William Butler Yeats first published a version of the story of the Countess Kathleen O’Shea in his collection Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry (1888), and appears to have conceived of a play based on the story at around the same time. Although he later dismissed the play, his first and longest major dramatic work, as merely “a piece of tapestry,” Yeats was unable to dismiss the idea from his imagination. For more than thirty years, he repeatedly revised The Countess Cathleen to bring it into line with his evolving vision of poetry and the theater.
Unable to fit the play into the formalized symbolism of Yeats’s later drama, many writers have examined The Countess Cathleen only in terms of its role in the development of the Irish theater. Yeats published an early version in 1892. The play was not performed, however, until 1899, after at least one major revision, when it was half of the playlist of the inaugural season of the Irish National Theater.
The Dublin premiere was politically controversial; protesters objected to the play’s unorthodox theology and allegedly slanderous depiction of Irish peasants—even before the play was staged. Religious authorities objected to Yeats’s conclusion that, “The Light of Lights/ Looks always on the motive, not the deed”; while nationalists insisted no Irishman would ever sell his soul. These sorts of objections were prophetic of later conflicts between Irish playwrights and the public. Organized hecklers tried to disrupt the first performance, disgusting the young James Joyce, who was present. Despite these protests, however, the first performance was enthusiastically received by much of the audience.
The play’s role in theater history has distracted attention from the play itself, which critics of Yeats’s drama seldom treat favorably. The frequent revisions, none of which brought out the “personal thought...
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