Austin Clarke began his literary career as a poet. His first published works were several simple poems that appeared in 1916 and 1917 in a Dublin weekly, New Ireland. His first significant published poem was The Vengeance of Fionn. This epic poem and the other poems Clarke wrote early in his career drew heavily on Irish myth and the legends of pre-Christian Ireland. During the 1920’s, Clarke turned from these themes to medieval Ireland and the monastic tradition as a source of poetic inspiration. In the 1930’s, he abandoned these influences to write what could be called confessional poetry, particularly on subjects concerning the conflict between human intellect and the limits imposed by religious dogma. His own Catholic upbringing and subsequent difficulties with the Irish Catholic Church served as an important source of inspiration during this period.
After a self-imposed exile in England that began in 1922, Clarke returned to Ireland in 1937. Between 1937 and 1955, there was a long silence in Clarke’s poetic output. Instead, he turned to the writing of verse drama and worked actively for the support of the production of his own verse plays and those of other Irish verse playwrights, including Yeats. Clarke’s first two verse plays had been written in England: The Son of Learning and The Flame. All his subsequent dramas were written in Ireland between 1939 and 1974. Two plays, The Third Kiss and Liberty Lane, were published posthumously.
None of the major writers of drama in post-Revival Ireland— Sean O’Casey, Lennox Robinson, George Shiels, Paul Vincent Carroll, the collaborators Frank O’Connor and Hugh Hunt—wrote verse plays. Clarke was essentially alone in his continued commitment to this dramatic form. At the Abbey Theatre, the only verse plays to have been presented in the first third of the twentieth century were those of Yeats.
Clarke’s first play, The Son of Learning, was written in 1927 while he was in England. Although Yeats rejected it on behalf of the Abbey, it was performed at the Cambridge Festival Theatre in October, 1927. The performance was repeated by the Lyric Theatre Company at the Abbey in 1945.
Clarke’s poetic drama drew, like the poetry of his early and middle career, on Irish myth, the folklore and legends of pre-Christian Ireland, and medieval Ireland and its monastic traditions. Although Clarke followed Yeats as a writer of verse drama , and although his own verse drama company performed Yeats’s plays, the tenor of Clarke’s own verse plays differs significantly from the austerity, formality, and symbolic structures Yeats favored. Like his own later poetry, Clarke’s verse dramas focus on human conflicts and dilemmas, on the problems of individual freedom in the face of religious dogmatism. They blend, in an essentially satisfying way, comedy and tragedy. A comic view of life and a well-developed sense of the absurdity of the human condition motivate many of the major and minor characters in Clarke’s dramas.
The plays in Clarke’s dramatic canon are clearly uneven in quality. Although critics have varied in the rigor with which they have addressed and judged Clarke’s drama, there is general agreement that a good part of the dramatic writing will today sustain the interest of only the most serious student of modern Irish literature. The best writing in Clarke’s verse plays emphasizes his range and versatility as both poet and dramatist. Even in the least successful of his plays, Clarke’s effects are neither entirely unsatisfactory nor entirely frivolous. Nearly every one of his plays is, at heart, a study of the conflict between the individual and the community—more specifically, between the Irish Church and Irish society, and the natural instincts of the common Irishman and Irishwoman. Clarke recast this basic conflict in settings as wide-ranging as those of his nondramatic poetry.
Some of the less successful plays, such as Black Fast, Sister Eucharia, and The Plot Is Ready, are of interest mainly because of the intellectual questions and conflicts of conscience they present and the ambiguity in which the “resolution” in each play leaves the reader/viewer. The Moment Next to Nothing was simply an unsuccessful attempt to translate into dramatic form Clarke’s last novel, The Sun Dances at Easter, which had been banned in Ireland.
Seven short, minor plays on various themes are of little dramatic consequence, except that they often display Clarke’s fine sense of language and his ability to work within such earlier dramatic traditions as masque and farce. The Kiss and The Second Kiss, both written in couplets, are light, short pieces that deal amusingly with the amorous adventures of Pierrot and his love, Columbine. Two short plays drawn from the works of Miguel de Cervantes, The Student from Salamanca and The Silent Lover, are bawdy little farces written in the form of the...
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