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The Collected Works of W.B. Yeats Vol II: The Plays
By William Butler Yeats
ScribnerCopyright © 2001 William Butler Yeats
All right reserved.
An Introduction For My Plays
The theatre for which these plays were written was the creation of seven people: four players, Sara Allgood, her sister Maire O'Neill, girls in a blind factory who joined a patriotic society; William Fay, Frank Fay, an electric light fitter and an accountant's clerk who got up plays at a coffee house; three writers, Lady Gregory, John Synge and I. If we all told the story we would all tell it differently. Somewhere among my printed diaries is a note describing how on the same night my two sisters and their servant dreamt the same dream in three different grotesque forms. Once I was in meditation with three students of the supernormal faculties; our instructor had given us the same theme, what, I have forgotten; one saw a ripe fruit, one an unripe, one a lit torch, one an unlit. Science has never thought about the subject and so has no explanation of those parallel streams that make up a great part of history. When I follow back my stream to its source I find two dominant desires. I wanted to get rid of irrelevant movement, the stage must become still that words might keep all their vividness, and I wanted vivid words. When I saw a London play, I saw actors crossing the stage not because the play compelled them, but because a producer said they must do so to keep the attention of the audience, and I heard words that had no vividness except what they borrowed from the situation. It seems that I was confirmed in this idea or found it when I first saw Sarah Bernhardt play in Phèdre and that it was I who converted the players, but I am old, I must have many false memories; perhaps I was Synge's convert. It was certainly a day of triumph when the first act of The Well of the Saints held its audience though the two chief persons sat side by side under a stone cross from start to finish. This rejection of all needless movement first drew the attention of critics. The players still try to preserve it, though audiences accustomed to the cinema expect constant change; perhaps it was most necessary in that first period when the comedies of Lady Gregory, the tragi-comedies of Synge, my own blank verse plays, made up our repertory, all needing whether in verse or prose an ear attentive to every rhythm.
I hated the existing conventions of the theatre, not because conventions are wrong but because soliloquies and players who must always face the audience and stand far apart when they speak -- "dressing the stage" it was called -- had been mixed up with too many bad plays to be endurable. Frank Fay agreed, yet he knew the history of all the conventions and sometimes loved them. I would put into his hands a spear instead of a sword because I knew that he would flourish a sword in imitation of an actor in an Eighteenth century engraving. He knew everything, even that Racine at rehearsal made his leading lady speak on musical notes and that Ireland had preserved longer than England the rhythmical utterance of the Shakespearean stage. He was openly, dogmatically, of that school of Talma which permits an actor, as Gordon Craig has said, to throw up an arm calling down the thunderbolts of Heaven, instead of seeming to pick up pins from the floor. Were he living now and both of us young, I would ask his help to elaborate new conventions in writing and representation; for Synge, Lady Gregory and I were all instinctively of the school of Talma. Do not those tragic sentences "shivering into seventy winters," "a starved ass braying in the yard," require convention as much as a blank verse line? And there are scenes in The Well of the Saints which seem to me over-rich in words because the realistic action does not permit that stilling and slowing which turns the imagination in upon itself.
I wanted all my poetry to be spoken on a stage or sung and because I did not understand my own instincts gave half a dozen wrong or secondary reasons; but a month ago I understood my reasons. I have spent my life in clearing out of poetry every phrase written for the eye, and bringing all back to the syntax that is for ear alone. Let the eye take delight in the form of the singer and in the panorama of the stage and be content with that. Charles Ricketts once designed for me a black jester costume for the singer, and both he and Craig helped with the panorama, but my audience was for comedy, for Synge, for Lady Gregory, for O'Casey, not for me. I was content, for I knew that comedy was the modern art.
As I altered my syntax I altered my intellect. Browning said that he could not write a successful play because he was interested not in character in action but in action in character. I had begun to get rid of everything that is not, whether in lyric or dramatic poetry, in some sense character in action; a pause in the midst of action perhaps, but action always its end and theme. "Write for the ear" I thought "so that you may be instantly understood as when actor or folk-singer stands before an audience." I delight in active men, taking the same delight in soldier and craftsman; I would have poetry turn its back upon all that modish curiosity, psychology -- the poetic theme has been always present. I recall an Indian tale. Certain men said to the greatest of the sages, "Who are your Masters?" And he replied, "The wind and the harlot, the virgin and the child, the lion and the eagle."
Copyright © 2001 by Anne Yeats Notes and preparatory material copyright © 2001 by David R Clark and Rosalind E. Clark
Notes and preparatory material copyright © 2001 by David R Clark and Rosalind E. Clark
Excerpted from The Collected Works of W.B. Yeats Vol II: The Plays by William Butler Yeats Copyright © 2001 by William Butler Yeats. Excerpted by permission.
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