William Butler Yeats, who is remembered primarily as one of the most celebrated and influential lyric poets of the twentieth century, produced eleven short plays based upon the heroic literature of Ireland and concerned chiefly with the exploits of the Ulster hero Cuchulain. Yeats based Deirdre, his second play, on a section of the translation of the Gaelic tale of Cuchulain of Muirthemne (1902), done by his friend, Lady Gregory, changing it slightly to suit his artistic needs. Although Padraic Colum found that the language of the play “has high excellence,” he complained that the characterizations were exasperating, the result, according to A. S. Knowland of a “mixture of naturalism and lyricism,” a mixture he agreed was uneasy. Lennox Robinson, however, called it “the most supremely satisfactory of Yeats’s one-act verse-plays.”
Yeats’s dramatic method was to pit strong characterizations in opposition, juxtaposing poetic diction and rhythms with what he called “speech close to that of daily life.” In his dialogue of 1915, The Poet and the Actress, he wrote “In every great play . . . you will find a group of characters . . . who express the dream, and another group who express its antagonist.” The aim of drama is to pit these forces against one another in battle. “Those who try to create beautiful things without this battle in the soul, are merely imitators,” he believed.
In Deirdre, Yeats presents the conflict of the otherworldly Deirdre with the powerful and crafty King Conchubar. The play proceeds in a series of oppositions. At first, Conchubar remains a...
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