by Richard Farr Dietrich -- USF
SOUL MUSIC FROM JOHN BULL’S OTHER
In the drama as in most else, Ireland had been colonized by England since Plantagenet times. Through most of this long history, Dublin at least, and frequently provincial towns as well, had theaters; but the plays and the players were almost always English in origin or influence. The many Irish-born or Irish-raised playwrights of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries—Congreve, Farquhar, Steele, Goldsmith, Sheridan, etc.—were mainly London men who wrote of London subjects, though their plays had a certain satiric edge to them characteristic of outsiders who saw things more objectively than the natives. In the nineteenth century Boucicault wrote plays on Irish subjects, but their mainstay was a lovable, patriotic “stage Irishman” whose charming but sentimental buffoonery rather compromised the ambitions of the nationalistic Irish to free themselves of such stereotyping. Oscar Wilde and Bernard Shaw then let the world know how fertile a country Ireland was for growing dramatic genius, but they were forced by the lack of a native theater to emigrate to London in order to bloom. Shaw wrote a few plays based on Irish matters, with John Bull’s Other Island brilliantly satirizing English misconceptions about Ireland, but these plays were sidelights to his main effort, and Wilde wrote nothing specifically Irish at all. And so a truly indigenous drama in Ireland awaited its moment of birth at the opening of the 1890s, Ireland’s two principal dramatic geniuses having fled to London to create modern drama there, a colonization in reverse, which further involved the stealing of the English language for the Irish.
The precipitating factor in the arrival of a native drama in Ireland, according to William Butler Yeats, was the death of Charles Stewart Parnell in 1891, after he was hounded out of office by an extramarital scandal. Parnell had led the Irish parliamentary drive to gain independence from England, and with his death, so died the hopes for political independence. The resultant loss of interest in politics in general led some of the young of Ireland to turn to cultural matters and a search for national identity in the literature and art of the past. An elite formed various societies that concerned themselves with the revival of the old Gaelic language and the folklore and customs of Ireland’s pre-Christian heroic age: Yeats and his friends formed the Irish Literary Society of London in 1891 and the National Literary Society in Dublin in 1892, and Douglas Hyde, after lecturing that Society in 1892 on “The Necessity for De-Anglicizing Ireland,” formed the Gaelic League in 1893.
A leader in the general Irish Renaissance, Yeats in particular was instrumental in the development of a national theater. Publishing his first play, The Countess Cathleen, in 1892, and experiencing a London production of The Land of Hearts’ Desire in 1894, Yeats had for many years been talking up the need for an Irish theater when, after a few meetings with the widowed Lady Gregory, beginning in 1896, the two began serious planning. In 1899 they joined with Edward Martyn, her piously Catholic neighbor, and the anti-Catholic novelist George Moore, a produced playwright connected with J. T. Grein’s Independent Theatre in London, to establish the Irish Literary Theatre. They gave annual productions of short runs in rented halls or theaters for three seasons, featuring realistic Ibsenist plays by Martyn and Moore, poetic, legendary, heroic drama by Yeats and the Ulster poetess Alice Milligan, and a play in Gaelic by Hyde. The group subscribed to the same ideals as Antoine’s Théâtre Libre in Paris or Otto Brahm’s Frei Bühne in Berlin—to encourage local talent, introduce the advanced drama of all countries, and create their own company of players—but they were tardy with the last two. Yeats’s desire “to build up a Celtic and Irish school of dramatic literature,” expressing “the deeper thoughts and emotions of lreland,” showing “that Ireland is not the home of buffoonery and easy sentiment, as it has been represented, but the home of an ancient idealism,” took precedence.1 In theory, at least.
Along with Martyn’s uncontroversial Heather Field, the Irish Literary Theatre began in 1899 with a production of The Countess Cathleen, the stormy reaction to which was to set the tone for the later Abbey Theatre, periodically afflicted by rioting. In this case some “patriot” wrote a pamphlet that attacked The Countess Cathleen for being heretical and blasphemous, and Yeats found himself on the stage trying to howl down a mob and finally having to call out the police. Later Abbey productions—of Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World, Shaw’s The Shewing-Up of Blanco Posnet, and O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars—landed Yeats and Lady Gregory in political hot water, either with Irish super-patriots who thought no Irishman should ever be satirized or with English-aligned colonial authorities who smelled sedition. On the occasion of The Plough and the Stars, Yeats scolded an unruly audience: “You have disgraced yourselves again. Is this to be an ever recurring celebration of the arrival of Irish genius?”2
In the initial phase, the pioneers had no sense of permanency, moving like gypsies from one public hall to another. And the actors had to be imported from England, different actors for each performance. Furthermore, the financial backing was insecure—their principal backer, Edward Martyn, dropped out when they refused to do his plays as he wrote them, and he went off to form the rival but short-lived Players’ Club. Despite the conflicting temperaments and aims of the remaining principal writers—Yeats, Moore, and Hyde—the Irish Literary Theatre at least had launched a dramatic movement that was taken seriously.
The effort to continue took a positive turn when in 1902 the actor brothers William and Frank Fay, believing that the dramatic movement needed to pass from its literary phase to a phase of building a native Irish company with thorough training in the arts of the theater, joined with some of Maud Gonne’s “Daughters of Ireland” to form the Irish National Dramatic Company, producing, among other plays, Yeats’s Cathleen ni Houlihan (with Maud Gonne in the lead). This led in 1903 to the formation of the Irish National Theatre Society, with Yeats as figurehead president, and Maud Gonne, A.E. (George Russell), and Hyde as vice presidents. Under the practical managership of the Fays, such Irish actors as Dudley Digges, Marie nic Shiubhlaigh, Marie Quinn, and Sara Allgood provided the foundation for what would soon become one of the finest acting companies in the world, achieving international fame with tours to England (beginning in 1903) and to America (beginning in 1911). In six different series of productions in 1902-1903, the plays of five now-forgotten playwrights, along with the first plays of Lady Gregory and Synge, were performed in repertory with the plays of Yeats, A.E., and Padraic Colum.
In 1904, Yeats, gaining power from being the publicist, theorist, tactician, and controversialist of the group, persuaded a philanthropic Englishwoman named Annie Horniman, a former colleague of his in a Rosicrucian society and the woman who had backed The Land of Hearts’ Desire in London in 1894, to put up most of the money for converting the abandoned concert hall of the Mechanics’ Institute on Abbey Street and part of the old Dublin Morgue next door into the Abbey Theatre. She also provided an annual subsidy until 1910, when she transferred her interest to establishing a theater in Manchester. The Abbey (with the patent taken out in Lady Gregory’s name), seating about five-hundred, opened 27 December 1904, just months after Barker had launched his repertory experiment at London’s Court Theatre. The Abbey gathered fame and notoriety as it went, but little profit, until it burned down in 1951, whereupon the company settled into the Queen’s for about fifteen years. In 1966 a new, larger Abbey Theatre was built. When the Abbey was given a governmental subsidy in 1925, after Ireland’s achievement of independence, it stood thenceforth as a remonstrance to the English for lagging behind in establishing a national theater.
The history of the Abbey was marked by disputes among the directors. One dispute, caused in part by Yeats’s habitual misreading of Ibsen as purely a social realist, concerned the kind of drama to be produced. Martyn and Moore, otherwise at odds, favored plays written in what everyone took to be the realistic Ibsen style focused on contemporary subjects. Yeats, lost in the “Celtic Twilight” of the dim and distant heroic past, might have learned from Ibsen’s mid-career decision to abandon what might be called the “Scandinavian twilight” for contemporary subjects, but he didn’t. Then there was Maud Gonne who, with ambitions of being the St. Joan of Ireland, represented the many patriots who thought the theater should propagandize the cause of Irish independence, but Yeats, this time on the right side, insisted on an art theater that would be above politics, national but not chauvinist or parochial. And so, in 1905, Maud Gonne and Douglas Hyde were replaced by Synge and Lady Gregory as co-directors with Yeats.
Forming a limited company and owning
the majority of the shares, the three directors forced Miss Horniman’s
subsidy on the rest, who preferred their original cooperative arrangement and
who thought the backing of an Englishwoman who detested the cause of Irish
independence more a liability than an asset. In 1906 the bulk of the members, led by A.E. and Padraic
Colum, resigned and formed the Theatre of Ireland (lasting until 1912), financed by Edward Martyn. Fortunately
for the Abbey, the Fays and most of the best actors remained. In 1908, however, Yeats, egged on by Miss Horniman, had a dispute with the Pays, who could not
provide the kind of acting Yeats needed for his highly stylized plays, and they
resigned to take up careers in
As this coincided with the death of Synge, whose plays were its strongest offering, the Abbey fell on hard times. Under the management of Lennox Robinson, St. John Ervine, and J. A. Keough, the Abbey had a hard time of it until O’Casey came along in the twenties to briefly revive the theater, after which it fell into a routine of doing a relatively second-rate repertoire, partly because the government subsidy brought with it a more Philistine board of directors and partly because the Abbey’s directors tended to select second-rate imitations of past successes over fresher material. Even so, many excellent actors got their start with this group, among them Siobhan McKenna, Barry Fitzgerald, Cyril Cusack, Sara Allgood, Marie O’Neill, Arthur Sullivan, Maureen Delaney, F. J. McCormick, and Arthur Shields. In 1919 Yeats and Robinson bolstered the repertoire by founding the Dublin Drama League to do contemporary foreign authors on the Abbey’s off days, but this semi-amateur venture closed in 1928 when a more professional and full-time program of similar intent was developed by the Dublin Gate Theatre Studio, under the leadership of Michael MacLiammoir and Hilton Edwards. With the building of the new Abbey, the repertoire improved in quality, and the Abbey is now one of the world’s foremost theaters.
At first the principal leaders of the Irish dramatic movement, Yeats and Lady Gregory, seemed to be in harmony about their overall purpose, largely because Lady Gregory was content to let Yeats have his way in making official pronouncements about their intentions, but eventually she went her own way in playwriting. Yeats was the theorist whose artistic integrity and high-mindedness set an idealistic tone and whose growing international reputation as a poet gave him public clout; Lady Gregory was the practical-minded driving force behind the scenes, whose aristocratic connections with Dublin Castle, seat of the colonial government, helped the Abbey through several rough patches. Yeats wanted what he called a “Theatre of Beauty,” featuring dramatizations of the old Irish legends that Lady Gregory, among others, was digging up and translating. The object was to evoke the spirit of the ancient Celt and restore him to his descendants so that the modern bourgeois Irishman might be recalled to a more noble way of life (a goal similar to Ibsen’s early ambition to awaken the Viking spirit in Norway by dramatizing the old Icelandic sagas; but Ibsen had the sense to move on). The saga material was to provide a body of story of “high kingly traditions of undying beauty that linked the ancient myth and the life of the folk and saw in the ancient way of life the source from which living culture and imaginative growth should derive.”3 Yeats wanted an aristocratic theater, a literary-poetic theater, that would remind the people that the Irish had not always been so ignorant, so uncouth, so money-grubbing, so cowardly, so utterly lacking in any spiritual or heroic dimension—in short, so English. It’s no wonder the Irish sometimes took objection to Abbey productions. Yeats thought he was doing the Irish a favor by reminding them they had glorious ancestors, but some thought he was simply ridiculing them. Ibsen explicitly called modern Norwegians “the pgymies of the present,” and that was what Yeats was implying about the Irish.
Some were further put off by the fact that the Irish Literary Revival was run by people whose origins were not especially Celtic—at least not Irish Celtic—and who had a mostly academic knowledge of the tradition with which they were attempting to identify. Like Wilde and Shaw before them, Yeats, Lady Gregory, Synge, and O’Casey were descendants of Protestants who had emigrated to Ireland from England, Scotland, and elsewhere to become its usurpers and hated rulers.
Yeats’s plays were not especially popular, for the most part, and the Abbey would have folded had it had nothing but the Yeats sort of play to do. Gradually Yeats withdrew from the Abbey stage, taking to writing esoteric, coterie plays, modeled after the Japanese theater and Balinese dance, although in 1926 the Abbey built a smaller theater, the Peacock Theatre, to accommodate Yeats. It was a source of some annoyance to Yeats that the less ambitious folk comedies of Lady Gregory, designed as curtain raisers for his plays, were much more popular, their box-office returns even subsidizing his plays. Between 1904 and 1912, the Abbey’s heyday, fully one-fourth of the plays produced were by Lady Gregory, with Synge’s and Yeats’s plays making up another fourth. Other playwrights who contributed to the Abbey tradition over the years were, among others, W. F. Casey, William Boyle, Lord Dunsany, George Fitzmaurice, Brinsley MacNamara, Denis Johnston, Lady Longford, M. J. Molloy, and the three “Cork realists,” Lennox Robinson, T. C. Murray, and R. J. Ray. Others spread the Abbey influence to other places—George Shiels, Rutherford Mayne, Louis Dalton, and Joseph Tomelty working out of the Ulster Literary Theatre in Belfast (opened in 1904), Paul Vincent Carroll helping the Scottish playwright James Bridie to found the Glasgow Citizens’ Theatre (1943), and many other playwrights developing out of other regional theaters. Though all minor dramatists, some wrote plays that were more instrumental in shaping the typical Abbey play after 0’Casey than were those of the major dramatists.
As for the major dramatists, Lady Gregory’s charming, unpretentious, and frequently humorous folk dramas, followed by Synge’s realistic folk dramas and O’Casey’s “slum realism” plays, kept alive the Abbey’s main line of development as a “people’s theater.” To Yeats’s dismay, the early poetic movement changed gradually into the folk movement, and then into the realistic and sometimes satiric tradition that followed. And thus Yeats’s attempts to found a lofty “Theatre of Beauty” were frustrated by his colleagues’ general refusal to write the kind of aristocratic tragedies he desired, choosing instead to write realistic folk dramas, naturalistic urban plays, or “kitchen comedies” that, as time went on, were played more farcically than they were written, entertainment increasingly taking precedence over art. Yeats admitted that though they did not set out to create such a theater, they were the first to create a true “people’s theater.”4
But the realistic plays of Synge and O’Casey were of a heightened realism, blended with symbolism, that could never be called drab or middle class. The great irony is that in refining Irish-English prose speech to such a high degree of musicality, Synge and O’Casey did a better job of achieving a truly poetic drama than Yeats did with his obviously versified plays. The secret was not to revive verse in the theater but to bring out the poetic qualities inherent in Irish prose speech, which, containing a residue of both Gaelic and Elizabethan rhythms and imagery, needed only to be used evocatively. This Synge and O’Casey did admirably. And that is why it is possible to say that if you haven’t heard an Irish play, you’ve missed it. If this dramatic language was essentially musical, its frequent theme was also of a sort we associate with music—”soul music,” that is. As the Jews were to the Romans, as the Slays are to the Teutons, as the black American is to the white American, so the Irishman is to the Englishman. To the supposed materialism of the latter, the former oppose their supposed spirituality or "soul." And so Irish drama, in its distinctively singing voice, however biased, acquaints us with the difference between Irish vision and imagination and English matter-of-factness and common sense, between Irish spontaneity and the English obsession with duty, between Irish poetry and English prose, between the Isle of Saints and the Isle of Manufacturers, between Irish soul fed on the manna of word-music and English bulk fed on beef. What “soul music” always sings about is either the people’s suffering, born of oppression, or their essential freedom, despite appearances. Soul music says, “You may dominate me physically and cause me to suffer, but my soul will always be free, and the effect of your oppression and of my soulful freedom will be to declare my essential superiority to you.” Of course that this can become an attitude, a vanity, a pose contradicted by reality, lending itself to satire, accounts for the richest Irish drama—that of Synge and O’Casey—which simultaneously celebrates the Irish character in wondrous soul music and takes it to task for its delusions and vanity, laughing at how incurably Anglo the Irish have become.
William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) has been called the greatest poet of his time, but still the question of his stature as a dramatist remains. He understood life as conflict, as a dramatist must, and was himself ridden with internal conflict, but as his natural means of expressing conflict was more lyrical than dramatic, it has been charged that his plays are dominated by a fragmented or obsessive lyricism at the cost of the overall control a dramatist must have. That most of his plays take less than an hour to perform suggests a further reason why their dramatic stature seems diminished, just as one does not get credit for being a novelist if short stories are all one writes. And plays written deliberately for intellectual elites, as most of his were, find their home more in libraries than on stages, though most are playable enough.
Yeats spent his life trying to synthesize his internal contradictions in art, hoping that life would follow art. Richard Ellmann summarizes the many seemingly contradictory selves Yeats cultivated over the years: “We are given the nervous romantic sighing through the reeds of the ‘eighties and ‘nineties and the worldly realist plain-speaking in the ‘twenties; we have the businessman founding and directing the Abbey Theatre in broad day, the wan young Celt haunting the twilight and the occultist performing nocturnal incantations; we can choose between the dignified Nobel Prize winner and Senator of the Irish Free State and their successors, the libidinous old man and the translator of the Upanishads.”5 If these selves are not easily reconcilable, Ellmann points out that Yeats himself was partly to blame for being such a mythmaker about himself. “The autobiographical muse enticed him only to betray him, abandoning him to ultimate perplexity as to the meaning of his experiences. He spent much of his life attempting to understand the deep contradictions within his mind, and was perhaps most alive to that which separated the man of action lost in revery from the man of revery who could not quite find himself in action. Unsure which qualities were purely Yeatsian, he posed and attitudinized, then wondered whether pose and attitude were not more real than what they covered over.”6 Yeats himself, in 1910, said that “all my moral endeavor for many years has been an attempt to recreate practical instinct in myself. I can only conceive of it as a kind of acting.”7 Growing up a timid modern intellectual who reasoned everything away, Yeats donned various heroic masks, Cuchulain the hero-bard being his favorite, so that timidity and skepticism might be conquered.
The skeptical rationalism he got from his father, John Butler Yeats, a portrait painter and aesthetician, who was skeptical even about rationalism. The principal resistance to skepticism came partly from his mother, Susan Pollexfen, of a wealthy county family, a quiet woman who loved ghost and fairy stories, and partly from other relatives. Yet John Yeats arrived at a theory of personality that would later suit his poet-son perfectly: a poet’s life was to be an experiment in living, and in living such, the poet was free to ignore the demand for logical consistency required by external codes of behavior, achieving, rather, “integrity of soul” through an honest self-expression.
Yeats wrote that he remembered little of his childhood except its pain. The oldest of four children, born near Dublin but residing in London from 1868 to 188o, when his parents returned to Dublin again, he spent long vacations with relatives in Sligo, a seaport on Ireland’s northwest coast. He was a delicate, poor-sighted, awkward, and weak child, who met with scholastic difficulty and the bullyragging of other boys at school. Withdrawing into compensatory fantasies of the heroic, he came to value the sort of arcane knowledge beyond the reach of ordinary people. He loved romantic poetry and was entranced by the figure of the magician. As a young man Yeats sought out the society of like-minded individuals, in 1885 forming with the poet A.E. (George Russell) the Hermetic Society, devoted to finding in the tradition of Western magic and mysticism and Eastern religion a bulwark against the degrading materialism of modern life. Yeats brought to all spiritualist meetings and studies a certain deliberate credulity because, terrified of skepticism and the existential void, he was a zealot in search of a creed. In his fifties he finally succumbed to a lifelong temptation to violate the principle that the poet must be free of external constraints by systematizing his spiritualist beliefs and thus binding himself to an artificial pattern. In the context of the spiritual malaise of his time, a malaise his countrymen were inclined to blame on English materialism and imperialism but which had deeper roots in a general Western loss of faith, he had hungered from the first for convictions upon which he could act. He wanted desperately to command the kind of respect that the hero-bard of ancient times supposedly held, listened to for a beautiful wisdom that kept communal life evergreen and healthy. But a skeptical modern community looked less to bards than to politicians for their renewal, and so Yeats agonized over how to become a man of action who could somehow appeal to the very unheroic crowd he despised.
A fantastic woman appeared, in 1889, to preside over his transformation into a man of action, but she ended up much more the muse of his poetry. Maud Gonne was an Amazonian beauty who, though of wealthy English parentage, developed a violent, ruthlessly revolutionary sympathy for the cause of Irish independence, a sympathy which, coinciding with her desire to be a New Woman, saw her become a fabled creature of such affairs and intrigues that had she acceded to Yeats’s passionate desire to be her husband, she might have engulfed him even more than she did. Mistress of a French diplomat and mother of an illegitimate daughter, Maud did Yeats the favor of refusing his frequent proposals, marrying instead, in 1903, a military hero named MacBride, whom she soon after separated from. When McBride was killed in the foolish heroics of the Easter Rebellion of 1916, leaving Maud a widow, Yeats proposed to her again and was again refused, though this time she offered her teenage daughter, Iseult, in her place. When Iseult turned him down, Yeats proposed to a relative-by-marriage of Ezra Pound’s, Georgie Hyde-Lees, an Englishwoman who provided Yeats with a normalizing family experience, including two children, and some degree of domestic bliss. “The marriage bed is the symbol of the solved antinomy,” was Yeats’s quaint way of putting it.8 But she also exacerbated his interest in spiritualism (he had passed from the Hermetics to Madam Blavatsky’s Theosophists to a Rosicrucian society called the Golden Dawn) by bringing to him an unexpected source of wisdom and inspiration. First through automatic writing and then through sleep talking, Mrs. Yeats communicated to him messages from the spirit world that Yeats happily decoded and arranged into a great, complicated system of thought that presumed to do no less than account for the whole of human history, which operated, according to Yeats, on a cyclical pattern generated by the conflict of opposites. He published this system as A Vision—in 1925 in a garbled version and in 1928 in a revised version. Yeats conceded in his preface that the spirits were “the personalities of a dream shared by my wife, by myself, occasionally by others,” and the system they communicated was meant to be taken symbolically, as “stylistic arrangements of experience” that provided “metaphors for poetry.”9 And drama.
Yeats in old age became a man of public esteem, as senator of the Irish Free State (1922-28); recipient of a Nobel Prize (1923) and honorary degrees from Trinity College (1922), Oxford (1931), and Cambridge (1933); and organizer of the Irish Academy of Letters (1932). But in private, somewhat less dignified, he took monkey-gland extract and had an operation to restore his sexual potency (his wife was much younger). Under the pressures of his age, his aging, and his raising a family, Yeats became more realistic about life and more aware of how the beauty of poetry comes from “the foul rag-and-boneshop of the heart,”10 into which the poet seeking renewal must periodically descend. After many years at Rapallo on the Italian Riviera (beginning in 1928), Yeats moved to the south of France in 1938, where he died in 1939, honored and celebrated but never at ease, always struggling with the daimons within in order to generate more life and more poetry.
The themes of Yeats’s poetry are the themes of his plays, as well, and almost always have some reference to his life—to Maud and Georgie; to his life in Dublin managing the Abbey and fighting theater battles; to his life at Thoor Ballylee (beginning in 1917), the old Norman tower he and his wife lived in, near Lady Gregory’s Coole Park estate outside Galway; to the life of the poet who wants to be a hero but who finds the aristocratic system that valued his kind of heroism on the wane; to a man who feels “out of sync” with his age. Bedeviled by the limitations of physical existence with all its claims of society, friends, lovers, and the aging process, yet enthralled with the possibilities of superhuman transcendence through the creative use of the imagination, Yeats bemoaned all that would kill the passionate heroic spirit he felt within him and celebrated all that would liberate or acknowledge that spirit. His vision was generally tragic because his sense of defeat, of heroic loss, was always greater than his sense of victory, but he aimed at what he called “tragic joy,” that moment when, as A. S. Knowland says, “the individual’s temporal gesture of completion coincides with the timeless perfection of death,” or as John Rees Moore puts it, when one feels “the pity, terror, and wonder of loving and dying with appropriate grandeur.”12 Yeats was most typical when he was most paradoxical, dramatizing the ambivalences of hatred in love, creativity in death, disbelief in belief, or the heroic gesture turning back on itself—negation “positivized” or positivity negated. He specialized in the irruption of the superhuman into the mundane human world and the clash of values that resulted. Sometimes he portrayed this in the conflict of relatively flesh-and-blood characters, but more often, and progressively, the characters were replaced by spiritual entities—heroic figures out of myth or legend, archetypal figures from timeless folklore, or figures suggestive of generalized qualities. Yet as his drama became more abstract in form, its content became more realistic, as Yeats tried to come to grips with “the complexities of mire and blood”13 of earthly existence.
In formal matters, Yeats was just a little ahead of his time (as was Gordon Craig, who collaborated with Yeats on many of his productions), for many of his ideas about theater became accepted by the “Theater of the Absurd” and the “total theater” movements of the fifties, sixties, and seventies. What Yeats was after was an aggressively anti-realistic theater. He did not want his audience to get lost in the busy, trivial detail of individual, prosaic, bourgeois existence, as he thought one did in modern realistic plays; rather, he wanted his audience to break through the barriers of time and place to a realm of experience that is eternally valid and to connect up with the great life spirit that he believed mysteriously haunts the ages and makes our human destiny inevitably tragic. To accomplish this, he fashioned an abstract, poetic drama that would restore beautiful speech in the theater, simplify acting by eliminating the “needless” gestures and stage business of realistic characterization, and simplify the set by eliminating all the distracting detail of realistic stage design. In restoring dance and song, mask and chorus, and abstract design to the theater, he wanted to achieve a kind of purity of line and color, form and speech, that would evoke the eternal archetypes and involve us in general actions of mythic significance. He wanted the actors to be as still as priests before an altar, moving only ritualistically, chanting rhythmically the beautiful, magic words that were to evoke a lost heroic world or a world of superhuman transcendence.
Of Yeats’s twenty-six plays in his Collected Plays, nine are cast in a fairly poetic prose, and the rest are mostly or wholly in verse. At least three plays—Cathleen ni Houlihan (1902), The Pot of Broth (1904), and The Unicorn from the Stars (1908)—probably owe as much to Lady Gregory as to Yeats, and she contributed to several others in serving as his amanuensis, but she declined to have her name on them because the thought, she said, was more Yeats’s than hers, however much the actual writing, especially the dialect, was hers. Two other plays were free translations of Sophoclean plays, leaving less than twenty plays that Yeats could call his own. Even then the frequent revision of many of these plays reveals how often theater artists served as his collaborators, their practical applications forcing him to reconsider. This tendency to revise suggests not only his uncertainty as a playwright but also his determination to experiment. His plays are therefore difficult to date, many appearing in different versions, the dates listed here being those of the Collected Plays.
The story lines of his early plays are
fairly typical of Yeatsian concerns throughout his
career, though he much improved his technique. The Countess Cathleen, typical in its composition, was
conceived in 1885 and begun in prose in 1889, the year he met Maud Gonne, then
revised for its 1892 publication as a verse play and subsequently revised at
least five more times. Its original emphasis was on the story of a rich
noblewoman who sells her soul to the devil in order to save the Irish from
starvation, but when Maud rejected Yeats he shifted some of the emphasis to
Cathleen’s rejection of a poet named Aleel (or
Kevin), who would have Cathleen raise children while he raised Ireland with his
idealistic poetry. Yeats quite
understandably saw the problems of “Mother
The Land of Heart’s Desire (1894) was written for the acting debut of a niece of Florence Farr, the English actress whose cantillating delivery of verse Yeats had admired, a delivery that at first suggested a way for him to break free of realistic speech in drama. The play tells of a fairy child who lures a young woman away from a dutiful but joyless marriage to live amongst the fairies, in answer to her own heart’s desire for impulsive gaiety and freedom, but with the suggestion that she must die to the mundane in order to exist in a spiritual world of questionable perfection.
Cathleen ni Houlihan (1902) was one of Yeats’s few Abbey successes, probably because it uncharacteristically called for patriotic action. Cathleen (originally played impressively by the statuesque Maud Gonne as a “Mother Ireland” figure) is here a mysterious, wronged Old Woman who arrives at a cottage the day before a young man’s marriage is to take place, mesmerizing him into rejecting such domesticity for the hard life of following her in her cause of fighting off strangers who have taken her land, the siren call of nationalism being stronger than the love of any particular woman. When a few Irish finally took seriously the idea of driving out the English in the Easter Rebellion of 1916, Yeats wrote in dismay: “Did that play of mine send out /Certain men the English shot?”14 Yet poets dream of such effectiveness.
The Shadowy Waters (1899-1900, but 1911 for the acting version), written in the year of Yeats’s “mystic betrothal” to Maud Gonne, tells of a pirate’s magically achieving ideal love with a captured queen. In a highly stylized form—”more a ritual than a human story,” Yeats called it15—Forgael’s passionate search for superhuman experience is paradoxically achieved in a union with a woman, Dectora, whose image he has evoked in a poem.
The King’s Threshold (1904) finds Yeats for the first time patterning a play after Greek models. It dramatizes the last hour of the poet Seanchan, situated at the threshold of the king’s palace, where, in a series of temptations, “opposing visions and values meet, interact, and illuminate each other.”16 Dealing with the relation of the poet to society, it finds the poet’s superiority lies in his transcendence of the practical matters that bring ordinary mortals to ruin, and especially in his poetry’s spiritual triumph over physical death.
Through such plays as On Baile’s Strand (1904), Deirdre (1907), The Unicorn from the Stars (1908), The Green Helmet (1910), The Hour Glass (1914), and The Player Queen (produced 1919, published 1922), Yeats continued to struggle with dramatic form, experimenting with masks, dance, and other means of achieving a visual impact that would offset the traditional grand manner of the verse play and the psychological naturalism of its contemporary characterization. The turning point came when Ezra Pound, around 1914, introduced him to the Japanese No theater, from whose tradition Yeats took what he needed to develop the more abstract drama he sought, a drama that, in Moore’s words, “‘purifies’ character into symbol, transforms scene into emblem, and condenses action into epiphany,”17 producing what Knowland terms, “a drama of psychic essences acted out in what Yeats called the deeps of the mind.”18 Plot summaries seem especially ineffective with such plays, their conflicts being of spiritual essences that exist out of time and place. Yeats liked the No emphasis on a connoisseur’s knowledge of artistic tradition, but, as Moore explains, “the Noh offered an example of a highly civilized poetic refinement that yet retained the attraction of simple fairy-tale or folklore. Here was a way to bring together the culture of ‘the people’ and the aesthetic distinction of the knowledgeable artist without sacrificing the virtues of either.”19 Such No features as a spiritual quest, an encounter with the supernatural, a moment of choice between two worlds, a climactic dance, as well as its use of mask and chorus, reinforced Yeats’s earlier experiments, assisted by Gordon Craig, to produce the mature dramas, some of them labeled “dance plays,” of At the Hawk’s Well (1917), The Dreaming of the Bones (1919), The Resurrection (1931), A Full Moon in March (1935), The Herne’s Egg (1938), Purgatory (1939), and others.
Of particular interest, and representative of Yeats’s entire drama, are the five plays dealing with Yeats’s favorite saga hero, Cuchulain, which seem to form a cycle illustrative of Yeats’s theories of history and human personality—At the Hawk’s Well (1917), The Green Helmet (1910), On Baile’s Strand (1903), The Only Jealousy of Emer (1919), and The Death of Cuchulain (1938), arranged here according to the chronology of Cuchulain’s life. Though Yeats began in the middle of Cuchulain’s story, then went back to the beginning before going forward, the five plays eventually cover the career of the mythic hero from the conception of his son by the Scottish warrior queen, Aoife, to his unwitting killing of that son, his subsequent madness and revival at the hands of his wife Emer, and finally, years later, his death. Reg Skene, in his study of these plays, finds that as they enact the life of a Celtic warrior from his initiation to his death, they also evoke myths that tell of the moon’s changes in a single lunar month and of the sun’s changes in a single solar year, as well as the progress of the individual soul in the course of a single incarnation, the idea being to reveal those problematic moments in the process of life when the individual achieves identity with the universe.20 The plays thus serve a fundamentally religious purpose in providing ritual reenactments of archetypal events that reinforce a faith in the rightness of creation. From the beginning, Yeats had thought of his kind of drama not only as a schooling in heroism but as “the preparation of a priesthood.”21 “I always feel that my work is not drama but the ritual of a lost faith,” said Yeats, seeking to recover the communal magic of the Dionysian theater.22
In light of such ambitious plans, it’s interesting to look at atypical work that seems more accommodating, such as the comic play The Cat and the Moon (1926) and the ironically realistic The Words upon the Window-Pane (1934). Though a note of mockery and satire had entered his work as early as 1910, it is rare to find the spirit of comedy dominating a Yeats play as it does The Cat and the Moon. Based on the Japanese Kyogen drama, which consisted of brief farces in colloquial language employed as interludes between No dramas, The Cat and the Moon presents an amusing cat, “symbol of normal man, belly to the ground and pupil to the sky, creeping around aimlessly seeking his opposite in a moon that spins round like a child’s top.”23 The play’s human parallels, a Lame Beggar and a Blind Beggar, in undergoing comic routines of a painful nature, portend the Beckettian bums of the future. The Words upon the Window-Pane, written as a tribute to Lady Gregory and their platonic love, is the only realistic play Yeats wrote, but it cleverly subverts its own realism with a play-within-a-play that asserts the primacy of the spirit world. Arriving at a séance, a group of characters realistically portrayed attempt to evoke spirits useful to them but are interrupted by the raging spirit of Jonathan Swift, who agonizes over his tragically barren love affair with a woman who lived in this house. Swift desperately seeks to justify his refusal to procreate in a prediction of the degeneracy of history. In the juxtaposition of ignoble modern and more noble eighteenth-century attitudes and values, and the shocking irruption of timeless spiritual forces into a temporal world, familiar Yeatsian themes are played out, but in this case in a manner more accessible to “the people” and perhaps more convincing as well. This play reveals the path Yeats might have taken, a path that might have led to greater drama.
It is unlikely that Yeats’s plays will be much more acted in the future than they have been to date, not only because of their own limitations and difficulties, but because better playwrights have come along who learned and borrowed from him, producing so much better work with his own tools, though ironically often contemptuous of the language he thought supreme. And so his own progeny crowd him out, a fitting end for a man more than half in love with heroic defeat and the spiritual victories one can snatch from it.
Lady Augusta Gregory (1852-1932) has become as fabled a creature as the mythic types she resuscitated, for she lived a life of transformations. She seems to have been something of both a Cinderella and a Sleeping Beauty, though the beauty that slept was more an intellectual beauty, one of talent and ability.
Raised on the vast, working estate of the Persses called Roxborough, near Galway, Isabella Augusta Persse, twelfth of sixteen children, though somewhat lost among all those offspring, was fully fed the rich imaginative life of the estate’s many peasants and servants with whom she was in daily contact; but she was starved for books and other intellectual stimulation. Those were at last supplied to her in 188o by her Cinderella marriage, at age twenty-eight, to the widower Sir William Gregory, at age sixty-three somewhat advanced in years for Prince Charming but otherwise a great catch—a former member of Parliament and recently retired as governor of Ceylon, a classical scholar of artistic interests and friend to many stimulating people in art and politics. Once married she embarked on a twelve-year awakening, as he led her about the world, with long stays in Ceylon, India, Egypt, Spain, Italy, and their home base in London, she eagerly absorbing culture and a political education while developing a polished social sense. Though a weakness for gambling had caused him to lose properties, and would leave her short of cash after his death, he still owned real estate around Galway, particularly Coole Park, destined to become “the workshop of Ireland”24 in its literary renaissance, and Yeats’s favorite retreat.
The Gregorys and Persses were mainly descended from that Protestant horde that came over with Cromwell in the seventeenth century and usurped the land. The centuries had made them Irish, some actually came to feel sympathy for the oppressed, landless natives, but most, particularly the more provincial Perrses, stood steadfast in favor of Anglo-Irish dominion and Protestant proselytizing. Though the Gregorys were more worldly, urbane, and tolerant, William spending more time abroad or in England than in Ireland, they too stopped short of supporting Home Rule. And so the great rebel of either family was perhaps Lady Gregory herself, who, on her husband’s death in 1892, devoted her life to helping the native Irish recover a nearly lost national identity. Though she remained staunchly Protestant, she was able to enter the mind of the Catholic peasantry and townsfolk imaginatively and find common ground. Significantly, her first published work, Arabi and His Household (1882), written about an Egyptian officer who had risen from peasantry to lead a bloodless revolt against Turkish rule, made its political point, not by supporting him directly, but by showing the man from the inside, as a good father and dedicated leader. It is equally significant that the Gregorys’ campaign in his behalf did not prevent the British from putting down his rebellion, though the Gregorys saved him from execution. Frustration was often to be her lot in dealing with the British, but she learned in this how to run a campaign, enlist sympathy, solicit funds, and wield influence, which would stand her in good stead in the years she and Yeats would fight the Abbey battles to stay alive.
Shortly after her husband’s death in 1892 and about the time her reading of Yeats’s The Celtic Twilight and Douglas Hyde’s Love Songs of Connacht inspired her to recall the folklore she had learned as a child at Roxborough, Lady Gregory was sent in a fateful direction by the desire of her ten-year-old son to learn the Irish he heard spoken by the peasantry; she obliged by learning it herself. This was to lead to her becoming the chief collector, translator, and popularizer of the old folk stories and stories from the Irish heroic cycles, publishing two volumes of saga material, Cuchulain of Muirthemne in 1902 and Gods and Fighting Men in 1904, and several folklore collections, Poets and Dreamers in 1903 and Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland in 1920, among others, which supplied Yeats and other writers with a fund of inspiration. She wisely translated, not into standard English, but into the Kiltartan dialect of her neighborhood, that dialect which, with its residue of both Celtic and Elizabethan syntax and imagery, allows the Irish to be blunt with one another in such a charmingly musical and roundabout way. It caught the imagination of the people as Yeats’s sophisticated verse never could and reinforced the efforts of Synge to identify and create a native tongue. She visited the Aran Isles at the same time Synge first did, by the way (1898), but they curiously avoided one another in their common pursuit of folkways.
Generally she found her way, not by
avoiding genius, but by inviting it to Coole Park whenever
she could, to nurture it and be nurtured by it, to further her mission. “We
work to add dignity to
Though she began as hostess and organizer of the movement, her own work being in folklore, she soon found herself caught up in supplying the native drama their plans called for, first as Yeats’s amanuensis suggesting a word here and there, then as collaborator with Yeats, Hyde, and Moore, and eventually as dramatist in her own right. She temporarily dropped out of the movement’s management when Yeats joined with the Fays to create the Irish National Theatre Society in 1903, only to be called back to play a leading role when Miss Horniman’s setting up of the Abbey required a resident of Ireland to be listed as patentee. Lady Gregory not only filled that role but, in 1905, joined Yeats and Synge in the directorship, which forced her into increasing involvement with Abbey management for many years to come, taking on, as Elizabeth Coxhead says, “rather more than her share in the long struggle to get the theatre established on a sound financial basis, to find it new playwrights, and to secure for them all, but for Synge especially, complete freedom of speech.”26
In the brief interim when she had no management role, Lady Gregory in 1901-1902 attempted her first play, Colman and Guaire, a verse account designed for school children of the legend of St. Colman’s birth, and then wrote what was to be her first produced play, Twenty-Five (later revised as On the Racecourse), which in 1903 formed part of the repertoire of the company’s first visit to London, spreading the Abbey’s fame abroad. The play shows a young man deliberately losing at cards to save the husband of his former sweetheart from ruin, an act of romantic love that she thought so false to the unromantic peasantry that she later disowned the play, wanting only to write honestly.
The Abbey opened in 1904 with Yeats’s On Baile’s Strand, a contemplative poetic tragedy that Yeats hoped would put the audience into “an ever-deepening reverie,” and Lady Gregory’s Spreading the News, which, as Elizabeth Coxhead says, must have awakened them with a bang.27 It was the sort of boisterous but classically contained comedy that earned her the title “the Irish Molière,” although this appellation acknowledged as well her translating of Molière. Her comedies, mostly one-acts, would often begin with a “what if” sort of question—as in Spreading the News: what if a message delivered at a fair were garbled in passing?—and then show how human character leads to a preposterous but logical development. In Spreading the News misunderstanding multiplies upon misunderstanding until the most innocent of actions, Bartley Fallon’s attempt to return to Jack Smith the pitchfork Jack left at the fair, leads to Bartley’s being misrepresented as Jack’s murderer on account of a love affair with Jack’s wife. As Mrs. Tarpley, the apple seller, says to the magistrate at the very beginning, the chief business of this small town is “minding one another’s business,” the people having “no trade at all but to be talking.” But their need to dramatize things, and their skill at it, leads them to a very overwrought account of reality. It has been often said that Lady Gregory’s plays show how the Irish get caught in their own mythmaking. It's no accident that "Cloon" sounds rather like "clown."
Hyacinth Halvey (1906) reverses the action of Spreading the News by having the title character, arriving in the town of Cloon as the new sub-sanitary inspector, try to live down an excessively good reputation he has gotten from exaggerated letters of recommendation. The heroic, puritanical life the townsfolk expect of him is more than he can bear, but the harder he tries to destroy his reputation, the more accident conspires to make him seem a paragon. The lesson again seems to be that mere human fact is powerless before the mythmaking of the human imagination.
The Workhouse Ward (1908) finds two crusty old men, sharing a ward in Cloon Workhouse, living on their hatred for one another. When a benevolent sister arrives to rescue them from their unceasing strife by taking one of them home, the two men realize that it is only their verbal sparring that makes life worth living, and so they drive her off and joyously resume their heroic struggle. Most of the plays written in this vein have “a ‘ballad structure,’ a folk-tale simplicity with a psychologically valid twist at the end, rather like the stories of Guy de Maupassant or 0’Henry.”28
The Canavans (1906) may be her best full-length play, and it is of the type that got her a reputation for being the inventor of the folk-history play, though the account she gives here of Queen Elizabeth’s dominion in Ireland through the agency of Lord Essex is less history than folk imagination. The folk told her that “Queen Elizabeth was awful. Beyond everything she was,”29 and she contents herself with presenting the comic consequences of that view. The intricate plot concerns one Peter Canavan, a rich but cowardly miller, who has been appointed mayor of Scartana by Lord Essex. Peter’s concern for safety first, in a time of political turmoil, when Irish rebels are fighting a guerrilla war against the queen’s troops, makes him extremely skittish and afraid to commit himself, for he wishes always to be on the strongest side. With the aid of two busybody widows and his brother Anthony, a deserter from the queen’s army, Peter gets involved in a comic plot of false appearances and sudden reversals, ending in his supposed discovery that he need not look elsewhere for strength, for he is the strongest of all.
Another of her major folk-history comedies is The White Cockade (1905), a version of James II’s escape from Ireland after the Battle of the Boyne, though here she employs serio-comedy to convey the rueful defeat of the ideal of loyalty, as an inadequate king becomes a figure of fun. Synge said of this play that “it had made the writing of historical dramas possible again.”30
Such spirited comedies were immensely popular with Abbey audiences and are the most frequently revived and anthologized of her plays, the ones on which her reputation as a dramatist largely rests. But she wrote thirty-five plays in all, not counting translations, collaborations, and adaptations, and many were not comedies. Among her folk-history plays, for example, were such tragedies as Kincora, Devorgilla, and Grania, studies of frustrated womanhood in ancient settings. Their novelty was in “half-legendary history treated not in a remote or cloudy way, but vividly and topically, [their] characters speaking in accents not very different from those of the Galway comedies.”31
Kincora (1905) tells of the troubles of Brian Boru, unifier of Ireland, betrayed to the Danes by his Lady Macbeth of a wife, Gormleith; Devorgilla (1907) deals with the remorse of the woman blamed for the original sin of bringing the English into Ireland, and her finding in old age that the young of Ireland cannot forgive her for the act of infidelity to a king that supposedly caused Henry II to invade Ireland in the twelfth century to quell the resulting civil war. Crania (1912), possibly more directly autobiographical than most of her work, shows Grania abandoning old King Finn on the brink of marriage to him to run off with her true love, young Diarmuid, but finding after many years of exile and hardship that Diarmuid and Finn care more for each other and their brotherhood of warriors than they do for her. Elizabeth Coxhead has speculated that the modern equivalent of this circle of warriors “was the masculine society of clubs and bars, of wit and talk and stimulus, from which a woman, through her talent as much a part of the movement as any of them, would be excluded. As an artist, needing to share, deserving to share, how could she fail to experience the frustrations that have been sublimated in the character of Grania?”32 That Lady Gregory suppressed this play throughout her life may indeed express her need to hide a certain resentment.
Her most frequently produced play has been The Rising of the Moon (1907), no doubt because it is more explicitly nationalist than most of her work. A political fugitive is allowed to escape when the policeman on watch is made to realize that deep down he’s a patriot at heart and cares more for Irish freedom than English law and order, a theme expressive of the wishful thinking of the day that even the police were secretly rebels.
Her playwriting during the Great War took a turn toward fable, fairy tale, and allegory. Supposedly designed for children, such fairy plays, or “wonder plays,” as The Golden Apple (1916) and The Dragon (1917) carried an undercurrent of social satire that made them adult fare as well. She then closed with a number of religious plays, written largely to inspire love in a country torn by hatred and factional strife. The Story Brought by Brigit (1923-24), a modern passion play, draws a parallel between Roman-occupied Palestine and English-occupied Ireland; Sancho’s Master (1927) celebrates the idealism of Don Quixote; and her last play, Dave (1927), a modern miracle play, suggests that the true measure of the worth of individuals is in their service to humanity, not in titles, family trees, or wealth, and that therefore even an outcast can find blessedness in such service. Optimism prevails as justice triumphs, the wretched are saved, and ordinary people are transformed by the general miracle of redemption. Having experienced her own wonderful transformations, Lady Gregory may be forgiven for the rather pietistic nature of these last plays.
It is more difficult to forgive Yeats for not according Lady Gregory the homage that was her due after her death and for not squelching the rumormongers who denigrated her. Her part in the collaboration with Yeats and Hyde was doubted, it was insinuated that Yeats wrote several of her best plays, and in general she was derided as a bit of a dragon in her management of the Abbey and was compared with the hated “famine queen,” Queen Victoria, whom she did resemble in build and dress. Lady Gregory undoubtedly had her failures of judgment and execution, but this besmirching of her reputation was uncalled for. As the years rolled by and Yeats more and more withdrew from Abbey concerns, it was largely Lady Gregory whose tenacity and good sense in management kept the Abbey going. For the most part, she was queenly in the best sense, so often very kind and generous toward the starving artists around her and not afraid to do the hard things necessary of her, not afraid to stoop (Shaw called her “the charwoman of the Abbey” for the way she took care of the dirty details).
She overcame great personal losses—the death of her favorite nephew, Hugh Lane, in the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915, the death of her beloved son in 1918, shot down over Italy in the war, the loss of Coole Park when her daughter-in-law was forced to sell it, the murder of relatives and the burning of Roxborough during the civil war, and her own losing bout with aging and disease, not to mention all the attrition of spirit she must have experienced in fighting over and over the Abbey’s battles. She was the subject of calumny from a certain quarter because she supported Yeats in his insistence that the Abbey be a writers’ theater, controlled by those who initiate the creative process. And because she was for both peace and independence, she found herself often slandered on this middle ground by both the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy and the violent rebels. In the midst of such turmoil and stress, it’s a miracle the Abbey survived at all, but it did because Lady Gregory was one of those women who, without uttering a single feminist slogan or spending one suffragette night in jail, constantly demonstrated the truth of the women’s cause by sheer capability. Over the long haul, she was more indispensable to the Abbey than was Yeats. And the question who was the best Abbey playwright after Synge and O’Casey seems more and more an open question, with Lady Gregory as likely as Yeats or anyone else.
When Yeats, Lady Gregory, and the Fays called for young native dramatists to spring up, in John Millington Synge (1871-1909) they got both more and less than they asked for. He was a greater dramatist than they had any right to expect would appear so suddenly, but the movement got less out of him than it should have, partly because he died so young and partly because his sardonically truthful plays were at first more a liability than an asset when “patriotism” meant telling lies about one’s country.
It didn’t help with the nationalists that
like Yeats and Lady Gregory, Synge was a descendant of that Protestant
land-owning class that invaded in the seventeenth century. The family seat,
belonging to Synge’s uncle, was
The Synges were also known for their churchmen. Fervid, proselytizing Protestants, the Synges did not need any more evangelical zealotry in the family, but they got it when Synge’s father married Synge’s mother, daughter of Robert Traill, a passionate denouncer of things papist. She relentlessly hammered her father’s doctrines of sin and hellfire damnation into her five children, who all shaped up as wished except John, her youngest. John’s teenage reaction to both the exploitative landlordism and the intolerant, scarifying religion of his family was one of revulsion and rejection. The oft-noted morbidity of Synge’s vision seems to owe less to his affliction with asthma and the terminal Hodgkin’s disease than to the parental emphasis on death and damnation in his childhood. As Synge wrote, “the well-meant but extraordinary cruelty of introducing the idea of Hell into the imagination of a nervous child has probably caused more misery than many customs that the same people send missionaries to eradicate.”33
Synge’s revulsion combined with his amateur naturalist’s interest in Darwinian evolution to force him to publicly renounce Christianity in 1889, to the horror of his family; but gradually his religious sense replaced the lost religion with something between Wordsworthian Nature mysticism and Shavian Life Force worship. As he later wrote:
No one pretends to ignore the bitterness of disease and death. It is an immense, infinite horror; and the more we learn to set the real value on the vitality of life the more we dread death. Yet any horror is better than the stagnation of belief. . . . The people who rebel from the law of God are not those who linger in the aisles droning their withered chants with senile intonation. . . . In the Christian synthesis each separate faculty has been dying of atrophy. . . . The only truth a wave knows is that it is going to break. The only truth a bud knows is that it is going to expand and flower. The only truth we know is that we are a flood of magnificent life, the fruit of some frenzy of the earth.34
Synge further alienated his family by
taking up music as his profession, attending classes in musical theory, violin,
and composition at the Royal Irish Academy of Music. He simultaneously attended Trinity College in
Dublin, where he was not a serious student of much else besides language
(German, Hebrew, and Irish), preferring to read on his own. In 1892 he received a pass degree from
Trinity and a scholarship in counterpoint from the Royal Academy. He then traveled to Germany to study
music. In 1894, after a decision to give up music owing to a shyness that made
performance unbearable, he moved to
Yeats had been visiting Maud Gonne in
Paris, where she had decamped to avoid arrest for leading boycotts among the
Irish peasantry, and he joined her in forming the Irish League (1897), aiming
to enlist French sympathy for the cause of Irish independence. Synge was persuaded to join but only a few
months later sent Maud a letter of resignation, saying: “My theory of
In five successive summers, spending four-and-a-half months there altogether, Synge immersed himself in the life of the Aran Isles, listening to the stories of the schanachie (Irish storytellers who were inheritors of a long oral tradition), gaining respect for the persistence of these people in the face of unceasing hardship and danger, and meditating on how this particular life was connected to the cosmos and universal human experience, finding many parallels between the ancient myths, legends, and fables of other lands and those of the Aran Isles. Viewing what he thought was a life only recently fallen from paradise, he experienced a kind of artistic paradise in being able to transmute the fact of this existence into an imaginative truth.
Though he could speak Irish, Synge was more impressed with the natives’ blending of English and Irish into a living national tongue, and it was this dialect, synthesized with the dialect of West Kerry peasants he later visited and the Kiltartan dialect Lady Gregory introduced him to, that formed the richly musical prose dialogue of most of his plays. He was not much interested in digging up the folklore past, especially for its own sake, but rather was fascinated by the life of a particular flesh-and-blood people, a life somehow retaining some of the simple nobility of an earlier peasant culture, one we call “primitive” but one Synge felt was fundamentally more civilized than modern bourgeois society. He once wrote, of Yeats’s “Celtic Twilight”: “I do not believe in the possibility of ‘a purely fantastic, unmodern, ideal, breezy, spring-dayish, Cuchulainoid National Theatre.’ . . . No drama can grow out of anything other than the fundamental realities of life which are never fantastic, are neither modern nor unmodern and, as I see them, rarely spring-dayish, or breezy or Cuchulainoid.”36 On the Aran Isles he sought, not the dream-heroes of the past, but a living example of the past that not only survived in the modern world but showed in some essential ways how the modern world might do better.
He was not immediately transformed into a major writer by his experiences here, nor did his account, The Aran Isles, completed in 1901, find a publisher until 1907, but after a few more false starts (his play When the Moon Has Set, 1896-1901, was rejected for production by Yeats and Lady Gregory, and several verse plays were left uncompleted), he finally emerged as the Irish dramatic movement’s greatest playwright. In the Shadow of the Glen (1903) and Riders to the Sea (1904) were his first produced plays, by the Fays’ Irish National Theatre Society; thenceforth all but one of his plays were introduced by the Abbey.
When Yeats arranged the transformation of the Abbey from a cooperative society to a limited company in 1905, Synge joined him and Lady Gregory as directors and participated as much as possible in the management and practical life of the theater. This effort was somewhat compromised by his falling in love with Molly Allgood (stage name: Marie O’Neill), sister of the Abbey’s leading actress, Sara Allgood. Always more at home with women than men, Synge had had a long string of lady friends, but twice he was rejected for marriage and at other times for anything more than friendship, resulting in much heartache and the theme of unrequited love in his works. He was fatally attracted to women who, through religious conviction or cultural background, found his “advanced ideas” anathema, and Molly was no exception. Molly’s lack of education, her Catholic background, relative youth (fifteen years younger), and love of apparently innocent flirting gave Synge much aggravation, and he wasted too much of his time writing jealous, chiding love letters. Even so, after a long campaign to get his mother to accept Molly, their secret engagement was finally acknowledged. But the mismatch never came off owing to Synge’s last illness.
The six plays that form the heart of Synge’s effort can be classified conventionally as tragedies or comedies, with Riders to the Sea and Deirdre of the Sorrows being tragedies and the rest bitter comedies. The comedies might further be identified as “extravaganzas,” but when Synge applied that term to one of his plays, he found, as Shaw had earlier, that people associated the extravaganza with frivolity. Classifying according to their sources, Robin Skelton calls Riders, In the Shadow of the Glen, The Tinker’s Wedding, and The Playboy of the Western World “schanachie plays” because they were inspired by stories told Synge by Irish storytellers;37 of the remaining two, The Well of the Saints seems to have been based on an old French farce and Deirdre on heroic myth. All six plays, however, are experiments with a highly rhythmic language and a free-form dramatic structure, in accordance with Synge’s view of the symphonic and musical nature of existence.
The one-act Riders to the Sea appears to be the first of Synge’s major plays to be completed, though the second produced, and it is the only one actually set in the Aran Isles. Containing many ironic parallels to Yeats’s recently produced Cathleen ni Houlihan, the play shows Synge reacting against Yeats’s call to arms and the promise of heroic immortality to those who serve “Mother Ireland.”38 In Riders the enemy is not England or foreign usurpers but the sea as a symbol of the cosmos, and the struggle is more elemental, with death as the inevitable outcome and resignation as the only possible response. A counter-portrait of “Mother Ireland,” Maurya, an old woman who has lost her husband, her husband’s father, and five sons to the sea, the latest being Michael, missing at sea for many days, seeks to prevent the drowning of her sixth and last son, Bartley. But Bartley insists on fulfilling his role as man of the house by taking horses across the water to sell at a mainland fair, and the angry Maurya cannot bring herself to give him her blessing. When, relenting, she hastens to catch up with him, she is so shocked at seeing the specter of the dead Michael on a gray horse riding behind Bartley that she fails again to deliver the blessing. She returns to her cottage to learn that the body of Michael has been found and buried in the far north, and as men carry in the drowned corpse of Bartley, she learns that the gray horse knocked Bartley into the sea. Amid the keening of neighboring men and women, Maurya performs last rites, as much pagan as Christian, over the remains of Michael and Bartley, and asks for mercy on them and “on the soul of everyone is left living in the world. . . . No man at all can be living forever, and we must be satisfied.” Crammed with allusions to Greek and other pagan myth, and with the keening people forming a Sophoclean chorus of lament, the play seeks to present an embodiment of man’s universal dilemma of mortality, his inability to control the great natural forces that drive at this planet.
the Shadow of the Glen, another
does not have the mythic universality of Riders, but in its tone of comic irony and ambiguity it
is more representative of Synge’s subsequent production. Here Synge modified a schanachie story to suggest a connection
with the classical folktale of the Widow of
A two-act “rollicking farce,” The Tinker’s Wedding, written between 1902 and 1906, was not produced until 1909, after Synge’s death, and then not in Ireland but in London owing to its being thought anti-clerical and immoral. Based on a story told Synge by a Wicklow herd, the play tells of Sarah Casey’s sudden passion to marry Michael Byrne, the tinker she has been accompanying on the road. Michael hates the idea, as does his drunken old mother, Mary, but Sarah is possessed by the idea of gaining respectability through marriage. A not particularly spiritual priest happens along and reluctantly agrees to marry these “heathens” if they will come up with the price—some gold and a tin can. Later, Old Mary steals the can to trade for drink, leaving the couple next day embarrassingly short of the necessary price of a wedding. And so the priest balks, but partly because he doubts they’ve ever been baptized or are Christians at all, believing they are more likely thieves. Sarah, and Michael too, now offended, try to force the priest. When, spying the police, the priest calls for help, they stuff him in a sack and will not let him out until he swears not to say anything to the police. He agrees, and Sarah slips the wedding ring on his finger to remind him of his oath. But when he’s freed the priest tells them he hasn’t sworn not to call down the wrath of God and so begins uttering Latin maledictions. The superstitious tinkers, formerly scoffers, flee in terror. Robin Skelton finds in this rather Chaucerian tale “the conflict of conventional religious practice with wildness of heart and passionate hunger,” complicated by the paradox that Sarah’s wildness of heart, inspired by the mood of springtime, leads her to desire the opposite—the stability and order of marriage—a manifestation of a temporary nesting instinct.42 Her rootless, adventurous life suits her pretty well most of the year, but in spring a sexual-maternal urge to settle down overcomes her. The priest does not grasp the momentariness of this mood, but Old Mary wisely points out that marriage would fix nothing, the seasons would pass on, and the heart of the nomadic vagrant would change with the seasons. The play would thus seem to be a tribute to the vitality of the spontaneous life, following natural rhythms, and a record of its problematic encounter with a less vital but sometimes attractively organized and settled way of life.
A short three-acter, The Well of the Saints, begun in 1903 and completed in 1905, is a departure in that it is based, not on schanachie stories, but on an old French story, however much Synge’s Irish experience reinforced it. Described as “essentially a psychological drama, in which the alternations of attitude and mood provide the dramatic rhythm, rather than the events which stimulate these movements,"43 the play tells of the blind Douls, man and wife, who, their sight temporarily restored by a visiting saint, decide against permanent restoration when sight of the world horrifies and saddens them. Blind their lifelong, Martin and Mary Doul in old age have arrived at a kind of happiness based on there being nothing to contradict their idealized vision of one another. But still there is a hankering to see the world as others see it. When the saint gives them temporary vision, they find the world of the sighted “disadvantaged” (our word) by the inability to see beyond appearances. Finding each other ugly, in sighted terms, they quarrel and split, until growing blindness begins to return to them a sight more valuable—the vision of the ideal—and they rejoin each other, forevermore committed to a blindness to mere externals. Preferring to suffer physical privation than lose their dream, the Douls assert their right to choose their own way of life, a way superior to conventional notions of reality and priorities.44
Synge’s love of comparative mythology led him next into daring juxtapositions of story material—The Playboy of the Western World (1904-1906) contains a strange synthesis of Irish folkways, Greek drama (Oedipus Rex, in particular), Spanish fiction (Don Quixote), and Christian story. First produced in 1907, The Playboy inspired rioting in both Ireland and America, at first ostensibly over the use of the word “shifts” for lady’s undergarments, but really over its unflattering portrayal of the Irish and its presumed blasphemy in its parody of Christian story. Synge’s most fully developed play, The Playboy is dazzlingly rich in texture and meaning, so much so that interpretation has been extremely various.
Set in the village of Mayo, the story at first seems centered on Pegeen Mike (played first by Molly Allgood), one of Synge’s young women who have the imagination to envision a more glorious life and the energy to pursue it, but also have fatal inhibitions that prevent them from realizing their own dream. When her father leaves one night to attend a wake for the partying that comes with it, and her cowardly fiancé, Shawn Keough, refuses to stay alone with her at her father’s pub for fear of offending the holy fathers of the Church, not to mention his fear of the dark, she in her exasperation with the men in her life is ripe for escape. Escape soon comes in the form of what is supposedly a criminal on the run, one Christy Mahon, whose trembling figure is not much to behold at first, but who becomes greater and bolder with each recitation of his story of having killed his tyrannous father, Old Mahon, a talent for storytelling such as Christy’s being highly valued in this stimulus-starved, language-dependent community. Others arrive to listen to his glorious deed, Pegeen becoming increasingly proprietary toward Christy and the heroic myth she has been fostering in him. Pegeen and Christy ultimately recognize each other as soul mates in their passionate and poetic way with words. But Pegeen, by promoting the heroic size of her beloved, does not realize what a Frankenstein’s monster she is creating.
As Christy is busy living up to his newfound reputation by winning all the games at a local sports festival, Old Mahon appears at the pub, his head bandaged but otherwise hale and hearty, declaring Christy a fraud at murder. When Christy returns as celebrated champion of the games and finds his father still alive, he feels he can do no less than vindicate his reputation and so appears to kill his father a second time with a blow to the head. The villagers are horrified at seeing their vision of heroism realized, for “there’s a great gap between a gallous story and a dirty deed,”45 and they turn on Christy, tying him up for the police and threatening the gallows. In her sharp disappointment, Pegeen leads the persecution, burning Christy’s leg with fired sod.
But Old Mahon, who has survived a second blow and has at last gained respect for a son who would so assert himself, intervenes, declaring that he and Christy will leave together, enjoying themselves by “telling stories of the villainy of Mayo, and the fools is here”(8o). Christy reconciles with his father, but only by putting him in his place, and then departs with blessings upon Mayo, “for you’ve turned me into a likely gaffer after all, the way I’ll go romancing through a romping lifetime”(8o). Realizing her loss, Pegeen ends the play with a wild lament. “Oh my grief, I’ve lost him surely. I’ve lost the only Playboy of the Western World”(8o). As a “playboy” could refer to either a hoaxer (con man) or a hurling champion, and “Western World” occurs frequently in early Irish texts as part of an epithet for a champion, her lament may signal the ambiguous nature of Christy Mahon, whose stature as hero is both fake and real, depending upon one’s view. The play seems to point ultimately to the role of language in creating human greatness through its inspiring embodiment of idealistic vision, however comically distorted by the limitations of the people, and to the spiritual impoverishment of a people who cannot accept the reality of their own dream of destroying the authority of the fathers. They prefer to be enslaved by all those fathers who stand behind English law, Western materialism, and Christian doctrine than to take the daring step of realizing the spiritual power of their own instinctive rebellion against these things. In Synge’s view, they prefer to be more dead than alive. One can easily see how this view of things would be buttressed by a pattern of allusion to quixotic idealism, Oedipal rebellion, and Christ’s betrayal.46 In this more universal context, “Western World” may be directed at the entire patriarchal realm.
For his last play, Deirdre of the Sorrows, begun
in 1907 but never entirely finished (though directed by Molly in 1910 in a
version patched up by Yeats and Lady Gregory), Synge strangely reverted to the
“Cuchulanoid” sort of verse play he had earlier
rejected, attempting once again “to solve the problem of presenting poetry in
native idiom.”47 Perhaps tired of either the
realistic-symbolic manner of his plays or of the turmoil they created, Synge
expressed a desire to do something quite different: “I want to do something
quiet and stately and restrained.”48 But, as Skelton points out, “restraint
and stateliness did not come easily to Synge as a writer. In attempting these
qualities he excluded much from his play that might have increased both its
vitality and tension.”49
From an eighth- or ninth-century myth, the story is of Deirdre, prophesied from
birth to bring trouble upon
Synge was unfairly denigrated during his
lifetime for writing drama that lacked patriotism. Part of the charge was laid
at the satiric realism that supposedly characterized his work. Certainly Synge’s plays seem realistic in
comparison with Yeats’s plays, and the presence of a realistic movement
undoubtedly shaped these plays; but Yeats’s chagrin at the overshadowing of his
poetic drama by the realistic folk-dramas of Synge and Lady Gregory was
uncalled for, for the latter had found the real poetry of Ireland in native
dialects, not in made-up verse. And
their comically realistic portrayal of contemporary life by no means stinted
the visionary and the ideal. Further,
through the use of symbol, extravagant incident, and a richly evocative,
lyrical prose, they transcended standard realism to the extent that there is
critical justification, as there was with Shaw, for not considering their plays
realistic at all, in the usual sense of that word. As for the lack of patriotism, the state of
present-day Ireland makes it crystal clear that the political freedom that was
foremost in the minds of Synge’s detractors addressed Ireland’s enslavement at
only its most superficial level. Caring
more deeply for
Although “The Green Crow” and “The Flying Wasp” were Sean O’Casey’s own nicknames for himself (also titles of his essay collections), acknowledgment of the raucous and stinging voice of contention he often sounded in his constant quarrel with certain Irish and other benighteds, perhaps it’s time to put more emphasis on “the ginger man” in him, for, in a moribund society, he was one of the great lyrical celebrators of the Life Force, particularly interested in the sexual liberation of the young as a means of breaking down the walls of class and economic distinction and of routing the deadening effect of respectability with an affirmation of instinctual life. As he said, “Praise God for th’ urge of jubilation in the heart of the young.”50 No doubt his own very hard life as a youth had much to do with that emphasis.
Born John Casey in 188o, he was that most anomalous of Irishmen, a poor Protestant, which he pretty much remained to his dying day (in 1964). The youngest of thirteen children, eight of whom died in infancy, John found a hard life get harder when his father, Michael Casey, died in 1886, leaving his mother, Susan, to scrape out a living in Dublin’s slums. Tenement dwellers they may have been, sometimes with empty bellies for days at a time, but they were not uncultured, and school and private reading were encouraged among the children, though in John’s case chronic trachoma, which eventually led to blindness, made attendance at school and reading difficult. Despite about only three years of formal schooling, John persisted with secondhand books and taught himself. Though steeped in the Bible, Shakespeare, and other classics, and owing much to them in his own stylistics, he always pointed to his encounter with Shaw’s works as the great awakener, and later the Shaws and the O’Caseys would become great friends, O’Casey once referring to himself as playing “Peter” to Shaw’s “Christ” in their crusade against the evils of the day.51
Working full-time from the age of fourteen, for nine years (1903-1911) as common laborer for the Great Northern Railway of Ireland, he nevertheless found time to teach Sunday school (1900-1903) and to become very active in the Gaelic League (beginning in 1906), learning Gaelic well enough to teach it, “gaelicizing” his name to Sean O’Cathasaigh (which he changed to Sean O’Casey in 1923). In fits of nationalism, he joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood in 1908 and served as secretary of the Irish Citizen Army in 1914, eventually writing its history (published 1919). But at the same time (beginning in 1911) he was pulled in a different direction by his membership in Jim Larkin’s Irish Transport and General Worker’s Union, a membership that got him fired from the railway, after which he wrote articles for Larkin’s Irish Worker, served as secretary of the Women and Children’s Relief Fund during the general strike and lockout of 1913, and, during Larkin’s later imprisonment in 1921, was secretary of the Release Jim Larkin Committee. His understanding of Ireland’s predicament vacillated between a nationalistic one and a more international, Marxist view, with the latter winning out. During the Easter Rebellion of 1916, he did not fight but was briefly imprisoned by the English in a general roundup. During the Black and Tan “terror” that followed, when special British forces, dressed in black-and-tan outfits, ruthlessly imposed law and order and Irish rebels responded with their own brutality, O’Casey became disillusioned with both Irish republicanism and organized labor. Though sometimes pugnacious in his writings, he was a peace-loving man and could not abide the violent turn events had taken. More and more the profession of writing attracted him as a means of giving vent to his feelings and vision.
His writings at first were mostly stories, poems, and journalistic pieces. His first two plays, The Harvest Festival and The Frost in the Flower, were rejected by the Abbey in 1920, as were other one-acters he wrote soon after. In 1923 he was launched as a playwright at the age of forty-two by Abbey productions of The Shadow of a Gunman and the one-act Cathleen Listens In. The year 1924 saw Abbey productions of Juno and the Paycock and the one-act Nannie’s Night Out, and 1926 was the year of The Plough and the Stars, with its replay of the riots over Synge’s Playboy and Yeats’s great fight with the Abbey audience—“You have disgraced yourselves again.” It was one of Yeats’s and the Abbey’s finest hours. O’Casey was just what the Abbey needed to revive itself, and thus no one could have predicted what happened next.
In 1928, Yeats, exceedingly indulgent of experimentation with abstraction in his own plays and secretly didactic, strangely could not tolerate O’Casey’s experiment with expressionism and a more open didacticism, persuading Lady Gregory, to her everlasting regret, to reject the anti-war play The Silver Tassie. O’Casey, who had temporarily moved to London to oversee productions of his plays and who had married the actress Eileen Carey in 1927 with high hopes for an Abbey-based career, was so stung by Yeats’s condescending letter of rejection, followed by a bitter dispute over performing rights for other plays, that he boycotted the Abbey for many years, residing in England for the rest of his life, a voluntary exile “from every creed, from every party, and from every literary clique” in Ireland.52
A standard but partly erroneous view of the effect of this exile was Gabriel Fallon’s (one-time Abbey actor, later drama critic, thought by O’Casey to be a traitor): “It was indeed a severe blow and in some respects a mortal one, for it stabilised his exile, deprived him of the theatre workshop he had in the Abbey, and ultimately left him to experiment in vacuo with an expressionistic technique of which he was never the complete master. To a great extent it killed that inner confidence in himself as a dramatist which the success of Juno and The Plough had helped to build.”53 But O’Casey always resented this view that his early “slum realism” plays—The Shadow of a Gunman, Juno, and The Plough—represented the acme of his achievement and that as his style became expressionistic, sometimes openly didactic, and at first less Irish in theme and character, he failed as a playwright, and he was largely unforgiving of anyone who took that view. Former friends became enemies overnight for just that reason. When Fallon chided him on his decline and urged him to “return to first principles,” O’Casey pointed out that some of his first plays had been nonrealistic and thus he was returning to first principles when he wrote nonrealistically.
Within the Gates (1934) was his first completely expressionistic play, and most of his plays from then on were expressionistic or at least had some expressionistic element in them. While there is some truth to the idea that his best plays are those that stick predominantly to Irish themes and characters (he returned to these in his last phase after attempting more universal themes and characters in his middle phase), O’Casey should not be faulted for attempting to rise above Irish provincialism and relate to the larger world, nor are the plays that attempt this failures. He was simply a man ahead of his time, writing Brechtian drama in a theater environment that was stuck on realism and naturalism. The Abbey’s loss of O’Casey was a more serious blow to the theater than his loss of it, for it afterward descended to a level of quotidian realism that it seldom rose above, and maintained some semblance of its former glory mostly through revivals.
O’Casey’s career in
England was one of ups and downs, and he often had bad luck with the timing of
productions. The same was true of American productions. In 1935 a banning in
O’Casey’s persistent theme is the Dionysian affirmation of the Life Force—particularly in its female manifestation—in its eternal conflict with the Death Force. The saintly, sacrificing nature of his mother in the care of her children, such as her patient morning ritual of bathing her son’s afflicted eyes, probably had much to do with O’Casey’s emphasis in his early plays on the redeeming female spirit, particularly in its maternal aspect. Amidst the almost unrelieved folly of his Irish males, O’Casey’s female characters seem to be the principal hope for the survival of the Life Force. The males contribute a song and a dance sometimes, and an unbridled imagination set loose upon the language to glorious ends, things O’Casey highly valued as life-enhancing, but it is generally the women who take the most practical and courageous steps to see that Life prevails.
The three major Abbey plays that established O’Casey’s reputation—Gunman, Juno, and The Plough—form a trilogy that tell the story of Ireland’s “troubles” in the years of World War I and after, though they were not written in the order of history’s chronology. The Plough and the Stars, written last in 1926, tells of the Easter Rebellion of 1916 from the point of view of a handful of slum dwellers, who exist mostly off to the side of that great, foolish insurrection. Parliamentary bills for Irish Home Rule having been tabled by World War I, certain of the more frustrated and impatient Irish, thinking the English would be too occupied in the European battle, decided to force the issue with an armed uprising in Dublin. The English squelched them in short order, executing most of the leaders afterward. Yeats thought “a terrible beauty was born” of this, but O’Casey’s picture of confusion, madness, death, and disease fails to show this. The Shadow of a Gunman, written first in 1922-23 but set in 1920, shows the effect on a small lodging house of the Black and Tan “terror” of the years following the Rebellion when English repression and Irish rebel violence was at its most extreme. Juno and the Paycock, written second in 1924, again focuses on a particular family and their neighbors in a Dublin tenement, this time during the period of the civil war (1922), brought on by the English granting of Free State status to Ireland, which the majority of Irish accepted but a violent minority did not, as it still required an oath of allegiance to the English monarch by members of the Irish Parliament and partition of Ireland into North and South. The Free Staters defeated the republican “diehards,” but ultimately republican political pressure brought a greater degree of independence to Ireland, and of course republican terrorist strategy continued until fairly recently in Northern Ireland, with occasional lulls during periods of “peace negotiation” and occasional violence during periods when the peace is challenged.
In these three plays, O’Casey added urban notes to the “soul music” of Synge’s and Gregory’s folk dialects, achieving a language no less fundamentally poetic and theatrical, making realism and naturalism therefore no less inadequate as terms to describe their styles. It is no accident that the central character of his first major play, The Shadow of a Gunman (originally On the Run), is a poet, Donal Davoreen, for through him O’Casey was struggling to understand his role in the violently political milieu of the Black and Tan repression of 1920. Suspected of being a rebel gunman “on the run,” Donal does not try hard enough to dispel this false notion, especially when pretty young Minnie Powell takes a fancy to him on those grounds. His development is similar to Christy Mahon’s in Synge’s Playboy, except that his acceding to the inflation of heroic mythmaking only ends in his ultimate deflation when reality puts him to the test. When a friend of his roommate’s actually leaves some rebel bombs in his room, unbeknownst to him, and a Black and Tan search frightens him to his senses, he allows brave, love-smitten Minnie to hide the bombs. As she is arrested and accidentally killed by a rebel ambush of the English soldiers, Donal ends by lamenting his fate as “poet and poltroon.”
O’Casey seems to have drawn the basic situation from a stay at a lodging where he too was mistaken for a gunman “on the run,” but one suspects that he means here to distinguish between the kind of poet he was and the kind Yeats was, for the play contains a mostly hidden pattern of allusion in which Donal and Minnie are presented as a slum-parody version of Yeats and Maud Gonne. Minnie is like Maud in hankering after a hero (significantly, after rejecting Yeats as a man of action, Maud eventually married a gunman, McBride, who died in the Easter Rebellion). Minnie is referred to as “a Helen of Troy,” Yeats’s familiar appellation for Maud, and Donal speaks of her as “a pioneer in action” as he is “a pioneer in thought,” the two powers that shall “mould life nearer to the heart’s desire,” in a quote from Shelley that inspired Yeats’s play The Land of Heart’s Desire. Donal, like Yeats, is inspired by the lady’s heroic vision of him, but his creed of aesthetic escapism and his elitist contempt for the people make his heroism detached from social reality. When he discovers he’s caught in a situation that would require him to act like a real hero, he says, “The sooner I’m on the run out of this house the better” (my italics).55 The running he contemplates is to avoid engagement in a cause, not to fight for it, even verbally. O’Casey as a poet who was engagé, is pillorying the sort of poet who, on the grounds of being above it all in a spiritual quest for Beauty, refused to be committed. Remember that the great Yeats had already turned down several of O’Casey’s plays on the artistic grounds that they were too “committed.” At the same time O’Casey is acknowledging a kinship with Yeats in the necessarily problematic relationship of any poet to a violent, nationalistic cause.
All three plays of the Dublin trilogy are subtitled “tragedy,” but the elements of farce and satire are so strong in them that “satiric tragedy,” “tragifarce,” or “tragicomedy” would be more accurate designations. Certainly much of the vitality of these plays comes from the comic depiction of mostly minor characters. In Gunman, the fake religiosity of Davoreen’s roommate, Seumas Shields, the fake bravado of Tommy Owens, whose bragging at a pub causes the dragnet, Mrs. Henderson’s trivialization of IRA justice, to settle domestic disputes, the turning tail of the brave-talking but fair-weather Grigsons, and the cowardice and self-serving nature of almost all, are satiric targets and the source of much merriment. Yet O’Casey has cause to call the play a tragedy, for the low comedy serves to heighten the tragedy by way of ironic counterpoint; the comic doings are not just comic relief but contribute to a tragic fate. In this case the anagnorisis, or “recognition,” is Davoreen’s, as the principal suffering is Minnie’s, a division of tragic fate apparently necessary to a democratic world in which tragedy is no longer the individual’s but pervades the entire society. The tragedy is the people’s, not any one individual’s alone, if such absurdity can be said to be tragic at all.
O’Casey managed a much stronger tragic feeling in Juno and the Paycock, his “slice of life” in the time of the “troubles,” when Irish fought Irish in civil war. The stronger tragic feeling comes from a better focus—the most defeated figure is also the central figure and the most vital character, Captain Boyle, who imagines he was once a seafaring captain. Boyle is the braggart soldier type from ancient comedy, a peacock of a man who struts about with a great show of boldness, wisdom, and practical know-how, but whose gaudy feathers fold at the slightest challenge. Driving his wife, Juno, to distraction with his feckless, indolent ways, he is abetted by his buddy, Joxer Daley, in a careful avoidance of gainful employment and furtive pursuit of spendthrift pleasure in the local pub. The classical Juno, Roman goddess of domesticity, was associated with peacocks, patron birds who protect her; further, in Christian symbolism peacocks are signs of resurrection. But Boyle is unaware of any heroic dimension about his wife, nicknaming her “Juno” for trivial reasons, and serving her badly, not as her protector, but as a parasite, for it is her determination and hard work that has largely kept her family together in their marginal existence. And he brings to her, not resurrection, but desolation and defeat. He is a “paycock” only in the modern sense of one who is falsely proud.56 “Mother Ireland” is on her own here.
O’Casey begins by showing how circumstances have shaped the Boyle family and have frustrated their desire to rise above their tenement subsistence. Their son, Johnny, crippled by wounds incurred during the Easter Rebellion, is lost in the contemplation of the disaster that has rendered his young life useless. Defensive and strangely guilty at the news that the son of another lodger, Mrs. Tancred, was murdered in an ambush, Johnny persists in an increasingly frantic denial of complicity. Juno’s fruitless attempts to get her artfully dodging husband into a job, and the comic doings of the captain and Joxer as they breakfast on sausages and blarney and charmingly plan the day’s evasions of responsibility, further reveal a hopeless situation. The only note of hope is in the suggestion of a new romance in the life of their pretty daughter, Mary, but this note is qualified by her foolish rejection of the up-and-coming labor leader, Jerry Devine, and the fact that she too is out of work, voluntarily on strike but nevertheless a victim of labor union principles, even as her brother is a victim of nationalist principles.
O’Casey then introduces into this generally bleak and unpromising situation a favorite device of nineteenth-century melodramatists for miraculously reversing such a fallen state, a sudden and unexpected inheritance, but only to show that it doesn’t work that way in real life. Mary’s new beau, the seemingly sophisticated Charlie Bentham, schoolteacher and legal assistant, brings wondrous news of the bequeathing of a saving wealth to the Boyles from a forgotten relative. Impregnated with the idea that they are soon to be rich, the Boyles swell with importance and incur debts as they borrow against the future to make the present more enjoyable, even Juno getting caught up in the spending fever. But just as the smooth-talking Bentham has gotten Mary pregnant only to leave her with a bastard, so he has, by his legal inexperience, left them with a bastard of a will, legally belonging to nobody. As their fortune collapses and their newly purchased goods are repossessed, news comes that Johnny has been killed by “Diehards” who suspected him, for reasons of personal jealousy, of having betrayed his friend Tancred. Her family ambitions totally defeated, Juno takes Mary off with her to raise the forthcoming child on their own, leaving the drunken Captain and Joxer to slump to the floor of an empty apartment in the midst of sentimental reminiscence and the famous declaration that “the whole world’s in a terrible state o’chassis”(73). But, to a considerable degree, O’Casey shows the Irish chaos to be self-generated; they bring their fate on themselves.
Yet the charge that O’Casey was belittling the Irish is not quite true, as his next play, The Plough and the Stars, more clearly shows. Here as in the other plays, the Irish are indeed ridiculed for being cowardly, self-indulgent, lazy, hypocritical, envious, braggardly, quarrelsome, drunken, sentimental, traitorous, foolishly idealistic, blarney-ridden, priest-ridden, and so on, a considerable indictment; but the indictment is more of the human condition than of the Irish, and in fact a certain Irishness in their venality partly redeems them.57 At least they’re theatrical, humorous, and lively about it, even poetic. More important, O’Casey seems to put the final emphasis, not on the venality, but on the indomitable spirit of the Irish and on the inimitable style with which they struggle against or suffer indignity. That indomitable spirit, ironically, is less in their fondness for heroic posturing than in their anti-heroic venality. Their true heroism is in their élan, the personal style in which they endure, and their longing for greater and more abundant life, however foolishly they distort a noble aspiration with ignoble realizations. O’Casey’s satiric comment is not so much on their willingness to contradict their ideals with unseemly behavior—for when people behave instinctively, as the Life Force impels, they seldom can live up to their ideals—as on the life-denying ideals themselves. Their downfall is not to be interpreted as the inevitable result of man’s sinful nature (one way of accounting for not living up to ideals) but as the result of a vast craving for more abundant life and of realizing that healthy impulse in ways that warp, cheat, or pollute the desire.
Tragedy traditionally reaffirms the primacy of the unwritten laws of the gods, as Sophocles puts it, and these O’Casey plays also suggest the presence of certain principles of life that seem to override everything else. Life commands the individual to self-fulfillment, as a means not only for the full development of the self but for the evolution of the species; but the world frustrates this desire with its sundry limitations, and so a tragic confrontation ensues between life as it should be and life as it comes. In juxtaposing these things and drawing out their poignant ironies, O’Casey managed a considerable variety of plot and characterization.
The Plough and the Stars is like Juno and unlike Gunman in not having a character capable of “tragic recognition,” yet it manages the strongest tragic feeling of all his plays, perhaps because the accumulation of ironies is so devastating. The play opens a few months before the Easter Rebellion of 1916 and closes in the midst of that disaster. Again we focus on a particular family, Nora Clitheroe and her would-be hero of a husband, Jack; but Nora’s changing the lock on her door is unable to keep out the contentious, brawling neighbors of this typically overcrowded tenement. The central struggle is Nora’s: to uphold an ideal of domestic respectability whereby she can rise above her slum environment. She will sacrifice everything to this ideal, including her husband’s self-esteem. But when Jack discovers that she has hidden a letter proclaiming him a commandant of a Citizen Army regiment, and that his jealousy over the promotion of a rival was unnecessary, he angrily denounces her domestic ideal and, in a reversal of A Doll House, walks out on his “little red-lipped Nora,” who secretly thought she had saved her husband’s life. After Jack leaves to join the rebel army, a tubercular child named Mollser (belonging to a Mrs. Gogan) ironically expresses her envy of Nora, but her voice is drowned out by the music of a brass band playing “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” for a regiment of Irish Volunteers marching off to fight in the trenches of World War I alongside the English, hailed as heroes by the Protestant tenant, Bessie Burgess, as she denounces the rebels. Of such close ironic counterpointing is this play composed throughout.
Act 2 an hour later—the hour of the great, enflaming speech based on speeches of Padraic Pearse, president of the provisional Irish government when it proclaimed Ireland’s independence in Easter Week—is ironically set in a pub near the speaker’s platform where the characters can rush in to quench their patriotic thirst. Rosie Redmond is languishing in her prostitute’s trade until the heroes come in, reviving her hopes, but in their “holy mood” Rosie’s commercial enterprise is unavailing— war is bad for business. A hilarious act finds the fighting Irish at their best in a pub, sudden and quick to quarrel over trivial matters tangent to personal dignity, the women being more pugnacious than the men. When the soldiers like Clitheroe come in, there’s much talk of revolution and of how Ireland is greater than wife or mother, and thus inspired, they march off to prepare for destruction of the enemy. But amidst the marching orders we hear Rosie Redmond singing a bawdy song about the delights of procreation, as Life does battle with Death.
In act 3, as the Easter Rebellion breaks out and Nora returns from a fruitless attempt to find her husband, it gradually dawns on the slum dwellers that in all the confusion this would be a perfect opportunity for looting, Mrs. Gogan and Bessie Burgess, for example, fighting over a baby carriage that would nicely serve for hauling, and the Falstaffian Fluther Good setting off to loot a pub. Naturally this requires sections of the army to patrol the streets and shoot at the looters—”slum lice”—rather than fight the English. Suddenly, in the midst of comic cavortings, Jack returns to Nora, expressing a wish that he had never left her, but he is shamed by his companions into leaving her again to resume the fight. The rough leaving brings on labor pains in Nora, whereupon Bessie Burgess, jealous of Nora or not, Protestant or not, goes for a doctor, the men around being too drunk from fear.
Act 4 takes place in Bessie’s small attic room, with a coffin containing the bodies of both Nora’s aborted baby and the deceased Mollser placed near a window. When news comes that Clitheroe has been killed, Nora, already on the brink, topples into insanity, calling for the dead as though they were alive. With trigger-happy English forces patrolling the streets searching for snipers, Bessie is shot trying to push the raving Nora away from the window. Placing a sheet over Bessie, Mrs. Gogan leads the crazed Nora out, leaving behind apologetic English soldiers who help themselves to tea and sing “Keep the Home Fires Burning” as a glare in the sky signals the general attack on the post office where the principal rebels are making their final stand.
Naturalism is supposed to show humanity at the mercy of heredity and environment, and to a considerable extent O’Casey’s slum trilogy does reveal the shaping influence of such factors, but the plays also show the slum dwellers fighting back and asserting their individualities. The looting in The Plough, for example, would, in conventional naturalism, be indicative of the power of vengeful greed operating in stimulus-and-response fashion on society’s declassé, but O’Casey’s more optimistic, semi-comic tone transmutes this looting into a positive sign of health. Their not looting would be a sign that naturalistic forces had indeed beaten them into submission. Further, the amount of extravagant incident, language, and character tells against the labeling of these plays as conventionally naturalistic. The stage directions, with their frequent reference to the shaping of character by environment, are often explicitly naturalistic, but almost every other element of dramaturgy—the language, the music, the symbolism, the character typing, the often theatrical stage imagery, the deliberate use of coincidence—points to a playwright who will find a move to even more theatrical modes of expression congenial.
In two giant steps, from The Silver Tassie to Within the Gates, O’Casey traveled the full distance from an apparent realism or naturalism to a very assertive and theatrical nonrealism. The Silver Tassie retains the conventions of individualized characters and realistic episodes for most of the play but juxtaposes these with an expressionistic, nightmarish account of war at the front. Focused on Harry Heegan, football hero, the play follows him from the moment of his crowning success when he wins the cup—the Silver Tassie—for his club to his return from World War I maimed and bitter. Losing his girl to his best friend and permanently confined to a wheelchair, Harry is unable to accept his condition. At a club dance, Harry in a rage destroys the tassie, symbol of his health and greatness. The play’s most effective scene in fulfilling its anti-war purpose occurs in act 2—amidst an expressionistically staged ruin of a monastery converted into a Red Cross station, the wounded are watched over by the allegorical Croucher wearing a death’s head, and soldiers chanting plainsong convey some of the horror of the war.
The abstraction of that second act took over the whole of Within the Gates. The characters are entirely symbolic figures—Dreamer (poet), an Atheist, a Bishop, a Salvation Army Officer—representing different views of life, and their quarrel is played out, during the Depression, “within the gates” of Hyde Park in four scenes that cover the full cycle of the seasons and the times of day (morning-noon-evening-night). Their quarrel is a fight for the soul of a young whore, Jannice (played in America by Lillian Gish), who is dying of a bad heart and seeks guidance. She is the illegitimate and heretofore unacknowledged daughter of the Bishop and the stepdaugher of the Athiest, who of course pull her in opposite directions (thus the name “Jannice” to suggest “Janus,” the Roman god who looks both ways). Each believes his faith is the only means of salvation. The Dreamer’s vigorous, life-affirming humanism seems to appeal to her most strongly, but she wavers. As she dies both asking for the sign of the cross and proclaiming that she’ll die dancing, as the Dreamer would have her, the play ends with both Dreamer and Bishop thinking she has kept his faith. Possibly O’Casey means to suggest some reconciliation of opposites in the world of emotional fact.
This abstract drama, harkening back to the morality play, obviously lends itself to propaganda, and in The Star Turns Red (1938-39) O’Casey attempted to apply the morality play to the conflict between communism and fascism in a manner that propagandizes the relative virtue of the former. Some critics have found this to be the best of propaganda plays, artistically speaking, but of course the standard is not very high, as O’Casey admitted. Its excuse, of course, is the time in which it was written, when the failure of Western democracies to stop the rise of fascism led the desperate to place their hopes in communism. But as for O’Casey’s supposed dedication to the cause, one should note that he was never a member of the Communist party and never idealized the proletariat, nor can one imagine someone of his independent temperament fitting in very well with a Stalinist society. His communism was the sign of an attitude rather than a doctrinal position. As Shaw explained it to O’Casey’s wife: “A Communist is born a Communist. . . . It’s in your everyday life. It’s in your attitude to people. It’s in your obvious desire for everybody to have a fair share, especially in education.”58
At about the same
time, O’Casey was finding his way back to Irish subjects, most of his
characters from 1940 on being Irish, and he tempered the abstraction of his
drama with a renewed interest in individual character. Purple
Dust (1939-40), somewhat on the order of Shaw’s John Bull’s Other Island, juxtaposes
English and Irish characters in an Irish setting, making many comic points
about both nations. Red Roses for Me
a blend of realism and symbolism, epic and lyrical rather than
documentary, celebrates the Irish labor movement in a
Cock-a-Doodle-Dandy (1947) was O’Casey’s favorite play, which he described as “a secular hymn to the joy of life.”59 In the village of Nyadnanave (Gaelic for “Nest of Saints”), a priest named Father Domineer and a rich old peat-bog owner, Michael Mathraun, impose the repressive, life-denying forces of a puritanical Catholic Church and a tightfisted, bourgeois capitalism. Opposed to these killjoys is the Cock, a Dionysian spirit, thought by the pious to be a demon from hell because his magic causes strange supernatural events, particularly since the day the beautiful Loreleen, Mathraun’s daughter by his young first wife, returned from London with her “pagan” ways and began disturbing the chaste thoughts of local maledom. The Cock’s disciples in a Dionysian revolt, besides Loreleen, are Mathraun’s young second wife, Lorna, and her maid, Marion, who are joined by Robin Adair, a messenger in love with Marion, and Sailor Mahon, who is engaged in a labor dispute with old Mathraun and is smitten by Loreleen. Representing the powers of joy, love, and freedom, they are, mainly through Father Domineer’s efforts, at first isolated from the community and then exiled. The Cock wreaks havoc in retaliation, but his disciples, and thus his spirit, are exiled, and the point is made that in leaving the village they “go not towards an evil, but leave an evil behind.”60 The play is typical of O’Casey’s last phase, in which he switches from the earlier mother figure to youth in general as the great hope for regeneration.
In his final two full-length plays, The Bishop’s Bonfire (1954.) and The Drums of Father Ned (1957), O’Casey continues his attack on the bigotry, superstition, and fear of life that he thought passed for religion among many Irish. As Robin Adair sums up Michael Mathraun’s religion to him in Cock-a-Doodle-Dandy, “Your fathers’ faith is fear, and now fear is your only fun”(464). In The Bishop’s Bonfire the attack is aimed at an authoritarian church and state who force the young into loveless marriage and who consume opposition in the burning of books and art. But it’s noteworthy that encouraging the young in their revolt against such arbitrariness is Father Boheroe, who believes that “merriment may be a way of worship.” As usual in O’Casey, the rebels are defeated, but the defeat makes plainer Ireland’s desperate need for a religious revolution to follow the nationalist revolution, the implication being that returning Ireland to a truly Celtic religion means removal of the misguided accretions of Christianity. Christianity seemed to be acceptable to O’Casey insofar as it was Dionysian, but it was viewed as perverted insofar as it treated Dionysius as the devil. In The Drums of Father Ned, it is Father Ned who opposes Christianity’s perversions of Dionysius in his own Church and who inspires the young to overthrow the old order.
As with Shaw, O’Casey
was interested, not in destroying religion, as he was charged, but in
“redistilling the eternal spirit of religion,”61 believing that Ireland’s religious practice was so often
a distortion or corruption of that eternal spirit. Far from being one who, by escaping to
England, abandoned Ireland’s cause of retrieving its identity, O’Casey worked
harder and more directly for that cause after leaving Ireland than before. He
was less interested in the superficial cause of