The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Riders to the Sea

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793263The Encyclopedia Americana — Riders to the Sea

RIDERS TO THE SEA, by John Millington Synge, is the most nearly perfect tragedy in one act in modern literature. The very simple plot is based not on the traditional conflict of human wills but on the hopeless struggle of man against the impersonal but relentless cruelty of the sea. It has taken from Maurya four of her six sons, their father, and their father's father. The fifth son is missing and her daughters get proof that he too has been drowned while Maurya is entreating Bartley, the last of them all, not to ride his horses down to the boat for the Connemara fair. “If it was a hundred horses, or a thousand horses you had itself, what is the price of a thousand horses against a son, where there is one son only?” But Bartley will not listen, and when the sea swallows him too, the tragedy of the mother's previous revolt pales before the utter tragedy of her resignation. “They're all gone now and there isn't anything more the sea can do to me. . . . I won't care what way the sea is when the other women are keening.” In all of Synge's plays except ‘Deirdre of the Sorrows,’ one can trace his inspiration to his stay in the Aran Islands, — usually to a story he has heard on the road or by the turf fire — but in 'Riders to the Sea' we have the most direct transcript of his own sympathetic knowledge of the people and conditions of those wind-swept, sea-swept isles where life seems only the sweeter for being purchased by daily struggle with barren soil and warring elements. In this struggle it is inevitably the mothers who lose out. “The maternal feeling is so strong in these islands,” Synge writes, “that it gives a life of torment to the women.” The contrast between ‘Riders to the Sea’ and ‘The Playboy of the Western World’ indicates the gamut of Synge's genius. The former is as remarkable for the exquisite consistency of its theme, treatment and atmosphere as the latter is for its variety and its piquant contradictions; the one almost defies criticism, the other challenges it. ‘Riders to the Sea’ was first produced by the Irish National Theatre Society at Molesworth Hall in Dublin on 25 Feb. 1904. It was in the repertory of the Irish Players on tour in the United States in 1912-13. Consult Synge, J. M., ‘The Aran Islands’; id., prefaces to ‘The Playboy of the Western World’ and ‘The Tinker's Wedding’; Bickley, Francis, ‘John Millington Synge’; Boyd, Ernest, ‘Contemporary Drama in Ireland’; Howe, P. P., ‘John Millington Synge’; Weygandt, Cornelius, ‘Irish Plays and Playwrights.’