Sunday 18 February 2018

How Yeats staged one of his finest triumphs

In co-founding the Abbey Theatre, WB Yeats gave Ireland a priceless cultural gift, says John Boland

The Abbey Theatre in Dublin, founded by William Butler Yeats and Lady Gregory.
The Abbey Theatre in Dublin, founded by William Butler Yeats and Lady Gregory.
Lady Augusta Gregory, who founded the Abbey Theatre with Yeats.
WB Yeats, circa 1910.
The Abbey Theatre.

Without Yeats, there would have been no Abbey Theatre and quite possibly no John Millington Synge or Sean O'Casey, either.

The whole notion of an Irish national theatre grew out of the literary revival of the 1890s with its enthusiasm for gaelic literature, language and culture - an enthusiasm shared by such diverse figures as Yeats, Standish O'Grady, Douglas Hyde, George Moore and Lady Gregory.

The aim was to create a modern but distinctively Irish culture, with a new kind of relevantly Irish theatre seen as one of its priorities - the Dublin stage having long been dominated by a repertoire that was mainly imported from London.

The decisive meeting took place in Kinvara, Co Galway, in the summer of 1897, with Yeats, Lady Gregory and Edward Martyn formulating the ethos and aims of a new Irish Literary Theatre and Lady Gregory typing a statement outlining these aims and seeking financial support.

Two years later Martyn persuaded his cousin George Moore to produce two plays for this venture, Yeats's The Countess Cathleen and Martyn's The Heather Field - both of them staged at the Antient Concert Rooms in Great Brunswick (now Pearse) Street.

From the outset there were protests. There was a pamphlet accusing Yeats's play of depicting the Irish as selling their souls, and there was jeering and hissing during performances at the drama's perceived anti-Catholicism.

However, Yeats had taken the precaution of bringing in the police to keep order, as he would do eight years later during the furore over Synge's The Playboy of the Western World. Other venues (including the Gaiety) and other plays followed, including dramas by Hyde, George Russell and Alice Milligan, as well as a gaelic play from Maud Gonne's patriotic women's movement.

But controversy persisted. In 1901, the Irish Literary Theatre closed due to an estrangement between Yeats and the similarly headstrong George Moore. And in 1903, with Yeats now president of what was then called the National Theatre Society, Synge's play In the Shadow of the Glen was thought by some of its actors to be a slur on Irish womanhood, while Maud Gonne walked out in protest and Arthur Griffith attacked it.

A year later, the same dramatist's Riders to the Sea was deemed by the editor of The Leader to constitute "a prayer meeting of the foreign element in Ireland".

But that was nothing to the riots over The Playboy in 1907, much of it centring on the use of the word "shift" for a woman's undergarment. A year later, William and Frank Fay, amateur actors who'd worked with the company from the outset, resigned over fundamental differences with Yeats and other directors, while there were further protests in 1909 over the staging of George Bernard Shaw's The Shewing-Up of Blanco Posnet and 17 years later over Sean O'Casey's The Plough and the Stars - Yeats famously telling the audience, "You have disgraced yourselves again".

Yeats's commitment to Ireland's national theatre cannot be overestimated and it lasted from the very start almost to the end of his life - as late as 1935 he was decisively involved in its operation and ethos: appointing FR Higgins and Brinsley McNamara as directors and then replacing the latter, who resigned over the staging of O'Casey's The Silver Tassie, with Frank O'Connor.

The theatre went into the creative doldrums after he died in 1939, with dull and timidly conservative dramas favoured by Ernest Blythe, who ruled the Abbey for three dispiriting decades. Yeats would have been aghast.

Irish Independent

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