The following analysis of Riders to the Sea was originally published in The British and American Drama of Today. Barrett H. Clark. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1915. pp. 191-3.
This little drama, while it has none of the uproarious "romping" of The Playboy of the Western World, is still an unmistakable indication of John Millington Synge's keen enthusiasm for all the concerns of human life. If he can take pleasure in the vitality and animal spirits of a Christy Mahon, he can likewise savor the dumb tragedy of a Maurya. The play is a picture, compressed and synthesized, of the helplessness of a mother in her hopeless struggle with the sea.
Synge's perfect mastery of words is one of his greatest assets. Like Shakespeare, he can at once supply environment, create atmosphere, paint word-pictures. That sharp contrast between the homely and everyday in life and the gruesomeness of death is clearly drawn in Riders to the Sea. Bartley says: "Where is the bit of new rope, Cathleen, was bought in Connemara?" and Cathleen replies: "Give it to him, Nora, it's on a nail by the white boards. I hung it up this morning, for the pig with the black feet was eating it." This is what Yeats means when he speaks of Synge's loving all that has edge. In Vale, the second volume of his Hail and Farewell, George Moore wrote of Riders to the Sea: "... when I heard this one-act play, it seemed very little more than the contents of Synge's notebook, an experiment in language rather than a work of art, a preparatory essay; he seemed to me to have contented himself with relating a painful rather than a dramatic story, his preoccupation being to discover a style, a vehicle of expression...." And the incident is painful rather than dramatic, for the struggle must be felt in the background, it cannot be seen and participated in by the audience. Consequently, we might almost feel that the struggle here depicted was so hopeless as to leave no room for anything but dumb submission. A true tragedy ought to give the hero a chance to fight; here the dice are loaded. The play is, however, a powerful and beautiful picture.
Riders to the Sea serves to illustrate the essential difference between the one-act play and the play in two or more acts: since the former is almost always concerned with but a single incident, it is capable of very little development. Now a tragedy is not a fact nor an event; it must show great and strong characters -- or a least characters in which there is potential greatness or strength -- struggling with forces which are finally too great to overcome. And we must see the struggle. A tragic figure must have the opportunity to fail honorably, and we wish to see him trying to evade his fate. Hamlet would be ordinary melodrama if he were deprived of his soul-revealing soliloquies; Oedipus, too, if we could not follow the King's efforts to escape what was decreed. A one-act play can scarcely more than indicate the result of a struggle. The last act of Hamlet is not a tragedy in itself, and Riders to the Sea, like that last act, is but the result of what has gone on for a long time before. At the end we feel something of the great sorrow and eventual peace of the old woman in her last words: "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 forever, and we must be satisfied." Still, the struggle was wanting.
Is a one-act tragedy possible?
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