William Butler Yeats first published a version of the story of the Countess Kathleen O’Shea in his collection Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry (1888), and appears to have conceived of a play based on the story at around the same time. Although he later dismissed the play, his first and longest major dramatic work, as merely “a piece of tapestry,” Yeats was unable to dismiss the idea from his imagination. For more than thirty years, he repeatedly revised The Countess Cathleen to bring it into line with his evolving vision of poetry and the theater.
Unable to fit the play into the formalized symbolism of Yeats’s later drama, many writers have examined The Countess Cathleen only in terms of its role in the development of the Irish theater. Yeats published an early version in 1892. The play was not performed, however, until 1899, after at least one major revision, when it was half of the playlist of the inaugural season of the Irish National Theater.
The Dublin premiere was politically controversial; protesters objected to the play’s unorthodox theology and allegedly slanderous depiction of Irish peasants—even before the play was staged. Religious authorities objected to Yeats’s conclusion that, “The Light of Lights/ Looks always on the motive, not the deed”; while nationalists insisted no Irishman would ever sell his soul. These sorts of objections were prophetic of later conflicts between Irish playwrights and the public. Organized hecklers tried to disrupt the first performance, disgusting the young James Joyce, who was present. Despite these protests, however, the first performance was enthusiastically received by much of the audience.
The play’s role in theater history has distracted attention from the play itself, which critics of Yeats’s drama seldom treat favorably. The frequent revisions, none of which brought out the “personal thought and feeling” that Yeats claimed were his real goals in writing it, make it easy to see The Countess Cathleen as a failure. The more intense poetry and more accomplished drama of his later plays also contributed to a critical focus on the play’s flaws, as did Yeats’s own judgment.
Such dismissals obscure the play’s thematic strengths: the patterned exposition of conflicts between private and public roles, between responsibility to the real world and fulfillment of the dream, between the motive and the deed. Yeats sought to portray this metaphysical conflict in the person of Cathleen and conceded that, insofar as she undergoes no dramatic transformation, the play does not succeed. The internal conflict is over almost before it begins. Cathleen vows in the second scene to place others’ joys and sorrows before her own, and never thereafter appears seriously tempted to renege on the vow.
Even the play’s detractors grant that its strength is lyric rather than dramatic. Linguistic expression, not plot and characterization, is what is most impressive and original about the play. In some versions, the play was subtitled “A Mystery Play,” suggesting another way to read it. Placing its story of sacrifice and redemption in the context of medieval religious mysteries shifts the emphasis from drama of character to the contrasts between the allegorical figures of the play. Each major figure occupies a different position in the debate between the demands of public and private life, highlighting different aspects of Cathleen’s choices. Aleel, the poet, urges Cathleen to embrace his dream of love and thus to transfer (but not to abandon) her public responsibility to the peasantry to others. He fails to tempt Cathleen with his songs of fairyland, but his poetic vision enables him to see her final assumption into heaven, confirming her choice and...
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his visionary perspective. Mary Rua, the peasant’s wife, holds to orthodox theology. She will have no dealings with devils and so saves her soul even as her body dies. A countess, unlike a peasant, has a public as well as a private responsibility, so Cathleen’s choice must be to compromise with evil in the interests of a greater good. Her compromise represents the triumph of public responsibility over personal satisfaction. It is a subtle reading of the relationship between good and evil.
Yeats’s play can be seen as an allegory cataloging the forms of response to worldly concerns. Cathleen’s willingness to sacrifice herself in the interest of her peasants contrasts to the selfish desperation of the peasants who sell their souls, to the distant refusal of Aleel to abandon hopeless love, and to the stern refusal to compromise of Mary, none of which prove useful in relieving suffering. Despite the objections of dogmatists, the play presents a fairly orthodox response to the problem of evil, a response from which Yeats would move away as his artistic vision developed.