W.B. Yeats & Drama

Approach to Scenography

Before we could interpret The Hour-Glass and create a visualisation of it, it was important to have an understanding of Yeats’s approach to scenography.

I need a theatre. I believe myself to be a dramatist. I desire to show events and not merely tell myself or them […] I seem to myself most alive at the moment when a room full of people share the one lofty emotion.

W.B Yeats, 1917

The creative imagination of W.B Yeats manifested itself in an unsurpassed legacy of verse and drama. The many roles he played in Irish society – poet, “smiling public man”, cultural leader, playwright, philosopher, critic – have cast a long shadow on many aspects of Irish society: “The hand of Yeats was felt in virtually every aspect of modern life, from founding a National Theatre, to serving as a member of the Irish Senate, to creating an Irish Academy of Letters to combat censorship” (Flannery, Phantasmagorical p.94).

But arguably his poetry is more widely-known and studied than his drama. Indeed, it has been suggested that he was seen as a “failed dramatist”(Flannery, Phantasmagorical p.97). Lennox Robinson is quick to dismiss such accusations: “Anyone who can read Yeats’s plays and not say he is a dramatist is a fool […] I play after play from the Countess Cathleen on down the years he has proved his mastery over his instrument, testing it, developing it, learning from it and teaching it to obey” (Yeats and O’Connor p.20). According to Garry Hynes, former artistic director of the Abbey Theatre, “More than a 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 contradiction, not because we are sure of its place in the repertoire of modern Irish theatre, but because we are not” (quoted in Flannery p.104).
This topic has been broadly debated, and this paper is not intended as an attempt to add to this debate. This debate does however inform this paper. In terms of the complexity, there can be no doubt as to the magnitude of the task of close reading this selection of plays and attempting to provide a scenographic interpretation of a selection of the scenes therein.

Yeats’s creative process and the audience
There is a strong connection between the state of mind of the playwright and that of the audience. Flannery describes Yeats’s creative process as one which involved the playwright “adopting a phantasmagorical mask, a state of mind akin to that of trance, so as to gain direct access to the unconscious […] similarly, to gain access to such visionary art, the reader or audience member must also enter a kind of trance state”(Flannery, Phantasmagorical p.95). In other words, the only way the audience can fully experience the visionary art of the drama (as desired by the playwright) is to suspend reality, to reach a sort of higher level of consciousness. The playwright ensures this through rhythm: “The chief instrument for achieving this state of rhythm – and insistent, hypnotic rhythm through which the mind can be liberated, if only for a brief moment, from the distractions, pressures and excitements of ordinary existence” (Flannery, Phantasmagorical p.93). In terms of scenography then, it is unsurprising to read of Yeats’ interest in a minimalist approach to lighting and design. By stripping away elements of realism from the stage design, the playwright/stage designer presents the audience with a means through which they can escape reality and enter into a more spiritual aesthetic.

Bibliography

  • Flannery, James W. ‘Staging the Phantasmagorical: The Theatrical Challenges and Rewards of W.B. Yeats’. Irish University Review 26.1 (1996): 92–106. Print.
  • Yeats, William B, and Ulick O’Connor. The Yeats Companion: With a Biographical Portrait. London: Pavilion Books, 1990. Print

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