JS Synge’s one-act play Riders to the Sea was first produced in 1904. It’s set on an island off the western coast of Ireland (probably Inishmaan) and the sea is almost a central character, pounding at the island and churning through the lives of the young men.
Maurya is an old woman, mourning the loss of the fifth of her six sons to the sea. While scouring the rocks for her missing boy, she’s trying to stop Bartley, her only surviving son, from heading out on a boat.
MAURYA: In the big world the old people do be leaving things after them for their sons and children, but in this place it is the young men do be leaving things behind for them that do be old.
Her daughters Cathleen and Nora try to protect Maurya from identifying the clothes the priest has brought them from a body washed up in the north.
CATHLEEN: Ah, Nora, isn’t it a bitter thing to think of him floating that way to the far north, and no one to keen him but the black hags that do be flying on the sea?
NORA: And isn’t it a pitiful thing when there is nothing left of a man who was a great rower and fisher but a bit of an old shirt and a plain stocking?
The sea roars and pounds around their cottage and, when Bartley leaves to catch the boat, it’s inevitable that his body will be joining those of his brothers. This sea is inexorable, relentless and filled with fury. But, in losing her last son, Maurya finally finds some peace.
MAURYA: They’re all gone now, and there isn’t anything more the sea can do to me … I’ll have no call now to be up crying and praying when the wind breaks from the south, and you can hear the surf is in the east, and the surf is in the west, making a great stir with the two noises, and they hitting one on the other.
Riders to the Sea is a strange, short play. Filled with lamenting, fear and dread, it paints a bleak picture yet ends with a note of satisfaction. Once the worst has happened, there’s nothing left to fear. Strange comfort indeed.
Riders to the Sea is out of copyright. (Can be performed without payment of royalties)
Cast: 3F, 1M (+ a couple of extras)