Dr. Nicholas Grene, professor of English Literature at Trinity College, Dublin, lectured on J.M. Synge’s “Riders to the Sea” on September 17, 2013 at Hofstra University. Dr. Grene’s host was the Irish Studies Program co-directed by Dr.Maureen Murphy and Dr. Gregory Maney.
For his audience of sixty students, faculty and visitors, Dr. Grene set the stage for Synge’s arrival on the Irish literary stage by sketching the context of Irish literature just before the turn of the 20th century. Great Irish actors and dramatists like Richard Brinsley Sheridan and G.B. Shaw felt that they had to leave Ireland for London to be a part of the literary centre of literature written in English. Proud of the literary heritage of Ireland and intent on developing a home for native talent, W.B. Yeats, Lady Gregory and Edward Mortyn set about in the 1890s to establish a National Theatre. Professor Grene humorously imagined that the three great Irish artists met on a wet weekend in Ireland and said, “Let’s start a theatre movement.” Indeed they did.
It was Yeats, Dr. Grene told his audience, who advised the budding playwright John Millington Synge to go to the Aran Islands to immerse himself in the language of Ireland and to absorb its myths and culture. Yeats urged Synge to “express a life that has never had expression,” the voice of the outlier in Ireland. Dr. Grene made reference to other silent voices which were given voice through literature, such as the voice of Black America through the Harlem Renaissance.
Professor Grene pointed out how Synge’s one-act play “Riders to the Sea” is infused with Synge’s experiences on Inishmaan. The play’s props are of the island—the pampooties, the spinning wheel, the ropes, the white boards, the flannel shirts, the baked bread. The island’s traditions and beliefs are employed in the play---keening, baking bread, the blessing of travelers, and both props and traditions are used to elevate the story to the level of universal truths imbedded in folklore.
Ever the teacher, Dr. Grene drew from the audience any inferences and observations which had emerged from the lecture. One young man’s hearing of a satiric voice in the play impressed Professor Grene and the audience. Dr. Grene followed up his answer to the young man with a private chat after the session.
Clearly, the session sponsored by Hofstra’s Irish Studies Program was led by a master teacher explicating a master work.
The Irish Studies Program of Hofstra University will next sponsor a showing of the film, “Some Mother’s Son,” on Thursday, October 10 at 6:00 p.m. in the Cultural Center Theater. Professor Maggie Burke will be the facilitator. Contact Dr. Gregory Maney (516.463.6182; Gregory.M.Maney@hofstra.edu).