Thursday, September 22, 2016

Drink a health to the wonders of the western world - Synge and Yeats create Irish theater

What evil thing will come upon the world
If the arts perish?  (“The King’s Threshold,” 1904, William Butler Yeats)

I was reading the early plays of Yeats alongside Mythologies.  The poems, too, and since I read up to about 1921 I guess they were not necessarily so early at that point.  The plays are short, generally in verse, and generally on subjects drawn from Irish legend and myth, more distant and formal that the ghost stories he compiles in The Celtic Twilight.

The discovery of Noh drama in the 1910s was a huge help to Yeats, because it showed him a way to strip back his plays to the essential material.  Yeats was not a natural dramatist, so a more stylized form suited him.  Four Plays for Dancers (1921) is the place to see this discovery.

Yeats was also burdened by the non-artistic purposes of his plays: the establishment of an Irish theater, meaning not just a company and institution, the Abbey Theatre, and not even to write plays with Irish content, but to train Irish audiences in the conventions of play-going.  Actors representing characters, entrances and exits, time passing, and so on.  This was a surprise to me.

So some of the plays are pretty simple, like plays for children.  One is even a “stone soup” story.  On the other end, “The King’s Threshold” is, in fact, a plea for arts’ funding in the form of a one-act play.  The quotation I excerpted is entirely in context.

Meanwhile, alongside Yeats I read the plays of his colleague at the Abbey, John Millington Synge, who really was a natural dramatist, so this turned out to be another way to make the Yeats plays look a little thin.  Synge’s idea of Irishness was the rural Irish, their concerns, language and stories, told with so much vigor that his best play, The Playboy of the Western World (1907) caused idiot Dubliners to riot.

Christy is on the run, having knocked his horrible father ion the head after having finally been pushed too far.  Christy is what some people would now call a “beta male,” a sad sack.  Murdering his father, though, makes him an alpha, make him interesting, and attractive to women, especially the tough, earthy innkeeper Pegeen, who has had it up to here with wimps.  A neighbor, on the lookout for a husband herself, mocks Pegeen’s fiancé, Shawn:

Widow Quin (jeeringly):  It’s true all girls are fond of courage and do hate the likes of you.  (Act II)

But what can Shawn do:

Shawn (walking about in desperation):  Oh, it’s a hard case to be an orphan and not to have your father that you’re used to, and you’d easy kill and make yourself a hero in the sight of all.

In other words, Synge’s play is hilarious.  The third act, in particular, is a masterpiece.  How I would like to see it.  I understand, though, why that is unlikely.  The actors need specific skills.  Specific language.

Sara (She links their arms and gives them the glasses.)  There now.  Drink a health to the wonders of the western world, the pirates, preachers, poteen-makers, with the jobbing jockies; parching peelers, and the juries fill their stomachs selling judgments of the English law.  (Brandishing the bottle.)

Widow Quin:  That’s a right toast, Sara Tansey.

Synge’s five other plays were enjoyable, too, even if not wonders of the western world.


  1. I've been reading a few of Yeats' plays and I quite like them, probably because they aren't exactly modern. To my untutored eye they seem like a cross between Irish mythology and Greek tragedy.

    George Moore's autobiographical book Ave (I think, or Vale, or one of those books) is good on how he and Lady Gregory and WB Yeats created the Celtic renaissance.

  2. The Moore book is a good suggestion. Fill in some of the missing pieces.

    Your description seems right. I set the book aside before getting to the Sophocles translations, so I do not know what Yeats does with actual Greek tragedy. BUt he is well prepared for it.