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The Edwardians: J. M. Synge’s Riders to the Sea (BBC, 1960)

60.02.12 RT, p. 14 Riders pic only (small)On Thursday this week, Screen Plays’ third ‘Classics on TV’ season of screenings will open at BFI Southbank. Following the success of the previous seasons on Greek tragedy and Jacobean tragedy in 2012 and 2013 respectively, this year’s season takes as its theme ‘Edwardian Drama on the Small Screen’.

Curated by John Wyver, the Edwardian drama season (full details here and tickets available here) includes notable productions of plays by Oscar Wilde, Harley Granville-Barker, George Bernard Shaw, John Galsworthy, J. M. Synge and D. H. Lawrence. There will be a (work permitting) Q&A with Zoë Wanamaker following the screening of D. H. Lawrence’s The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd (BBC, 1995) on 27 May and an interview with Robert Knights, director of the 1979 BBC production of Harley Granville-Barker’s The Voysey Inheritance (which is being shown on 15 May), at a half-day symposium being held at BFI Southbank on Friday 23 May, before the screening of John Galsworthy’s Strife (BBC, 1988). For more details about the symposium, to which everyone is welcome, click here.

The season opens on Thursday this week with a spectacular double bill. The big attraction here is the sumptuous 1969 BBC production of Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband, directed by Rudolph Cartier, but the 28-minute production of the one-act play Riders to the Sea by the Irish playwright John Millington Synge (1871-1909), produced by the BBC for broadcast to schools at 2.05pm on 16 February 1960, also has much to recommend it. The production was, in fact, considered to be such a powerful presentation of the drama that it was repeated some months later in an evening slot of 9.30pm with the clear intention of reaching a larger adult audience. This 28 September 1960 repeat attracted the attention of a critic who, stating first that ‘It was a happy thought on the part of BBC television which brought us last night the recorded production of Riders to the Sea’, went on, as we shall see, to praise in high terms the production’s sets and acting, especially that of Dame Sybil Thorndike in the central role of Maurya (Anon., ‘A Superb Glimpse of Tragic Style’, The Times, 29 September 1960, p. 16).

20c Drama pamphlet coverIn its original schools television context, Riders to the Sea was not a stand-alone broadcast for the classroom. Rather, it was part of an annual Spring Term drama series for pupils aged 13 to 15. Hitherto, since the arrival of schools television broadcasting in 1957, such series had focused largely on Shakespeare (as can be seen in the useful summary listings posted on the website). Riders to the Sea in 1960, however, was part of a Tuesday afternoon Twentieth-century Drama series which kicked off with In the Zone, Eugene O’Neill’s minor play of 1923, the setting of which was changed from the First World War to the Second (presumably to make the play easier to relate to for the teenage audience). There followed John Galsworthy’s 1909 play Strife, given in three parts, on the conflict between the owner of a tin-plate works and the leader of his striking workers. Synge’s 1904 play, given on 16 February, was followed by Mikhail Zoschenko’s 1939 Bad Business, broadcast over two slots in subsequent weeks and Shaw’s 1912 Androcles and the Lion, also given in two parts. As an important postscript, the series concluded with two programmes on the writing and production of a new, one-act play set in the First World War by the young playwright Beverley Cross: the first programme was a documentary on Cross’ processes of writing the play and the second was a performance of his play The Dark Pits of War itself.

In other words, then, three out of the five established works given in the 1960 Twentieth-century Drama series were from the Edwardian period, with the remaining two from the inter-war years. This is a rather striking statistic which immediately throws up the question ‘What about post-Second World War theatre?’ Interesting is the choice of a relatively unknown play by O’Neill, when other dramas by him or Tennessee Williams or Arthur Miller from a later period could, for example, have satisfied the need for an American play in the mix. (The BBC’s ‘Notes for the teacher’, in the published pamphlet ‘BBC School Television Broadcasts: Twentieth-century Drama, Spring 1960’, states that twentieth-century drama in English ‘can for convenience be split into three sections – the American, the Irish, and the English […] And there remains beyond all this a great and influential volume of translations in English’, p. 3)

1906 Riders to the Sea, Abbey TheatreThe desire to keep this selection of the plays clustered into the pre-Second World War period, with a focus on the pre-First World War years, is fascinating. Not only were the plays of the Edwardian era particularly prized at this moment at the start of the 1960s (and see Billy Smart’s 2009 thesis ‘New Wine in Old Bottles’ for their continuing popularity) but there was clearly a preference for plays which were sufficiently old to be considered canonical: the teachers’ pamphlet states that ‘Most of the plays in this series have a claim to be among drama that will last’ whilst also recognizing an anxiety that ‘No one is certain where the masterpieces [of twentieth-century theatre] are. Today Shaw is better known than Arnold Wesker. Tomorrow Wesker may supersede Shaw – or both may have been eclipsed by someone not yet born’ (p. 3). (Wesker had, to date, written only three or four of his now 40-plus plays.) And so, there is laid bare a decided uncertainty about the permanence of what was could be considered to be the theatrical canon at this cultural moment in time, almost as if the writer anticipates the great cultural and social changes which are fermenting.

The pamphlet points out that Synge’s Riders to the Sea is the only play in the series in which characters and action are unaffected by the big changes already wrought by the twentieth century. It had been a relatively popular play for radio performance, especially in the 1920s and 1930s; in 1951 Vaughan Williams set Synge’s text to music resulting in a work that proved to be more popular for broadcast that the play itself. It had been presented only once before on television, in a 29 May 1938 production by Fred O’Donovan. Remarkably, the Irish actor Harry Hutchinson took part in both of these productions. Listed as the only male amongst the four named actors in the Radio Times listing for the 1938 production, it can safely be assumed that he took the role of Bartley in the first production, whilst he was credited as one of the mourners in 1960.

The source of Synge’s inspiration were the three Aran Islands which lie off the coast of Donegal, out in the harsh and bleak remoteness of the Atlantic ocean. The communities of these three islands are said to have been ‘among the most primitive in western Europe’ (T. R. Henn in J. M. Synge, The Complete Plays (Methuen, 1981), p. 33). The land was poor and stony, with little timber, grass or turf for food or fuel. Bad weather cut the islanders off from the mainland and fishing was the only food source.

In the late nineteenth century W. B. Yeats had encouraged his fellow Irishman to ‘Give up Paris’, where he had been living: ‘Go to the Aran Islands. Live there as if you were one of the people themselves; express a life that has never found expression’ (quoted by T. R. Henn in the introduction to The Complete Plays, p. 2). This Synge did. He wrote sketches of his time there which were published as The Aran Islands in 1907. These are fascinating reading in themselves but they also indicate how certain of his experiences and observations are woven into the play: note particularly the descriptions of the men who stay out fishing ‘from about three in the morning till after nightfall, yet they earn little, as fish are not plentiful’ and how the ‘maternal feeling is so powerful on these islands that it gives a life of torment to the women. Their sons grow up to be banished as soon as they are of age, or to live here in continual danger on the sea’. Of one teenage girl he sometimes talks with he writes, ‘At one moment she is a simple peasant, at another she seems to be looking out at the world with a sense of prehistoric disillusion and to sum up in the expression of her grey-blue eyes the whole external despondency of the clouds and sea’. (All examples taken from Part 2 of The Aran Islands).

This short play is a tragedy with a simplicity of plot and concentration of emotion that draws strongly on the ancient Greek model. The conflict here, though, is not between individuals but between humanity and the sea, which in this play is characterised as an omnipotent giver and taker of life, through the fish it throws up as the community’s staple food and the lives it steals (often fishermen, the ‘riders’ of the play’s title). The community is Roman Catholic, but the reverence and fear of the sea is far greater than that which they have for any anthropomorphic deity.

60.09.23 RT, p. 21 pic (small)Maurya, an old woman who is the head of the family at the centre of the play, has lost her husband, her father-in-law and five sons to the sea (an distant echo here with Louis MacNeice’s radio play The Dark Tower). It is with the life and death of her sixth son Bartley that the play is concerned, and with his death – once it is confirmed – Maurya finally achieves a kind of wretched peace:

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. I’ll have no call now to be going down and getting Holy Water in the dark nights after Samhain, and I won’t care what way the sea is when the other women will be keening. (The Complete Plays,p. 105)

This acceptance of profound loss is a kind of relief for the old woman who now has nothing left to lose (her daughters, being women and bound to domestic chores, do not risk their lives on a daily basis). ‘It’s a great rest I’ll have now’, she concludes, as she kneels down to pray (p. 105).

In the 1960 schools television production by George R. Foa this magnificent role was taken, as noted above, by Dame Sybil Thorndike who acted the role with gravitas and intensity of feeling. (She is pictured in both Radio Times listings for the two transmissions; the second of these, adjacent, was for the later, non-schools transmission.) Thorndike had, of course, come to the stage in 1904, the year in which the play had its first staging at Molesworth Hall in Dublin (see above for an image from the 1906 Abbey Theatre production, which is similar in aesthetic to the television production).

By 1960 Thorndike was a seventy-seven-year-old veteran of the theatre, but her television career was still new. Sheridan Morley’s Sybil Thorndike: A Life in the Theatre (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1977) lists her ‘major television performances’ as beginning only in the previous year; Riders to the Sea, although ‘merely’ a schools production, naturally makes it onto this list. Sean Connery plays the cameo role of her son Bartley, and her daughters Cathleen and Nora are played by Olive McFarland and Jan Kenny.

When this old woman comes wearily into her cottage wiping the sea-spray off her face, or when she moans out loud with her weight of her breaking heart, she stands for the grief of the entire community – or, at least, the female portion of this gender-segregated community. The men venture out and are lost; the women stay at home and grieve. When the body of her last remaining son, sodden and heavy with sea-water, is brought home and poignantly laid out on the very table on which his sisters earlier made bread, townswomen enter, seemingly uninvited, and begin keening in a primitive ritual of grief. This scene is spare but intensely powerful. The loss is particular to (what remains of) this family, but it also resounds through the local community (represented by this chorus of townswomen) and in its inevitability (in that we all must die) it is, of course, universal.

The sea and the wind dominate the every aspect of life in this community and the television production underlines this by making the sound of crashing waves and whistling wind as loud inside the cottage as it is heard outside. I found this production choice to be evocative of the power of the weather and the brutality of island-life on a recent viewing of the extant copy of the production in the BFI archive, although Henn, writing in The Complete Plays, p. 41, thought it had been overdone. There is an audio-visual disjunct, however, for the bushes in the outdoor scenes don’t move an inch in response to the great gale that is continually blowing! The spareness of the set – rocks, bushes, moss – suits Synge’s description of the Aran landscape well. (The design of this production was by Sean Kenny.)

Around the time of this broadcast, data was being collected from schools on the impact of the BBC’s television programming. This gives us a remarkable, valuable insight into how, actually, dramatic productions such as Riders to the Sea were being received. In a draft of the Second Public Report on School Television being written by the School Broadcasting Council (BBC WAC R16/776/2), it is noted that teachers were very much appreciative of, and dependent on, the ‘teachers notes’ pamphlets which were published in association with series such as the 1960 Twentieth-century Drama:

[…] there has been a marked difference in the reactions of classes which have and have not been prepared for such experiences as Bad Business (Mikhail Zoschenko), Strife (Galsworthy), Androcles and the Lion (Shaw). The ability of the teachers to talk with children about performances affected considerably the way they reacted. At the same time there have been doubtful choices; Chekhov’s The Wedding, and Synge’s Riders to the Sea, for example, both dealt with worlds and emotions alien to most 13-15 year old children.

1960 20c theatre calendar (small)The sense seems to be that the bleakness of Riders to the Sea was just too far from the lived experience of these teens; they just couldn’t relate to it. Although other productions in the series were clearly more palatable. At this point, I think it’s worth standing back and placing these drama broadcasts within the context of the entire term’s worth of programming from the BBC, which – as can been seen in the adjacent calendar – is science and natural history-heavy.

The anonymous critic in The Times, by contrast, was enraptured when he saw the production in its evening repeat later in the year:

Mr George Foa’s production conjured up finely the bleak, windswept coast of western Ireland and Mr Sean Kenny’s bare, unadorned sets placed it squarely in surroundings of epic monumentality. The chief interest in the production, however, and its greatest triumph lay in the acting. The performances of Miss Olive McFarland, Miss Jan Kenny, and Mr Sean Connery were all beautifully in keeping, as they moved like shadows across the scene, already half-resolved, it seemed, to the grim destiny which hung over them. But the play belongs to Maurya, the old mother, and in this role Dame Sybil Thorndike gave us a superb glimpse of the grand tragic style, playing with that complete simplicity of which only the highest art is capable. (‘A Superb Glimpse of Tragic Style’, The Times, 29 September 1960, p. 16)

This post has turned out to be longer than I’d intended it to be. I hope, though, that in writing at length I have stimulated your interest sufficiently for you to come along to the screening of An Ideal Husband and Riders to the Sea on Thursday at BFI Southbank and then let us know – either in person on the night or on the blog – what you thought of these two Edwardian dramas from the BBC in the 1960s!



2 thoughts on “The Edwardians: J. M. Synge’s Riders to the Sea (BBC, 1960)

  1. The Aran Islands are not off the coast of Donegal.

    Posted by Joseph A Lennon | 17 July 2018, 8:03 am


  1. Pingback: More Synge on the small screen | SCREEN PLAYS - 12 May 2014

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