Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 994 words.)