Comparing Synge’s Riders to the Sea and Beckett’s Endgame

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Synge’s Riders to the Sea and Beckett’s Endgame

1 1 Introduction

Riders to the Sea by John Millington Synge (1904) and Endgame by Samuel Beckett (1958) show many similarities despite the eventful half a century that passed between their years of publication. The similar elements (the setting, the relation of the characters to the outside world, etc., related in detail in the next section) seem to create an atmosphere in both works that is fit for the creation of a new mythology.

However, by separating the physically present elements from those which are conjured up only by words in the texts (determining the A/B structure of the works), one of the—probably—most important differences can be discovered between the two plays: namely, that while in Riders to the Sea, a new myth is actually being created, this act of creation is missing from Endgame—possibly because newly created myths (and values) are deemed impossible by Beckett in the light of the two World Wars of the 20th century. During the course of the essay, it will also be suggested that this creation is, in fact, what characters (more specifically, Maurya, Hamm and Clov) are all waiting for; and that while the world-view of Synge’s play reflects, to a certain extent, the views of objective idealism, Beckett not only lowers the level of idealism to the subjective level, denying the existence of a rational, global control, but also goes further to deny the existence of any ordering power in the world at all.

1 2 “Outside of here it’s death” (Beckett 2:2475). Environments Fit for Myths

It has been suggested many times (for example, Tokarev 1:12), that mythology was the main instrument for the so-called ‘primitive’ cultures to understand the surrounding world. If this is so, then the world, in a pre-mythic or mythless state, must present itself as dangerous and inconceivable, as it actually does in both plays.

In both works, the setting is a room: “Bare interior” (2:2472) in Endgame, and a “cottage kitchen” (83) in Riders to the Sea, outside which room, in both cases, lies the realm of (literal) death. In Endgame, this is expressed directly, as Hamm declares often: “Outside of here it’s death” (2:2475) and “Beyond is the… other hell” (2:2481), when feeling the wall that separates the two spaces.

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"Comparing Synge’s Riders to the Sea and Beckett’s Endgame." 01 May 2017
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In Riders to the Sea, this dualistic set-up is not articulated so clearly, but still, when Maurya cries “He’s gone now, God spare us, and we’ll not see him again” (87) at the point when Bartley is at the door, she might be argued to identify being outside as being dead. In this sense, the world, unknowable for the mythless figures, is represented by the plays as the dangerous outside, as opposed to the more or less controllable, conceivable and safe inside of the houses.

The outside–inside distinction is further supported in both works by the importance of windows and of looking out. Many of the shows of the clown-Clov are arranged around this action (as he is continuously forgetting either the steps or the spectacles); Hamm is eager to know every detail that can be seen; and also, in Riders to the Sea, Nora and Cathleen are continuously looking out to see the ship which is to carry away Bartley, or to be sure that Maurya is gone, etc. The continuous effort to collect information about the outside world may be interpreted, accepting the interpretation of the ‘outside’ presented above, as an effort to control and to understand the world. This facet of this repeated action is more emphasized in Endgame, where looking out is the only source of information about the world, as the characters never have the chance of leaving the house.

If a mythic quality is to be attributed to the texts, then it can be expected that some elements in the plays can be interpreted doubly, as possible symbols. Indeed, both plays, again in a similar manner, allow the reader to have a double interpretation of the characters. It has been widely suggested that Endgame can be interpreted as the endgame of a game of chess (footnote No. 3 in Beckett 2:2473; also: “Hamm: Me to play” [2:2473; 2:2499]), with Hamm as the black king, Clov as a black bishop (both having red faces) and Nagg and Nell as two pawns, either black (then Clov and Hamm are waiting for a possible white figure to arrive from outside), or white (as they have white faces). Riders to the Sea, on the other hand, allows the reader to interpret the three women as the Fates (Parcae) as Cathleen starts to spin at the beginning of the play and Maurya seems to predict the fates of the boys. These possible interpretations show that both texts begin integrate symbolic meanings into themselves from the very beginning.

Even the style reflects the to-be mythic quality of the plays. Elevated tone characterizes the monologues in Endgame (often contrasted with coarse humor), and the whole text of Riders to the Sea, in which word-by-word repetitions also emphasize the non-everyday use of speech: “Nora: The young priest says he’s known the like of it. ‘If it’s Michael’s they are,’ says he, ‘you can tell herself he’s got a clean burial by the grace of God’” (83); “Cathleen: […] for his body is after being found in the far north, and he’s got a clean burial by the grace of God” (93); “Maurya: Michael has a clean burial in the far north, by the grace of the Almighty God” (97). Repetitions like these carry a ritualistic quality, which, most probably, direct the reader’s attention to the transcendental facet of the tragedy.

We have seen so far that the setting, some of the actions, the characters and the style of both plays may be interpreted in a way that the plays express, at the same time, the need and the possibility for some transcendental, ordering power, a myth to emerge. To decide whether this does happen during the course of the plays or not, we shall observe the way characters relate the outside world on stage by examining elements on layers A and B (defined in the next section) in the texts.

2 3 Defining Layers A and B. Symbols and Myths

The terms layer A and layer B have been introduced by Ms. Éva Babits (literature classes at Mihály Fazekas Grammar School, Budapest, 1997–2001). Layer A consists of all elements in a text that can be physically present in the reality created by it, while layer B hosts all elements that cannot. Figures like similes and metaphors usually connect elements from both layers. For example, in the simile his hand was as dry as a camel’s back after a week’s journey in the Sahara, ‘his hand,’ present in the reality of the text, is on layer A, while ‘camel’s back’, ‘journey’, ‘Sahara’, etc. must reside on layer B. This example also shows that elements on layer B (the describer layer) usually describe elements on layer A (the described layer).

Babits also suggested that symbols are, in fact, similes (or metaphors) where the role of the described is taken by the describer, which will appear in the text in lieu of the described element. In the above terms, it means that the element on layer A is missing, and the describer on layer B moves to layer A to take its place (Babits). (An example for this process can be Ady’s “Harc a nagyúrral,” where the ‘pig-headed master’, originally on layer B, moves to layer A [to the level of the reality of the lyrical I] to take the place of the now missing ‘money’.)

What makes the A/B structure of symbols particularly interesting to our case, is that the same, B®A movement seems to characterize the A/B structure of myths. In fact, Tukarev argues that

Symbolism is the most important feature of myths [as] the diffuse quality of primitive thinking manifests itself in the unclear distinction between subject and object, between signified and sign […]. (1:13, my trans.)

That is, myths are symbolistic; and the alleged non-distinction between signified and sign might be related to the non-distinction between described and describer which makes the B®A movement possible. (This blurred distinction can be clearly seen, for example, in the myth of Narcissus, where the origin of the flower [on A] is the death [or blood] of Narcissus [originally on B, now placed on A].)

Using the above observations it seems rather uncomplicated to determine whether a new myth is being created during the course of Endgame or Riders to the Sea, or not: it has to be examined whether elements on layer B move to layer A (therefore creating symbols on stage), or remain on their level, leaving the play in the original, mythless, but to-be-mythic state.

3 4 “The gray pony behind him” (Synge 92). The Behavior of Layer B in the Plays

Not surprisingly, those elements are placed on layer B in the plays which cannot appear in the reality of the stage: in particular, which are either separated from the inside temporally or spatially. Therefore, those elements are expected to appear on this layer which relate the past (or the future), or the outside world.

In Endgame, layer B seems to host mostly retrospective descriptions and unfulfilled wishes, that is, alternative presents. One retrospective element is the dialogue between Nagg and Nell, conjuring up the years past: the events on Lake Como (2:2479), the tailor-story that made Nell laugh (2:2480); or the accident with the tandem in the Ardennes (2:2478). Hamm also refers often to the past: he relates the fate of the painter and engraver: “I once knew a madman who thought the end of the world had come” (2:2487); and with Clov, they are contemplating the well-known fate of the people around them, Mother Pegg and the old doctor (2:2481, 2486, 2497). Apart from these, retrospective elements, one large part of the text remains which evokes vivid images and is clearly placed on layer B: Hamm’s ongoing story. (2:2489, 2492, 2495). Interestingly, this story does not refer to the past, but neither to the future: it can be interpreted as Hamm’s effort to create a more bearable, alternative reality in which he still has control over the events.

Compared to these, vividly visualizable stories, the sentences by which Clov describes the outside world or refer to the future seem to lack all concrete elements: “It won’t rain” (2:2474); “[He looks, moving the telescope.] Zero… zero… and zero.” (2:2482) “Light black. From pole to pole.” (2:2483); therefore, it can be suggested that in Endgame, layer B is dominated by retrospective elements on the one side, and elements which are referring to an alternative present, never to become true, on the other. Thus, layer B remains strictly separated from layer A during the course of the play.

In Riders to the Sea, the relationship between layers A and B is more complicated. According to what has been suggested above, all elements which describe the outer world are placed on layer B: the storm in the west by the white rocks (84), the sheep, the pig with the black feet (86), the ship (87), etc. What makes this case more interesting, still, is that this layer also hosts the anticipatory remarks of Maurya: “It’s hard set we’ll be surely the day you’re drown’d with the rest” (87); “He’s gone now, and when the black night is falling I’ll have no son left in the world” (87), which remarks become intermingled with the description of the outside world in her vision: “I looked up then, and I crying, at the gray pony, and there was Michael upon it” (93) which refers to the present and to the future (anticipating the gray pony kicking Bartley into the water) at the same time.

It can be seen, so far, that layer B in Riders to the Sea also consists of elements referring to a future that is about to become true—unlike in Endgame, where the possibility of Hamm’s story to become true is denied by Hamm himself, when reacting to the appearing boy: “If he exists he’ll die there or he’ll come here. And if he doesn’t…” (2:2498).

But the major difference between the A/B structure of the two plays is realized at the moment when in Riders to the Sea, “old women begin to come in, crossing themselves on the threshold” (94), the family is informed about Bartley’s death and the body is carried in. At this point, outside reality and the future so far described only on layer B penetrates (literally) the reality of the stage, layer A. This makes possible for Bartley’s body (unlike Bartley himself, who more belonged to layer A solely), representing the truth of Maurya’s vision on the stage (thus moving from layer B to A), to become a non-verbal symbol. It can also be argued that the bundle represents Michael (on layer B) on stage (layer A), becoming a symbol on its own.

The symbolic quality of Bartley’s body and the bundle can be further supported by the way the characters relate to them. That Bartley’s body is sacred (even a taboo) and can be related to only by the use of Holy Water (otherwise, Maurya touches only his feet; Nora and Cathleen do not touch him at all, according to the script) is not surprising. But even the stocking can be argued to be sacred, or otherworldly, as the only way to identify it, to “communicate” with it, in a sense, is counting. V. N. Toporov argues that counting downwards in Hungarian and Russian mythology is connected to the destruction of the evil (Mitológiai Enc. s. v. “Számok”), thus counting upwards (the stitches) might be considered to be conjuring up Michael’s figure, in a sense. Toporov also argues that numbers were (and are) one of the most important means for understanding the outside world and that they often play a great role in mythologies.[1][1] It seems, therefore, that the stocking becomes as sacred and as symbolic as Bartley’s body by the numbers and by the character’s behavior toward it.

Symbols like the bundle and the body cannot be found in Endgame, as it was argued that in that play, the layers A and B remain separated. In fact, there seems to be little possibility for their merging, as there are hardly any elements on layer B which refer to the future, thus having the potential to be realized on layer A.

If any of the wishes would come true (i.e. “Clov: If I could kill him I’d die happy” (2:2482); “When I fall I’ll weep for happiness” (2:2499)) then the story of Endgame would be able to break out of the circular dramaturgy. Although it never happens, the characters seem to long and to wait for it.

This waiting (and anticipated joy) can be argued to be similar to the relief Maurya is feeling when her last son is dead: “[…] but it’s a great rest I’ll have now, and a great sleeping in the long nights after Samhain” (96); “No man at all can be living for ever, and we must be satisfied” (97). In other words, in Riders to the Sea, the merging of layers A and B creates a new, even better order in the world, than what existed before.

While in Riders to the Sea, the merging happens, evoking a new, mythic state, this merging is no longer feasible in Endgame. What had been possible for a seeress at the turn of the century was no longer achievable for a taleteller fifty years later. The belief in the possibility of the creation of new myths, new religions and common values seems to be shattered by history: although the opportunity (the ‘environment’) for the myth to emerge is created in Endgame, it does not happen anymore.

4 5 “The bastard! He doesn’t exist!” (Beckett 2:2491) Fate and the World-View of Endgame and Riders to the Sea

Based on how the characters themselves relate to the elements on layer B, it might not be implausible to suggest that the world-view of Endgame, and that of Riders to the Sea differ significantly. Maurya, Cathleen and Nora immediately accept the reality of elements on layer B, and Maurya, after recognizing the inevitability of her fate, even starts to cooperate it (as it can be argued that her speech-acts bring about the destruction of Bartley). That is, the three women recognize fate as an objectively existing entity, which stands separate from them—in other words, Synge’s play seem to have the philosophical standpoint of objective idealism.

In Endgame, for the first sight, the case seems to be the opposite. Clov and Hamm, as I have suggested above, never seem to believe in the plausibility of the alternative reality Hamm creates. Also, fate is no longer explainable, it is no longer there (“Hamm: Do you know what’s happened? […] Clov: What for Christ’s sake does it matter?” (2:2497)); that is, the characters seem to share the philosophical standpoint of subjective idealism (or at least the denial of objective idealism). This interpretation is also supported by the fact that Hamm literally denies the existence of (an objective) God when they try to pray: “The bastard! He doesn’t exist!” (2:2491).

However, Beckett also avoids what would immediately follow from subjective fate, namely, that the characters, as they create it, can control it. Hamm and Clov are apparently aware of their destiny, often contemplate it: “One day you’ll be blind like me” (2:2484), but do nothing to change it significantly. Thus fate is neither placed on the subjective level, nor on the objective one—in Beckett’s Endgame, as future is nonexistent on layer B, fate seems to be nonexistent for the characters.

5 6 Conclusion

In this essay, it has been argued that both Riders to the Sea and Endgame create an environment in which a new myth could emerge by describing an inconceivable outer world, using elevated tone and allowing some elements to be interpreted symbolically. However, the investigation of elements on layers A and B in both plays showed that real symbols emerge only in Riders to the Sea, where layer B actually merges with layer A to account for (and create) a world-view similar to that of myths.

It was also suggested that this merging (and evoking a new myth) does not simply fail to come about in Endgame, but it is deemed impossible from the very beginning as the plausibility of every element placed on layer B to realize itself by moving to layer A is consistently denied.

The difference between the world-views of the plays, derived from the characters’ relationship to elements on layer B, seems to parallel the above described dissimilarity in evoking a new myth: Riders to the Sea appears to be an objective idealistic play in which characters recognize their fate as independent from their realm; but they manage to handle this knowledge by merging the two realms, thus creating a new mythology explaining the world’s present state.

Beckett in Endgame not only denies the objective existence of any entity that could create order and control fate, but also denies the subjective existence of it: in other words, in Beckett’s world, there are no explanations and no solutions to the problems of humanity.

Works Cited

Beckett, Samuel. Endgame. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 7th ed. Ed. M. H. Abrams et al. New York: Norton, 2000. 2:2472–2500.

Mitológiai Enciklopédia. Ed. S. A. Tokarev et al. Budapest: Gondolat, 1988.

Synge, John Millington. Riders to the Sea. In The Complete Plays. New York: Random House, 1960. 81–97

Tokarev, S. A., and Meletinsky, Y. M. “Mitológia.” Mitológiai Enciklopédia. Ed. S. A. Tokarev et al. Budapest: Gondolat, 1988. 11–21.


It is worth noting that numbers also appear in the story of Hamm quite often: he keeps describing the weather by numbers: “zero by the thermometer”, “fifty by the heliometer” (2:2489), etc.

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