‘Good artists copy. Great artists steal.’
Thus goes an oft-quoted dictum in academic circles. A Google search reveals it to be attributed to different people including Picasso, T.S. Eliot and Steve Jobs. Yet, regardless of who uttered it, I find myself agreeing with its sentiment because it rings true. Precisely because of its spirit, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the figures mentioned nicked it off each other in the first place…
As cliché as that statement sounds, the truth in it lies in the accepted concept of the ‘appropriation’ of artistic ‘convention’. Writing ‘degree zero’ – Roland Barthes tells us – is virtually impossible to create. Authors continually feed off the prescribed notions of the genre and form they are writing in; the discourse associated with ‘types’ of characters; and also the language which has been handed down to them. In my opinion, it is the clever use of this which makes Synge’s Riders to the Sea so powerful and poignant for the short, one-act play that it is.
The image of Cathleen (“a girl of about twenty”) at the spinning wheel, right at the start of the play, is laden with the associations to The Fates of Ancient Greece. Incidentally, the collective Greek name for these figures is ‘Moirai’; a word uncannily similar to the Cathleen and Nora’s mother’s name – Maurya. Without even having begun to look at the words that these three characters converse with, the atmosphere created is already imbibed in ancient legend and pertaining some of the aesthetics of ‘death’. As news of Michael’s possible death at sea in Donegal hits the family, foreshadowing the demise of Bartley (the last remaining son), the ominous feeling hanging in the air still does little to soften the all-consuming pain.
This feeling of a fresh wound being gashed open anew is reminiscent of Line 25 in Chapter 23 of The Book of Job in the King James Version of the Bible, where Job is lamenting his misfortunes:
“For the thing which I greatly feared is come upon me, and that which I was afraid of is come unto me.”
Like Job, Mauray also laments in her poignant and powerful speech during which she recounts how she
“[…] had a husband, and a husband’s father, and six sons in this house—six fine men, though it was a hard birth [she] had with every one of them and they coming to the world—and some of them were found and some of them were not found, but they’re gone now the lot of them. . .”
Among these sons was Patch, whose body was carried from the sea. Mauray says that she saw “[…] the men coming after them, and they holding a thing in the half of a red sail, and water dripping out of it.” Her last statement seems pregnant with the absurd attempt at rationalising grief: “it was a dry day, Nora”.
The visual metamorphosis of Mauray from a passive, weak and old character into the narrator of her own life seems to encapsulate the oxymoronic Christian belief in the phoenix-like, regenerating power of the bearing of pain; as well as a certain liberating, pagan surrender to the whims of nature and chance. The auditory image of the women gathering around Mauray’s standing figure as they “keen” (or sing their monotonous dirge) also embraces a Christian and pagan dualism; it creates a layered image of a multitude in mourning for generations through from a primal time before Christianity, and it also foregrounds the mourning mother who could be linked to the symbol of the Pietà.
Mauray’s refusal to bid a proper goodbye to Bartley before he sets out to die (as it were) by falling off his horse begs the question of whether her (lack of) action ‘brought about’ the death of her son, or whether she and everyone else is “as flies to wanton boys” (- King Lear). My personal view is that Mauray actually did not want to betray her son with a kiss like Judas, even like Judas she had ‘sold him off’ by transgressing Philip Larkin’s imperative in This Be The Verse. Therefore, I think that whilst the play escapes being categorised as a ‘tragedy’ in the Aristotelian sense – in effect, it depicts the tragedy of the human condition in its most malignant and parasitical nature.
The video below is the 1st part of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ opera ‘Riders to the Sea’ (inspired by Synge’s play):