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Blend of Celtic and Classical Elements


Posted Date: 14-Apr-2010  Last Updated:   Category: Education    
Author: Member Level: Gold    Points: 2






J. M. Synge's one-act tragedy Riders to the Sea is deeply steeped in the culture and ethos of the Aran islanders in the northwestern corner of Ireland. However, Synge does not confine the play within the limits of its Celtic setting. He universalizes it by introducing echoes of the classical tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. Having introduced many formal features of Greek tragedy in his play, Synge renders to it an unmistakably classical spirit, thought the action is set in a Celtic locale.
The Celtic backdrop of the play had been derived out of J. M. Synge's personal experience. Following W. B. Yeats's advice he had visited the Aran Islands and had discovered a tragic dignity in the heroic endurance in the hard life of the islanders. Amongst the rustics of the three islands he had discovered a rare quality of valour that he has recorded in his play. He has given expression to this Celtic lifestyle with specific reference to its customs and conventions, rites and rituals and superstitions and faiths.
The plot has been adopted from the common experience of the Aran mothers. Maurya has lost her husband to the sea and in the course of the play, she becomes a bereaved mother losing all her sons. This is inevitable as the land is barren and fishing is the only possible occupation. This throws the folk into the mercy of the turbulent sea which is both their sustainer and destroyer. The Atlantic waves being extremely rough, the fishermen are compelled to ride on high-browed boats that get easily overturned. It is no surprise, therefore, that Maurya's sons are one by one claimed by the sea.
Bartley's intended journey to Galway has also been taken from common Aran experience. Many Aran families would keep horses and pigs such as the red mare, the gray pony and the pig with black feet in Maurya's family. The horses are ridden without a saddle or bridle but a piece of rope quickly knotted into a halter as Bartley does. During winter they have to be sent to the mainland at Galway either for grazing or to be sold. In his prose work The Arna Islands, Synge reports the accidental death of a young man while loading horses on a hooker. This has a close resemblance with Bartley's death.
The objects present on the stage or those used by the characters again refer to the real life of the rustic Arans. Like any other dpeasant cottage, there are nets, oilskins, wooden boards and a spinning wheel in Maurya's hut. The furniture consists of a simple bed, a few chairs and a stool. The cake being baked by Nora and Cathleen is flat homemade soda bread, baked n iron pan on the hearth that is the only food that fishermen like Bartley carry with on their journey. In dire crisis they survive on wet flour and 'stinking fish' that Maurya also refers to. The cup, from which Maurya sprinkles holy water on Michael's clothes and Bartley's body is usually kept on the dresser in an Aran household beside some simple holy picture.
Though the islanders have formally adopted Christianity, their outlook is often pagan. The regular devastation caused by the sea create in them a belief that the world s in the clutches if malicious gods instead of the benevolent Christian Almighty Father. Accordingly Maurya questions the words of the young priest, "'Tis little the like of him knows of the sea". This pagan response gives rise to several superstitions such as 'a star up against the moon' is a premonition for death and disaster, and a drowning man is not rescued because it is considered ill luck to save someone whom the sea has tried to claim. The supernatural vision like those of Bride Dara and Maurya's witnessing of Michael's spectre riding the grey horse reveal the rustic imaginations of the Arans. Moreover, the custom of lamenting over the dead by keening is again an Aran practice that Synge himself had observed. The swaying of the body and the repetition of the moaning rise to climax in hoarse, terror-stricken voices, contributing to the eerie atmosphere of the play.
Though the setting of the play is typically Irish, Synge introduces a universal appeal in it by depicting Maurya's tragic transcendence in the light of Oedipus and Antigone's experience. Like them she undergoes a profound tragic transcendence, from extreme grief to a sublime philosophical understanding of life and death. Bartley's tragedy is like that of Orestes who is compelled to shoulder a duty that he cannot avoid and yet will be destroyed by this.
Riders to the Sea resembles classical tragedy in many of its formal aspects. Though it is a one-act play, the plot has been developed in the form of the five-act Greek tragedy. The 'Exposition' is the opening conversation between Nora and Cathleen; the 'Plot-Complication' occurs with the brief verbal conflict between Bartley and Maurya; the 'Climax' is Nora and Cathleen's discovery of Michael's death, the fourth significant episode is Maurya's report of her supernatural vision; and the 'Denouement' is Bartley's death leading to Maurya's tragic transcendence. The plot also incorporates within its framework the Aristotelian 'Peripetty' in Maurya's vision and Anagnorisis when Nora and Cathleen open the bundle of clothes to confirm Michael's death.
The function of the classical chorus has been revived in Synge's play through the speeches of Nora and Cathleen who provide us with a lot of vital information. The three Aristotelian unities have been observed – the Unity of Place restricts the episode to a room in Maurya's cottage, the Unity of Time may be noticed in the short span of action between Bartley's departure and the lamentation over his death. The absence of any subplot manifests the Unity of Action.
Classical tragedies were composed in verse and though Riders to the Sea has been written in prose, in spirit it is a poetic play evoking the effect of verse through the use of Gaelic syntax, cadences, rhythms, intonations and the repetition of words and phrases. The classical reliance on symbolism may be observed in he metaphorical use of the colours black and red and the numerical symbolism of the number '3' and its multiples. Like the Greek dramatists Synge has also used a strong sense of irony and inevitability. When the young priest assures Maurya – "The Almighty God won't leave her destitute with no son living". We are almost certain that his prediction would prove to be wrong. The strong sense of irony that rings throughout the play is reminiscent of Oedipus Rex.
In Riders to the Sea, Synge converts the local and the realistic into metaphors of the universal and metaphysical. By evoking echoes of classical tragedy, Synge has placed his play in the ling tradition of European poetic drama.


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