William Butler Yeats

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William Butler Yeats Drama Analysis

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

William Butler Yeats’s reputation justly rests on his achievements in poetry, yet a considerable portion of that work is written for two or more voices and, therefore, is dramatic. Indeed, his first literary compositions were long dramatic poems, and throughout his life, he continued to publish his plays and poems side by side. Yeats believed that the language of poetry best represented imaginative reality, the life of the soul, or the introspective or subjective consciousness, as opposed to the spirit of science, the modern, extroverted age, the objective consciousness that draws its identity from external circumstances and that finds its appropriate expression in dramatic realism. Therefore, throughout a career as a dramatist consisting of four distinct phases, Yeats’s sympathies remained mystical, Symbolist, and removed from the mainstream of popular drama. Nevertheless, he is one of the genuinely original dramatists of the twentieth century, with influences on verse drama and the work of Samuel Beckett.

The Countess Cathleen

When Yeats joined talents and ambitions with Lady Gregory and Edward Martyn to form the Irish Literary Theatre in 1899, his first contributions to the venture were The Countess Cathleen and Cathleen ni Houlihan. The former is a rather static verse drama in which a heroic native aristocrat sells her soul to merchant-demons in order to save the starving peasants. The play aroused controversy over its doctrinal content in Catholic Ireland, and its author’s doughty defense of independence in artistic and patriotic self-expression established a pattern that was often to repeat itself.

Cathleen ni Houlihan

Yeats’s most dramatically successful early work, however, is Cathleen ni Houlihan, one of several peasant plays that Yeats wrote. The play depicts in realistic terms the diversion of a young man’s intentions from his impending marriage to a phase of the 1798 rebellion in Ireland. An anonymous old woman becomes a young queen because of the heroic commitment of Michael Gillane. Here is The Land of Heart’s Desire rewritten in nationalist terms: The thrifty realism of the peasants gradually yields to the incantatory power of the old woman’s lament, and the political allegory is triumphantly announced in the famous curtain line. With Maud Gonne in the title role reciting the credo of nationalist Ireland, Yeats was accused of producing unworthy propaganda. He protested that it came to him in a dream, but like the subject matter of all of his early work, its origins are demonstrably in the native folklore that Yeats had been collecting and studying since his conversion to the cause of Ireland’s cultural distinctiveness. The theme of this particular play is, indeed, traceable through popular ballad to the Gaelic aisling (vision) convention and to the theme of the lady and the king found in medieval Irish literature. Its power on an Irish stage is therefore attributable to more than its last line. Yeats was to wonder, with some justification, how much this play contributed to the Easter Rebellion of 1916.

The Cuchulain Plays

Before the heroism of that week burst on his and the nation’s consciousness, Yeats was cultivating in himself and on the stage of the Abbey Theatre a renewed appreciation of the literature of ancient Ireland and its exaltation of heroic individualism, eloquence, aristocracy, and paganism. In the figure of Cuchulain, the hero of the Ulster Cycle, Yeats found the embodiment of these virtues, and he wrote a series of five plays dramatizing episodes from the hero’s lone defense of Ulster, beginning with On Baile’s Strand . Among Cuchulain’s challengers is a young man in whom Cuchulain notes a resemblance to his abandoned wife, Aoife. Caught between his natural affinity for this image and his oath to King Conchubar to defend the province against intruders, Cuchulain is driven to combat. Too late, he discovers that the dead boy is his own son, and in his anguish, he rushes, sword in hand, into the...

(The entire section is 1,532 words.)