Synge's one-act play Riders to the Sea (1904) deals with the lives and manners of a cross-section of humanity. While the play is concerned with local matters, Synge represents these matters with a universal interest. In other words, Synge, like many great writers such as Thomas Hardy, universalizes the experience of a particular individual or a group of individuals. Synge focuses our attention upon that aspect of life that absorbs the interest of humanity in general; his play has a timeless appeal because its content draws attention to something that is essentially human. The relevance of Riders to the Sea lies in its intensity of appeal and in its sense of contemporaneity.
At the urging of his friend William Butler Yeats, Synge had traveled to spend a few days in the Aran Islands to study the lives of their people. Synge was attracted to the way of life of Aran islanders; when he heard a story of a body of a man washed up on the island of Inishmaan, he decided to frame the story and the experiences of the commoners as a play. Thus Riders to the Sea was born.
There are two themes working parallel to each other in this play. One is the sea, the theme that grounds all of the play's proceedings. The other is omen and foreboding, and the readers can predict from the title that something ominous is going to happen regarding to the sea. From the very beginning, we see Maurya, the protagonist, talking about her sons who sacrificed their lives to the seas; the whole play revolves around fears concerning the sea. Maurya also believes in omens: when Bartley, Maurya's only living son, leaves their house without her blessing, Maurya has a terrible vision and soon learns of Bartley’s death at sea. In this way, the two themes amalgamate with each other and create a perfect setting for Riders to the Sea.
The play was first performed by the Irish National Theatre Company at Molesworth Hall, Dublin, on February 25th, 1904. The few attendees enjoyed the play, but the critical response was mixed (interestingly, it was the only play of Synge's that was not attacked by audience members during his lifetime). When it traveled to London the next month and to other countries in subsequent years it received a warmer welcome; Yeats said “Synge’s foreign success is worth more to us than would be the success of any other of our people.” The play would actually grow in estimation in the eyes of Irish critics over time.
British composer Ralph Vaughn Williams adapted the play into an opera in 1925. The libretto was in English, which was rare at the time. It was performed first on November 30th, 1937 at the Royal College of Music in London. There have been a least three other operas written and performed that take the play as its subject. There are also two films, one produced in 1935 (Synge’s own bereaved fiancée acted in it) and the other in 1987.