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Death

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The appearance of death, attitudes toward it, and its impact on those left behind are common themes in modern drama, as in all literature. While some playwrights seek placatory justification for their characters’ deaths, others portray them as a senseless waste. We see a consideration of both perspectives in J. M. Synge’s Riders to the Sea , with its Biblical references and the tragic death of a woman’s husband and six sons. While Synge ensures that we understand that these men were needlessly lost through poverty, we also see a mother comforted by her faith.


The contraction of religious belief among many during the past century has affected attitudes toward death. Because of a wavering belief in the afterlife and the suspicion that death may not be part of some greater plan, it has become harder to view death as reward or salvation; instead, it is seen more as a needless loss. Because of the countless deaths caused by war during this period, from two world wars to more recent conflicts, including those in Korea, Vietnam, and the Persian Gulf, it is unsurprising that a number of modern plays consider the plight of the soldier killed in conflict, encompassing the feelings of those killed, the reactions of officers, relatives, and friends, as well as possible rationales for such slaughter. A prime example of this is Irwin Shaw’s Bury the Dead , which takes place during the “second year of the war that is to begin tomorrow night” (5). It takes as its premise the refusal of the slain to be buried, through which Shaw explores social perceptions of death, most particularly at times of war, from the side of both the living and the dead.


Not everyone clings to life so tenaciously. There is also the issue of suicide, the person who decides to take his or her own life, a topic that is explored in sympathetic detail in Marsha Norman’s ‘night Mother . A number of modern plays, such as Brian Clark’s Whose Life is It Anyway? (1978), deal with people   who are terminally ill or approaching death through aging, and the focus in most of these plays is on how the living communicate with the dying, and on how to die. In ‘night Mother the decision to die has been made before the play begins. Whether or not Jessie will commit suicide is not the issue; more to the point is why, and we are shown how the mother reacts to her daughter’s drastic decision.


Set on Aran, an impoverished island off Ireland, Riders to the Sea begins with two sisters, Cathleen and Nora, hiding evidence of their brother Michael’s drowning. They decide that it is better for their mother, Maurya, not to know for sure that he has been drowned because her hope for his return partly sustains her. Bartley, Maurya’s last remaining son, prepares to transport two horses across to the mainland for sale. Full of superstition, the women worry, and their fears come true. As Bartley rides to the sea on his red mare, Maurya has a vision of his ghostly brother riding behind him on the other, grey pony, and soon after we hear that the grey has knocked Bartley into the sea to his death.


Our focus is not on the multiple deaths, but on how the living are affected by them and how they cope with their seemingly endless mourning. Synge engages our sympathy for the women as they vainly wait for the men of their family to return. They have their faith tested by a never-ending stream of misfortune. Bartley reportedly told his sister that for his mother’s sake he cannot die: “Almighty God won’t leave her destitute … with no son living” (176), even though he knows there is a strong chance he won’t survive. It turns out that God does just this; yet Maurya’s faith is sufficient to sustain her. Making the best of events, she finds comfort in the belief that all of her male children are now together, and she has no more sons left to grieve, so she can finally relax. As she stoically declares, “No man at all can be living forever, and we must be satisfied” (189).


Her stoicism is born of her faith, and religious references run throughout the play. The title reflects passages from Exodus (15:1)—"The horse and his rider hath He thrown into the sea"—and Revelations (6:1-8)—"And I looked and beheld a pale horse: and his name that sat on it was Death." These combine to convey the fated nature of Bartley’s end. Besides these biblical allusions, there are further echoes in the way the three women sprinkle holy water on Michael’s clothing, reminiscent of the three women anointing the body of Jesus on Easter morning, and indicative of the resurrected vision Maurya has just had of Michael.


However, this Christian belief is blended with pagan superstition. Beliefs that the dead often cause the death of a loved one out of loneliness, and that they dislike people using their former possessions, condemn Bartley on two counts. He dies as company for his brother or as punishment for wearing his brother’s shirt. It is also significant that Maurya cannot give Bartley her blessing while holding Michael’s stick. The point is that in such a community the dead are viewed as having power beyond their demise, perhaps because they so outnumber the living.


Despite the high tide, extreme wind, and persuasions of the local priest enlisted by Maurya to keep him home, Bartley insists on making this trip. But it is the family’s extreme poverty that forces him to go and not any death wish: they desperately need the money he can obtain from the sale. Their poverty is emphasized by the squabble Bartley has with his sister over using a piece of rope to make a halter for the horse: even such a small item has extreme value in this impoverished household. As the last surviving male, Bartley feels compelled to provide for his family.


With no source of income available on the island, the men of Aran are forced to face the hostile and dangerous waters that surround them to prove their manhood, and the women cannot stop them. Never seeing Michael, but just the remnants of his clothing, is a powerful symbol of the depths to which a man can be reduced by the elements: a pile of worthless rags. To illustrate mankind’s continual and often tragic struggle against nature, Maurya loses six children and her husband all to the sea. The white boards that have been set aside to create a coffin for Michael when his drowned body is found are now to be used for Bartley, once the family can afford the nails—the play ending with another indication of the extreme poverty of these people’s lives.


What should be a place of safe haven, a loving family, is turned upside down by death, as Maurya’s speech indicates on taking Michael’s walking stick: “In the big world the old people do be leaving things after them for their sons and children, but in this place it is the young men do be leaving things behind for them that do be old” (181). What hope for the future is left for these people as their young men disappear? A culture cannot be sustained by the women and elderly alone. There is a sense of dreadful waste verging on apocalypse as we watch a community become decimated by poverty and pointless death, and the women forced to struggle on alone, despite any comfort given to them by their faith.


Bury the Dead exposes the randomness of death, as it questions the validity of wars, and forces us to acknowledge the humanity within a pile of corpses. In the middle of a battlefield, a burial detail complain while digging a grave for their fallen comrades, but they do not perceive those they bury as human with any rights to individuality, as the collective grave indicates. A priest and rabbi arrive to pray for them, but the dead stand up and refuse to be buried, wanting to maintain their connection to the living world. Superior officers, priests, and the partners and relatives of the dead all unsuccessfully try to persuade them to lie down in their grave. One of their own generals tries to shoot them down, but they just walk away. Devastated by his failure, he is forced to watch as the living soldiers join the dead in a walkout on the institution of war. Shaw has pointed out a simple solution to war: if people refuse to fight, then a war cannot occur.


 

From the play’s start we are made aware of the soldiers’ reluctance to kill, as the First Soldier declares, referring to the enemy, “I get a lot more pleasure killin’ rats then killin’ them” (7). These are not professional soldiers, but men drafted for the war, taken away from their regular lives, and death scares them. The examining doctor’s descriptions of how each of the dead men died is a litany of the terrible things that happen to soldiers in the course of a conflict. These living soldiers are initially uncomfortable with their dead fellows-at-arms, but the openness of their fallen comrades gradually wins them over; they exchange cigarettes, sing, and finally combine forces against the real enemy—the war itself.


Shaw’s play raises serious questions about how we view the dead, especially in time of war. Initially it seems that the sergeant is the only one who has any respect for the bodies they are burying, but what he really respects is the way they died, in action. No one wants to recognize the individuality of the deceased, preferring to cover them up as soon as possible with a swift burial so they do not have to think about them, and the church seems complicit in this aim. As the First General declares, “War can be fought and won only when the dead are buried and forgotten” (28). By this, Shaw points out that if people were forced to face the reality of death brought about by such conflicts, they would be less eager to engage in war. The Generals realize that men who refuse to be buried cannot be conveniently forgotten, and this could destroy the morale of those continuing to fight.


The Generals tell the dead that it is their patriotic duty to be buried, but the corpses ignore them; it was patriotism that got them killed in the first place and they want no part of it. The First General declares, “We’re a civilized race, we bury our dead” (21), but fails to see the irony in such words—for what truly civilized race so lightly creates so many corpses to be buried? The phrase “bury our dead” begins to take on unpleasant connotations beyond the concept of literal burial. Death is something with which most of us are uncomfortable, so we bury any connection to it as quickly as possible. We use euphemisms, such as “passed on” or “laid to rest,” to avoid even talking about death, and insist on heavenly rewards to alleviate our fears about the possible end that death might mean. These dead refuse to accept the notion that “There is peace in the grave” (25), or the religious dogma that people are better off dead so they can enter heaven. They resent having lost their lives for “twenty-five yards of bloody muck” (23), and have decided to make sure others do not make the same mistake.


The Captain challenges the Generals to talk to the corpses directly rather than remain at their usual distance from the men they so casually order into battle. He tries to force them to confront the humanity of the fodder they have been using to prosecute this war, but the Generals resist to the end. But for all his sympathy, the Captain has little more understanding of the needs of the dead than the Generals do. He listens to their complaints, but then imposes his beliefs on them. He insists that the world is an awful place in which they have  no rights and “the only sure things are death and despair” (24), so they are better off dead and free of it. The dead disagree, asserting their intention to reclaim the earth for themselves, for they are no longer going to allow themselves to be told what to do by others.


Since superior officers, philosophy, and religion fail to persuade the dead to lie down, various relatives are brought in to try. This achieves exactly what the army had been avoiding—it allows the corpses to become individualized, for when they talk to their nearest living connections we learn something about each of their lives. By humanizing the dead in this way, Shaw prevents us from making death so tidy. A silent corpse may seem devoid of humanity, but when it talks back we are forced to recognize the life that has been lost forever. They are given names, backgrounds, and individual reasons why they do not want to be buried. We also witness individual people’s responses to the death of a loved one, which are more personal than those of commanding officers, and further bring these corpses “to life.” Webster’s wife is the only one who does not ask her husband to lie down; she complains he has taken so long to stand up for himself. For Shaw, her concern applies to all people called up to serve their country in a war in which they cannot personally believe.


In ‘night Mother we listen as Jessie Cates prepares her Mama to accept her impending demise. Norman refuses to sentimentalize the play’s issues; this is no easy death because of terminal illness but a conscious ending of a life. Jessie is a middle-aged epileptic who, since her divorce, has been living with her mother. She has recently come to a realization of how unhappy her life is. Her decision to commit suicide reflects a need to take control of her life—the loss of control being symbolized, to some extent, by her epilepsy. We are not witnessing a debate so much as an explanation; Mama cannot make Jessie change her mind. Jessie’s attempt to rationalize her decision is not for herself, but for her mother. Her effort results in a moment of connection and, possibly, understanding, between the two characters.


When Mama conjures up the accepted clichés by which we tend to regard suicide—suicidal people are overly upset, retarded, deranged, abnormal—we realize that Norman subverts such responses because Jessie is presented as none of the above. Jessie is calm, intelligent, rational, and essentially ordinary. This makes her suicide all the more shocking because its impulse resonates in many of our lives: we can no longer separate ourselves from those who commit suicide as if they have no connection to our “normal lives.”


The bedroom door is the focal point of the set so we never lose sight of Jessie’s aim—to go into that room and kill herself. The door is a point of both “threat and promise” (3), which encompasses the extreme possibilities of Jessie’s act. We are not allowed to expect a dramatic turnaround or rescue, and never doubt that Jessie will successfully commit suicide. The play shows why she has come to this decision and how her mother reacts. Though Jessie tells her mother about her plan to commit suicide in advance, this is neither a cry for help nor an indication that she wishes to be stopped; it is not a spur-of-the-moment decision. Jessie has waited until she feels well before going through with her suicide plans, and her desire to kill herself cannot be attributed to her illness, but goes deeper.


Norman establishes familiarity with a realistic set, colloquial speech, and the mundane activities Jessie performs. This is stripped away as Jessie announces her decision to kill herself, and the two characters struggle for control. Jessie has the advantage of surprise, but Mama rallies and tries to bring reason, threats, bribes, and diversions to bear, even suggesting that Jessie may foul up and end up as a vegetable. What she has not grasped is that Jessie already feels like a vegetable. When Mama tries to take responsibility for the suicide onto herself, Jessie objects: “It doesn’t have anything to do with you!” (72), and she is right. Mama finally sees this and acknowledges Jessie’s autonomy, allowing her to claim ownership of herself.


Jessie’s decisive, competent actions contrast with her appearance, which is “vaguely unsteady” (2). Her paleness suggests the paucity of her life spirit. Jessie’s control is only psychological, and she is forever threatened by a physical betrayal. For this reason alone, her current sense of determination and control offers her something she cannot afford to ignore. It gives her an energy and a “sense of purpose” (2) she has lacked all her life. Always a loner, people, including her own family, tend to avoid contact with her, for Jessie makes them uncomfortable. She never leaves the house; Jessie and her mother even have their groceries delivered. Her mother is a stranger to Jessie, despite the familiarity of living together in a regular routine. Jessie’s life has become little more than a series of lists and schedules. The house is filled with Mama’s clutter rather than a joint mess, for Jessie’s presence has left no mark, indicating how little of Jessie actually remains.


Given the person Jessie has become, she feels she has no future, so she may as well end it now rather than live on without hope. In doing so she takes charge. Tired of having other people rule her life, she wants control for herself. She has logically eliminated every reason she might have had for remaining alive: “I’m just not having a very good time and I don’t have any reason to think it’ll get anything but worse. I’m tired. I’m hurt. I’m sad. I feel used” (28). Jessie’s belief and action are not meant to be an answer for others; this is merely what Jessie believes is true for herself. All she has left that is her own is her life, and she declares her right to say “no” to it. She embraces death as her only remaining choice.


Yet Norman still allows us to sympathize with Mama as a survivor with her guilt as she mourns the loss of her daughter. Part of the play’s strength comes from Norman allowing us to sympathize with both Jessie and Mama. Both are given an opportunity to confess and unburden themselves of various failures and jealousies. Mother and daughter finally manage not only authentic communication, but intimacy. Such a moment gives Mama something to live for. Her life, in many ways, has been as empty as Jessie’s, yet she chooses to live—   just as rationally as Jessie chooses to die. As she tells us: “I don’t know what I’m here for, but then I don’t think about it” (49).




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