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Thinking with Theatre

Anthony Roche

Yeats on Theatre, by Christopher Morash, Cambridge University Press, 250 pp, £75, ISBN: 978-1316515389

There are, unsurprisingly, fewer critical studies of WB Yeats’s drama and theatre than of his poetry. Even during his lifetime, and certainly since, many of his admirers have questioned why the greatest English language poet of the twentieth century should have spent so much of his time and prodigious creative energy on what they regarded, in Christopher Morash’s words, as “a sort of unfortunate distraction, in the same category as astrology or attending seances”.

And yet, as studies like Yeats on Theatre show, Yeats was passionately committed all of his life to not only writing plays but to revising them through performance, to co-founding an Irish National Theatre (the subject of his Nobel Prize lecture in 1923) and giving much thought in his many essays, letters and reviews to theatrical matters. These latter writings, though many, have been scattered and have never been gathered into a single volume, a Yeatsian version of Bertolt Brecht’s “Short Organum for the Theatre” – except that Yeats’s wouldn’t be short. Morash estimates that in the ten years from 1899 to 1909 Yeats wrote twenty-five articles for Samhain, seven for Bealtaine, and sixteen for The Arrow (besides editing all three journals): “a total of forty-five separate pieces”. His book aims to supply such an organum and to put Yeats on a par with other seminal thinkers about radical twentieth century theatre as Bertolt Brecht and Antonin Artaud. Morash develops the idea of Yeats not only thinking about theatre but thinking through theatre, drawing on the concepts of the form to develop his philosophy. As Yeats writes: “I believe myself a dramatist; I desire to show events and not merely to tell of them; […] and I seem to myself most alive at the moment when a room full of people share the one lofty occasion.”

There have been two distinct lines of approach in Yeats criticism to the question of Yeats and the theatre. One stresses his role as the co-founder of the Abbey and collaborator with Irish theatre-makers like the Fay brothers; the leading example of this approach is James W Flannery’s 1976 study, Yeats and the Idea of a Theatre: The Early Abbey Theatre in Theory and Practice, and Morash points to a “long list of more recent work” in this line. The other approach goes in the opposite direction, out from Dublin to London and from these islands to the Continent, and was magisterially asserted by Katharine Worth in The Irish Drama of Europe from Yeats to Beckett (1978). Worth convincingly demonstrates how Yeats’s drama breaks from the archaic, unstageable Romantic drama of the nineteenth century to anticipate (as she puts it) “all that is most original in the European theatre”.

As will be clear from what I have already said, Yeats on Theatre follows and develops the Worth approach, drawing also on Michael McAteer’s 2010 study Yeats and European Drama. What is most distinctive about Morash’s approach is its demonstration that Yeats’s development of a theatre was as much carried out in London as in Dublin. For such an argument, the annus mirabilis in Yeats’s development as a dramatist was not the 1899 premiere of The Countess Cathleen as the first presentation of the Irish Literary Theatre in Dublin but the opening of a season of avant-garde plays (all, as it turned out, by Irish dramatists) at the Avenue Theatre in London on March 29th, 1894. The double bill featured the first ever staging of a Yeats play, The Land of Heart’s Desire; Morash quotes a letter by Yeats to John O’Leary describing it as “the first contest between the old commercial school of theatrical folk and the new artistic school”. At first, the Yeats one-act play was a curtain-raiser to John Todhunter’s A Comedy of Sighs; when the latter was howled down by its London audience, it was rapidly replaced by Shaw’s Arms and the Man, which was by contrast wildly successful. The Yeats play had a more muted but positive reception and continued alongside the Shaw. Yeats was in the theatre for the first time and for many nights.

Morash sees the spring of 1894 as “the point at which the theatre becomes a central preoccupation for Yeats”. He develops this idea through linking the staging of The Land of Heart’s Desire to what had immediately preceded it: a visit by Yeats to Paris, where (in the company of Maud Gonne, who provided a simultaneous translation) he attended an avant-garde theatrical production: Villiers de l’Isle Adam’s five hour symbolist drama Axel. Yeats promptly reviewed Axel in the April 1894 edition of The Bookman. Roy Foster in his Yeats biography sees this long critique as the pivotal point at which WBY “emerged as a didactic and arresting critic of drama, much as his rival Shaw had done with music”. Morash gives it even more attention in Yeats on Theatre. Founded on an unfolding series of Rosicrucian rituals, Axel showed to Yeats a drama which pushed towards transcendence. So would his theatre, paradoxically locating a metaphysics in the most material of media, the theatre, a world in which not only words but spaces, bodies and sounds counted.

There follows a substantial chapter on tragedy and comedy. Central to it is a short (eight-page) but dense essay of 1910 entitled “The Tragic Theatre”. The essay registers the pressure and influence on Yeats’s evolving sense of the dramatic of JM Synge, who had died the previous year. While conceding that Synge’s Deirdre of the Sorrows has its weaknesses, Yeats begins the essay by discussing its third act, the only act “which alone had satisfied the author”, as attaining “that tragic ecstasy which is the best that art – perhaps that life ‑ can give”. For Yeats, comedy is character, a fully observed reality. But it is when he comes to consider tragedy and comedy, not separately but in relation to one another, that the finest writing and insights arrive: “tragedy must always be a drowning and breaking of the dykes that separate man from man, and […] it is upon these dykes comedy keeps house”. The form that most interests him is the interrelation of the two in tragicomedy: he notes that “Shakespeare is always a writer of tragi-comedy.” But the pertinent example again is Synge. Morash describes Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World as “a comedy in more than one sense”. But it might more accurately be described as a tragicomedy: a comic Oedipus from Christy Mahon’s point of view, but a tragedy from Pegeen Mike’s. She is centre stage in the play’s final moments, giving vent to a cry of grief and lamenting her lost opportunities. “The Tragic Theatre” is the essay in which all of Yeats’s work at the Abbey Theatre comes into focus, “coming at the end of [a] decade of intense, practice-based ideas”.

The next three chapters consider the varied constituents of Yeats’s concept of total theatre and they are worth looking at to examine how Morash’s analysis works in close-up. For the poet who wrote “Words alone are certain good”, it is all too easy (and mistaken) to think of Yeats’s theatre as actors standing stock still on stage and reciting his poetic lines. But as Morash argues: “the theatre for Yeats was not simply a frame for beautiful words well spoken: words were also (perhaps even primarily) a form of action”. Morash sees off the over-quoted remark that Yeats wished to place his actors in barrels on castors which could then be wheeled around the stage. He was driven to this in extreme reaction to and impatience with the overly fussy performances of naturalistic actors. The slowing of physical movement that is central to Yeats’s style of acting becomes formalised in the slow motion movement of the Japanese Noh theatre where the crossing of the stage can take up to something like ten minutes. Movement on Yeats’s stage is more akin to choreography, so that in the versions of the Noh he wrote the play’s coming to climax in a dance is a heightening of a ritualised movement that is present throughout. Morash gives an acute example from The Cat and the Moon of how in many of the plays the climax is the point at which words fail and give way to another, more physical form of expression:

“I haven’t the right words,” the Lame Beggar says to the Saint in The Cat and the Moon, when told he should “bless the road”. “What do you want words for,” asks the Saint, leaving the Lame Man with no choice but to dance.

In the later section on dance, Morash considers the performances of the Irish-born dancer Ninette de Valois at the Abbey in Yeats’s plays, and the extent to which this dramatist, felt to be prescriptive in his rules for performance, leaves the details of the choreography up to his collaborator. The stage direction in At the Hawk’s Well simply says: “The Guardian of the Well has begun to dance. […] The dance goes on for some time.” As Morash puts it: “[this leaves] the dancer with considerable latitude as to what she actually did on the stage”.

With Yeats’s stage increasingly stripped and moved towards a minimalistic aesthetic, there was a corresponding intensity brought to bear on the objects brought into that space, a heightening of symbolism: Morash describes them as “uncanny objects”. Nowhere was this more the case than with the severed heads that start to proliferate later in Yeats’s theatrical career: there haven’t been so many in evidence since the Elizabethan history plays. The analysis of the resurrected Christ in The Resurrection argues that design, costume and image work together to create a single powerful effect. Drawing on Richard Allen Cave’s analysis, Morash shows how the cloak that Christ wears is designed to blend in with the colour of the background pillars: “Yeats’s handwritten notes for the 1934 production specify very precisely that the pillars that make up the set should be ‘the same grey as Christ’s tunic’.’ Accordingly, when the risen Christ appears, he would do so as “a floating, disembodied head above a faint luminescence, since the tunic would virtually disappear against the pillars and curtain”. We’re a long way here from a poet’s exclusive emphasis on and reliance on words.

The final chapter, on “Audiences”, is fittingly the best. What Yeats makes clear in the statement about being a playwright quoted at the beginning of this review is that he always wanted an audience for his plays, a “roomful of people”, gripped and unified by the same emotion. But the kind and composition of that audience would vary over time. As Morash establishes, there were always for Yeats two audiences, not one: a real audience and an imagined or ideal one. In a letter to John O’Leary in 1894, he wrote that the programme of avant-garde plays at the Avenue Theatre season was designed to be a “studied insult” to the “regular theatregoer”, about whom he was always scathing. Three years later, in the manifesto for the Irish Literary Theatre, the two audiences were divided up along nationalist lines. Yeats and Lady Gregory wrote that they looked forward to an Irish theatre audience which would give their plays “a tolerant welcome, [and] that freedom to experiment which is not found in the theatres of England”. In the event, they were to be disappointed, when Yeats’s Countess Cathleen was greeted with protests and condemnation. Yeats wrote he had forgotten that in Ireland symbols were realities – something he of all people should have remembered – but it was a lesson he was never to forget. As Morash puts it, Yeats came to realise that he and his Irish theatre audiences “spoke the same symbolic language, even if they did not agree with everything that was said in it”. In 1919, Yeats published an “Open Letter” to Lady Gregory in which he spoke of the success of the Abbey Theatre in creating an objective theatre, in which a people’s actual lives were represented on the stage; but paradoxically this success for him was also a defeat, since he had always valued a subjective art, “doing its work by suggestion, not by direct statement, a complexity of rhythm, colour, gesture, not space-pervading like the intellect, but a memory and a prophecy”. The imagined audience for such a theatre is the solitary Connemara fisherman in his poem of the same name, “an image for his imaginary audience in all of its contradictions”. Finally, Yeats favours a small audience, where intimacy is not sacrificed, for a drama played “in any bare space before a wall”. Morash describes the opening line of At the Hawk’s Well, “I call to the eye of the mind”, as “a principle of Yeats’s theatre in a single line; the true site of the play […] is in the ‘eye’ of the audience’s mind”. The audience Yeats intended for his theatre is not made up of “spectators, but of active participants”.

In his opening remarks, Chris Morash faces up to the fact that Yeats’s plays are hardly if ever produced. He claims that an appreciation of Yeats’s revolutionary ideas about theatre no more requires our seeing the plays than does our appreciation of Artaud. This is a step too far. For, whether inadvertently or no, there are so many deft readings of so many of Yeats’s plays in this volume they make the case that Yeats was writing a theatre of and for the future rather than of the past, a theatre whose time may be coming around at last. This is a magnificent book, profoundly researched and eloquently expressed, already a classic.


Anthony Roche is Professor Emeritus in the School of English, Drama and Film at UCD and the author of many books on Irish drama and theatre. His most recent publication is Best-Loved Bernard Shaw, published by the O’Brien Press in October 2021,



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