RIDERS TO THE SEA, by Ralph Vaughan Williams,
adapted from the play by John Millington Synge

Great Divide By Lauren Dillier, SSU Theatre Arts Minor; Riders to the Sea Dramaturg
Sonoma State University, Spring 2013

Program Notes and Study Guide

  1. Synopsis
    This brief synopsis reviews the plot and characters of the opera.
  2. Discussion Questions
    Instructors can use these questions to prompt discussion either before or after seeing the show.

    1. Riders to the Sea was originally a play created by J.M. Synge. The play was adapted into an opera around 1938 by Vaughan Williams. Vaughan Williams had been a nurse in World War I (1914-1918), many years earlier. How do you think Vaughan Williams’s choice to adapt this play into an opera connects with his experience in WWI? Why do you think this opera was chosen to be performed today in 2013?

    2. Why do you think Bartley decided to try and take the pony to Connemara, despite his mother’s warnings and concerns?

    3.Why was Maurya, the mother, not able to allow herself to give her blessing to Bartley?

    4. Since Bartley was said to be pushed off the rocks by Michael upon the grey pony, do you really believe this could be Michael? Was it a ghost? Was it a figment of Maurya’s imagination?

    5. Do you think that Mauyra showed favoritism of one daughter over the other? Why or why not?

    6. Please compare and contrast the lifestyle of the Aran Islands or the story of Riders to the Sea to your own life. Can you find any similarities?

    7. Since Riders to the Sea is a one act play, why do you think it was paired with The Deserted Island? What was a connection between the two acts?

    8. What do you think will happen to the family now that the last male has died?

  3. Brief biography of John Millington Synge, (PDF) playwright of the original stage play of
    Riders to the Sea John Millington Synge (1871-1909) was one of Ireland's greatest writers. He wrote the play Riders to the Sea in 1903, and it would later become the source text for Ralph Vaughan Williams's opera adaptation. This link offers a brief biography.
  4. Brief biographyof Ralph Vaughan Williams , the composer who adapted Synge’s play into an opera. Ralph (pronounced "Rafe") Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) was one of the greatest composers of the twentieth century. This link offers a brief biography.
  5. The “Lost Generation” of WWI and its connection to Riders from the Sea (PDF)
    When Vaughan Williams decided to adapt Synge's Riders to the Sea into an opera, he was inspired in part by the horrors he had seen in World War I, a war which deciminated the young men of Europe, who became known afterwards as a "lost generation." This article discusses the effects of the "lost generation" on the women they left behind.
  6. Irish Folklore in Riders to the Sea (PDF)
    Riders to the Sea is steeped in the folk traditions of Irish folklore. What is the relationship between red cloth and death? Why is significance of a ghost of a horse? This article gives you access to the powerful lore of an ancient culture.
  7. Ghosts in Society and Culture (PDF)
    This article reviews the significance of ghosts across societies -- culturally, psychically, and historically.
  8. The Aran Islands – Photo Essay (PDF)
    These photos, ranging in time from the 1930s to today, show the Aran Islands from Ralph Vaughan Williams's time to now.