PLAYS FOR AN IRISH THEATRE
BY THE SAME AUTHOR.
THE COLLECTED WORKS OF W. B. YEATS IN
VERSE AND PROSE ; with Portraits by J. S. Sargent,
R.A., Signor Mancini, Charles Shannon, A.R.A, and J. B.
Yeats ; Musical Settings by Florence Farr and others ; and
a Bibliography by Allan Wade. Eight Volumes, demy 8vo,
^4 45 net.
*^* A little later a new volume of the Collected Edition
will be published, containing The Green Helmet', a stage version
of the Countess Cathleen\ a new play in three acts; notes and
alterations made for stage purposes in various plays of Mr. Yeats ;
a good deal of criticism arising out of the work of the Abbey
Theatre. This volume will contain stage designs by Gordon
Craig and Robert Gregory.
POEMS : First Series. Demy 8vo, 75. 6d. net.
POEMS : Second Series. Crown 8vo, 6s. net.
IDEAS OF GOOD AND EVIL. Crown 8vo, 65.
THE CELTIC TWILIGHT. Crown 8vo, 6s.
RED HANRAHAN ; THE SECRET ROSE. Crown 8vo,
PLAYS FOR AN IRISH THEATRE
W. B. YEATS
WITH DESIGNS BY GORDON CRAIG
THE GREEN HELMET
ON BAILE'S STRAND
THE KING'S THRESHOLD
THE SHADOWY WATERS
CATHLEEN NX HOULIHAN
A. H. BULLEN
LONDON & STRATFORD-UPON-AVON
First impression^ 1 9 1 1 .
Second impression, 1 9 1 3 .
In poetical drama there is, it is held, an antithesis
between drama and lyric poetry, for lyric poetry how-
ever much it move you when read out of a book can, as
these critics think, but encumber the action. Yet when
we go back a few centuries and enter the great periods of
drama, character grows less and sometimes disappears,
and there is much lyric felling, and at times a lyric
measure will be wrought into the dialogue, a flowing
measure that had well befitted music, or that more lum-
bering one of the sonnet. Suddenly it strikes us that
character is continuously present in comedy alone, and
that there is much tragedy, that of Corneille, that of
Racine, that of Greece and Rome, where its place is taken
by passions and motives, one person being jealous,
another full of love or remorse or pride or anger. In
writers of tragi-comedy (and Shakespeare is always a
writer of tragi-comedy) there is indeed character, but we
notice that it is in the moments of comedy that character
is defined, in Hamlet's gaiety let us say ; while amid the
great moments, when Timon orders his tomb, when
Hamlet cries to Horatio 'Absent thee from felicity
awhile', when Anthony names ' Of many thousand kisses
the poor last 'all is lyricism, unmixed passion, 'the integ-
rity of fire'. Nor does character ever attain to complete
definition in these lamps ready for the taper, no matter
how circumstantial and gradual the opening of events, as
it does in Falstaff who has no passionate purpose to fulfil,
or as it does in Henry the Fifth whose poetry, never
touched by lyric heat, is oratorical ; nor when the tragic
reverie is at its height do we say ' How well that man
is realised ! I should know him were I to meet him in
the street ', for it is always ourselves that we see upon
the stage, and should it be a tragedy of love we renew,
it may be, some loyalty of our youth, and go from the
theatre with our eyes dim for an old love's sake.
I think it was while rehearsing a translation of Les
Fourheries de Scapin in Dublin, and noticing how pas-
sionless it all was, that I saw what should have been
plain from the first line I had written, that tragedy must
always be a drowning and breaking of the dykes that
separate man from man, and that it is upon these dykes
comedy keeps house. But I was not certain of the site
(one always doubts when one knows no testimony but
one's own) ; till somebody told me of a certain letter of
Congreve's. He describes the external and superficial
expressions of ' humour ' on which farce is founded and
then defines 'humour' itself, the foundation of comedy,
as ' a singular and unavoidable way of doing anything
peculiar to one man only, by which his speech and
actions are distinguished from all other men' and adds
to it that 'passions are too powerful in the sex to let
humour have its course', or as I would rather put it,
that you can find but little of what we call character in
unspoiled youth, whatever be the sex, for, as he indeed
shows in another sentence, it grows with time like the
ash of a burning stick, and strengthens towards middle
life till there is little else at seventy years.
Since then I have discovered an antagonism between
all the old art and our new art of comedy and understand
why I hated at nineteen years Thackeray's novels and
the new French painting. A big picture of cocottes
sitting at little tables outside a Cafe, by some follower
of Manet's, was exhibited at the Royal Hibernian
Academy while I was a student at a life class there, and
I was miserable for days. I found no desirable place, no
man I could have wished to be, no woman I could have
loved, no Golden Age, no lure for secret hope, no adven-
ture with myself for theme out of that endless tale I told
myself all day long. Years after I saw the Olympia of
Manet at the Luxembourg and watched it without
hostility indeed, but as I might some incomparable talker
whose precision of gesture gave me pleasure, though
1 did not understand his language. I returned to it
again and again at intervals of years, saying to myself
' some day I will understand ' ; and yet it was not until
Sir Hugh Lane brought the Eva Gonzales to Dublin,
and I had said to myself 'How perfectly that woman is
realized as distinct from all other women that have lived
or shall live ! ' that I understood I was carrying on in
my own mind that quarrel between a tragedian and
a comedian which the Devil on Two Sticks showed to
the young man who had climbed through the window.
There is an art of the flood, the art of Titian when his
Ariosto and his Bacchus and Ariadne give new images
to the dreams of youth, and of Shakespeare when he
shows us Hamlet broken away from life by the passion-
ate hesitations of his reverie. And we call this art
poetical, because we must bring more to it than our
daily mood if we would take our pleasure ; and because
it delights in picturing the moment of exaltation, of
excitement, of dreaming (or the capacity for it, as in
that still face of Ariosto's that is like some vessel soon to
be full of wine). And there is an art that we call real,
because character can only express itself perfectly in a
real world, being that world's creature, and because we
understand it best through a delicate discrimination of
the senses, which is but entire wakefulness, the daily
mood grown cold and crystalline.
We may not find either mood in its purity, but in
mainly tragic art one distinguishes devices to exclude
or lessen character, to diminish the power of that daily
mood, to cheat or blind its too clear perception. If the
real world is not altogether rejected it is but touched
here and there, and into the places we have left empty
we summon rhythm, balance, pattern, images that remind
us of vast passions, the vagueness of past times, all the
chimeras that haunt the edge of trance ; and if we are
painters, we shall express personal emotion through ideal
form, a symbolism handled by the generations, a mask
from whose eyes the disembodied looks, a style that
remembers many masters, that it may escape contempor-
ary suggestion ; or we shall leave out some element of
reality as in Byzantine painting, where there is no mass,
nothing in relief; so it is that in the supreme moment
of tragic art there comes upon one that strange sensation
as though the hair of one's head stood up. And when
we love, if it be in the excitement of youth, do we not
also, that the flood may find no wall to narrow, no stone
to convulse it, exclude character or the signs of it by
choosing that beauty which seems unearthly because the
individual woman is lost amid the labyrinth of its lines
as though life were trembling into stillness and silence,
or at last folding itself away ? Some little irrelevance of
line, some promise of character to come, may indeed
put us at our ease, 'give more interest' as the humour
of the old man with the basket does to Cleopatra's
dying ; but should it come as we had dreamed in love's
frenzy to our dying for that woman's sake, we would find
that the discord had its value from the tune.
Certainly we have here the Tree of Life and that of
the Knowledge of Good and Evil which is rooted in our
interests and if we have forgotten their differing virtues,
it is surely because we have taken delight in a confusion
of crossing branches. Tragic art, passionate art, the
drowner of dykes, the confounder of understanding,
moves us by setting us to reverie, by alluring us almost
to the intensity of trance. The persons upon the stage,
let us say, greaten till they are humanity itself. We
feel our minds expand convulsively or spread out slowly
like some moon-brightened image-crowded sea. That
which is before our eyes perpetually vanishes and returns
again in the midst of the excitement it creates, and the
more enthralling it is the more do we forget it. When
I am watching my own Deirdre 1 am content with the
players and myself, if I am moved for a while not
by the contrasted sorrows of Deirdre and Naisi, but
because the words have called up before me the image
of the sea-born woman so distinctly that Deirdre seems
by contrast to those unshaken eyelids that had but the
sea's cold blood what I had wished her to seem, a wild
bird in a cage.
It was only by watching my own plays that I came to
understand that this reverie, this twilight between sleep
and waking, this bout of fencing, alike on the stage and
in the mind, between man and phantom, this perilous
path as on the edge of a sword, is the condition of
tragic pleasure, and to understand why it is so rare and
so brief. If an actor becomes over emphatic, picking
out what he believes to be the important words with
violence, and running up and down the scale, or if he
stresses his lines in wrong places, or even if an electric
lamp that should have cast but a reflected light from
sky or sea, shows from behind the post of a door, I
discover at once the proud fragility of dreams.
At first I was driven into teaching too statuesque a
pose, too monotonous a delivery, that I might not put
^ vitality ' in the place of the sleep walking of passion,
and for the rest became a little deaf and blind.
But alas ! it is often my own words that break the
dream. Then I take the play from the stage and write
it over again, perhaps many times. At first 1 always
believed it must be something in the management of
events, in all that is the same in prose or verse, that was
wrong, but after I had reconstructed a scene with the
messenger in Deirdre in many ways, 1 discoved that
my language must keep at all times a certain even rich-
ness. I had used 'traitor', 'sword', 'suborned,' words
of a too traditional usage, without plunging them into
personal thought and metaphor, and I had forgotten
in a moment of melodrama that tragic drama must be
carved out of speech as a statue is out of stone.
But train our players and our mechanists as we will
and if we have not thought out the art of stage decora-
tion afresh every brush stroke of our scene painter will
mix into the reverie the meretricious or the irrelevant.
We shall have hired some journeyman to accompany the
poet's description with a painted landscape which, because
it must give all to the first glance and yet copy nature,
will alone copy what is obvious, and which even if it
could keep the attention and give it pleasure could but
keep it to the poet's loss : â€”
' A vapour, sometime, like a bear, or lion,
A tower'd citadel, a pendant rock,
A forked mountain, or blue promontory
With trees upon't that nod unto the world
And mock our eyes with air.'
I have heard Anthony speak those lines before a
painted cloth that, though it could not make them
nothing, left in the memory the sensation of something
childish, theatrical as we say. Words as solemn, and
having more for the mind's eye than those of the Book
of Common Prayer are spoken where no reformer
has cast out the idolatrous mummery and no tradition
In no art can we do well unless we keep to those
effects that are peculiar to it or it can show better than
the other arts. We no longer paint wood with a grain
that is not its own, but are content that it should dis-
play itself or be covered with paint that pretends to be
but paint, and if we make a design for a vase or a
plate, we are careful not to attempt something that can
be better done in an easel picture. But in the art of the
theatre we imitate an easel picture even though we ignore
or mar for its sake the elements we should have worked
in, the characteristics of the stage, light and shadow,
speech, the movement of the players. Our tree-wings
... let us say . . . can only be given mass and detail
by painted light and shadow and these will contradict,
or be in no relation to the real light, and this real light
will be so cut up and cut off by wings and borders
arranged for effects of painting that we shall be content
to use it in but a few obvious ways. Then too our back-
ground will be full of forms and colours, instead of
showing an even or almost even surface whereon the
players are outlined clearly that we may see their move-
ments and feel their importance ; and all the while the
background, even if it were fine painting and had no
false light and shadow and did not reduce the players
to a picturesque group in the foreground of a water
colour painting by. my grandmother, could but insist on
the unreality we are anxious to forget, for every time a
player stood close to that garden scene we would but
feel over again on how flat a surface they had painted
that long garden walk dwindling away into the distance.
If we would give our theatre the dignity of a church,
of a Greek open air theatre, of an Elizabethan platform
stage, and cannot be content with any of these, we must
have a scene where there is no painted light and shade,
and that is but another way of saying, no realism, no
objects represented in mass (unless they can be copied
exactly as we can sometimes copy an interior), and the
mechanism of this scene must as little as possible prevent
the free and delicate use of light and shadow.
When we have made this change in obedience to a
logic which has been displayed in the historical develop-
ment of all the other arts, we shall have created a theatre
that will please the poet and the player and the painter.
An old quarrel will be ended, the stage will be beauti-
fully decorated, every change will be full of meaning and
yet never create a competing interest, or set bounds to
the suggestions of speech and motion. At last liberated
from the necessity of an always complete realization, the
producer, recovering caprice, will be as free as a modern
painter, as Signor Mancini let us say, to give himself up
to an elliptical imagination. Gloster will be able to fall
but from his own height and think that he has fallen
from Dover Cliff, and Richard's and Richmond's tents
can face one another again. We shall have made possi-
ble once more a noble, capricious, extravagant, resonant,
All summer I have been playing with a little model,
where there is a scene capable of endless transformation,
of the expression of every mood that does not require a
photographic reality. Mr. Craig â€” who has invented all
this â€” has permitted me to set up upon the stage of the
Abbey another scene that corresponds to this, in the
scale of a foot for an inch, and henceforth 1 shall be able,
by means so simple that one laughs, to lay the events of
my plays amid a grandeur like that of Babylon ; and
where there is neither complexity nor compromise
nothing need go wrong, no lamps become suddenly
unmasked, no ill-painted corner come suddenly into
sight. Henceforth I can all but 'produce ' my play while
I write it, moving hither and thither little figures of card-
board through gay or solemn light and shade, allowing
the scene to give the words and the words the scene.
1 am very grateful for he has banished a whole world
that wearied me and was undignified and given me
forms and lights upon which I can play as upon some
W. B. Yeats.
Two of Mr. Craig's designs, 'The Heroic Age â€”
Morning', and 'The Heroic Age â€” Evening', are
impressions worked out in Mr. Craig's scene, of the
world my people move in, rather than exact pictures
of any moment of a play. The one, however, suggests
to me On Bailees Strand, and the other Deirdre. The
design for The Hour-Glass shows the scene as it was
used in Dublin, and ' The Fool ' â€” who belongs to
The Hour-Glass and On Bailes Strand â€” is as he was in
Dublin in the first play, except that we have found no
one who can make us a mask of leather, and we do not
yet know how to make it ourselves.
W. B. Y.
DEIRDRE - _ - - - 5
THE GREEN HELMET - - - 39
ON BAILE'S STRAND - - - - 59
THE KING'S THRESHOLD - - - 93
THE SHADOWY WATERS - - -135
THE HOUR-GLASS - - - - 163
CATHLEEN NI HOULIHAN - - - 181
APPENDIX: ACTING VERSION OF THE
SHADOWY WATERS - - - 195
NOTES - 217
THE HEROIC AGEâ€” MORNING - Frontispiece
THE HEROIC AGEâ€” EVENING - - 33
THE FOOL 65
SCENE FOR THE HOUR-GLASS - - 169
To Mrs. Patrick Campbell
Who in the generosity of her genius has played my
Deirdre in Dublin and London with the Abbey
Company^ as well as with her own people^ and
To Robert Gregory
who designed the beautiful scene she played it in.
PERSONS IN THE PLAT
Fergus, an old man
Naisi, a young king
Deirdre, his queen
A Dark-Faced Messenger
CoNCHUBAR [pronounced Conochar), the old King
of Uladh^ who is still strong and vigorous
Scene : A Guest-house in a wood. It is a rough house of
timber; through the doors and some of the windows one can
see the great spaces of the wood^ the sky dimming^ night
closing in. But a window to the left shows the thick leaves
of a coppice ; the landscape suggests silence and loneliness,
There is a door to right and left^ and through the side win-
dows one can see anybody who approaches either door^ a
moment before he enters. In the centre^ apart of the house
is curtained off; the curtains are drawn. "There are
unlighted torches in brackets on the walls. There is, at one
side^ a small table with a chessboard and chessmen upon it.
At the other side of the room there is a brazier with afire;
two women^ with musical instruments beside them^ crouch
about the brazier : they are comely women of about forty.
Another woman^ who carried a stringed instrument^ enters
hurriedly; she speaks^ at first standing in the doorway.
First Musician. I have a story right, my wanderers,
That has so mixed with fable in our songs.
That all seemed fabulous. We are come, by chance,
Into King Conchubar's country, and this house
Is an old guest-house built for travellers
From the seashore to Conchubar's royal house.
And there are certain hills among these woods,
And there Queen Deirdre grew.
Second Musician. That famous queen
Who has been wandering with her lover Naisi,
And none to friend but lovers and wild hearts ?
First Mus. [Going nearer to the brazier.'] Some dozen ^
years ago. King Conchubar found
A house upon a hillside in this wood,
And there a comely child with an old witch
To nurse her, and there 's nobody can say
If she were human, or of those begot
By an invisible king of the air in a storm
On a king's daughter, or anything at all
Of who she was or why she was hidden there
But that she'd too much beauty for good luck.
He went up thither daily, till at last
She put on womanhood, and he lost peace.
And Deirdre's tale began. The King was old.
A month or so before the marriage day,
A young man, in the laughing scorn of his youth,
Naisi, the son of Usna, climbed up there.
And having wooed, or, as some say, been wooed,
Carried her off.
Sec. Mus. The tale were well enough
Had it a finish.
First Mus. Hush ! I have more to tell ;
But gather close that I may whisper it :
I speak of terrible, mysterious ends â€”
The secrets of a king.
Sec. Mus. There 's none to hear !
First Mus. I have been to Conchubar's house and
A crowd of servants going out and in
With loads upon their heads : embroideries
To hang upon the walls, or new-mown rushes
To strew upon the floors, and came at length
To a great room.
Sec. Mus. Be silent ; there are steps !
[Enter Fergus, an old man^ who moves about from
door to window excitedly through what follows.
Fergus. I thought to find a message from the king.
You are musicians by these instruments.
And if as seems â€” for you are comely women â€”
You can praise love, you'll have the best of luck,
For there'll be two, before the night is in.
That bargained for their love, and paid for it
All that men value. You have but the time
To weigh a happy music with a sad ;
To find what is most pleasing to a lover,
Before the son of Usna and his queen
Have passed this threshold.
First Mus. Deirdre and her man !
Fergus. I was to have found a message in this house,
And ran to meet it. Is there no messenger
From Conchubar to Fergus, son of Rogh }
First Mus. Are Deirdre and her lover tired of life }
Fergus. You are not of this country, or you'd know
That they are in my charge and all forgiven.
First Mus. We have no country but the roads of the
Fergus. Then you should know that all things change
in the world.
And hatred turns to love and love to hate,
And even kings forgive.
First Mus. An old man's love
Who casts no second line, is hard to cure ;
His jealousy is like his love.
Fergus. And that 's but true.
You have learned something in your wanderings.
He was so hard to cure, that the whole court.
But 1 alone, thought it impossible ;
Yet after 1 had urged it at all seasons,
I had my way, and all's forgiven now ;
And you shall speak the welcome and the joy
That 1 lack tongue for.
First Mus. Yet old men are jealous.
Fergus. [Going to door.] I am Conchubar's near friend,
and that weighed somewhat.
And it was policy to pardon them.
The need of some young, famous, popular man
To lead the troops, the murmur of the crowd.
And his own natural impulse, urged him to it.
They have been wandering half-a-dozen years.
First Mus. And yet old men are jealous.
Fergus, [Coming from door.] Sing the more sweetly
Because, though age is arid as a bone.
This man has flowered. IVe need of music, too ;
If this grey head would suffer no reproach,
rd dance and sing â€”
[Dark-faced Men with strange^ barbaric dress and
arms begin to pass by the doors and windows,
They pass one by one and in silence.]
and dance till the hour ran out,
Because I have accomplished this good deed.
First Mus. Look there â€” there at the window, those
With murderous and outlandish-looking arms â€”
They've been about the house all day.
Fergus. [Looking after them.] What are you ?
Where do you come from, who is it sent you here ?
First Mus. They will not answer you.
Fergus. They do not hear.
First Mus, Forgive my open speech, but to these eyes
That have seen many lands, they are such men
As kings will gather for a murderous task.
That neither bribes, commands, nor promises
Can bring their people to.
Fergus, And that is why
You harped upon an old man's jealousy.
A trifle sets you quaking. Conchubar's fame
Brings merchandise on every wind that blows.
They may have brought him Libyan dragon-skin.
Or the ivory of the fierce unicorn.
First Mus. If these be merchants, I have seen the
They have brought to Conchubar, and understood
His murderous purpose.
Fergus. Murderous, you say }
Why, what new gossip of the roads is this .?
But I'll not hear.
First Mus. It may be life or death.
There is a room in Conchubar's house, and there
Fergus. Be silent, or I'll drive you from the door.
There 's many a one that would do more than that.
And make it prison, or death, or banishment
To slander the high King.
[Suddenly restraining himself and speaking gently.
He is my friend ;
I have his oath, and I am well content.
I have known his mind as if it were my own