BL. W. B. Yeats

36. The King of the Great Clock Tower, Commentaries and Poems. Dublin, Cuala, 1934.

a. The King of the Great Clock Tower. In this work and Fighting the Waves (35a) Yeats attempted to move his dance plays out of the drawing room and back to the public stage, and while both works retain most of the devices of the earlier dance plays—most notably the use of chorus and mask, suggestive rather than representational properties, and a climax in dance—both are cast in prose. That Yeats nonetheless believed the plays to be in some degree ‘imitations’ of a Japanese model is made clear in his commentary (b). Recounts in the manner of the dance plays the ‘fable’ of a King, his mysterious Queen, and the ‘Stroller’ who visits them and loses his head as a result. First performed at the Abbey Theatre, 30 June 1934. Rewritten in verse both as A Full Moon in March (37b) and The King of the great Clock Tower (37c). See also 37a, 98, and 207.

b. ‘Commentary on “The Great Clock Tower”’. Two opening sections lament the inability of performers to ‘sing poetry’, and outline Yeats’s efforts to find players able properly to perform his dramatic verse. Section III explains his experiments with the ‘dance plays’ in this context, and suggests the degree to which even at this late date he thought of himself as working from a ‘Japanese model’: ‘I gave up the fight [to have poetry properly sung on stage], began writing little dance plays, founded upon a Japanese model, that need no scenery, no properties, and can be performed in studio or drawing room, thinking that some group of students might make a little money playing them and gradually elaborate a technique that would respect literature and music alike. Whenever I produced one of these plays I asked my singers for no new method. . . . When the Abbey School of Ballet was founded I tried these plays upon the stage where they seemed out of place. Why should musician or actor fold and unfold a cloth [see 12] when the proscenium curtain was there, why carry on to the stage drum, gong, and flute when the orchestra was there. Fighting the Waves [35a] and the present play [King of the Great Clock Tower] so far imitate the Japanese model that they climax in a dance, substitute suggestion for representation, but like the Japanese plays themselves they are stage plays.’

c. Ribh at the Tomb of Baile and Aillinn. The first of seven ‘supernatural songs’ (expanded to twelve in 37), in which the monk Ribh prays over the grave of the legendary Irish lovers Baile and Aillinn, who had died of broken hearts, each having been falsely informed of the death of the other. Ishibashi (131) was the first to suggest that the ‘basic story’ is derived from Nishikigi (BK8), and indeed while Baile and Aillinn are legendary characters, Ribh and his prayers over their grave—reading from a ‘holy book’ by the light of the conflagration of their joining on the anniversary of their death—are of Yeats’s invention, and clearly reminiscent of setting, occasion, and ‘action’ not only in Nishikigi but in several other works of the nô stage. The yew and apple trees that grow above the grave and represent the lovers, though part of the Irish legend, are likewise reminiscent of particular works from the nô, most notably Takasago (see BK88d), which Yeats knew (see 11), in which ghostly lovers are rooted to their passion in the form of trees, about which their spirits linger until freed by the prayers of a travelling priest. Jeffares (in 139) cautiously concurs with the idea that the poem is indebted to the nô, and quotes a passage from Yeats’s introduction to Certain Noble Plays of Japan (11) in which he explicitly allies the legends of Ireland with the dramas of Japan: ‘The love sorrows [of the nô] . . . may owe their nobility to a courtly life’, Yeats observed there, ‘but he to whom the adventures happen, a traveller commonly from some distant place, is most often a Buddhist priest . . . . The adventure itself is most often a meeting with ghost, god, or goddess at some holy place or much-legended tomb; and god, goddess, or ghost reminds me at times of our own Irish legends and beliefs, which once, it may be, differed little from those of the Shinto worshipper’. On 24 July 1934 Yeats wrote of this poem to Olivia Shakespear (in a letter printed in 48) in terms not explicitly drawn from but nonetheless suggestive of his understanding of the nô. Appeared earlier in Poetry 45 (1934). Reprinted in 37.





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