These fine plays, the best and most popular short plays by the influential writer-director of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, were dedicated to the moving spirit of the group, William Butler Yeats.
The plays, produced in the years 1903 to 1909, are capsule representatives of the entire theater movement during the Irish Renaissance. They contain something of Yeats’ own poetic imagery, Synge’s mystical lyricism, and O’Casey’s critical though often comic realism.
In this collection Lady Gregory, careful scholar and folklorist, included notes and music, production dates, and names of actors which also serve to document her literary career and her activities in the theater. The notes explain the source of inspiration, name those who gave information, and define Irish terms and expressions. The music is folk in origin, though carefully transcribed and adapted, perhaps, to the demands of the theater. The production dates and casts are, of course, history.
The first short play, “Spreading the News,” began as a tragedy of the unhappy results of rumor. In 1903 what was needed, Lady Gregory says, was comedy to offset heavier pieces, and so she designed a farce of errors, the errors of false reports which involved the whole henny-penny Irish countryside. A new magistrate, very zealous to uncover law violations, followed a report of violence from the time an unexplained act of friendship—returning a pitchfork—became the ditching of an instrument used to kill the husband of a faithless spouse. The entire population of a country fair becomes radically partisan, to the extreme discomfiture of the unlucky “murderer,” who swears he will commit the rumored murder should his “victim” be put in jail with him.
“Hyacinth Halvey,” the title name of the hero, now stands as a byword for the unlucky man about whom nothing evil can be said. This play, often anthologized since its first production and printing in 1906, contrasts Halvey with Fardy Farrell, the good-natured lout about whom nothing good is said. Lady Gregory suggests that respectability can be a great burden, for young Hyacinth arrives in a small, gossipy village, where he is preceded by fulsome “characters,” recommendations from his relatives and friends. The satire is resolved when Halvey’s honest attempts to be wicked become in one instance the saving of a butcher who deals in spoiled meat and in another a covering-up of the alleged crime of poor Farrell. Hyacinth Halvey finally goes off to the courthouse to deliver a temperance lecture—sent there by the absentee speaker—on the shoulders of the townspeople, who proclaim him a kind of messiah.
Also produced in 1906, “The Gaol Gate” holds something of quiet tragedy, a keening of the wife and the mother of a man who died for a crime he did not commit, without informing on those who did. This misfortune becomes a solace to the two women who had traveled to the jail thinking the man an informer—again, village rumor. Though the symbolism is not insisted upon, the two women are both named Mary. And they leave in exaltation, knowing that Denis died for his neighbor.
In 1907 two other plays were produced. “The Jackdaw” shows the Irish temperament to be at once quixotic and rigidly practical. An improvident shopkeeper has been hailed into court for nonpayment of debt, but her brother wants to get her off and yet remain anonymous, not for reasons of modesty but to prevent her from bleeding him. A friend invents the fiction of the jackdaw which sells for ten pounds, the amount of the fine. Everyone in town then goes on a jackdaw hunt, not excluding the benefactor.
“The Rising of the Moon” is a melodrama which on production aroused some controversy among extreme Nationalists and Unionists alike. The story tells of a ragged young ballad singer, a political refugee, who makes his escape with the help of a magical song, a folksong from his native county, which proves to be the birthplace of the policeman who allows him, even helps him, to escape.
“It is better to be quarreling than alone” is the proverb upon which “The Workhouse Ward” is based. First written as the scenario of a play to further the national theater movement, this work was in 1908 expanded into a lively farce in which opposition attracts. Into a scene of violent argument between two old men in a poorhouse comes the sister of one, offering to take him to her home. The other man, a childhood friend to them both, begs to be taken too. The sister feels that his request is unreasonable, especially when her brother refuses to go without his favorite enemy, and she leaves them. The play closes on a scene of violence more devastating than that with which it opens.
The final play, for which no production date is given, is based on an international folk-tale type known as “The Greedy Peasant Woman.” “The Travelling Man” of the title is Christ, who many years ago led a homeless young girl to the lonely house of a widower, asking only that she not shut her heart upon him when he returns. Each year, the woman explains to her young daughter, she and her husband make a special cake commemorating the day (the feast day) when they were brought together. While the mother is out, the young girl invites in a tramp who plays with her and asks only a bit of food from the mother upon her return. She refuses him and reviles him, only to discover a flowering branch left behind as a sign that he was the “King of the World.”
Such versatility as Lady Gregory displayed in her long association with the Abbey Theatre is very well presented in this volume, the plays ranging as they do from farce to fantasy. She was one of the great Irish writers of one-act plays who, along with Dunsany, Synge, and Yeats, made the one-act play an art form. They have had many imitators, but no peers.