small canvas, Synge has successfully constructed the effect of his modern tragedy akin to the craft and convention of Greek theatre. Besides, it is not merely a tragedy of an individual old woman but a tragedy of those people who struggle for survival against the heavy odds of life.