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The Theme Of Riders To The Sea English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 2138 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock (1980) is set within a Dublin tenement block during the Irish Civil War that immediately preceded the creation of the Irish Free State in 1922. It forms a part of what is generally labelled his ‘Dublin trilogy’ along with Shadow of a Gunman and The Plough and the Stars. With constant reference to the political troubles that beset Ireland and its people during this tumultuous period of its history, the reader could be forgiven for assuming that the main themes, concerns and perspectives contained within the play could not be further from J. M. Synge’s Riders to the Sea (1995) set on the Aran Islands at an indeterminate time. The play was first published in 1904 and focuses on man’s, or maybe more accurately, woman’s relationship with nature. Political interests hardly seem to impinge upon a play that is set in such a seemingly timeless environment, but it would be wrong to typify Riders to the Sea as apolitical. Its focus on the suffering experienced by Maurya, the play’s central character, is a stark reminder to urbanites that the inhabitants of the more remote areas of the country are not just untamed and savage folk. By trying to capture some of the beauty of both the landscape and the language of the Aran isles, Synge is attempting to preserve a certain aspect of Irish life that could be very easily forgotten amongst the religious and political turmoil of the period. What both plays have in common is the emphasis upon the strength that is shown by the female characters in relation to the events that unfold around them. Both Maurya and Mrs. Boyle in Juno and the Paycock act as a centre to the action and it is through these two women that both plays are understood respectively. It is due to this fact that I wish to focus specifically on the issue of gender in comparing and contrasting both works. This discussion is divided into two sections. Firstly, I shall discuss Juno and the Paycock, describing the characters and themes. As it is a much longer play than Riders to the Sea, it provides a useful background to highlighting the themes I wish to discuss throughout. After this, I shall consider Synge’s work in relation to O’Casey’s.

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The title of Juno and the Paycock refers to the play’s two central characters, ‘Captain’ Jack Boyle (the ‘paycock’ or peacock) and his wife Juno Boyle. The differences between the two has been described by Grene as, ‘The Captain stands for drink, talk, the public-house, the pleasure-principle; Juno stands for work, the home, the family, the reality-principle’ (1999, p.129). Jack Boyle is referred to as the ‘Captain’ due to one voyage he made as a merchant seamen in his younger days and has been waxing lyrical about his life at sea ever since. He is lazy, shiftless and something of a fantasist, spending all day drinking with his two-faced friend ‘Joxer’ Daly and finding any excuse to avoid doing a day’s work. In contrast, Juno is a woman who has been worn down by the vicissitudes of working-class life. On her first entrance into the play, O’Casey states in his description of her that, ‘Were circumstances favourable, she would probably be a handsome, active and clever woman’ (1980, p.6). Whereas the ‘Captain’ chooses to escape his obligations through drunkenness and work-shy behaviour, Juno is a capable woman who has been ground down by the harsh realities of life. Juno herself sums up her relationship with her husband best when she states, ‘I killin’ meself workin’ an’ he sthruttin’ about from mornin’ till night like a paycock!’ (1980, p. 10).

That she is the rock of the family is also apparent through her relationship with her two children, Johnny and Mary. Johnny has lost his arm and been shot through the pelvis as a result of fighting for the Republican Army during the struggle for independence. His physical wounds have also left him a nervous wreck of a man; a state further exacerbated by the guilt he feels over informing on Tancred, one of his colleagues who has recently been shot and killed. Unable to accept his own traitorous actions, he constantly insists that, ‘a principle a principle’ as a form of self-justification and exculpation. His more practical mother responds to this assertion by claiming that, ‘you lost your best principle, me boy, when you lost your arm’ (1980, p.27), reminding him that his inability to now work has done him no favours whatsoever. Despite Juno’s unwillingness to understand her son’s idealism, it must be remembered that she is the only character in the play that actually sticks firmly to a set of principles throughout. Grene expresses this sentiment where he reminds the reader that, ‘The working-class mother fails to understand the truth of the political principles so evident to the enlightened, educated son…though she may embody those principles as the ‘soul of socialism’ in her very unconscious’ (1999 p. 126).

The notion of principle is also encapsulated in the relationship that she has with her daughter Mary who is taking strike action. When Mary asks her what ribbon she should put in her hair, Juno replies that, ‘it’s wearin’ them things that make the employers think they’re givin’ yous too much money’ (1980, p.7). What at first seems like a cynical reply to her daughter’s question is actually strong evidence of Juno’s empathy. It is her ability to understand the motives of others that provides her with the necessary strength to continue with life’s bitter disappointments. Unlike the other members of her family, she possesses this ability to empathise with others because she is not looking for an escape route. Mary’s reading habits however, are an immediate indication that she desires to rise above the kind of life that she has in the tenement. This is further developed through her relationship with the school teacher and trainee solicitor, Charles Bentham, who also informs the Boyle family that they are due to receive a large inheritance from a recently deceased relative. In the dénouement of the play, it transpires that Mary is pregnant with Bentham’s child and the money from the will is uncollectible due to the vagueness of the original document. When Bentham flees the situation, it is Juno who takes on the responsibility of Mary, whilst her husband is drinking himself into a stupor in the nearest snug. The solidity of Juno’s character is further testified with her stoicism at learning of the death of Johnny at the hands of fellow Republicans. Even when brought to breaking point, she tries to remain as calm as possible so as not to distress her pregnant daughter. Her strength of character is contrasted with the final emergence of Boyle and pal ‘Joxer’, both in a state of extreme inebriation. Boyle cannot understand why the blinds are down as he is completely unaware of his son’s death. Boyle’s drunken behaviour is amusing at the beginning of the play and downright pathetic, even disgusting, at the end.

The image of Boyle and his spouse is of ‘caring wife and care-free husband’ (Grene, 1999 p. 128), but we must be careful not to typify her as a kind of working-class saint. She is a real person with real character flaws. She is almost obsequious around Bentham when Mary introduces him to the family for the first time and her behaviour concerning Mrs. Tancred, who is mourning for her son on the floor above, could be viewed as disrespectful. It is the fact that she is a real person that makes her capacity for suffering so impressive. Neither is she necessarily apolitical; she just understands its relative importance in relation to family matters. Her grounded nature and her innate empathy allow her to face up life’s cruelties without seeking some means of escape, unlike the other members of her family.

This seemingly endless capacity that some women have for suffering extreme emotional pain is also the central theme of Synge’s Riders to the Sea. The setting here is wild and rural and at first glance, appears to be a million miles away from the urban Dublin of Juno and the Paycock. The main character is Maurya, an old woman who has lost her husband and many of her sons to the violence of the sea. She lives with her two daughters, Nora and Cathleen and her two remaining sons, Bartley and Michael. However, the play begins with the news that Michael’s body may have been found washed up near Donegal and as a consequence, the two daughters have been given a bundle of clothes salvaged from the corpse. They try to hide the bundle away from their mother for fear that another tragedy might just completely break her. At the same time, Bartley intends to sail over the sea in order to sell a horse. Unlike Juno, Maurya seems to have completely resigned herself to suffering and is fatalistic in her manner and speech. She is engaged in what appears to be a personal feud with the elements where she states, ‘They’re all gone now, and there isn’t anything more that the sea can do to me’ (Synge 1995, p.91). Unlike in Juno and the Paycock the male characters are active in the world in that they are battling the landscape in order to survive, in order to make a living. Such a struggle seems futile though in that the sea is always triumphant, claiming fathers and sons, whilst the female characters are left to mourn. More tragedy is to come for both Maurya and her daughters when Bartley is drowned too and the bundle of clothes is finally confirmed as belonging to Michael. Maurya even has a premonition earlier in the play that by the end of the day she will have no sons left and tries to dissuade Bartley from his venture before he leaves with the words, ‘what is the price of a thousand horses against a son where there is one son only’ (Synge 1999 p. 83). This is not just a statement of her near endless grief, but also a practical statement of survival, further echoed by Bartley himself where he says to Cathleen, ‘It’s hard set we’ll be from this day with no one in it but one man to work’ (Synge 1999 p.85).

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Maurya herself is not so much the centre of the play, like Juno, but a presence that pervades the unfolding tragedy. Cathleen and Nora try to hide Michael’s clothes from Maurya in order to protect her from more pain, whereas Juno’s husband and children run to her when their various modes of escapism fail to work. The practical, everydayness of Juno can be contrasted with Maurya’s tendency toward the visionary as her pain over the years has taken on an almost mythic quality. At the closing stages of the play, when Bartley’s corpse is brought into the house it is the daughters, Nora and Cathleen that try to organise the practicalities of the funeral. They leave their mother to her all-encompassing grief. Maurya’s fatalism and sense of resignation is captured in the very last sentence uttered in the play when she states, ‘No man at all can be living forever and we must be satisfied’ (Synge 1999 p.93).

The theme of gender, particularly of female stoicism in the face of adversity is the key element that unites both Juno and the Paycock and Riders to the Sea. It is the central women in both plays that provide the focus for the political, social and environmental aspects that emerge throughout. It is Juno that holds her family together every time it threatens to disintegrate. When it finally does, it is the female characters that are left, with a pregnant daughter dependent on her mother’s strength and resourcefulness. One son is dead and a husband is finally abandoned as the deadweight he really is. Maurya too is the force that binds her family together, but she is less corporeal than Juno. She is almost more of a spirit than an active force in the world, but nevertheless is the locus of all the pain and suffering that transpires in Riders to the Sea. Juno and Maurya are contrasted through the fact that the former is solid and active whilst the latter is almost ghostly and passive. Maurya’s struggle is interior and with nature itself whilst Juno is in constant battle with the ideals, whims and predilections of her own family. However, despite their differences, both plays contain two matriarchs whose experience of pain is finally representative of the torment and suffering of Ireland itself during some of the most tumultuous years of its history.


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