The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The action of The Words upon the Window-Pane takes place in the parlor of a now-seedy Dublin boardinghouse that has an illustrious history. Built in the eighteenth century and originally owned by friends of Jonathan Swift, the house has had as its occupants two celebrated Irish patriots, as well as Esther Johnson (1681-1728), Swift’s “Stella.”

As the one-act play opens, guests are arriving for a séance, to be conducted by Mrs. Henderson, a medium who has journeyed from London at the invitation of the Dublin Spiritualists’ Association. The participants are greeted by Dr. Trench, the Association’s president, and Miss Mackenna, its secretary. The first arrival is John Corbet, a doctoral candidate at the University of Cambridge who is writing a thesis on the relationship between Swift and Stella. Corbet declares his skepticism of spiritualism, and Dr. Trench responds by relating the story of his own early disbelief until his conversion during a séance much like that which is about to take place. Trench explains to Corbet that Mrs. Henderson will act as a medium for the voices of the dead; he cautions Corbet, however, that a “hostile influence” has disrupted Mrs. Henderson’s past séance.

Trench is interrupted by the arrival of Cornelius Patterson, a gambler, whose interest in spiritualism is chiefly to learn whether horse races are run in the life after death. Switching topics, Trench tells Corbet the history of the house and points out the lines from one of Stella’s poems, incised on the glass of the parlor’s window. While Corbet attempts to read the now faintly cut lines in the dim light, Abraham Johnson enters. Johnson, an itinerant preacher, is anxious to rid the séance of its hostile influence by reciting the rite of exorcism, but he is dissuaded by Dr. Trench.

Corbet now recognizes the poem cut into the glass—four lines written by Stella for Swift’s fifty-fourth birthday:

You taught how I might youth prolongBy knowing what is right and wrong,How from my heart to bring suppliesOf lustre to my fading eyes.

Trench and Corbet discuss Swift’s dual tragedy, his...

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The Words upon the Window-Pane Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The most striking dramatic element in The Words upon the Window-Pane is the play’s joining of naturalistic setting and characterization with a supernatural central action more in keeping with the fantasy of Yeats’s earlier dramatic work. The characters verge on being the stock figures of Irish melodrama—the bragging gambler, the motherly Mrs. Mallet, the deranged fundamentalist preacher. The play’s locale, too, is reminiscent of early twentieth century naturalism. Thus, characters and setting frame the supernatural action of the drama.

Yeats turns the conventions of naturalism against naturalism’s usual intent—to portray human beings as victims of historical and economic fate. The passionate interchanges between the disembodied spirits of Swift and Vanessa, and Swift and Stella, come to assume more emotional reality than the “real,” tangible existences of the living characters who witness this reenactment of long-dead events. In a sense, the social determinism of naturalist theater molds the lives of the living characters while, at the same time, the heroic dead finally escape it. The undisguised irony here is that those who might be supposed to have some control over their social roles, the living, are helpless before them, and those who can only reenact their lives on earth triumph over their circumstances.

The one-act structure, from which Yeats rarely departed, is well calculated to reinforce the significance of...

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The Words upon the Window-Pane Bibliography

(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Archibald, Douglas N. M. Yeats. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Book Demand, 1983.

Brown, Terence. The Life of William Butler Yeats: A Critical Biography. Oxford, England: Blackwell, 1999.

Dorn, Karen. Players and Painted Stage: The Theatre of W. B. Yeats. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes and Noble Books, 1984.

Harper, George Mills. The Mingling of Heaven and Earth: Yeats’s Theory of Theatre. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1975.

Knowland, A. S. W. B. Yeats: Dramatist of Vision. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes and Noble Books, 1983.

Moore, John Rees. Masks of Love and Death: Yeats as Dramatist. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1971.

Nathan, Leonard E. The Tragic Drama of William Butler Yeats. New York: Columbia University Press, 1965.

Rajan, Balachandra. W. B. Yeats: A Critical Introduction. 2d ed. London: Hutchinson, 1969.

Skelton, Robin, and Ann Saddlemyer, eds. The World of W. B. Yeats. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1967.

Watanabe, Nancy. A Beloved Image: The Drama of W. B. Yeats, 1865-1939. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1995.