Irish poet, dramatist, and prose writer, William Butler (W.B.) Yeats (1865-1939), is considered to this day as one of the greatest English-language poets of the 20th century. He received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923.
Singer, scholar, stage director, producer, lecturer, teacher, and cultural activist, James Flannery is the Winship Professor of Arts and Humanities at Emory University. A specialist in the dramatic work of W. B. Yeats, he is the founder of the W. B. Yeats Foundation. From 1989 to 1993 he was the Executive Director of the Yeats International Theatre Festival at the world-famous Abbey Theatre, the National Theatre of Ireland. His Yeats Festival productions of fourteen of Yeats’s challenging plays won critical acclaim and established Yeats’s reputation as a seminal figure in modern Irish theater.
Simply Charly: What was W. B. Yeats’s role in the Irish Literary Revival?
James Flannery: In a word, it was everything. He was the visionary who conceived the Revival as a way of galvanizing the creative energies of Ireland at the turn of the twentieth century and directing them towards the realization of a new and vital Irish identity. He located artists of promise, nurtured their talents, and provided them with opportunities to make their voices heard within Ireland and far beyond. He founded the world-famous Abbey Theatre in 1904 and raised funds to pay the professional actors, designers, and technicians needed to produce plays. He brought the Abbey on tours to England and ultimately the United States so that the work it produced would become internationally known.
In addition to all the above, Yeats located publishers for the new school of poets, playwrights, and novelists that emerged in Ireland. He courted critics, editors, and journalists, especially in England, so that new Irish writing would receive a fair hearing. He fought special interests in Ireland that would have the literary and dramatic movement serve narrowly defined political causes. In the name of artistic and intellectual freedom, he also fought against those who would limit the rights of Irish writers to express their own views on sensitive religious, social, and even sexual issues. He championed the genius of John Millington Synge against the pressure of those who sought to prevent Synge from being produced at the Abbey Theatre because his work was immoral.
Yeats was the public voice of the Abbey Theatre and, indeed, the entire Revival. His was also the dominant critical voice in Irish letters throughout the early years of the twentieth century. And on top of all that, he was the major English language poet and, I would argue, one of the most significant playwrights of modern times. Yet Yeats’s work on behalf of others cost him the audience he might have won in Ireland, particularly as a dramatist.
SC: What impact have Yeats’s contributions to the Revival movement had in terms of newfound appreciation for traditional Irish literature in Ireland and abroad?
JF: Yeats created an audience for Irish writing that continues down to the present day. As Seamus Heaney has written, “In Yeats’s work was the beginning of a discovery of confidence in our own ground, in our place, in our speech, English or Irish.” Arguably, the current worldwide interest in Irish culture, as exemplified in the poetry of Heaney, the plays of Brian Friel and Colin MacPherson, the novels of Colm Toibin and John McGahern, the music of The Chieftains, U2 and Bill Whelan, the composer of Riverdance, and the films of Neil Jordan and Jim Sheridan, would not have gained an audience nor had the same impact without the ground-breaking work of Yeats.
Prior to Yeats and the Revival, there was, of course, a distinguished body of Irish writing in the English language. What would the English comedy of manners tradition amount to without the contributions of writers like William Congreve, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Oliver Goldsmith, or Oscar Wilde? Think as well of the satirical work of Jonathan Swift or the songs of Thomas Moore, who was the first explicitly Irish writer with an international reputation. Yet, unlike Yeats, these writers emigrated to England where they wrote for an English audience. Yeats, in contrast, determined that what was needed in Ireland was a body of literature that reflected a distinctively Irish perspective on the world. Moreover, he realized that an audience for that writing needed to be developed in Ireland so that artists no longer would be forced to leave their homeland to earn a decent living.
Of the writers mentioned above, all were Anglo-Irish except for Moore, meaning that they belonged to the Protestant Ascendancy class that had colonized Ireland in the seventeenth century and thereafter ruled the native people with an iron fist. While Irish life and culture obviously exerted a powerful influence on these writers, they lived at a distant remove from the native people of Ireland. Understandably, the majority of them felt far more at home in the upper-class drawing rooms of Dublin and London than in the cottages of the Gaelic-speaking peasantry – the very people who originally inspired Yeats’s love of Irish culture.
Moore, like Yeats a century later, was directly inspired by Irish mythology and folklore in his writing. A Catholic, who fiercely resented the grievous wrongs done by the colonizers of Ireland, Moore became known as “Ireland’s National Poet” during the first half of the nineteenth century. Yet even he was forced to earn a living in England, where he became the darling of the nobility by performing his wonderful Irish Melodies as after-dinner entertainment. Despite the immense influence, Moore exercised in creating an interest in Irish subjects, including the cause of Irish political independence, in England and throughout the Continent, Moore’s contribution pales in comparison with that of Yeats who established and promoted an entire literary and dramatic movement rooted in Irish soil.
SC: In 1923, Yeats was awarded a Nobel Prize in Literature for what the Nobel Prize Committee described as “inspired poetry, which in a highly artistic form gives expression to the spirit of a whole nation.” Can you quote some examples of Yeats’s works that best reflect the spirit of 19th and early 20th century Ireland?
JF: There are so many instances. Let’s start with an early poem, “To Ireland in the Coming Times,” published in 1893 when Yeats was only twenty-eight. In that poem, he stakes out a claim to be considered a kind of bardic witness-bearer to the greatness and grief of Ireland past, present, and future. Politically, Yeats places himself in the company of those writers of ancient times who sang “to sweeten Ireland’s wrong. / Ballad and story, rann and song.” Recognizing that the bards of ancient Ireland were senior members of the priestly Druid caste, Yeats also claims to have access to the arcane knowledge of a poet-seer. Referring to himself as “one / With Davis, Mangan, Ferguson”—all nineteenth-century Irish poets—Yeats goes on to imply that, because of his occult and mystical studies allied to his extensive research in Irish mythology and folklore, he has a much more profound understanding of the essential spirit of Ireland than any of his immediate literary forebears. In effect, Yeats sets himself up as a latter-day bard with all the rights and responsibilities of a witness-bearer to the cultural values of an independent Irish nation yet to be born.
All of these claims would be bold enough for any young Irishman to make amidst the turbulent political and cultural climate of late-nineteenth-century Ireland. What makes Yeats’s stance all the more audacious is that he was neither a Catholic nor a Gael by background, but rather an Anglo-Irish Protestant. Yeats’s father, the distinguished portrait painter John Butler Yeats, was typical of many intellectuals of his time in having rejected his Christian heritage. However, his son developed an unquenchable desire for some form of spiritual meaning capable of easing the tensions, both psychic and physical, that tortured him from early childhood. Growing up in County Sligo surrounded by a luminous landscape of haunting beauty, Yeats was entranced by the stories he heard from the local peasantry of unseen presences that cast everything into a supernatural light.
Yeats made of this belief system of the Irish peasantry a lifelong faith that he carried into virtually all his work as a poet and dramatist. As an artist, Yeats was committed to an imaginative process that aimed to give actuality to forms that lie beyond the ken of ordinary existence. Among his earliest publications are four volumes of folktales that he collected and edited during the late 1880s and early 1890s. The most famous and influential of these, The Celtic Twilight (1893), contains a passage titled, “Concerning the Nearness Together of Heaven, Earth and Purgatory,” in which Yeats proclaims that, “In Ireland this world and the world to which we go to after death are not far apart.” Throughout his entire career, a central theme of Yeats’s work is what he called “the war of the supernatural upon the natural order.” As a poet-seer in the tradition of the ancient bards of Ireland, Yeats sought to give his readers and his audiences in the theater with an experiential awareness of the truths that he had himself come to know in moments of heightened consciousness. Like the depth psychologist Carl Jung, Yeats is concerned with a search for wholeness of being, for integration into the personality of neglected aspects of the psyche. His work can, therefore, be described as a kind of wisdom literature that attempts to guide people to a state of consciousness that he called Unity of Being. In that heightened state of consciousness, all the latent powers of human personality are activated to their highest power.
Yeats came to believe that Unity of Being, or complete expression of personality, was not possible except within a community that enabled all its constituent members to realize their full potential. Such an ideal community was bound together by shared imaginative possessions and thus had achieved what Yeats termed Unity of Culture. Throughout the nineties, Yeats dreamed that, by drawing upon the rich cultural heritage of Gaelic Ireland and expressing that tradition through the medium of art, such a Unity of Culture could ultimately be created throughout the entire country. In Ireland, he believed, there were two passions ready at hand for artists to draw upon: “love of the Unseen Life and love of country.” Dinnshenchas, or the lore of places preserved in songs, stories, poems, and myths, had created among the Gaelic-speaking peasantry a profound spiritual connection amongst themselves as well as with their native land. Yeats wrote of his ambitions for modern Ireland with the zeal of a prophet: “I would have our writers and craftsman of many kinds master this history and these legends, and fix upon their memory the appearance of mountains and rivers and make it all visible again in their arts, so that Irishmen, even though they had gone thousands of miles away, would still be in their own country.”
Such an art allied to scholarship would, according to Yeats, “make love of the unseen more unshakable, more ready to plunge deep into the abyss;” and also over time would “make love of country more fruitful in the mind, more a part of daily life.” In an incredible burst of idealism, optimism, and enthusiasm, Yeats proclaimed that ultimately, “The Irish race would … become a chosen race, one of the pillars that uphold the world.” A madly utopian vision, particularly for a nation that at the turn of the twentieth century was struggling to find its way out of a morass of poverty, political division, and cultural degradation caused by centuries of colonial oppression. But what must also be acknowledged is that, without the vision and practical enterprise of a Yeats, the miraculous cultural renaissance of Ireland that continues to the present day would not have been possible. As the poet John Montague avers, “Now that the class to which he claimed to belong, the Anglo-Irish, have been melted back into the Irish, we can see him as the spokesman for an ideal Ireland where all traditions cohere.” To that one might add, if today Irishness is cool throughout the world, much of the credit for that is due to Yeats!
The poetry, plays, and other writings of Yeats throughout the 1890s represent a systematic and concerted effort to draw upon the inherited dinnshenchas of the Irish country people and make it an accepted part of the culture of Ireland. To a considerable extent, his creative writings of the time are based on his research into the fairy lore that was a living remnant of the ancient nature religion of Ireland. Towards the end of his life, in a magisterial General Introduction for My Work (1937), Yeats spoke of “a great tapestry” comprised of a mixture of Druidism and Christianity that lay behind all Irish history. No stranger by that time to the existential despair and impersonal violence of the twentieth century, Yeats’s understanding of the “Savage God” of modernism was tempered by a belief that the ancient spiritual beliefs of Ireland would someday find renewed meaning.
Yeats was, of course, espousing the same mystical belief system that he proclaimed at the beginning of his career. As Thomas Cahill has said in his best-selling study on the early Celtic Church, How the Irish Saved Civilization, it was relatively easy for St. Patrick to convert the Irish to Christianity because they understood with their “natural mysticism” that “the world was holy—all the world, not just parts of it.” Thus the Celtic Church founded by St. Patrick in the fifth century emphasized not dogma, moralistic judgments, hierarchical structures or the trappings of ecclesiastical power but a direct apprehension of God’s presence in the world. If the entire world is holy, then it follows that the body is as well and that the sacred dance of life is intended to be celebrated with all the strength of one’s being. This, then, is the great theme of Yeats’s art: flowing, concrete, and phenomenal in every aspect of its conception and realization.
Throughout the nineties, Yeats grounded much of his work in imaginative forms of the Irish folk tradition, as if he were a poet-seer still in touch with Druidic methods and practices. Central to that tradition is a perpetual dynamic of opposing forces. As Robert Welch puts it, “Yeats’s idea of the otherworld, which he takes from Gaelic tradition, becomes, in his mental arena, a kind of uncertainty principle.” Flowing and phenomenal as the cosmos is, things are never what they seem to be. The glittering world that the sidhe (or fairies) inhabit in early poems like “The Stolen Child” or “The Man Who Dreamed of Fairyland” is by no means a place of pure ingenuous joy. Indeed, the face of a smiling, beckoning, enticing welcome offered by the sidhe is just as likely to lead one to a place of peril as of joy. That is the warning offered by a fairy to the young man in Yeats’s charming love song, “Down by the Salley Gardens” (1889).
Such warnings, however, are not ones that a true Yeatsian entirely heeds, for, as embodied by the heroic characters in his plays, self-knowledge and wisdom are won only by those who would brave the tortuous pathways of their own heroic destiny, wherever that may lead. Hence, Cuchulain, the archetypal hero of Yeats’s poetic imagination, makes a fatal choice in At the Hawk’s Well (1916) to pursue the leanansidhe, or fairy-woman, of his dreams, only to call catastrophe on his head. The loss of love, the self-inflicted murder of his only son, the destruction of his marriage—there are the costs of Cuchulain’s tragic choice. But heroes, like artists, are not ordinary folk. Suffering, bravely accepted, and endured is the price of their calling.
Yeats in his own life learned that lesson well. He challenged others and himself to realize their highest, most ideal concept of themselves—that is, to live heroically. Yeats failed, naturally, much of the time in his own quest—nowhere more so than in pursuit of the love of his life, his leanansidhe, the beautiful revolutionary Irish leader Maud Gonne. Maud rejected him, but out of his frustrated longing, the poet wrought some of the most beautiful love lyrics ever penned. The figure of Maud lies behind the leanansidhe that Cuchulain fatefully pursues in At the Hawk’s Well. The presence of Maud also lies behind the shape-changer in his poem, The Song of Wandering Angus (1899), who is transformed from a fish into a beautiful woman and then disappears into the morning mist, but whose phantasmagorical presence the poet will pursue until the end of his days.
SC: Yeats’s early works draw heavily on Irish mythology and history. They also reflect his fascination with mysticism and spiritualism. How were these topics accepted in late nineteenth century Ireland?
JF: I’m someone who resists dividing Yeats’ work so neatly into early, middle and late periods. I recognize, of course, that there were considerable changes in both style and content as Yeats continued to evolve both personally and artistically. But in terms of the basic quest I’ve earlier described—that of demonstrating over and over how the irrational, the visionary, the imaginal, the supernatural—impacts ordinary life, I find a continuity of aspiration and achievement throughout Yeats’s career I happen to love the early poems of Yeats with their lyricism, their yearning for transcendence and their deployment of haunting imagery drawn from Celtic folklore as well as mythic and mystical sources. I also love the sheer magic of the music in early Yeats: the long, wavering breath-lines, the delicately syncopated rhythms, the lingering vowels, and consonants, again directly carried over from Gaelic poetry and song. Yeats listened intently to the speech-patterns of the traditional storytellers and singers whom he encountered in the West of Ireland. Always in his work, he sought to recreate the “half-conversational quality” which was another legacy of the Gaelic tradition in singing, the recitation of poetry, and in daily speech.
Yeats never entirely abandoned the oracular, chant-like quality of his early work—a style intended to induce a state of reverie in the listener. As he moved forward, however, that more lyrical style was counterpoised with English speech-patterns found in everyday modern Irish life. There are passages in Yeats that, if lifted out of context, have the direct impact of prose utterance. Indeed, Yeats is fond of quoting from actual conversation in his poems:
I said, ‘A line will take us hours maybe; Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought Our stitching and unstitching has been naught. Better go down upon your marrow-bone And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones Like an old pauper, in all kinds of weather; For to articulate sweet sounds together Is to work harder than all these, and yet Be thought an idler by the noisy set Of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen The martyrs call the world.’ “Adam’s Curse” (1903)
‘Fair and foul are near of kin, And fair need foul,’ I cried. ‘My friends are gone, but that’s a truth Nor grave nor bed devised, Learned in bodily lowliness And in the heart’s pride!’ “Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop” (1933)
Thirty years and a lifetime’s experience separate these two poems, yet each is anchored in the realities of the flesh. The older poet is preoccupied with the natural infirmities of age, including the waning of sexual desire. Paradoxically, however, the poems and plays of the later period celebrate the pleasures of the body with an urgency and delight that are almost shocking in their erotic explicitness—a vivid contrast with the more allusive and subtle but nonetheless passionate sensuality of his earlier work. Yeats, of course, lived through turbulent times and this, too, is reflected in both the style and content of all his work, as Ireland moves from nationalist aspiration, to open rebellion to the betrayals and brutality of civil war. Yeats’s meditation in volumes like The Tower (1928) on the horrors of warfare is especially noteworthy in a century, like ours that has been devastated by the “rough beast” of murderous violence.
It has been said that Yeats is a guide to the irrational, but just as truly what Yeats represents is a way to live with wisdom, compassion, courage, and serenity even in the face of barbaric forces that would destroy every vestige of civilization in their roiling path. Unflinchingly Yeats portrays the wanton chaos of a world where “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” But just as powerfully, the intellect and artistry of Yeats combine to express a vision of human possibility based on moral principles and cultural values that have been tested over the ages. This, to me, is where the greatness of Yeats as a kind of shamanistic healer for the modern world really lies.
SC: Do the transitions in Yeats’s work reflect a change in his personal views, or was it just a natural progression of his style?
JF: It was both. As with most of us, life became more and more complex for Yeats as he matured. But the greater the obstacles he faced, and the more cruel and destructive the losses he suffered, so, in a miraculous way, grew Yeats’s imaginative power and his ability as a poet to give sublime expression to all that he experienced. In some ways, this can be seen even more clearly in his plays than his poetry.
Yeats’s plays are written in the widest range of forms of any dramatist in history. Yet the form of the plays perfectly captures the particular meaning that Yeats wishes to express. I have had personal experience of this as a Yeats director, particularly in staging fourteen of his plays for the Yeats International Theatre Festival that I produced at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin from 1989 to 1993. The Yeats Festival opened with the first production ever at the Abbey of Yeats’s Cuchulain Cycle—five plays written over thirty-five years on the growth towards maturity and wisdom of the Bronze Age Celtic hero Cuchulain. Each of the plays—At the Hawk’s Well, The Green Helmet, On Baile’s Strand, The Only Jealousy of Emer, and The Death of Cuchulain—can be described as a male initiation rite in which Cuchulain meets a difficult challenge that defines his character at crucial stages in his development.
Interestingly, Yeats did not deal with Cuchulain in the chronological order of the epic, but rather as events in his own life stimulated him to focus on various aspects of the myth. Thus On Baile’s Strand, written in 1904 when Yeats was thirty-nine, deals with Cuchulain as the hero approaches middle age and is forced to reckon with troubling personal and social circumstances that impinge upon his very sanity. At the Hawk’s Well (1917), the first play in the Cycle, portrays Cuchulain as an adolescent on the point of making crucial choices that, as we have seen, will determine his tragic destiny as a hero. Yeats wrote the play at the age of fifty, when he was confronting the prospect of old age and the loss of his own youthful ambitions and energies. It was also the first of Yeats’s plays inspired by the dramaturgical form and theatrical techniques of the Japanese Noh—an influence clearly evident in all his remaining plays. The Green Helmet, written in 1909 in the aftermath of the riots over Synge’s Playboy of the Western World that shattered Yeats’s hopes for the Abbey Theatre as an agent of national renewal, concerns Cuchulain in young manhood becoming a genuine Yeatsian hero offering to sacrifice his life than compromise his deepest convictions. The Only Jealousy of Emer (1919), written shortly after Yeats’s marriage, portrays the hero as he absorbs for the first time the full psychic energies available to him through marriage and through an awareness of the suffering that some of his willful actions have caused others, including his wife. The Death of Cuchulain (1938) was completed on Yeats’s own deathbed and concerns the way that true heroism involves for the male a reordering of the psyche so as to accept the intuitive, more feminine aspects of his personality, thus completing his personality and preparing his soul for the otherworld. There is obviously a great deal I am leaving out of this deliberately selective scenario, but I hope I have managed at least to convey a sense of the connections that always exist between Yeats’s life and the energies that inspire his work.
In staging groups of several Yeats plays gathered around a single subject, what I have always attempted is to sustain the through-line of the action, both in narrative flow as well as the metaphysical implications of the overall theme, while allowing each play to express itself with maximum effect. Among the most striking aspects of Yeats’s dramaturgy are the startling shifts he suddenly makes in focus, tone, texture and rhythmic thrust so as to alter the consciousness of the audience. On one level the action of the plays occurs in the territory we are accustomed to on a daily basis, that of behavioral patterns, personal and social, in which the conscious mind appears to be in control. But suddenly, in the wink of an eye, that comfortable playing area is dissolved, and we plummet into an irrational territory wherein almost anything can occur.
Early in his playwriting career, Yeats achieved these startling emotional and psychic shifts mainly through verbal techniques. Take, for example, the awesome moment in On Baile’s Strand when Cuchulain learns that it is his own beloved son whom he has slain in single combat. The actual slaying takes place offstage, but the moment that really interests Yeats occurs immediately afterward when Cuchulain’s façade shatters, and he plunges into a paroxysm of grief and ultimately madness.
Yeats employs all the theatrical arts brilliantly to carry the audience along with Cuchulain as he plunges into the depths of madness. Note first of all the figure of Cuchulain on the bench, and behind him the trembling figure of the Fool. The Fool here, as he does throughout the play, mirrors Cuchulain’s increasingly fragile hold on reality. In the Abbey production, the face of the actor who played the Fool was covered in a mask topped with straggling chicken feathers that shook as he was dragged into the morass of wildly conflicting emotions that grip Cuchulain. The Blind Man, wearing opaque dark glasses, speaks in a flat low-pitched rasping voice that sharply contrasts with the high-pitched almost childish whimper of the Fool. The Blind Man’s utterly still body conveys a powerful sense of barely contained malevolence. The Fool, however, is an image of flittered vulnerability that Cuchulain himself begins to physically reflect as he struggles to his feet and flails helplessly against imagined enemies everywhere. The Fool, as Yeats intended, is indeed a mirror of the very foolishness within Cuchulain.
Starting with Cuchulain’s speech, we move into iambic pentameter, the classic meter of Shakespearian tragedy. But never have the beating iambs been more broken than in Cuchulain’s frantic shifts of syntax and mood. One moment his is a voice of rage. A split second later bewilderment. Then terror. Then anguish. The patterns of a tortured mind breaking apart, with no certain grounds for existence. A series of hurtling questions followed by seeming clarity as the imagined enemy suddenly appears and is attacked. Then the most terrible line of all: “What is this house?” as he clutches his head, then opens his fingers outward, his gesture ultimately taking in the whole space, including the audience. The image refers both to his mind now filled with confusion and chaos, as well as the order of a kingdom now completely riddled with corruption and blight.
Yeats is already a master of stagecraft, even at this relatively early point in his career. But it is stagecraft in which dialogue is the dominant dramatic value along with his uncanny skill at expressing powerful feeling through bodily action. The latter technique – the mark of a true dramatist—is what increasingly Yeats emphasizes as he continues to develop. In The Green Helmet, written only five years after On Baile’s Strand, the climax of the play occurs in a Marx Brothers mêlée in which the entire stage erupts in a wild parody of the kind of drunken brawl that can suddenly erupt in certain Irish pubs. Remember, this play is, among other things, a satire of the rioters, many of them drunk on a misplaced patriotic fervor, who sought to prevent the performance of The Playboy of the Western World. The play, echoing Molière, is written in rhymed couplets, and the theatrical style is borrowed from an Italian Commedia Dell-Arte Company that Yeats saw in London and admired because of the pure physical expressiveness of the performers. The inspired in him an idea that became central to his dramatic art: “Only tragic or comic art which uses all the resources of extravagant action, which concentrates the whole of a lifetime into an hour can move large masses of men and will again in the future, I believe, move large masses of men.”
Another eight years pass and, with the production of At the Hawk’s Well, Yeats creates a form of drama inspired by the Japanese Noh where the climax of the play is now entirely given over to physical movement in the form of acted dance. The young Cuchulain, filled with impetuous impulses, has, on “a rumor”, come a vast distance in order to taste the waters of a magical well. He finds the well guarded by an Old Man who, like a mangy dog protective of his territory, tries to warn Cuchulain off. Suddenly a strange creature, a “Woman of the Sidhe” with the cry of a hawk, emerges, as she always does when the waters of the well are about to flow. Frantically, the Old Man warns Cuchulain of the dangers he will encounter if he tries to challenge the hawk-woman. The blood of Cuchulain is roused, however, by the unfathomable powers of a creature that seems to embody all the allurements of a bird, woman, and witch combined. The stage directions read as follows: [He has sat down—the Guardian of the Well has begun to dance, moving like a hawk. The Old Man Sleeps. The dance goes on for a while.] Three short lines, but they imply up to eight minutes of stage time occupied with an intensely dramatic dance in which Cuchulain and the hawk-woman act out the elemental struggle between a male and the femme fatale who will define his destiny. What other dramatist has ever trusted more fully the arts of theatre to convey his ideas?
SC: Yeats, as we know, was influenced by Noh plays, a classic Japanese form of musical drama that has been performed since the 14th century. How did he get interested in this art form, which is so removed from the concepts of traditional Irish arts?
JF: In many ways, the traditional culture of Japan—like Ireland an island nation—is not that far removed from that of Ireland. This is especially evident when one compares Shintoism, the natural religion of Japanese Buddhism, with the Druidic folk beliefs of pre-Christian Ireland that carried over into the early Celtic Church. Nor would a Japanese steeped in the ancestor worship of his country find anything strange in Yeats’s statement about the congruence of the natural and supernatural order in Ireland. As I have experienced it at the Yeats Summer School in Sligo, Japanese students with an understanding of their own historic traditions are thrilled to find in Ireland an entire realm of folk beliefs and practices that exist precisely in order to establish imaginative links between the individual and the landscape he/she inhabits. The ghost stories alone which both traditions share, even in striking details of plot, character, and imagery, are further evidence of the strange cultural correspondences between two island nations from opposite ends of the globe.
Those cultural and especially spiritual correspondences between Ireland and Japan are, in the first instance, what attracted Yeats to the Japanese Noh. But there were several other motives for his interest in the dramatic and theatrical possibilities of the Noh. The first was the need of finding performers who were capable of responding to what became more and more ambitious histrionic demands posed by his plays. Ireland to this day lacks a conservatory of theater devoted to training performers who are skilled in Shakespeare, the Greeks, Racine, Molière, and the other classical icons of Western drama. No doubt, Irish actors have made a tremendous contribution to modern theater and film, but that is almost entirely within realistic and naturalistic genres based upon literal imitations of life. Classical work requires a physical, vocal, and mental training that equips the performer to interpret work of a far more formalistic nature. Yeats during his lifetime was forced to look beyond Ireland for such performers.
Another factor that attracted Yeats to the Noh was that, as a lyric poet writing for the stage, he came to believe that all the arts of stagecraft—lighting, costumes, and scenery along with acting – must serve the poetic spirit, especially in its distillation of experience into extremely intense and stylized forms of utterance. Realism and naturalism, instead, concentrate the audience’s attention on the surface activities of life as expressed in a plethora of meretricious details. In nineteenth-century productions even of Shakespeare the stage picture was filled with spectacle—Julius Caesar staged with an elaborate precession of circus animals and Midsummer Night’s Dream with real grass and live bunny rabbits hopping around. As a poet, Yeats hated such effects, finding them a hideous distraction from the pure aural appeals of poetic drama.
Yeats, as a young man, had started out to be a painter and was particularly influenced by Pre-Raphaelite artists who, with their exquisite sense of patterns based on medieval embroidery and tapestry, seemed to be closer to what he saw in his mind’s eye. A regular visitor to Paris during the 1890s, he was also inspired by the work of the French symbolists in the theater with their use of stage imagery based on the inter-relationship of complex forms and colors intended to have an almost talismanic effect on the audience, like that of a magical charm. Above all, he sought to return the theater to its roots in ritual so that a play unfolded with all the formal, hieratic attributes of a religious ceremony. What in effect Yeats was aiming to create was a theatrical experience equivalent to his work as a lyric poet—an art based not upon the flash of show business effects but upon much deeper thoughts and feelings.
For a time, the visionary stage designer and director Edward Gradon Craig seemed to have answers to Yeats’s needs as a poetic dramatist. In the early years of the century, Craig began to promote his ideas for a new theatrical art that, like that of the dancer Isadora Duncan, would express ideas in time and space. He also posited a concept of acting that, like the French symbolists, was based upon the symbolic language of puppetry. By covering his face with a mask, the fleeting and variable expressions of the actor would be transformed into an everlasting artistic expression of the poetic spirit. In other words, the actor would become a living, moving flesh and blood equivalent to the same symbols employed by the poet in his verse.
The ideas of Craig came to Yeats’s attention during a period when, because of his frustration with the productions of his plays at the early Abbey, he was about to give up writing for the stage and return exclusively to his work as a lyric poet. Yeats’s interest in Craig also was aroused at a time (1909 – 1910) when he became fascinated with the multifarious philosophic, psychological, and theatrical implications of masks. Ezra Pound is usually credited with introducing Yeats to the Japanese Noh. But Craig played a larger role than is generally realized. As early as 1908 Craig began to relate his own theories to the Noh, particularly the Japanese emphasis on symbolical gestures intended to express elemental passions rather than external notions of reality. These Craigian ambitions corresponded exactly to the poetic vision that Yeats was seeking to realize on the stage. Excited by the practical opportunity Craig provided of actually using masks in productions of his plays, Yeats immediately thought of how characters like The Fool and the Blind Man in On Baile’s Strand could gain an archetypal wildness by putting masks on them. Thereafter masks were an essential aspect of Yeats’s arsenal of dramaturgical and theatrical devices.
Yeats’s actual turn to Japanese Noh as a dramaturgical and theatrical model was again occasioned by practical experience. Having been involved in the staging of his own plays and those of other dramatists at the early Abbey Theatre, Yeats became aware that the strongest emotions may often be aroused in the theater not through the medium of language but through physical actions that speak where words no longer suffice. Indeed, as he once expressed it, his interest in writing dance drama was the result of his frustration in locating either speakers of verse or modern audiences whose response to language was as powerful as their response to expressive movement: “I wanted a dance because where there are no words there is less to spoil.”
From very early in his career Yeats was intrigued by the possibilities of combining poetry and dance, as evident from his first produced play, The Land of Heart’s Desire (1894) where a Faery Child summons the soul of a young bride to the otherworld. But it was the theories of Craig and, more importantly, the example of the Japanese actor-dancer, Michio Ito, who showed him how dramatic movement might become the means by which poetic drama could be reborn on the modern stage. The problem, as Yeats saw it, was that over three centuries ever more gaudy stage spectacle combined with greater and greater literalism had reduced the expressiveness of the human voice and body. What excited Yeats most when in 1915 Ezra Pound introduced him to Ito was the sheer histrionic power he displayed in the most intimate and revealing of contexts, a bare studio, or even the drawing-room of a house. Yeats by this time was no longer concerned so much with the possibility of furthering Ireland’s Unity of Culture as with the ability of the individual to will his own tragic fate. Writing in 1916 of Ito as “the tragic image that has stirred my imagination,” Yeats emphasized the sheer human aspect of his artistry. With no help at all of elaborate stage lighting or scenery, I to was able, simply by rising or throwing out an arm, to recede from us into some more powerful life. Because that separation was achieved by human means alone, he receded but to inhabit as it were the depths of the mind. One realized anew…that the measure of all arts’ greatness can be but in that intimacy.
Ito was not, in fact, a trained Noh performer, but rather one of the first creators of buyoh, or Japanese modern dance—a genre that combined techniques borrowed from Kabuki and Noh with Western styles, including Dalcroze eurhythmics, Russian ballet, and the free improvised style of Isadora Duncan. In order to play the role of Yeats’s hawk-woman in the first production of At the Hawk’s Well, Ito and Yeats spent hours at the hawk aviary at London Zoo mimicking the movements of the birds. Pure Noh movements would have been far too abstract for the effect desired by Yeats in the mesmerizing dance of seduction that brought the play to a climax. Nor is the dramaturgical intent or structure of Yeats’s dance plays literally copied from the Japanese Noh. Instead, Yeats remains a quintessential Western dramatist whose work is rooted in actual life as human beings actually live it.
The conventions of the Noh—including masks, ritual, dance, and symbolic posture, all exercised within a vividly concentrated stage environment emphasizing the human being as the primary expressive instrument—are what Yeats employs to carry the audience into the phantasmagorical reaches of the imaginal. Always as an audience member experiencing a Yeats production, one is conscious of existing at the same time and place as the performers as well as others in the audience. Always the possibility of passing over into an altered state of consciousness is present. But unlike the Noh, which functions almost entirely on an imaginative plane of existence, Yeats celebrates the sheer exhilaration of living in a creative tension between dialectical extremes:
Great art, great poetic drama is the utmost of nobility and the utmost of reality. The passions and drama fall into two groups commonly, the group where nobility predominates and the group where reality predominates. If there is too much of the first all becomes sentimental, too much of the second all becomes sordid. Nobility struggles with reality, the eagle, and the snake.
SC: Was Yeats inspired or influenced by any other poets, either Irish or foreign?
JF: T. S. Eliot described Yeats as “one of those few whose history is the history of their own time, who are part of the consciousness of an age which cannot be understood without them.” This, of course, implies that Yeats was inspired and influenced by a vast number of other artists, past and present, Irish and non-Irish. As we have seen, his earliest writing shows the influence of Irish folklore, poetry, and songs. He even wrote of being moved to tears as a boy by some sentimental verses describing the shores of Ireland by a returning, dying emigrant. So the patriotic interest was early set. His father educated him by reading poetry aloud with the deliberate intention of awakening his interest in the dramatic work of Shelley, Byron, and Shakespeare. As a boy, his father also took Yeats to see Henry Irving perform Hamlet, and this led him for a time to adopt an heroic walk. In boyhood play he also dramatized himself as a sage, magician, or poet, posing as Bryon’s Manfred or Shelley’s Prince Alastor. Later, inspired by Spenser, he began a play with Spenserian characters (knights, shepherds, enchanter, and enchantress) and scenery (gardens, islands), but also with a proud and solitary Shelleyan hero. His most serious early poetic influence, however, is William Blake, primarily because of Blake’s mystical beliefs—an aspect of the poet that his father dismissed. From 1889 to 1893, Yeats actually edited a three-volume edition of Blake’s works, with a memoir and interpretation of the symbolism. On the shakiest of evidence, he persuaded himself that Blake’s father had been born James O’Neill, an Irishman. Hence he proclaimed that Blake’s poetry had “an Irish flavour.”
As a young man in London, one of Yeats’s closest friends was the English poet and translator Arthur Symons. Symons knew the contemporary French writers well and in 1899 published The Symbolist Movement in Literature, the first major English study of the subject. In fact, Symons dedicated the book to Yeats, stating that he had little to teach his friend about symbolism. By then Yeats was well acquainted with the French fin de siècle literary and theatrical scene. Indeed, some of his fervor in promoting the development of the Irish literary and dramatic movement at the turn of the century was his belief that the legendary movement of Mallarmé, of Verlaine and Rimbaud, was about to find a spiritual rebirth in Ireland.
Anne Yeats, the daughter of the poet, once invited me to visit her home and see her father’s library. This occurred in 1993, the last season of the Yeats Festival at the Abbey. Once there, I randomly picked up a volume of Nietzsche and opened it to find on every page in Yeats’s inscrutable hand a series of scribbled responses to virtually every idea of the German philosopher. Yeats was not a passive consumer of knowledge.
Yeats was always somewhat embarrassed by his lack of a formal education, having entered Dublin’s Metropolitan School of Art in 1884 because he could not meet the entrance requirements of Trinity College, Dublin in classics and mathematics. Nonetheless, his pursuit of higher knowledge was carried out with conscientiousness and fervor. He read deeply, if rather fitfully, depending on his intellectual and artistic interests at a particular time. While researching A Vision (1925, 1937), his mythic interpretation of the past and future, he intensely sought corroborations for his pet ideas on history and the soul in the major classical writers: Plato, Plotinus, Aristotle, and Pythagoras. As usual, he quarreled as much as agreed with these writers. Towards the end of his life, he made the acquaintance of an Indian Swami, Shri Purohit, and learned that in the wisdom literature of the East the accepted belief is that, “the individual self, eater of the fruit of action, is the universal self, maker of past and future.” Only in the highest moments of consciousness is the individual self, detached from action, made fully aware of his real identity. One can imagine Yeats’s response to this confirmation of one of his own most deeply felt convictions about the sanctity of individual life. Near the end of his own life, when Yeats was asked to sum up his philosophy, he wrote: “When I try to put all into a phrase I say ‘Man can embody truth but he cannot know it.’” That, perhaps, is why he also wrote of the educational process he often followed: “I have remembered nothing that I read, but only those things that I heard or saw.”
Not entirely true, by any means, but truer than most of us to the idea that fully lived experience is the greatest of all teachers.
SC: What was your goal in establishing the W. B. Yeats Foundation at Emory University?
JF: My principal goal was to gain a greater understanding of Yeats’s poetry and drama and thereby promote a greater appreciation of the enormous richness and diversity of Irish culture. That goal was initially realized by raising funds to establish the Yeats International Theatre Festival at the Abbey Theatre. During the five years of the Yeats Festival, fifteen of Yeats’s plays were produced, starting with the production of The Cuchulain Cycle in 1989. Each of the Festivals was focused on a group of Yeats’s plays gathered about a particular theme along with poetry readings, concerts, lectures, exhibitions, and symposiums also reflecting and exploring that theme. These ancillary events featured an international range of artists, scholars, and public figures. I am pleased to say that the Yeats Festival succeeded in persuading many of the best thinkers on Irish life and culture that Yeats’s plays are every bit equal to his poetry in their magical appeal as well as their intellectual power and resonance.
Over the past sixteen years, thanks to the support of Emory University and a number of generous patrons, here in Atlanta the Foundation has presented a wide range of public events, including a series of multi-faceted symposiums on the following subjects: The Great Irish Famine, Celtic Spirituality, The Scots-Irish of Northern Ireland and the American South, and Contemporary Irish Film. Our major event each year is the Atlanta Celtic Christmas Concert, which has become one of the most popular traditions of the Atlanta holiday season. In music and dance, poetry, song, and story, the Concert celebrates the holiday tradition of the Celtic lands and their connections with similar traditions of the American South. I am working to raise the sponsorship funds necessary to turn the Celtic Christmas Concert into a national PBS telecast.
One of the proudest legacies of the Yeats Festival at the Abbey is the worldwide success of Riverdance. Bill Whelan, the Grammy Award-winning composer of Riverdance, functioned as the Music Director of the Yeats Festival, and has often traced the inspiration of Riverdance to our collaborative work together staging Yeats. Fintan O’Toole, Ireland’s leading drama critic, also credits Riverdance back to the groundbreaking work of the Yeats Festival. O’Toole compares the impact of Yeats to Shakespeare in the contemporary relevance of his ideas and dramatic imagery. Yet O’Toole also raises some important questions with regard to the wider recognition of Yeats’s achievement as a dramatist:
More than half a century after his death, William Butler Yeats is still Ireland’s foremost avant-garde playwright. We return to his theatre work, in all its diversity and contradictions, not because we are sure of its place in the repertoire of modern Irish theatre, but because we are not. Yeats’s plays are unsettled and unsettling, radically incomplete until methods of performance and reception by an audience which are adequate to them are found. Even in his own theatre, the Abbey, Yeats is not a part of a given tradition, but a search for new forms.
I am working to establish a Yeats Creative and Performing Arts Institute in Dublin, hopefully in association with the Abbey Theatre, whose principal goal will be to explore the techniques in acting, verse-speaking, voice, movement, and mask work required to realize Yeats’s extraordinary dramatic vision successfully. Besides drawing upon the cultural traditions of Ireland, particularly in music, mythology, and folklore, the Yeats Institute will also explore the theatrical traditions of Japan, India, South America, and Africa. It is my strong belief that the actor who can successfully perform Yeats can perform anything from the Greeks, Shakespeare, Racine, Molière, and Goethe to Strindberg, Brecht, Beckett, and the other masters of the modern stage. The Yeats Institute will thus attempt to honor the vision of Yeats in realizing a theatre that functions, in the words of the poet, as “a memory and a prophecy.”
SC: Which of Yeats’s works are your favorite and why?
JF: I find it impossible to answer that question because, as I continue to change, so do my responses to Yeats. All I can say is that whenever I return to Yeats, I find myself once again astonished and uplifted by his staggering artistic inventiveness and masterful technique, the courage, and passion with which he engaged himself with life, the complexity, contradictions and heartbreak resulting from that engagement, his unflinching honesty in confronting his own heart mysteries, his compassion towards the suffering of mankind, his magisterial vision of what a world invested with spiritual meaning might be like and the coherence and consistency with which he voiced his vision of such a world. Even a desert island would not be lonely with the Collected Works of Yeats as company.