Riders To The Sea: as A One Act Tragic Play

Also Read

Characteristics of a One-Act Play

      The one-act play, a twentieth-century phenomenon, has established itself as an independent and legitimate form of dramatic but with its own technique and style. Several dramatist of name and fame, has written on the same form giving it an esteemed position, where it can be differentiated from a short story.

      The one-act drama being concise and limited, demands much concentration and deep observation of the playwright but it is almost wrong to take it as a shortened version of a full-length drama, because not a single scene can be added to the play. The play, possessing a single theme is drama of one main plot, where nothing, is bewildered and confused. Secondly, much effort is put on the character portrayal, which are mostly representative and their individuality is almost negligible.

The Three Unities

      In full-length drama, the concept of three unities, has been disregarded but in one-act play, the unity of time’, the unity of place and the unity of action, is followed with much ease as there are no digression, sub-plots or under plots. The single theme demands unity of place i.e. a single scene and period is also limited from half an hour to one hour. Contrasted characters with different experiences are not allowed in one-act drama, as it happens in a full-length play. This requires much labor on the part of the dramatist because the tragedy must be echoed in one hour only.

Riders to the Sea: A one-act Tragedy

      By strictly observing the three unities, Synge has proved Riders to the Sea as a successful one-act play with no subplots or digression. The life of the Aran Islands is depicted beautifully by introducing only four characters on the stage whereas Bartley’s appearance is not more than ten minutes. Thus, if we compare it with Shakespeare’s King Lear’ we will find that the same tragic effect could be produced in a drama of one-act, with much intensity and minimum dramatic episodes.

Portrayal of live Characters

      Since the canvas is limited, the writer of the play Riders to the Sea, deals with a few characters and much concentration is given on one central figure; Maury a, who is a mixture of Christian and Pagan beliefs, representing the mothers of fishing family on the island, who has been a witness of the deaths of all male members. On the other hand she also represents humanity confronting a hostile universe. Synge shows remarkable skill in the revelation of other character, which are vividly drawn as well as sharply differentiated. Cathleen, Nora and Bartley, all these three characters are not full-fledged but different outlooks of each of them, gives them an individuality. On the same, they also represent the youth class of Island, where only bravery flourish, with no scope for timidness. Cathleen being the elder sister is much responsible and dutiful than Nora, who being small is a girl with immature mind. Whereas Bartley the only surviving male member of the family, is right in his decision to go to the Mainland as there is not except him, to provide the family with essential requirements. In one act play it is almost impossible to expect such characterization as in the present play.


      The play runs through single plot as it should be in true one-act play. The play opens with a suspense of bundle carried by Nora which would reveal about Michael’s drowning and the scene takes up to the climax, where the bundle was opened and the truth was recovered. Side by side, the story of Bartley develops towards its tragic ending, where Maurya accepts her fate.

      Then it is in the end that we are informed about the drowning of other male members of the family in the receive of Maurya. Thus, much is informed to us only in a limited span of time, giving much coherence to the unity of time. The whole drama is woven into various actions as Ernest Boyd Says, “J. M. Synge concentrates the action upon essentials, and by a wonderful employment of the means legitimately at his disposal causes the play to move swiftly to the climax, whose in-evitability broods over each scene. It is unnecessary to know the legend; every line and gesture involves the denouncment and prepares for it with consummate out.” In order to highlight the tragedy of Maurya in limited time certain characters do not appear on. the stage, such as, the priest relevant to the development of the action, is kept out of sight. There is nothing irrelevant in the play and there are no loose ends. The action starts in the cottage of Maurya and ends on the same place, thus unity of place is also observed in the structure of the play.

The Regional Quality of the Play

      Visits to the Aran Island not only provide Synge with the subject matter but sometimes the story of the play is the real incident occurred in the same Island what is true to the present play also. Even on the very outset, Synge conveyed us that the cottage is near the west coast of Ireland. As the play develops, our knowledge of Islanders’ habits, beliefs and customs, is also, added and we come to know about their occupation; fishing and farming, their way of living; making coffins for the dead ones and the word ‘keen’ is much more explicit about their destiny clouded with tears, wails and moans. Even the customs of the concerned place are beautifully pictured so as to give it a local colour. Synge saw the life of the islanders as a perpetual drama of struggle, suffering and eventual destruction, which is taken in the Riders to the Sea.

Authenticity in Synge’s language and Style

      As a one-act play, the material should be minimum and the dramatic effect must be maximum, which could be produced only by language quite coherent-to-the action of the play. This is true to the present play as the language is colloquial, plain and direct thus contributes to the somber atmosphere of the play. Based the speech of the Aran Islanders, this language is both poetic and real, or rich and natural. David Daiches remarks, “Riders to the Sea is a remarkable dramatic presentation of an elegiac situation redeemed from false pathos by the elemental dignity achieved by the language.” Maurya’s tragedy is revealed through economized language of Synge, where every sentence contributes to the play either in action or in characterization”. Mr. Williams, says telling the purpose of the language” highest dramatic language is that which contains within itself the substance of the drama which discovers and creates its emotional structure.” from the beginning to the end of the play the emotional atmosphere is highlighted by the language.

Effective Tragedy

      Synge took inspiration from the Greeks, while handling the tragedy of Riders to the Sea, where not only action but theme, setting, character and language, create the tragedy with maximum effect on audience as well as reader. The very beginning of the play, suggests us the wretched condition of Maurya, by only three words, “If she’s able”, give us impression that Maurya is too much overwhelmed that even the sleep does not come to her. Using various symbols, he again tried to intensify the tragic effect of the play. Not a single comic element relieved the elegiac mood of the play. In the end, Maurya emerges as a truly heroic figure in her defiance of the cosmic force which is her antagonist. It is not necessary that the hero should be a man of power” with much wealth and fame. It is sufficient for the purpose of the true tragic effect if his status is raised at very intense moment of his life.


      The very brevity of the form does not allow the writer a vast canvas, but the range of his experience is wide, varied and deep. Synge’s greatness in Riders to the Sea, lies in the fact that the play is realistic. The power of his poetic genius transforms the work of universal appeal.

University Questions

Would you regard Riders to the Sea, as an evident of a one-act play, possessing the essential characteristics of the same?
Do you agree with the view that Riders to the Sea, is one of the few effective one-act tragedies in literature.”
What would you consider to be the genuine characteristics of a one-act play? Does Riders to the Sea, possess all these features?
Write an assessment of Riders to the Sea as a successful example of one-act play.

Previous Post Next Post