Experimental theatre at heart of all his plays
Although primarily known as a poet, William Butler Yeats was deeply involved in the world of the theatre. Not only did he produce an important body of experimental drama but he was also one of the main movers behind the foundation of the Abbey Theatre in the early years of the 20th century.
Early plays, such as On Baile's Strand, were crucial to the progress of that theatre and inspired fellow playwrights (including John Millington Synge, Lady Augusta Gregory and Sean O'Casey) to make lasting contributions to the drama world. Traces of the offbeat experimentalism in his play, Purgatory, can also be detected in the work of later Irish playwright, Samuel Beckett.
As the 19th century drew to a close Yeats began to take more interest in drama. He was keen to develop an Irish national theatre that would produce a distinctively Irish theatre in the English language. In some ways he became aware of the limitations of poetry to affect social change, especially in a country like Ireland where literacy rates were relatively low.
Yeats was fond of quoting Victor Hugo's maxim that, 'in the theatre the mob becomes a people'. He was particularly attracted to the idea that anyone, regardless of their degree of literacy, could respond in profound ways to what they might see on stage.
At this time, theatre in Europe was dominated by commercial forms of entertainment that had flourished during the Victorian era. Music hall, vaudeville, and melodrama were especially popular. Yeats was dispirited by what he regarded as low and vulgar forms of theatre. For him these embodied the worst traits of the industrial age.
Instead he wanted to produce a form of theatre that would work as an antidote to the commercial theatre. One can detect in his thinking a modernist impulse to draw distinctions between low popular culture and higher forms of art. Yet there was also a strong cultural nationalist impulse motivating his thinking, too. In Yeats's mind industrial Britain was the source of the 'filthy modern tide' - the wave of cheap popular culture sweeping over the country. Ireland, on the other hand, offered something more ancient and more profound.
Yeats brought together his ideas on nationalism and on the redeeming potentials of the Celtic spirit in a play first performed in 1902 called Cathleen Ni Houlihan. In this play Maude Gonne, the great love of his life, played the title role. Cathleen is an old woman who visits a peasant cottage in the west of Ireland as the young man of the house is about to get married. She tells the family that a stranger has taken her four beautiful green fields and she implores the young man of the house, Michael, to help her get them back. Michael is enchanted by the old woman and decides to forsake his bride to help her. As he leaves the cottage she is transformed into a beautiful young girl with the walk of a queen.
This play functioned as a potent political allegory for the Irish cause and offered the figure of Cathleen as a rival to Queen Victoria who had recently visited her Irish subjects to help a recruitment drive by the British army during the Boer War. Cathleen is Ireland personified and her four fields represent the four provinces that have been confiscated by the British invader. By leaving with Cathleen Ni Houlihan, the hero, Michael, embodies the essence of the Celtic spirit, in Yeats's view. After all, he turns his back on material comfort and earthly love in favour of a spiritual devotion to the ideals of Mother Ireland.
At the core of Yeats's theatre was a deep commitment to 'the word'. He believed passionately in the redeeming possibilities of poetic drama, and in the idea of story telling rather than story showing. Not for him the cheap tricks of the commercial theatre. He continued to be experimental throughout his career and, in later years, he began to embrace movement, gesture and dance more overtly in plays such as At the Hawk's Well and The Dreaming of the Bones. Much of this he learned from the ancient Japanese Noh tradition, which fascinated him.
The award of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923 conferred international distinction on Yeats and on the wider Irish Literary Revival that he led. Significantly, he used the occasion of his Nobel lecture to reflect on the struggles and achievements of the Irish theatre movement.
He recognised Augusta Gregory and JM Synge as his great collaborators, and felt their presence beside him as he received the prestigious award. This was a generous speech from a man with a fondness for locating himself at the centre of the action. Here he demonstrated an understanding of the idea, much cherished by Synge, that theatre is, above all else, the most collaborative of all the arts.
P.J. Mathews is a Senior Lecturer in the UCD School of English, Drama and Film. He is co-editor (with Declan Kiberd) of Handbook of the Irish Revival, which will be published in June by the Abbey Theatre Press
WB & Me
Chair of Yeats2015
Yeats2015 is about finding new ways to connect Yeats with new audiences and reconnect him with familiar ones. Yeats’s work was inspired by and rooted in Ireland but he read and travelled widely and was never afraid to acknowledge the influence of world cultures and international writers; Sweden, France, Italy, China, Japan, India and the US among them.
Reconnecting with the voice of one of our great writers and poets allows Ireland to celebrate our cultural strength and history on the national and international stage. It fortifies our place in the world as a country of inspiration and a country in touch with our own sense of identity.