Critical Context

Typically, Austin Clarke’s plays are set in medieval Ireland, in the period between the coming of Christianity in the fifth century and the arrival of the Normans in the twelfth. In this choice of historical setting Clarke was making a departure from the emphasis of earlier playwrights of the Irish Literary Renaissance on the heroic pre-Christian era.

Through his own plays, and through the foundation of the Dublin Verse-Speaking Society in 1940, Clarke sought to continue the revival of verse drama begun in Ireland by William Butler Yeats—and, like Yeats, he felt that one-act plays were most suitable for lyric drama. In imitation of the techniques of medieval Irish verse, Clarke devised a lyric style of dense prosodic patterning, which he modified in his plays to accommodate normal speech rhythms. Wishing on one hand to avoid the ritualistic language of Yeats’s verse plays, which tended to be spoken in a near-chanting style, and on the other hand believing that T. S. Eliot’s style of verse drama was too prosaic, Clarke aimed at a middle ground which he called “lyrical speaking, . . . a delicate balance between opposites, in which meter, rhythm, meaning are all held in control.”

Clarke’s drama has been criticized for the density of its poetry and for occasionally cumbersome stagecraft, but As the Crow Flies avoids these pitfalls; it is generally felt to be his finest play, blending both his comic and his more somber moods. Selection of the story reflects Clarke’s erudition: The plot’s source is a medieval folktale, “The Adventures of Léithin,” translated by Douglas Hyde in his Legends of Saints and Sinners (1915). The thematic development of the story emphasizes the same drama of conscience, oscillation of light and dark, conflict between natural emotion and Christian dogma, that dominates Clarke’s poetry of the period, particularly in the book Night and Morning (1938).