Jack Woodruff Memorial Notes on International Drama


Synge's Riders to the Sea

and Lorca's Blood Wedding


Survival and Darkness



Jack Woodruff Memorial Notes Contents


 From Chapter 2, “The Domain of Sombre Comedy,” Comedy in a New Mood, pp. 2-6.


. . . Perhaps the least satisfying part of our definition of both comedy and sombre comedy is our insistence that both center on “survival.” Just what do we mean by this survival? Does survival in a meaningless void, as in Waiting for Godot, stretch the meaning of comic survival beyond endurance? These are questions we must explicitly confront, and obviously the answers to them will widen or narrow the range of plays that fit our definitions of comedy and sombre comedy.

The most important point to be made about this concept of “survival” is that it can not be separated in our definition from the concept of a “patterned action.” The survival of a hero or heroine at the end of the play or the suggestion that “life must go on” are not sufficient to make a play a patterned action centered on survival. In order for a play to be comic, it must be designed throughout to focus attention on the survival that is eventually created for the virtual future of the play. Two examples may be useful in clarifying this distinction between plays in which people survive and plays patterned around survival.

[John Millington Synge’s] Riders to the Sea and [Federico Garcia Lorca’s] Blood Wedding are similar plays from many points of view. Both contrast the life of woman to the life of man, both suggest that man’s heroism is the heroism of the moment while woman’s heroism is the silent, victimized heroism of a life-time; the heroines of both plays have lost men of their families before their plays begin and lose the last male of their family at the denouement. And both plays foreshadow a future of continuing, agonized life.With many similarities in theme and plot, the two plays serve our purpose admirably, for in Riders to the Sea the patterned action is centered on this agonized survival while in Blood Wedding it is not. 

In Riders to the Sea, our entire attention is focused on Maurya and her daughters. It is their reaction to the death of sons and brothers which is important in the play and not the deaths themselves. Synge makes this point in many ways: by Bartley’s minimal appearance on stage and by Michael’s death preceding the opening curtain, by the fact that all these deaths are entirely “natural” and unmotivated catastrophes, and by Bartley’s death being only a final event in a recurrent and seemingly predestined cycle of similar deaths in his family. The question of the play, therefore, rapidly narrows not to the question whether Bartley will in fact go and in turn be killed nor to the question whether the clothes found in the Far North are really Michael’s. From Nora’s report of the young priest’s words in the seventh line of the play— “‛If it’s Michael’s they are you can tell herself he’s got a clean burial by the grace of God . . ..’”[i]—a mood of certainty that Michael is dead and that Bartley will die settles in on the play. This mood is later reinforced by Maurya’s inability to bless Bartley and her seeing Michael’s ghost on the grey pony. 

So we are left to watch Maurya’s reactions and her daughters’ reactions to their fate. The question of the play becomes whether this absolute destruction of their last male hope will crush the women completely. Again, it is the reported priest’s words about the clothes found in the Far North that set the direction of the play: “‛. . . and if they’re not his, let no one say a word about them, for she’ll be getting her death with crying and lamenting.’” Is Maurya really too frail to bear the brunt of so consistent a nemesis?  That is the question that interests us as the play progresses, and, by and large, what interests the characters around her. At the end of the play, when Bartley has been brought in wrapt in a sail and the women are keening, Maurya becomes quiet, and the death of her final son gives her a new strength: “They’re all gone now, and there isn’t anything more the sea can do to me . . ..”  And in the final lines of the play, Maurya asserts the ability of the women to live on, agonized, yes; but also freed not for a time to live in peace: “Michael has a clean burial in the Far North, by the grace of the Almighty God. Bartley will have a fine coffin out of the white boards, and a deep grave surely.  What more can we want than that?  No man at all can be living forever, and we must be satisfied.”

“Satisfied” becomes the highly ambivalent and charged future toward which and in which the play is centered.  It is survival and not much more. 

In Blood Wedding, we find some of these elements of a pattern emphasizing survival. Where in Riders to the Sea Bartley’s role is minimized and his death is seen as a completely natural accident, in Blood Wedding attention is called to both the Bridegroom’s and Leonardo’s roles; their clash is seen as not only predestined, but also a necessary outgrowth of their personalities and of the society in which they live. Where in Synge, Bartley’s death is so much bound up in the cycle of deaths of his brothers that his particular catastrophe loses its individuality and centrality in the play, in Lorca the Bridegroom’s death is individualized and emphasized almost to the exclusion of any interest in his mother’s tragedy. And, while in Synge the final lines of the play clearly direct the play into the virtual future, in Lorca the final lines of the play:


And it barely fits the hand

but it slides in clean

through the astonished flesh

and stops there, at the place

where trembles enmeshed

the dark root of a scream,


move back to a contemplation of the catastrophe. While we are sure of the future in Blood Wedding and while that future is almost equally well-defined as the future in Riders to the Sea, one is a patterned action centered on survival, while the other only suggests a survival as part of its coda ending. 

No doubt, at about this point, the objection has naturally suggested itself to the reader that Maurya is not going to propagate a new generation, that her “survival” at the end of Riders to the Sea is merely personal and unrelated to the actual continuance of the race.

It would be well if we could restrict the survival of comedy to that of heroes, heroines, and butts who in the virtual future of the play literally propagate the race. Unfortunately, the practice of comedy has never so restricted itself. The heroine of The Solid Gold Cadillac, like Maurya, is hardly likely to propagate the race herself. Nor is Dolly Levi in the virtual future of either The Matchmaker or of Hello, Dolly. Such heroines, like many of the other “survivors” in comedy, must be taken as symbols of the survival of mankind. While unable to propagate the race themselves, they stand for those talents, qualities of character, opportunism, adaptation, or whatever it is that their creators see as insuring mankind’s survival.



[i] All quotes are from Haskell M. Block and Robert G. Shedd, Masters of Modern Drama, New York:  Random House, 1962.