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SYNGE'S TRAGIC VISION OF THE OLD MOTHER AND THE SEA TRAGEDY IS REMARKABLY ECONOMICAL IN ITS exploitation of grea.t visual archetypes-those stark icons which radiate behind the tragic action and illumiriate the universal agony within the private grief. The literature of Western Christianity has, indeed, given dramatic expression to so few images of visual intensity that the tragedian, working within the limited imagistic range of the tradition, is often obliged to exploit an iconographical situation which has already passed into the 'repertory stock of all drama; and to make it radiate his particular tragic vision is, of course, the measure of. his genius. Of all such icons, the most poignant is, perhaps, that of the Pietathe image of the sorrowing Mary mourning her dead Son-an icon so insistent and iterative as almost to create something of a sub-genre in modern tragedy. One thinks, most notably, of Mrs. Alving torn in an agony of indecision as she confronts the raving Osvald; of the soundless cry of Mother Courage as the body of Swiss Cl1eese is carried onstage; of the tragic dignity of the Bridegrooni's mother in Lorca's Blood Wedding; and, above all, of Maurya's grief in Riders to the Sea which extends the ritual, of mourning beyond the death of one son and five more to encompass all sons of all mothers. But while the prototypical Pieta may be poignant and deeply moving, it is not inherently tragic. There is no conflict, no crisis. The Virgin neither precipitates the death of her Son, nor does she battle to save Him. For that which makes the sorrowing mother an essentially tragic figure is her implication-whether witting or unwitting~in the death 'of her child, an i~plication which makes 'the ,tragedy of mothers and their sons an ironic variation, as well, upon the archetypal Kindermord. The power of ma'ternal love must be shown In conflict with ail: opposing force of equal magnitude and strength, as intense an element in the. mother's being as her love,: and catastrophically destructive of it. Trapped in the mesh of irreconcilable demands generated by her own intellectual, moral or passionate nature, the sorrowing mother can do little more' than cry out against the implacability of fate and the Gods, or else accept her predicament as the paradigm of all tragic suffering. Mrs. Alving, caught between her love and the need to conc ~a(the rot withiJ1the Alving heritage, destroys her child as a result; and she exorcises the ghosts oiher dead tradition only to find herself ensnared, once again, between the need to save her son from his heri363 364 MODERN DRAMA February tage and the demands to her new-found freedom to. help him to die. Mother Courage, to enable her children to live, ironically acquiesces in a code of greedy bourgeois mercantilism which systematically destroys them all. The mother in Bload Wedding, torn between devotion and the need to avenge her family's ancestral honour, consigns her only son to his inevitable death. In each case the tragedy derives from this collision within the protagonist of intense maternal love and her own firmly held moral values; and the peculiar nature of the collision determines the dramatist's tragic vision. Synge's relationship to this tradition seems, in many respects, perfectly apparent. Not only does Maurya's name in itself suggest the prototypical Mary, but the splendidly poetic evocation of the Pieta in the final moments of the play-those scattered images of boards and nails and clothes and the "broken" mother, loosened from their original content and reassembled in a wholly naturalistic idiommakes the Aran Island cottage the site of universal mourning as the prayer for mercy finally embraces all mankind. But to see Maurya as no more than the archetypal Mother of Mercy is to deny her tragic potential. Indeed, a fairly representative view of Riders to the Sea as pathetic rather than tragic is expressed by Raymond Williams, who quotes from Yeats with evident approval: Passive suffering is not a theme for poetry. In all the great tragedies , tragedy is a joy to the man who dies; in Greece the tragic chorus...


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pp. 363-372
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