Today, a creative director could very well stage Yeats' "dramatic poems." However, these pieces must have seemed impossible dreams to the literally minded theatre of the 1880s when they were first published. The Island of Statues, for instance, calls for an arrow to fall on stage, landing right next to one particular flower. When the hero Almintor pulls the flower, he "becomes stone." Later, his beloved Naschina rescues him, using magic to bring back to life not only Almintor, but also other adventurers who have been turned to stone. However, Naschina has paid a price for her magic and now lives an existence apart from that of ordinary mortals. Yeats makes this clear in a stage direction that would challenge even the most skillful lighting designers:
The rising moon casts the shadows of Almintor and the Sleepers far across the grass. Close by Almintor's side, Naschina is standing, shadowless.
Even with today's lighting instruments, having one actor out of many appear without a shadow would be a challenge, to say the least.
Much like the stage directions of other Symbolist dramas, Yeats' words defy staging, seeming to openly challenge the theatre to perform the un-performable. In fact, during the 1880s, Yeats seemed to avoid drama entirely. In 1887, he confided in a letter to his friend Katherine Tynan, "I am not fond of the Theatre." Yet two years later, in 1889, he began work on his first serious play, The Countess Cathleen. For this play Yeats took inspiration from another muse, Maud Gonne, the statuesque Irish actress who soon had the poet under her spell.
Though another actress ultimately played the title role in that play, Yeats dedicated the printed version to Gonne. Years later, she would originate the title role in Cathleen Ni Houlihan. For this new stage of Yeats' development as a playwright, writing not just "dramatic poems" but more practical, stage-worthy plays, Gonne was the dominant muse inspiring his work. The strong, ethereal heroines of Yeats' first performed plays likely owe a great deal to Gonne. Included among those heroines is Mary Bruin, the ill-fated young wife in Yeats' 1894 one-act play The Land of Heart's Desire.
A satirical poem in the magazine Punch failed to appreciate the invocation of the unseen. Accompanied by an illustration labeled "Venus Domina" that showed Beardsley's spotted curtain as rows of dominoes, the poem declared:
A simple maid au naturel
Is worth a dozen spotted ghouls.
Published anonymously but attributed to Owen Seaman, the poem also lambasted the figure as a "Japanee-Rossetti girl." Though cruel, the poem does capture two of Yeats' influences early in his career, a fascination for all things Japanese and the Pre-Raphaelite imagery of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. In spite of the criticism in Punch, the publisher T. Fisher Unwin used Beardsley's illustration for the cover design of the published version of the play issued the following month.
The play itself did not cause nearly as much furor as Beardsley's illustration. It is written in verse, but utilizes a natural dialogue that makes it sound contemporary, in spite of Yeats setting the play "at a remote time." The action of the play at first seems realistic, portraying a typical family gathered around a fire in their home, but then a child appears "strangely dressed, perhaps in faery green." The child gradually gains sway over the family, and before they are fully aware of her supernatural origins, she casts a spell over them and tries to lure away the newly married bride, Mary. The faery child tempts Mary to follow her:
Where nobody gets old and crafty and wise,
Where nobody gets old and godly and grave,
Where nobody gets old and bitter of tongue,
And where kind tongues bring no captivity;
For we are but obedient to the thoughts
That drift into the mind at a wink of the eye.
Mary cannot live in this faery world, though. She dies in the blossom of her youth, and the child disappears.
The Land of Heart's Desire is by many measures a conventional play, but before rehearsals began Yeats made a journey to Paris that would send him deeper into the thrall of Symbolism. It was in Paris, accompanied by the inspirational Maud Gonne, that Yeats attended the landmark production of Philippe Auguste Villiers de l'Isle-Adam's play Axel. After seeing the play and closely studying the text, Yeats published a commentary for the literary journal The Bookman called "A Symbolical Drama in Paris." In it, he attacked Naturalism, complaining that many people in Britain "write and talk as if the imaginative method of the great dramatists, of Kaladasa, of Sophocles, of Shakespere, and of Goethe was to let its house on a lease for ever to the impassioned realisms of M. Zola and of Dr. Ibsen." France, he wrote, was a different story.
After praising the early plays of Maurice Maeterlinck, Yeats goes on to describe the production of Axel as an even greater portent of the new, non-Naturalistic dramas to come. He focuses his analysis on the play's fourth act, and condenses its moral as this: "The infinite is alone worth attaining, and the infinite is the possession of the dead." This could also be the message of The Land of Heart's Desire, if we see Mary's death as an escape from the everyday to the transcendent beauty possible only in death. However, Yeats' play still has one foot firmly in the ordinary. By contrast, "a grim and difficult play" like Axel, Yeats writes, "brings us a little nearer the heroic age."
Not coincidentally, the next play Yeats wrote, The Shadowy Waters, takes place in the heroic age. Also not coincidentally, it borrows heavily from Axel in showing a pair of lovers who choose certain death over the glories of this world. The sailor Aibric tries to talk sense into his captain, urging him to abandon his quest for a woman who "can cast no shadow." Though the play does not use the impossible stage directions of The Island of Statues, Yeats still uses the poetic image of the shadowless woman. This time, however, he creates the image purely in the imagination.
The imagery in the play even evokes the Rosicrucian philosophy of Axel, as the captain, Forgael, imagines a "red rose" upon "the two shafts of the cross." Parallels with Axel become even stronger when the captured queen Dectora appears, coldly demanding vengeance, much as in Villiers' play the mysterious Sara seems emotionless as she attacks the title character with pistol and dagger. Like Axel, Forgael at first resists the strange woman he encounters, but is soon struck by her beauty. When Axel triumphs over Sara, she determines to commit suicide using the poison in her "deadly ring." Similarly, Dectora declares she has no fear "While there's a rope to run into a noose / Or wave to drown."
In such a situation, it might seem impossible for a woman, first murderous then at the point of suicide, to turn suddenly and love the man she a moment ago wanted dead. That is precisely what happens both in Axel and The Shadowy Waters. Within moments of wanting to kill Axel, Sara has reversed herself, kissing him and offering him her soul. In a similar way, Dectora falls in love with Forgael in spite of the fact that he is responsible for her husband's death. She simply does not care, claiming, "it was yesterday and not to-day / I loved him."
What remains in both plays is for the characters to undergo the ordeal by gold and love, in which the lovers must overcome the temptation to return to a world with unimaginable treasures. In Axel, Sara rhapsodizes for several pages about the deeds the pair could accomplish with the gold they have discovered. In Yeats' play, Aibric is more succinct in his description of the treasure, but as in Axel, it is "so great / Imagination cannot reckon it." Instead of embracing the treasure as a means to spend out the rest of his life with his love, both Axel and Forgael reject it. Sara must struggle before she can willingly join her lover in death, but Dectora is quick to choose Forgael and his journey to the edge of the sea, even over a life together with infinite possibilities.
The Shadowy Waters was not produced for a number of years, though in 1900 it was published in The North American Review and later in book form. By that time, however, The Countess Cathleen had made it at last to the stage. The newly formed Irish Literary Theatre produced the play in 1899, renting out a concert hall in Dublin that usually hosted musical events. Just as Paul Fort had created a literary journal to accompany his own Théâtre d'Art, the Irish Literary Theatre issued a journal called Beltaine, named after the Celtic spring festival that coincided with the opening of the company. The talented actress Florence Farr signed on as general manager of the theatre and also acted the important role of the bard Aleel in the play. Everything seemed to be going well. Then the play opened.
Based on an old Irish legend, The Countess Cathleen tells the story of a woman who sells her own soul in order to relieve the suffering of peasants. Demons disguised as merchants strike up the foul bargain with the countess. At the end of the play, she lies dying, asking that the money she has given so much to obtain be distributed to the poor. After she dies, there is thunder and lightning, and the world is enveloped in darkness. Light breaks through the darkness, and angels appear, armed for battle. One of the angels proclaims that Cathleen's soul is saved after all, declaring:
The light beats down; the gates of pearl are wide;
And she is passing to the floor of peace,
And Mary of the seven times wounded heart
Has kissed her lips, and the long blessed hair
Has fallen on her face; The Light of Lights
Looks always on the motive, not the deed,
The Shadow of Shadows on the deed alone.
In writing the play, Yeats had even consulted with two priests who were noted theologians, and both approved of the play and its miraculous ending. Others would not be so open-minded.
One Frank Hugh O'Donnell published a pamphlet called Souls for Gold condemning the play. After reading the pamphlet (but not seeing the play) Cardinal Michael Logue, the highest-ranking catholic prelate in Ireland, wrote a letter to several newspapers attacking The Countess Cathleen and Yeats personally. On opening night, both supporters and critics showed up to voice their opinions, and a large contingent of police showed up in case there was trouble. Yeats later wrote that Arthur Griffith, the founder of the Sinn Fein nationalist movement, brought in a bunch of rough characters "and told them to applaud everything the Church would not like." Much to the playwright's dismay, what was supposed to be an artistic statement was overshadowed by political and religious controversies.
After his early involvement with the Irish Literary Theatre, Yeats returned to London where he collaborated with the hack writer George Moore on the prose play Diarmuid and Grania. The uneven script attracted the attention of the star actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell, who went on to originate the role of Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion. In a letter to Lady Augusta Gregory, Yeats recalled how Campbell had praised some parts of the play while denigrating others, mainly those written by Moore. "I am sure I know what part you have done & what part he has done," she said, "for sometimes the words are so beautiful & sometimes they are like a French novel & spoil everything." Though Yeats appears to have known she was right, he did not have the courage to stand up to Moore, who was an accomplished dramatist in spite of his rather atrocious dialogue.
The play opened on October 21, 1901 at the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin and was favorably reviewed by the local press. However, a college student named James Joyce saw the production and was dismayed. Though he had previously intended to submit a play of his own to the Irish Literary Theatre, he wrote an article attacking the play and the company. When a college magazine rejected his article, he had it published as a pamphlet, together with an essay by a friend condemning the university for censorship. The Irish Literary Theatre, Joyce said, "must now be considered the property of the rabblement of the most belated race in Europe."
Perhaps the best thing to come out of the play was the incidental music composed by Edward Elgar. The play's funeral march is particularly well regarded as an example of early twentieth-century symphonic music. Diarmuid and Grania was the first play for which Elgar had written a score, and the composer went on to write other fine pieces of theatrical music. Having music from such a prodigious talent as Elgar might have influenced Yeats as well. For his later plays, he frequently sought out composers to work with him on productions.
Diarmuid and Grania ended up being the final play produced by the Irish Literary Theatre, though many of the people behind the company regrouped under the title of W.G. Fay's Irish National Dramatic Company. This group, which went through many name changes and was an eventual precursor to the Abbey Theatre, presented Cathleen Ni Houlihan on April 2, 1902 as a companion piece for George Russell's full-length play Deirdre. Like Diarmuid and Grania, Cathleen Ni Houlihan is written chiefly in prose. Fortunately for this new play, however, Yeats was able to secure a more fitting collaborator. As Yeats freely admitted in a preface to a collection of his plays, he relied on Lady Gregory's "knowledge of the country mind and country speech" to help him with the dialect of the characters.
Cathleen Ni Houlihan at first glance could almost be taken for a naturalistic play. Instead of being set in a mythic past, it takes place in the "Interior of a cottage close to Killala, in 1798." The play's Irish audience would have immediately recognized the location as the scene of an anti-British rebellion precipitated by the landing of French troops. The historical roots are very clear, the cottage setting is familiar, and the play itself is quite brief. According to a prompt book now owned by the Abbey Theatre, performances lasted only 20 minutes.
Yet within those 20 minutes, Yeats packed in many of the themes from his earlier plays. Like The Countess Cathleen, the play calls for personal sacrifice for the good of an oppressed collective. As in The Shadowy Waters, the protagonist embraces death rather than the comforts of love and wealth. Much like The Land of Heart's Desire, the play portrays a young couple, though in this case about to be married instead of recently married. However, like in The Land of Heart's Desire, one person in that couple abandons a beloved to rush off into death rather than settling down into the ordinary course of life. It is as if all of Yeats' previous plays were leading up to this one work.
Completing this crowning achievement was Yeats' muse Maud Gonne finally performing in one of his plays. The Irish nationalist got to play Ireland herself, personified in the title character. Though she had to play an old woman, Gonne had the opportunity to use her own attractiveness and charisma to make the painful service Cathleen asks for sound attractive. Tempting the young groom-to-be with promises of difficulty rather than ease, she says:
It is a hard service they take that help me. Many that are red-cheeked now will be pale-cheeked; many that have been free to walk the hills and the bogs and the rushes will be sent to walk hard streets in far countries; many a good plan will be broken; many that have gathered money will not stay to spend it; many a child will be born and there will be no father at its christening to give it a name. They that have red cheeks will have pale cheeks for my sake, and for all that, they will think they are well paid.
The pay she offers is of a different kind than the hundred pounds the young man has just received for his bride's dowry, and it is because it is a different kind of payment that the he runs off to give his life for Cathleen Ni Houlihan.
The rewards of this world will not last. The young man remarks earlier in the play that a dowry "only lasts for a while, but the woman will be there always." Even earthly love, however, eventually dies. Only by giving himself over to a cause that is more than the life of one man can he achieve immortality. As Cathleen sings toward the end of the play:
They shall be remembered for ever,
They shall be alive for ever,
They shall be speaking for ever,
The people shall hear them for ever.
In rushing off to join the rebellion, the young man is likely running off to his death, but he is also rising into immortality.
Such sentiments were dangerous in occupied Ireland during the early twentieth century. If it seems unbelievable that the British could have allowed such a politically treasonous play to be performed, that is because they didn't. After a week of performances, the authorities evicted the company from Saint Teresa's Hall where they were performing. Though production of the play was suppressed, Cathleen Ni Houlihan later became a staple of patriotic drama in the independent Republic of Ireland. For Irish nationalists, the play became a sacred work.
Since Nora's famous door slam at the end of A Doll House, Realism had been the preferred form for revolutionary drama. Cathleen Ni Houlihan, though it contains some Realist trappings, openly embraces a mysterious, supernatural figure that can only be interpreted in symbolic terms. At the end of the play, the boy gazing out at Cathleen says he no longer saw an old woman, but rather "a young girl, and she had the walk of a queen." The rejuvenated Cathleen is a young Ireland, confident in her eventual renewal as an independent state. She is also a rejuvenated theatre, eternally old, but made young again by a new dramatic style, that like Ireland in 1902, was still attempting to come into being.