BL. W. B. Yeats


44. Last Poems and Two Plays. Dublin, Cuala, 1939.

Reprints The Statues (43).

a. The Death of Cuchulain. The end of a cycle of plays about the life and death of the legendary Cuchulain that occupied Yeats on and off for thirty-five years, encompassing On Baile’s Strand (1904), THE GREEN HELMET (1910), the ‘dance plays’ At the Hawk’s Well (12) and The Only Jealousy of Emer (14b), and Fighting the Waves (35a). The degree to which this work draws on Yeats’s understanding of the nô is open to argument. On the one hand, one can point to little strikingly like the mugen nô, the ‘nô of ghosts’ that had earlier occupied Yeats’s thought both in prose explorations of the aims and methods of the Japanese theatre, particularly his introduction to Certain Noble Plays (11), and his conscious adaptations of it, particularly in the ‘plays for dancers’ (12, 14a-b, and 17a). The play retains musicians and a climactic dance, and opens and closes with the chorus-like commentary of characters separated in time and space from the action; and the Old Man who speaks the prologue comments ironically on the need for ‘an audience of fifty or a hundred’ who ‘know the old epics and Mr. Yeats’s plays’, recalling the ‘aristocratic audience’ Yeats earlier associated with the nô (particularly in 11), and for whom he wrote his early adaptations of the form. In spite of these devices, however, the work is unlike the earlier dance plays. It incorporates more characters—eleven including the musicians—and does not rely on masks, the folding and unfolding of the cloth (see 12), or a ‘dreaming back’ of the passionate dead. Wilson (98) notes that he was told by Ishibashi (see 131) that the prologue ‘strongly resembles the Kyogen’, but the comparison is a stretch of the imagination: works for the kyôgen are not ordinarily monologues, and do not directly set the stage for a more serious following work; Miller (185) notes that the painted cubes of wood that represent the severed heads of Cuchulain and those who killed him indicate Yeats’s ‘complete agreement’ with the use of stage property as ‘conventional symbol’ to represent other things, as in the nô, but while the point is no doubt correct, the device is at work in dozens of earlier works of the Symbolist and Expressionist stage of Europe, and cannot confidently be traced to the Japanese. Still, the dramatic effect of the play is curiously nô-like. Taylor (180) may over-state the case when he writes that ‘whether . . . conscious or not, the construction . . . is the most nô-like of all of Yeats’s plays’, but one cannot disagree with his exposition of the point: ‘The action progresses through an alternation of narration and mediation, rising to a medial climax, and after an interval renews itself in a brief scene of contrasting mood and tempo which is dominated by a symbolic dance’; this, combined with a ‘reliance on [a] known mythic cycle’ and ‘references to prior action . . . familiar from earlier treatment by Yeats’, provides the work ‘a richness of texture that is . . . reminiscent of nô’. One suspects that Yeats neither knew of nor intended this, but the accuracy of the point testifies to the degree to which by 1939 he had internalised important conventions from the Japanese form, and consciously or not was able to put them to use in this work that brings much of the solemn, ritualised effect of the nô to the twentieth-century European stage. See also 172 and 227.

b. Purgatory. After the extravagance and ultimate unplayability of The Herne’s Egg (39), this work, Yeats’s last to be staged during his lifetime, returns to a minimalist theatre consciously drawing on principles learned and developed from the mugen nô. The only speaking characters are a boy and an old man, and stage directions call only for ‘a ruined house and a bare tree in the background’. The story that unfolds through the dialogue is not predominantly of time present, but rather of days when the house was grand, and how first its inhabitants and then the house itself came to ruin. Early in the work (ll. 31-35), the ‘dreaming back’, ‘the theme of the Japanese nô drama’, Yeats had called it the previous year (see 38b2), is given voice by the old man—‘The souls in Purgatory . . . come back / To habitations and familiar spots. / . . . / Re-live / Their transgressions, and that not once / But many times’—and this ‘dreaming back’ of the agonies of ghosts, particularly that of the old man’s mother, the daughter of the house, is central to the play. Moments related to her ‘transgression’, and her husband’s, are witnessed first by the old man, then the boy, and thrice by the audience, in momentary images visible through a window, lit and again darkened as the old man speaks. The debt to nô here is subtle and sophisticated. The work does not rely on chorus, musician, dance, or mask, and suggests no self-consciousness about the aesthetic sensibility or size of the audience. Surely the bare tree recalls the painted pine backdrop of the nô stage, but rather the more profound debt is in the conflation of past and present on stage, the past agony and its present ‘dreaming back’, set in its ruined ‘habitation’ on the night of the anniversary that begot it, with minimal dramatic ‘action’ in time present mediated by dramatised visions of a tormented spirit in a lost and irredeemable past, culminating in a prayer for release: the work closes with lines that recall and fairly summarise the religious stance of the mugen nô: ‘Oh God, / Release [the] soul from its dream! / Mankind can do no more. Appease / The misery of the living and the remorse of the dead’. Yeats’s final return to the ‘theme of the . . . nô drama’ has not gone unnoticed by critics, though few have suggested a particular source in the nô. Both Taylor (180) and Holloway (A36) note that the ghosts visible in the lit window recall lines from Pound’s Nishikigi (BK8), but beyond this the work is clearly Yeats’s variation on general themes he had discovered in nô nearly a quarter century earlier. According to Miller (185) the play was written for performance at the Peacock (see 185). It was first staged in August 1938. See also 13, 34, 98, 120, 188, 216, 231, 246, and 248.





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