Critical Context

The Words upon the Window-Pane is without question the least typical of Yeats’s plays, at least in apparent structure. In some respects, the work seems more akin to Sean O’Casey’s gritty Irish realism or George Bernard Shaw’s ironic exposure of contemporary self-deceptions. However, all the authentic Yeatsian dramatic elements are also present: the fascination with the supernatural, the obsessive concern with Irish history, and the mystery of human mortality, the play’s N-like structure centering on an overwhelming pivotal event.

The play is also one of Yeats’s most autobiographical, at least in terms of the drama’s basic premise, the séance. Yeats had attended many such séances and other spiritualistic encounters and had during the 1920’s composed A Vision, a mystical work based on his wife’s gift for automatic writing. He brings to the plot, then, his intimate and realistic knowledge of the kinds of people—sincere mystics and opportunistic cynics—who participate in séances; at the same time, the action of the play depends on Yeats’s actual belief in the ability of the living to contact the dead.

The concern with Swift’s old age, as well as his emblematic status as a member of the Anglo-Irish gentry, also reflects Yeats’s image of himself during these last years of his life. Increasingly disillusioned with both the wider failures of Western society and the more specific collapse of Irish...

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