William Butler Yeats’s reputation justly rests on his achievements in poetry, yet a considerable portion of that work is written for two or more voices and, therefore, is dramatic. Indeed, his first literary compositions were long dramatic poems, and throughout his life, he continued to publish his plays and poems side by side. Yeats believed that the language of poetry best represented imaginative reality, the life of the soul, or the introspective or subjective consciousness, as opposed to the spirit of science, the modern, extroverted age, the objective consciousness that draws its identity from external circumstances and that finds its appropriate expression in dramatic realism. Therefore, throughout a career as a dramatist consisting of four distinct phases, Yeats’s sympathies remained mystical, Symbolist, and removed from the mainstream of popular drama. Nevertheless, he is one of the genuinely original dramatists of the twentieth century, with influences on verse drama and the work of Samuel Beckett.
The Countess Cathleen
When Yeats joined talents and ambitions with Lady Gregory and Edward Martyn to form the Irish Literary Theatre in 1899, his first contributions to the venture were The Countess Cathleen and Cathleen ni Houlihan. The former is a rather static verse drama in which a heroic native aristocrat sells her soul to merchant-demons in order to save the starving peasants. The play aroused controversy over its doctrinal content in Catholic Ireland, and its author’s doughty defense of independence in artistic and patriotic self-expression established a pattern that was often to repeat itself.
Cathleen ni Houlihan
Yeats’s most dramatically successful early work, however, is Cathleen ni Houlihan, one of several peasant plays that Yeats wrote. The play depicts in realistic terms the diversion of a young man’s intentions from his impending marriage to a phase of the 1798 rebellion in Ireland. An anonymous old woman becomes a young queen because of the heroic commitment of Michael Gillane. Here is The Land of Heart’s Desire rewritten in nationalist terms: The thrifty realism of the peasants gradually yields to the incantatory power of the old woman’s lament, and the political allegory is triumphantly announced in the famous curtain line. With Maud Gonne in the title role reciting the credo of nationalist Ireland, Yeats was accused of producing unworthy propaganda. He protested that it came to him in a dream, but like the subject matter of all of his early work, its origins are demonstrably in the native folklore that Yeats had been collecting and studying since his conversion to the cause of Ireland’s cultural distinctiveness. The theme of this particular play is, indeed, traceable through popular ballad to the Gaelic aisling (vision) convention and to the theme of the lady and the king found in medieval Irish literature. Its power on an Irish stage is therefore attributable to more than its last line. Yeats was to wonder, with some justification, how much this play contributed to the Easter Rebellion of 1916.
The Cuchulain Plays
Before the heroism of that week burst on his and the nation’s consciousness, Yeats was cultivating in himself and on the stage of the Abbey Theatre a renewed appreciation of the literature of ancient Ireland and its exaltation of heroic individualism, eloquence, aristocracy, and paganism. In the figure of Cuchulain, the hero of the Ulster Cycle, Yeats found the embodiment of these virtues, and he wrote a series of five plays dramatizing episodes from the hero’s lone defense of Ulster, beginning with On Baile’s Strand . Among Cuchulain’s challengers is a young man in whom Cuchulain notes a resemblance to his abandoned wife, Aoife. Caught between his natural affinity for this image and his oath to King Conchubar to defend the province against intruders, Cuchulain is driven to combat. Too late, he discovers that the dead boy is his own son, and in his anguish, he rushes, sword in hand, into the waves until he drowns.
This play marks a significant advance in technique on Yeats’s early dramatic efforts in its tight control and complexity of theme. The theme of conflicting loyalties operates at several levels simultaneously, so that Cuchulain’s roles as loyal soldier, independent hero, father, and son all conspire to bring on his tragic self-destruction. The framing device of the Fool and the Blind Man functions as an ironic lowlife commentary on the serious central action, while at the same time casting up counterpart images of Conchubar and Cuchulain as creatures guided by similarly fitful lights.
Yeats went on to write four other Cuchulain plays, The Golden Helmet, At the Hawk’s Well, The Only Jealousy of Emer, and The Death of Cuchulain, as well as several others drawn from Celtic sources made available by translators such as Lady Gregory. His dissatisfaction with modern realism, however, with its focus on the drama of individual character, distanced him from the kind of work that made the Abbey Theatre popular. When Ezra Pound introduced Yeats in 1913 to the N theater of Japan, Yeats recognized the tradition which would enable him to shape his own ideas into a successful poetic drama.
The Dreaming of the Bones
The Japanese N drama dates from the late Middle Ages, has strong Zen elements, and is highly stylized. It is a symbolic drama, developing the resources of mask, gesture, chanted dialogue, slow rhythmic dance, ornamental costume, chorus, and flute and drum to create an atmosphere of passionate reverie contained beneath an elegant repose. Yeats was attracted by the tone of gravity, detachment, mystery, grace, and nobility in these plays. His Spiritualist sympathies predisposed him to appreciate plays that featured figures in the process of “dreaming back” moments of extreme passion in their lives as they sought release from human desires and entrance into final peace. In his Four Plays for Dancers, especially The Dreaming of the Bones as well as in several later plays, these influences are evident. The Dreaming of the Bones is designed in two scenes joined by a choral interlude, according to the structure of a fantasy-style N such as Nishikigi. The Subordinate Player (here the Young Man) encounters the Main Players (here the Stranger and Young Girl) in a historical spot (the Abbey of Corcomroe) at a historical moment (1916). The Main Players tell the story of the place and ask for prayers and forgiveness of the Young Man, finally revealing themselves as the ghosts of Diarmuid MacMorrough and Dervorgilla (the twelfth century couple whose marriage was instrumental in the Norman invasion of Ireland). Because the Young Man is a modern Irish patriot for whom that liaison was the original sexual-political transgression, he refuses, and the couple is left to continue their purgatorial “dreaming back” of their tragic sin. The various themes of the play—dream, war, resurrection, cyclic change—coalesce in the emblems of the birds in the Musicians’ final chorus. Subsequent experiments with the N form demonstrate Yeats’s greater facility in adapting it to the expression of his own views of the afterlife and his mythologization of the Irish past—especially in The Only Jealousy of Emer, The Words upon the Window-pane, and Purgatory.
The Words upon the Window-Pane
The Words upon the Window-Pane is a daringly successful combination of naturalism, Spiritualism, the “dreaming back” from the N, and Yeats’s latter-day identification with eighteenth century Anglo-Ireland. In this dramatization of a Dublin séance, the tortured spirit of Jonathan Swift is invoked, though remaining unrecognized by any except the literary scholar John Corbet. Swift, the representative of intellectuality, classical ideals, and the natural aristocracy of Ireland, “dreams back” his rejection of the opportunity for fatherhood offered by Vanessa, thereby sharing Yeats’s rejection of the “filthy modern tide” that would likely be their issue. In his management of middle-class character and dialogue, Yeats shows his capacities in the naturalistic style, but the dramatic coup here comes in the final scene, when these conventions are broken and the audience is left alone with an order of reality beyond the reach of skeptic or scholar.
In Purgatory, one of his last plays, Yeats achieved his most concentrated work for stage. The setting and action are symbolic, the language a brilliant fusion of colloquial and poetic idiom. The Old Man, the product of a marriage between a big house and a stable, lost his aristocratic mother at his birth and later murdered his drunken father. Now, accompanied by his son, the Old Man visits the scene of his parents’ unfortunate wedding—unfortunate because it betrayed class and because it produced him, a parricide. In an attempt to break the chain of evil, the Old Man stabs his son, but to no avail: The spirits of his parents are trapped in a perpetual repetition of their crime, unless God intervenes. Here, Yeats has devised a complex dramatic symbol for the demise of aristocratic Anglo-Ireland, the approach of global conflict, and the relationship between the living conscience and the stages of spiritual purgation to be encountered after death. The play is thus a summary exposition of Yeats’s social and philosophical views in the later years of his life, drawing on the disciplines of language and construction that he had refined over a lifetime of experimentation.