Synge was a Dubliner. When he was leading in Paris the Bohemian life of a struggling journalist. W.B. Yeats picked him up and encouraged him to return to Ireland and live among the peasant people of the Isles of Aran, study the life of the simple primitive folk with its poetry, humour, tragedy, comedy to prepare himself for the task of writing plays on their lives. Thus he settled down in the moorlands and mountains of the extreme western coast of Ireland, soaking himself in the lives of the people in the beauty of the local surroundings and the loveliness of the native dialect.
Within the limited scope in ‘Riders to the sea’, Synge has succeeded in producing a tragedy with all its tragic atmosphere, fatalism and the setting of human characters against nature’s stern and relentless power. ‘Riders to the sea’ is basically a tragedy of a poor, primitive and uncultured peasant family that lives in the Aran Islands civilization has notyet entered into the lives of those primitive folk. Though formally Christian, those people are still pagan in their outlook of life. Their view of life is dark and somber. They know little of the gailty and sunnier side of life. Life with then is a sorry business, efforts, glories appear vain to them. Even the desire for life has been weakened in them by the repeated blows of a dark, relentless power called Fate, that appears here as the cruel sea, always howling for the toll of human lives. Nature in the island is somber and bleak, with dark moorlands, rugged cliffs, windy heaths, and howling seas. Manrya has lost her all in the sea—her father-in-law, husband and four sons and the last two sons who are doomed. The play opens in the atmosphere of gloom and suspense caused by the drowning of Michael in the sea nine days ago. Some remnants of a drowned man have been by the village priest—a shirt and stocking. Maurya, the bereaved mother who has been steeled into endurance and indifference by successive blows of fate is waiting for the dead body of Michael. She keeps things ready for the burial, but it is the grim irony of fate that the same are used for the funeral of Bortley who is the last rider to the sea. These simple peasants have to wage a struggle with the sea in order to earn their living. Such is the tragic world.
By the master strokes of Synge, a local tragedy has attained to a universality which moves all hearts. Maurya stands in the play not as a mere peasant mother who has lost her all at the hands of the stern sea monster. In her courage, endurance and stoical calm, with all passions spent she becomes a grand tragic figure like a Shakesperean hero or heroine. She is at once an individual and a type of heroic woman-hood. Besides this element of characterization, there is the profound sense of fate underlying the tragedy, which contributes to its universal appeal. Robin skelton writes — “ The islands of Riders to the sea is Ireland, but more than Ireland. Its predicaments are those of Irish peasantry, but also those of all men subject to the tyranny of forces they do not understand. Its beliefs are those of all people who combine superstition with Christian belief, or who are troubled by thoughts of spiritual realities beyond their ability to understand and control.”
The figure of man pitted against power of the gods is the theme of heroic tragedy. The poetic elements extend the play from local to universal significance. The imagery of the play is so organized at to refer us, not to the world of Irish history and folklore, but also to the world of archetypal symbolism—the conflict of man with the sea, the giver and taker of life. Again and again, the characters speak of the tides. Horse significs power and fear; red mare signifies strength while grey pony significs death. The symbols of black pig, white boards, the baked bread, the new rope are all archetypal symbols which create in this celtic drama a universal picture of man surrounded by natural elements and supernatural forces.
Thus Synge’s archetypal symbols “set the mind wandering from idea to idea, from emotion to emotion,” and deepen the universal significance of the drama. Frank verson rightly says—“Riders to the sea is a local play which is universal.”