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Yeats's Mask

Margaret Mills Harper
Warwick Gould

Yeats’s mask

The King’s Threshold, Calvary, The Death of Cuchulain: Yeats’s Passion Plays

Alexandra Poulain

Texte intégral

  • 1 ‘d’énormes puissances, invisibles et fatales’. Maurice Maeterlinck, Preface to his Théâtre (1901), (...)
  • 2 ‘Ce sont des morts qui semblent nous parler […] d’augustes voix’. Maurice Maeterlinck, ‘Menus Prop (...)
  • 3 Edward Gordon Craig, ‘On the ghosts in the tragedies of Shakespeare’, in On the Art of the Theatre(...)
  • 4 Ibid., 266.
  • 5 In his Poetics, Aristotle compares the plot of a tragedy to a ‘living organism’ whose ‘beauty depe (...)
  • 6 Passion Plays evolved from liturgical drama and medieval Easter plays and focus on the life and su (...)
  • 7 See J-P. Sarrazac, Jeux de rêves et autres détours (Paris : Circé, 2004), 36 & ff.

1For those playwrights and theatre practitioners who challenged the primacy of realism on the stage at the turn of the twentieth century, the dramatic treatment of ghosts often became the test of a new conception of theatre which set itself the task of making the invisible visible. Maeterlinck strove to display ‘immense invisible and fateful powers’1 in his plays, and experimented with marionettes to create a theatre in which ‘it seems that the dead are talking to us […] in august voices’.2 Edward Gordon Craig saw Shakespeare’s ghosts as ‘the visualised symbols of the supernatural world which enfolds the natural’,3 and to him their appearance among the living on the stage was ‘a clear command from Shakespeare that the men of the theatre shall rouse their imagination and let their reasonable logic slumber’.4 Yeats concurred with this conception of a theatre freed from the tyranny of dramatic illusion. His plays are peopled by shadows who mingle with the living, and much of his aesthetic innovation originates from his experiments with the dramatic treatment of ghosts and their disruption of the natural order. The plays under discussion do not just resort to ghosts, but seek to dramatise death itself – not as an allegorical figure (as in the medieval mysteries), but as an event which takes place within the central character’s dislocated body and mind. It is of course by no means uncommon, or even remotely original, to have a character die on the stage; but in these three plays death is the drama itself (in the etymological sense of ‘action’). Pushing back the limits of theatre, Yeats invents a dramaturgy which seeks to probe the absolutely unknowable experience of death, expanding the infinitesimal moment of the crossing from life to death into the substance of a whole drama. These three plays, featuring a Poet, a Saint and a Hero, differ greatly in subject and tone. In the present essay they are considered as formal variations on the common pattern of the ‘Passion play’. Of the three, only Calvary really qualifies as a Passion play in the literal sense of a dramatic representation of the Passion of Christ; yet the other two can be seen as profane revisitings of the Christian paradigm. Yeats was not the only one to turn to medieval theatre for an alternative dramaturgy, sequential rather than organicist, free of the dictate of the Aristotelian ‘beautiful animal’5: Ibsen’s Peer Gynt (1876), Strindberg’s The Road to Damascus (1898), the German stationendrama of the 1920’s, Claudel’s The Satin Shoe (1929) and The Book of Christopher Columbus (1933), to name but a few, are all modelled on the Passion play6 which is still a favourite form in contemporary drama.7 However, Yeats’s plays stand out in that they are concerned solely with the protagonist’s dying moments, his motionless journey through the various stages of death, not towards death as in the traditional model of the Passion play. They are structured in successive, discrete tableaux or ‘stations’, but these stations occur after the catastrophe which has already befallen the protagonist and started the dying process. In what follows, the dramaturgy of The King’s Threshold (1903), Calvary (1920) and The Death of Cuchulain (1939) as three ‘Passion plays’ is approached together as a prolonged experiment with the limits of theatrical possibilities.


  • 8 One important dramaturgic model for the three plays is Aeschylus’Prometheus Bound.

2Passion, of course, primarily implies physical suffering. All three plays are structured around a central image, the martyred body of the sacrificial victim who has ‘chosen death’ (VPl 258) and endures it ritualistically. While this connects them both to the Christian Passion play and to Greek tragedy,8 I am concerned more specifically with the ways in which they recycle images of starvation and incorporation borrowed from the Christian ritual of the Eucharist. In the beginning of The King’s Threshold Seanchan asks his Oldest Pupil to repeat the answer he made at Candlemas when asked how a man should guard poetic images:

Oldest Pupil. I answered – and the word was half your own –
That he should guard them, as the men of Dea
Guard their four treasures, as the Grail King guards
His holy cup, or the pale, righteous horse
The jewel that is underneath his horn,
Pouring out life for it, as one pours out
Sweet heady wine … But now I understand;
You would refute me out of my own mouth […] (VPl 265)

  • 9 W.H. Auden, ‘In Memory of W. B. Yeats’, in Another Time [1940] (London: Faber and Faber, 2007).

3The familiar metaphor of blood-as-wine, whose resonance is magnified by the contiguous evocation of the Holy Grail, tropes the Poet as a Christ-like figure who offers up his flesh and blood in sacrifice. As the starving Seanchan’s flesh melts away, leaving only ‘a bag of bones’, his voice is being incorporated by his pupils (‘the word was half your own’). The passage is even suggestive of a form of cannibalistic ritual, a profane Eucharist which allows Seanchan to refute his Pupil ‘out of his own mouth.’ When Seanchan dies, his defiant last words (‘King! King! Dead faces laugh’, VPl 310) are allowed to resonate in the cues of the Oldest and Youngest Pupils, in a slightly spooky number of post-mortem ventriloquism (literally: speaking out of their stomachs). Reflecting on the metamorphosis of the poet’s voice after his death, Auden was to give a memorable account of this process when he wrote that ‘The words of a dead man | Are modified in the guts of the living’ (the ‘dead man’ in his case was, of course, Yeats himself9).

  • 10 Cf. Yeats’s note to the play in the Cuala Press Seven Poems and a Fragment (1922): ‘I had original (...)

4The King’s Threshold thus appropriates elements of the Christian Passion, but there is no parodic intent to these borrowings. The play features the characteristic Yeatsian tension between the sublime and the burlesque, but the burlesque elements are contained within the tragic structure and do not contaminate the greatness of Seanchan’s sacrifice. In the first version, which ended happily with the victory of the Poet and the King’s repentance, a prologue was spoken by a dishevelled Old Man in his dressing-gown and slippers, clearly a first avatar of the Old Man in The Death Of Cuchulain. His main function was to justify the happy ending, which went against the grain of source material and history, and indeed against Yeats’s better instinct.10 The play was heavily revised, and when Yeats eventually changed the ending to a tragic one, he removed the prologue and added burlesque characters (such as the cripples and the Mayor) within the body of the drama. While the prologue provided an ironic frame to the whole play, however, the cripples and the Mayor only embody the sort of down-to-earth mediocrity against which Seanchan is poised, and serve as foils to the sublimity of his sacrifice. Sacrifice, on the contrary, is treated ironically in both Calvary and The Death of Cuchulain, where burlesque elements consistently undermine the solemnity of tragedy. Calvary takes up one image from The King’s Threshold but uses it as a minor-key parody of the central dramatic tableau of Christ’s sacrifice. In the beginning of The King’s Threshold, the Oldest Pupil tries to convince Seanchan of the futility of his hunger-strike:

And though I all but weep to think of it,
The hunger of the crane, that starves himself
At the full moon because he is afraid
Of his own shadow and the glittering water,
Seems to me little more fantastical
Than this of yours. (VPl 263)

  • 11 On heron symbolism in Yeats see Warwick Gould, ‘Lionel Johnson comes the first to mind’ YO 272–77, (...)
  • 12 See Jacqueline Genet, Le Théâtre de William Butler Yeats (Villeneuve d’Ascq: Presses du Septentrio (...)

5The image, used derisively in the earlier play, recurs in Calvary in the musicians’ inaugural song. In Yeats’s iconography the white heron is the purely subjective counterpart to Christ’s objective personality, his inverted image on the other side of the mirror in which he contemplates himself in deathly narcissistic fixation, at the risk of becoming ‘fishes’ diet’.11 (VPl 780–81). Before Christ appears on the stage to perform the foundational act of Christian culture, the song bizarrely disrupts and distorts its elements and dreams up a surreal parody of Eucharist in the unreal conditional, where the Christic fish (‘ichtus’) literally eat up the starving heron.12

6Finally, the parodic intent is most conspicuous in The Death of Cuchulain cur in a decidedly burlesque context. Cuchulain’s executioner is the Blind Man who had spent the duration of On Baile’s Strand cooking and devouring a chicken. Cuchulain’s head is to be cut off with the Blind Man’s carving-knife (‘I keep it sharp because it cuts my food’) and carried in the bag he uses ‘to carry what I get at kitchen doors’ (VPl 1060) – the prototypical doggy-bag. What actually happens to the head is left for us to imagine, and it is surely a blessing that it only reappears in the stylised, abstract form of the ‘black parallelogram’ after the blackout.

PERFORMANCE: ‘The man that dies has the chief part in the story’13

  • 13 VPl 309; cf., AVA 10.

7A consequence of the sacrificial imagination which runs through the three plays and connects them to the dramaturgy of the medieval Passion is their self-conscious theatricality. Death is not just endured, but displayed publicly, and it is precisely this gesture of display which makes it efficient as sacrifice. The motif is treated seriously – even solemnly – in The King’s Threshold, ironically in Calvary and The Death of Cuchulain. In The King’s Threshold, Seanchan’s hungerstrike is a political gesture: it needs to be witnessed by the greatest number, since its purpose is to bring shame on the King’s name. The steps where he lies dying are a stage on which he showcases his emaciated body while the rest of the cast file past him. As in Kafka’s story ‘The Hunger Artist’, which traces the unimpressive artistic career of a professional faster, the paradoxical show consists solely in Seanchan’s entirely passive enduring of hunger, and the marks it imprints on his body, registered and amplified in his interlocutors’ cues (‘he’s such a bag of bones!’, VPl 286). Seanchan’s drawn-out torture on the stage, as each new visitor tempts him with an offer of food which he rejects, is concomitant with the rumour of rising discontent gathering momentum offstage. The play, however, ends not with insurrection, but with the dialogue of the Youngest and Oldest Pupils, two directorial figures competing for the right to impose their own ending on Seanchan’s performance after his death: ‘triumphant music’ and loud songs, or ‘solemn music from the strings’ (VPl 311). The play’s ending seems to be improvised in view of the audience as the contestants debate over the choice of music and give contradictory instructions to the musicians, thus displaying the theatrical nature of Seanchan’s performance of martyrdom which it befalls them to finish in style.

8In Calvary, Christ may be ‘dreaming his passion through’, as the narrator-musician tells us, yet the dream is real enough for the physical effects of the torture (the carrying of the cross, and crucifixion) to affect the character’s performance of his death. The narrator’s voicing of this paradox has a didascalic import

The cross that but exists because He dreams it
Shortens His breath and wears away His strength. (VPl 781)

9Indeed, the shortness of Christ’s cues is an index of his physical dislocation, offered as spectacle to a ‘mocking crowd’ which is not embodied on the stage, but evoked in the musician’s narrative:

Those that are behind
Climb on the shoulders of the men in front
To shout their mockery […] (VPl 781)

10We too, the refined, over-educated audience in the theatre, absorb (and respond to) the show of Christ’s martyrdom like our grotesque counterparts on the stage: indeed the image is oddly reminiscent of the Abbey audience during the Playboy riots. Public humiliation is part of the torture Christ endures, yet it is the spectacular nature of his death (the fact that it is being watched by onstage and offstage audiences) which confers to it the dignity of Passion. That Calvary does not merely replay Christ’s Passion, but also the hundreds of Passion plays which have come before, each ritualistically reenacting Christ’s performance, further sharpens our awareness of the quintessentially theatrical nature of Passion. It is, then, supremely ironic that in the final section of the play, the Roman soldiers should perform a dance for the benefit of Christ, stealing the show and recasting him as spectator:

Second Roman Soldier Come now; let us dance
The dance of the dice-throwers, for it may be
He cannot live much longer and has not seen it.
(VPl 786)

11Running counter to the aesthetic protocol defined by Seanchan in The King’s Threshold (‘The man that dies has the chief part in the story’), the episode divests Christ of the aura of martyrdom and sends him back to invisibility. Christ’s cry of despair (‘My father, why hast Thou forsaken me?’) is heavy with the frustration of the upstaged actor.

  • 14 Peter Ure, Yeats the Playwright (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1963, 1969), 82.

12A similar kind of ironic displacement is at work in The Death of Cuchulain. Cuchulain’s staging of his own death is nothing if not histrionic: displaying his gaping wounds, tied up Christ-like upon his pole, Cuchulain prepares to ‘die upon [his] feet’, giving the performance of his life (VPl 1057). All he needs is an audience. As Peter Ure has observed, Cuchulain is robbed of the tragic, poetically satisfactory death he anticipates when Aoife, just as she is about to kill him in revenge for the murder of her son, exits for no valid reason, and is replaced by the burlesque Blind Man (of On Baile’s Strand) who proceeds to cut him up like a piece of meat: ‘The story in which revenge would have meaningfully completed work, life, and death is carefully built up but does not resolve into its climax; the actual ending runs against it’.14 However, the bitter irony of the ending lies not just in the incompletion of the tragic-heroic pattern, but in the fact that Cuchulain’s executioner turns out to be a blind man, on whom Cuchulain’s posturing is entirely lost. Instead of taking in the carefully composed tableau of the Passion of Cuchulain, a profane Calvary, the blind man takes the butcher’s approach and horribly feels his way from Cuchulain’s feet upwards, searching for the proper joint, dissecting his body in words before he does it in the flesh: ‘Your shoulder is there, | This is your neck. Ah! Ah! Are you ready, Cuchulain!’ (VPl 1061) The King’s Threshold thus provides an initial paradigm which Calvary and The Death of Cuchulain revisit sarcastically, magnifying theatricality yet ultimately denying the martyr his fifteen minutes of glory. The ironic twist which robs the martyr of his performer’s visibility is a particularly cruel aspect of Yeats’s modernised version of the Passion, a kind of theatrical death which offers a sardonic counterpoint to the literal death which constitutes the core of the drama in the three plays.

DRAMA: ‘Lie down upon the threshold’15

  • 15 VPl 291.

13The prologues of The King’s Threshold and The Death of Cuchulain create the fiction that what is happening on the stage is being improvised: both mention the material conditions of the productions (the scarcity of actors in the earlier play, the difficulties the Old Man encountered in his capacity as stage manager and casting director in the latter) and show us the creative process itself, the progressive assembling of Yeats’s new dramaturgy against the conventions of realistic theatre. The end of the Old Man’s tirade in The Death of Cuchulain (‘I spit three times. […] I spit! I spit! I spit!’ VPl 1052) parodies the traditional three knocks which announce the beginning of the performance in bourgeois theatre and thus vociferously dismisses that sort of theatre. Rejecting the model of the well-made play and its promises of realism, dynamic dialogue, plot-twists and satisfactory resolution, Yeats replaces it with an alternative dramaturgy which he brings to its most radical expression in the three plays I am concerned with, in which it is the process of death itself which is being dramatised: catastrophe has already taken place, so that there is no ‘action’ to speak of, only a theatrical situation.

14The eponymous ‘threshold’ of the earlier play (the steps before the royal palace) is clearly a metaphor for a metaphysical threshold, that which separates life from death. The time-span of the play is the time it takes Seanchan to cross the threshold, but that moment is artificially stretched out and Seanchan seems to be perpetually suspended in the action of dying. He envisages himself poised at the ‘edge’ of the living world, ready to take the jump:

I lie rolled up under the ragged thorns
That are upon the edge of those great waters
Where all things vanish away, and I have heard
Murmurs that are the ending of all sound.
I am out of life […] (VPl 287)

15The paradoxical phrase ‘I am out of life’ points to his liminal situation, no longer alive, yet not quite dead since he is still there to say it. The play is made up of a succession of sequences in which the king’s mediators (the pupils, the Mayor, Brian, the Chamberlain, the Monk, the Girls, the Soldier, the Princesses, and eventually Fedelm) successively fail to persuade him to discontinue his hunger-strike. The King thus delegates his presence and voice until the penultimate sequence when he comes to beg Seanchan in person, to no avail. He is an authorial figure in the text, who arranges the order of appearance of the cast and even provides them with their lines (‘Persuade him to eat or drink.’ ‘Promise a house with gras and tillage land…’ VPl 260, 262) Yet King Guaire, who has given in to his courtiers’ demands and banished the poet from the State council, has forfeited all claims to authority. While the Poet’s word, for whose dignity he is prepared to shed his own blood, has the terrible power of making and unmaking kings, the King’s word, which he delegates to all and sunder, is shown to be vacuous and inefficient from the start. The play thus writes itself against his authority, inexorably unrolling Seanchan’s own scenario, which the king announces in frustration in the opening sequence: ‘he has chosen death: Refusing to eat or drink…’ (VPl 258). The real author is of course Seanchan, whose death is a foregone conclusion. It is already well under way when the play begins, and we are constantly being reminded of it by the spectacle of Seanchan’s starving body, and by the cues of Seanchan’s visitors who perpetually, obsessively anticipate the inevitable denouement. The stage direction ‘He dies’ at the end of the play merely brings the process to completion. The whole play is thus arrested ‘upon the threshold’ (VPl 291), a fraction of time expanded dramaturgically in terms of spatial location. When Seanchan does die, his body is immediately carried offstage, beyond the threshold.

16In Calvary we witness the very last stages of the Passion of Christ, as he stumbles under the burden of the cross then stands stretched out upon it, awaiting death. As in The King’s Threshold, ‘the man that dies’ has in fact already started dying when he enters. The first word we hear, sung by the First Musician, is ‘Motionless’, and it contains the whole dramaturgy of the play. Christ (just as his counterpart the heron) remains entirely static throughout, and all that happens on stage merely delays the inevitable outcome. Here, however, the actual crossing of the threshold is not represented on the stage, as if Christ never reached the moment of death; yet the First Musician, setting the scene at the beginning, tells us that ‘Good Friday’s come, | The day whereon Christ dreams his Passion through’ (VPl 781). Christ is dreaming back his own death from beyond the threshold, so that the whole play seems caught in a paradoxical time loop, perpetually performing two contradictory movements, forward (toward the moment of death) and backward, from beyond death back to the final moments of life, the live man hurrying to his death, the dead man dreaming it back. What lies beyond can never be represented, because the experience of death consists in returning to the threshold of death: combining stasis with circularity, the structure of the play sacrilegiously suggests a sort of purgatorial vicious circle, anticipating such Beckett shorts as Not I and Play.

17The Death of Cuchulain, too, is a variation on a well-known story, and should we be less familiar with ‘the old epics’ than the Old Man who speaks the prologue expects us to be, the title leaves little doubt as to the conclusion of the play. The hero’s imminent death is also repeatedly announced by Eithne Inguba and Aoife, whose voices merge in choric incantation:

Eithne: If, thinking what you think, you can forgive,
It is because you are about to die (VPl 1055)
Eithne: I might have peace […]
But that Cuchulain is about to die (VPl 1056)
Cuchulain: I cannot understand.
Aoife: Because about to die! (VPl 1059)

  • 16 See Katharine Worth’s remarks about the imagery of the door in the play. Katharine Worth, The Iris (...)

18However, there is more to the plot of The Death of Cuchulain than what the title promises – the death of Cuchulain. The time of the play is not arrested ‘upon the threshold’ of death as in the other two plays: instead the play is a triptych, in which Cuchulain appears successively alive, dying and dead. The play covers a number of events which undeniably qualify as ‘action’ (manipulation, revelation, a lovers’ tiff, a battle lost and won, an ex-lovers’ reunion, revenge, a sordid murder, a widow’s lament) and even features such melodramatic devices as a forged message and a belatedly delivered letter – yet all these peripeteia are absorbed within the structure of the station-drama. There is no temporal continuum, but independent sequences separated by blackouts. Action proper occurs offstage, either before the start of the play (this even includes all the plots of the other plays of the Cuchulain cycle), or between sequences, and is retrospectively narrated in the sequences which bring Cuchulain face to face with successive interlocutors, all would-be executioners, until the moment of death proper – the decapitation which occurs between the penultimate and final sequences. Chronology is rough-handled – the Morrigu’s narrative of the battle occurs after Cuchulain’s death. This counter-realistic aesthetics of discontinuity and achronicity creates a sense of stasis: the play is constructed like a three-panelled retable, the central panel of which displays the now familiar picture of the dying man, tied to his post, suspended ‘upon the threshold’ of death. Death comes by virtue of a (literally) decisive gesture, decapitation, but it is crucial that Cuchulain is already mortally wounded when he returns from battle, so that the two sequences in the middle part (Cuchulain and Aoife, Cuchulain and the Blind Man) are located within the extended moment of the hero’s death. The third part or panel, however, takes us beyond the threshold, into the realm of death itself.16 The Morrigu greets us there with the resonant line ‘The dead can hear me, and to the dead I speak’ (VPl 1061). We too must be dead, then, and as ghosts we witness the final sequence of the inset play, Emer’s dance of anger and mourning. To the challenge of representing death on the stage Yeats answers by dramatising the poignantly irreducible gap between life and death, between the living, fluid body of the dancer and the mineral quidditas of the black parallelogram, a metaphor of Cuchulain’s absence. The real tragedy of the play is Emer’s failure to be reunited with Cuchulain. At first she is too far away to warn him in person of impending danger, and her efforts to supplement her voice with the letter, and her body with Eithne’s, are to no avail. She comes too late; Cuchulain may be watching Emer’s dance as a ghost among the other ghosts of the audience, but he cannot reach out to her anymore than we can.

19The three plays thus experiment with ever more sophisticated formats of the Passion play to stage the crossing of the threshold between life and death, expanding the moment of death and absorbing all other elements of complication into the pattern of the station drama. Returning to the paradigm of the Passion play over the decades, Yeats gradually pushes the limits of the form as he endeavours not merely to stage this experience from an external viewpoint, but to capture it from within, as a subjective experience. Ultimately, what the plays attempt to dramatise is what befalls the subject when the subject ceases to be.

SUBJECTIVITY: ‘He is delirious ...’17

  • 17 VPl 299.
  • 18 Likewise, in ‘September 1913’, Yeats evokes the ‘delirium of the brave’ to celebrate the past hero (...)
  • 19 Specifically, the passage is reminiscent of the Crito, which takes place after Socrates’ condemnat (...)

20The viewpoint in The King’s Threshold remains external. The progressive collapse of Seanchan’s mind is diagnosed clinically by the Mayor toward the end of the play: ‘He is delirious now’ (VPl 299). ‘Delirium’ (originally a term from agriculture, from the Latin delirare, ‘to go off the furrow’) signals the moment when the starving man’s speech becomes dissociated from the here and now, the actual dramatic situation, and takes on poetic/prophetic resonances18. In the early moments of The King’s Threshold Seanchan awakens from a dream of ‘roast flesh’, but soon recovers his clarity of mind. His first exchanges with his Oldest Pupil are written in the tradition of the Socratic dialogue: the master questions the pupil relentlessly until he brings him to change his mind, refuting him ‘out of [his] own mouth.’19 The incipit of the play thus displays Seanchan’s superior reasoning abilities, the better to trace their disintegration as death progresses and reason gives way to vision. Seanchan’s speech goes off the furrow of rationality, and his delirium culminates with the apocalyptic image of the leprous god in the sky. Poetry, the play suggests, has to do with the poet’s commerce with death. The play’s structure, however, is not affected by Seanchan’s delirium, which is represented objectively, realistically. Seanchan’s successive interlocutors exist independently of his delirium, and with them we witness Seanchan’s departure from the bank of reality. The effect of approaching death is observable in his dislocated speech, but the subjective experience of death remains entirely out of reach of the audience.

  • 20 See for instance Jacqueline Genet, op. cit., 334 & ff.

21Yeats’s approach is entirely different in Calvary, which attempts to stage death from within, from the vantage point of ‘the man that dies’. On the face of it, Christ is all but delirious: his speech remains remarkably composed to the end, his lines are rhythmically and syntactically balanced and conform to the original script of the Gospels (‘O my father…’) Those who clearly stray from the ‘furrow’ are Lazarus and Judas, the antithetical personalities who rebel against their fate, and refuse to be part of the divine scheme. Yet as the First Musician warns us, the play comes as a dream which Christ himself is dreaming. Christ’s delirium is not contained in his speech, but in the palimpsestic structure of the play which rewrites the story of the Passion, deviating from the furrow of Scripture. There is no one to diagnose Christ’s delirium in Calvary, because the whole play is his delirium, which is staged subjectively, from within – so that diagnosis must come in the first person: ‘I am delirious’, the play tells us, not ‘he is delirious.’ Yet the play goes further and questions the stability of this ‘I’ which it constructs. One difficulty comes from the ‘white heron’ which appears in the opening song, ‘shiver[ing] in a dumbfounded dream.’ It is a critical commonplace that the bird is Christ’s anti-self or mask:20 but if both are dreaming, who is dreaming whom? The play is a possible variation on the Taoist philosopher Zhuangzi’s famous ‘butterfly dream’ (Zhuangzi dreams that he is a butterfly: or is it the butterfly who dreams that it is Zhuangzi?) Death is staged as the dissolution of identity, when self becomes mask. The neat symmetry which opposes Christ and the heron, one embodied dramatically, the other evoked lyrically, is further complicated by the status of the musicians in the play, in particular of the First Musician who acts as narrator and sets the scene of Christ’s dream:

First Musician The road to Calvary, and I beside it
Upon an ancient stone. Good Friday’s come,
The day whereon Christ dreams His passion through. (VPl 781)

  • 21 For an extensive study of such phenomena in Yeats’s plays see Pierre Longuenesse’s doctoral thesis (...)

22A figure of the playwright in the play, the Musician gives us an external, objective view of Christ, providing us with the structural key of the whole play (this is all a dream); yet at the same time, he tells us that he is part of the dream, a member of the crowd who watches on ‘the road to Calvary’. Confusion increases when he intones a song in rhymed trimeters, expressing feelings which might be those of a bystander (‘and I beside it’) but are more plausibly Christ’s: ‘O but the mockers’ cry | Makes my heart afraid…’ (VPl 781). Voice is thus dissociated from body21 in a striking dramatisation of the dissolution of self in death. From his ontological Moebius strip, inside and outside the dream, objective spectator-narrator and subjective voice of Christ’s innermost feelings, the First Musician undermines our perception of Christ as unified self. The physical dislocation of crucifixion thus coincides with the dislocation of the I.

  • 22 Op. cit. p. 188.

23Yeats’s project of staging death as the process of dissolution of the self is taken to completion in The Death of Cuchulain. When Cuchulain ‘enters wounded’ after the battle, he expresses a sense of disorientation (‘Where am I? Why am I here?’) which suggests the beginning of delirium. The whole play is in fact structured like a dream, the extended delirium of the dying hero, but as Katharine Worth has remarked, whose dream it is remains an open question.22 The final song seems to provide a definite answer when it states that ‘an old man looking back on life | Imagines it [Cuchulain’s body] in scorn’; yet the Old Man of the prologue, who allegedly recruited the street-singers and taught them their song, is clearly a fictional clown who provides a burlesque image of both Yeats (who knew he was dying when he wrote the play) and Cuchulain. Cuchulain himself takes responsibility for the dream when he claims that ‘I make the truth’ (VPl 698), but this is only one instance of the proliferation of authorial figures in the play. The beginning of the play stages a contest between Maeve and Emer, who both try to impose their own scenario on Cuchulain: Maeve, like a manipulative playwright behind the scenes, has put Eithne ‘in a trance’ and taught her her lines, but Emer’s letter ‘tells a different story’ (VPl 695). In the end, the Morrigu also emerges as a double of the playwright when she takes on the task of retrospective narration and then declares: ‘I arranged the dance’ (VPl 703). Strindberg had invented the dramaturgy of the dreamplay to create the paradox of a subjective theatre; in his dramatic exploration of the experience of death Yeats takes the form further and stages a dream without a dreamer – or with a plurality of authors/ dreamers. The play dreams the death of Cuchulain; it gives shape to the dying hero’s delirium, yet what makes it so uniquely delirious is the splitting of the dreaming subjectivity. Death, the coming apart of the subject, is thus encoded in the structure of the play.

  • 23 Giorgio Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen ( (...)

24For Yeats, as for Craig, the task and privilege of theatre was to reveal the contiguity of the visible and invisible worlds, and to push back the borders of the unknowable. Reading those three plays together, I have tried to argue that they constitute three stages of a coherent aesthetic project which Yeats pursued from the beginning of his theatrical career to his dying day, that of inventing a dramaturgy with which he might stage the absolutely unknowable experience of death. Agamben, in Remnants of Auschwitz,23 reminds us that etymologically the word ‘martyr’ means ‘witness’. For the ethical subject to testify to his own suffering, he argues, he must lend his voice to another within himself, who has experienced such suffering that it has made him incapable of speaking (like the Muslim or Muselmann of the Nazi camps). To bear witness is always to bear witness to the impossibility of bearing witness, so that the witness (or martyr) must go through the experience of desubjectivation, of the dissolution of the speaking self, before he can testify. Experimenting with the form of the Passion play, Yeats invents a dramaturgy with which he can accommodate this paradox, and give voice to the martyrs who testify, impossibly, from beyond the threshold.


1 ‘d’énormes puissances, invisibles et fatales’. Maurice Maeterlinck, Preface to his Théâtre (1901), in Oeuvres 1, Le Réveil de l’âme, Poésies et essais, ed. Paul Gorceix (Bruxelles: Editions Complexe, 1999), 496. My translation.

2 ‘Ce sont des morts qui semblent nous parler […] d’augustes voix’. Maurice Maeterlinck, ‘Menus Propos – le théâtre’, La Jeune Belgique (1890), op. cit., 463, my translation.

3 Edward Gordon Craig, ‘On the ghosts in the tragedies of Shakespeare’, in On the Art of the Theatre (London: William Heinemann, 1911), 264.

4 Ibid., 266.

5 In his Poetics, Aristotle compares the plot of a tragedy to a ‘living organism’ whose ‘beauty depends on magnitude and order’ : like a ‘beautiful animal’, it should form an ideally proportioned whole. The image of the ‘beautiful animal’ is at the core of Aristotle’s organicist conception of tragedy. Aristotle, Poetics, vii, 140b34– 1451a15.

6 Passion Plays evolved from liturgical drama and medieval Easter plays and focus on the life and sufferings of Christ. Thus they are to be distinguished from Mystery plays (dramatic representations of Biblical episodes) and miracle plays (reenactments of miracles performed by Saints). Yeats displayed a life-long interest in the dramaturgical potential of the Passion Play, as testified by his own plays Calvary (1920) and Resurrection (1927), and his support of Lady Gregory’s The Story Brought by Brigit (1924). In this paper, however, I use the term ‘Passion Play’ is a broader sense, to point to a dramaturgy which revolves on the staging of a death, in a religious or secular context.

7 See J-P. Sarrazac, Jeux de rêves et autres détours (Paris : Circé, 2004), 36 & ff.

8 One important dramaturgic model for the three plays is Aeschylus’Prometheus Bound.

9 W.H. Auden, ‘In Memory of W. B. Yeats’, in Another Time [1940] (London: Faber and Faber, 2007).

10 Cf. Yeats’s note to the play in the Cuala Press Seven Poems and a Fragment (1922): ‘I had originally intended to end the play tragically and would have done so but for a friend who used to say “O do write comedy & have a few happy moments in the Theatre”. My unhappy moments were because a tragic effect is very fragile and a wrong intonation, or even a wrong light or costume will spoil it all. However the play remained always of the nature of tragedy and so subject to vicissitude’ (VPl 316)

11 On heron symbolism in Yeats see Warwick Gould, ‘Lionel Johnson comes the first to mind’ YO 272–77, esp. n. 45, and Myth 2005 126–28, 293, n. 1; 335, n. 16; 399, n. 1; 418, n. 51.

12 See Jacqueline Genet, Le Théâtre de William Butler Yeats (Villeneuve d’Ascq: Presses du Septentrion, 1995), 336.

13 VPl 309; cf., AVA 10.

14 Peter Ure, Yeats the Playwright (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1963, 1969), 82.

15 VPl 291.

16 See Katharine Worth’s remarks about the imagery of the door in the play. Katharine Worth, The Irish Drama of Europe from Yeats to Beckett (London: Athlone Press, 1978), 189–91.

17 VPl 299.

18 Likewise, in ‘September 1913’, Yeats evokes the ‘delirium of the brave’ to celebrate the past heroes who went off the furrow of ordinary lives lived only ‘to pray and save’, and whose voices, despite the poem’s insistent claim that ‘Romantic Ireland’s dead gone’, continue to sound through the poet’s own voice, and to conjure an alternative vision of Ireland. W. B. Yeats, Poems, ed. Daniel Albright (London: Everyman, 1990), 159.

19 Specifically, the passage is reminiscent of the Crito, which takes place after Socrates’ condemnation, just before he drinks the poison. Crito begs Socrates to escape from prison, but Socrates, by the usual game of questions and answers, brings him to agree that it is fair he should commit suicide.

20 See for instance Jacqueline Genet, op. cit., 334 & ff.

21 For an extensive study of such phenomena in Yeats’s plays see Pierre Longuenesse’s doctoral thesis, ‘“Singing Amid Uncertainty”: Dramaturgie et pratique de la voix dans le théâtre de William Butler Yeats’, Université de Paris-Sorbonne, 2008 and his Yeats dramaturge, La voix et ses masques (Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2012).

22 Op. cit. p. 188.

23 Giorgio Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (New York: Zone Books, 1999).


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