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Yeats's Mask

Margaret Mills Harper
Warwick Gould


W. B. Yeats and Lady Gregory, Where there is Nothing and The Unicorn from the Stars: Manuscript Materials, ed. by Wim van Mierlo (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2012), pp. xliii + 686.

Richard Allen Cave

Texte intégral

1Editing the manuscripts of these two plays for the Cornell series must have been a massive endeavour and the result in Wim van Mierlo’s hands is a monumental scholarly achievement. Not only are both texts amongst the longest dramas Yeats engaged in but both entail on an editor’s part the exercise of considerable scruple, given the complex issues involved in assigning authorship to the various extant materials.

2Where there is Nothing was conceived initially to extend the output of the Irish Literary Theatre Society and many of those originally associated with that theatrical project had a hand in its gestation: George Moore offered a scenario on the basis of a protracted conversation with Yeats; Lady Gregory and Douglas Hyde joined forces with Yeats to realise its theatrical potential before Moore could turn the idea into a novel; George Russell contributed a welcome impetus to the writing by reminding the authors that there was a contemporary parallel for their hero, Paul Ruttledge, in the life of the Dublin eccentric and visionary, Philip Francis Little, whose family actually paid him to stay away from them (AE thought the appropriate tone should be that of satirical comedy); and Florence Farr organised the copyright reading of the play at the Victoria Hall in Bayswater. Moore’s letter enclosing the scenario is dated July 3, 1901; but a year passed before he and Yeats began to combat over which of them had the intellectual property rights to their joint conception. Matters then went into overdrive: the play was written within a fortnight and was completed on September 19th, 1902; the Lord Chamberlain gave it a performing licence on October 13th and Farr’s dramatised reading took place seven days later; Where there is Nothing was published in The United Irishman on October 30th.

3The play underwent further revision before its publication in book format in 1903. Accepting the somewhat negative criticisms of reviewers and of spectators when the play was staged by Granville Barker at the Royal Court in 1904, the authors seemingly abandoned the work. Given the rapidity of its initial composition, it is hardly surprising that the drama lacks an overall momentum that would bring to the action the inexorability that Yeats was beginning to see as essential to tragedy. (AE had found the completed play vacuous; others, including A.B. Walkley in the TLS, considered that it lacked stage-craft in the sense of an achieved dramatic unity.) Spurred on perhaps by his awareness of the dramatic and theatrical potential to be found in Nietzsche’s belief in the dynamism inherent in oppositions, contrasts and binaries, Yeats chose in 1907 to return to the play when he and Lady Gregory, collaborating again as co-authors, transformed the original text into a completely new drama, The Unicorn from the Stars. Begun in July, the finished play was staged at the Abbey the following November and, after revisions subsequent to the performances, published in 1908 as a single volume in New York and within Volume Three of Bullen’s edition of the Collected Works at Stratford-upon-Avon.

4Throughout that whole process, Lady Gregory worked indefatigably at her typewriter. Here lies the crux over the issue of authorship: virtually all of the surviving materials are either her typescript or, if extant as holograph manuscript, decidedly in her hand. Only holograph revisions to a second set of proofs to the American edition of The Unicorn from the Stars are indisputably Yeats’s. As van Mierlo aptly terms the situation, ‘traces of Yeats’s creative interventions’ (225) have to be deciphered as palimpsests behind and within Gregory’s texts. Yet Yeats increasingly claimed the later play as his, implying that Gregory’s contribution was purely secretarial or that her interventions were confined to adding plausible dialect to the dialogue, where necessary. (James Pethica, Colin Smythe and others have admirably demonstrated that Gregory’s role was central within a distinctive collaboration.) Correspondence shows that Lady Gregory was both hurt and angered by Yeats’s attitude and Annie Horniman, to whom some kind of confession of her feelings was made in confidence, broke whatever agreement she had reached with Gregory about being silent on the matter, and revealed all to Yeats, insisting that he give her proper credit for her contribution to The Unicorn from the Stars in its published form. Certainly the American edition carried a ‘Preface’ which tells how Yeats invited Gregory to join in collaborating with him and asserts: ‘As the play stands today, the greater part of the writing is hers’ (682). The ‘Note’ that Yeats subsequently wrote to accompany the inclusion of The Unicorn from the Stars in Plays in Prose and Verse (London, 1922) is more explicit about the nature and creative consequences of their collaboration: he describes the drama as ‘almost wholly hers in handiwork’, while being ‘so much mine in thought’ (684); and continues, ‘she has enabled me to carry out an old thought for which my own knowledge is insufficient & to commingle the ancient phantasies of poetry with the rough, vivid, ever-contemporaneous tumult of the roadside’ (685).

5Perhaps more remarkable is the admission in the ‘Note’ that, in the years separating the composition of Where there is Nothing from their renewed work together on The Unicorn from the Stars, Gregory’s dramaturgical expertise had come to exceed his: ‘her mastery of the stage & her knowledge of dialogue had so increased that my imagination could not go neck to neck with hers’ (684). Implicit in this is perhaps an acknowledgement that the actual commingling (referred to above) was more Gregory’s achievement than his. Be that as it may, amends had been made, if somewhat belatedly. However, as van Mierlo notes, The Unicorn from the Stars was to be the writers’ last collaboration together (xxxviii). For the future, creative questions asked of each other were generally to receive advice rather than input by way of response. Thankfully, this edition assigns the plays to both authors. (Draft versions of both ‘Preface’ and ‘Note’ are included here as appendices, from which the quotations are taken.)

6Materials relating to the composition of Where there is Nothing are few in number: a first typescript, presumably the fruit of sketched deliberations that are now lost; and a second typescript incorporating all the revisions made in holograph by the authors on the preceding document and further autograph changes. This was used as copy text for The United Irishman and two privately printed American editions set up by John Quinn and published by John Lane. This last item (the second typescript) is collated with two further typescripts prepared subsequent to the publications in 1902 in preparation for Bullen’s edition of the play in 1903; with a corrected proof copy of Lane’s volume; with a carbon copy of a typescript bearing ‘suggestions and queries as to changes to be made in the printers’ proof ’ of A. H. Bullen’s publication (though none of the emendations was in fact incorporated in that printing); and with a presentation copy of Bullen’s text that was inscribed by Yeats to Annie Horniman, which carries some revisions in Yeats’s hand that again were never actually printed. It was an excellent idea to introduce and supplement these with a transcription of Moore’s letter outlining the scenario he and Yeats had devised while walking in Moore’s garden in Ely Place. Most importantly it shows how widely Gregory, Hyde and Yeats diverged from Moore’s proposed scheme (so wide as to reveal Moore’s fuss over the legal rights to his sketch as just a storm in a teacup). Play and scenario share a division into five acts ending with the hero’s death and a roughly similar range of characters that includes monks and tinkers, but the inner nature of Paul Ruttledge, the hero of Where there is Nothing, the particular disturbances he introduces into the daily lives of those about him, his restless intellectualism and private, idiosyncratic spirituality are wholly new.

7What the early stages of composition entailed are now a matter for conjecture; the first typescript reveals a remarkably developed play, going way beyond a scenario or scheme (Paul’s turning away from his family; his involvement with the tinkers and marriage with Sabina that brings acceptance into the tinker community; the drunken revelry to celebrate the nuptials that brings out the guardians of morality within Paul’s former family and their associates in the neighbourhood and the setting up of a Fools’ Court in which the tinkers and Paul sit in judgement on these respectable individuals and expose their inherent hypocrisy; Paul’s entry to the cloister and his refusal to be obedient to the Superior, which results in his excommunication; his death at the hands of a mob who distrust Paul’s otherworldliness as witchcraft on the part of an unfrocked priest). Each act has its own distinct tone, as the opposition to Paul’s individualism grows darker and more destructive; but the social and satirical comedy of the first three acts ensures a variety of tone and pace that prevents the pattern of oppositions to Paul within the play from becoming overly predictable. Much of the dialogue is carefully judged in relation to the moral and social standing of each of the characters. Particularly felicitous are the revisions that eliminate any suggestion of sentimentality about the tinkers’ life on the road; it is presented rather as a place of hardship, cruelty, sly cunning and casual violence. It is perhaps inaccurate to write of revisions, since most of the new interventions involve expansion of sequences already present in draft. When one reviews this first typescript in relation to the second, which acted as copy text with varying modifications for each of the initial publications, one realises that it must have come very late in the process of creation as so much is already accomplished and in need only of fine-tuning.

8In dramaturgical terms, however, much of the play, even after the incorporation of the emendations into the second typescript, remains in a gestured rather than realised form; and this is most crucially the case in the development of Paul’s characterisation, especially the all-important motivation that brings him to the monastery in Act Four, which (as written) seems more by accident than design because the choice to bring him there is the tinkers’ not Paul’s. The anger of the mob against Paul in the final scene is more given than developed, it is a useful mechanism to bring him to martyrdom: there is little by way of staged explanation to account for their violence or his acceptance of victimhood. (Several of the reviewers of Barker’s production saw the last act as the weakest, a criticism that Yeats himself in time came to accept.) The impression is that spectators are being invited to see Paul as courageously dying for his beliefs but those beliefs are never clarified through debate with others. Act Four closes with Paul enacting an impressive ritual while giving a sermon outlining his distrust of the materialism that has undermined Church, State and culture and he puts out a candle for each of the institutions that have become anathema to him. The problem is that there is no theatrical exploration of why Paul’s creed enrages the Superior or why amongst his Order it excites some to become Paul’s disciples and moves others to distance themselves from him. That Barker chose to stage the play as part of his seasons at the Court Theatre in London suggests he saw it as a play of ideas, but one has only to compare Where there is Nothing with any of Barker’s own dramas of this period or Shaw’s (the main contributor to the Court’s repertory) to appreciate how lacking it is in intellectual rigour. The staging of mock trials, rituals of damnation and acts of violence, however impressive theatrically they may be in their own right, do not embellish or subtilize Paul’s thinking: they are the adjuncts and consequences only of his beliefs; they are not a means to admit spectators to the innermost depths of meaning and significance of that creed for him. In other words, the authors fail to get convincingly inside Paul’s mind.

9The extant materials for The Unicorn from the Stars give a better sense of the play throughout its progress to completion than was the case with Where there is Nothing. They comprise an annotated scenario; an early typescript developed from the latter; three of Lady Gregory’s copybooks in which she worked and re-worked each of the three acts into which this version was divided; and a set of marked proofs of the American edition (Macmillan, 1908), which are collated here with a surviving playscript prepared for the Abbey production of November 1907, first page proofs for the setting of the play to be included in Volume 3 of the projected Macmillan edition de luxe (1931), the ‘author’s marked proof ’ for The Collected Plays of W. B. Yeats (1934), and proofs for the projected but unpublished ‘Coole Edition’ from the Macmillan Archive in the British Library. Despite this apparent wealth of evidence for the play’s gestation, there unfortunately remains no final typescript prior to the proof-stage. The copybooks, though highly informative, are jumbled sketches that very roughly follow the design of each act; some of these amplify ideas that have come as second thoughts about the content of a particular episode or passage, some evolve quite long sections of continuous dialogue, but, even allowing for their haphazard arrangement, the copybooks do not offer a complete run through the play. There is no finished authorial version extant.

10Already in the scenario we can detect the outlines of the Nietzschean oppositions on which the drama is to be constructed and these are steadily amplified and strengthened throughout the ensuing materials. There is, however, already a problem here: Nietzsche envisaged oppositions of equal power and status (Apollonian versus Dionysian, primarily) but increasingly in the play Martin Hearne’s philosophical and visionary expansiveness is in conflict with the petty bourgeois mind-sets of everyone he comes into contact with (artisans, gentry, tinkers, officers of the law), always excepting the hermit, Father John. Again, as in Where there is Nothing, Martin’s temperament and his thought processes are not set against a worthy figure of any intellectual stature. Not surprisingly in consequence the prevailing tone throughout the first and much of the second act of the play is comic: a comedy of misunderstandings between individuals who are blind to everything but their own particular codes of value and aspirations. Only in the final stages of the dramatic action does the comedy turn darker, as misunderstandings give way to frustrated desperation and violence, resulting in Martin’s death. The tragic overtakes the satirical and bitterness ensues; but tragedy in the fullest sense of the term does not prevail, since Martin in no way comes to know himself by recognising the limitations of his vision and of his ability to promote it credibly to others: there is no expansion of his awareness in the face of overwhelming defeat. No amount of revision can solve this issue. How different, for example, is Deirdre, conceived and revised over a roughly similar period of time, where there is a genuine battle of equally matched wills and intellects in the heroine and Conchubar, both of whom come to accept their individual responsibility for shaping their lives to embrace tragedy.

11With its episodic structure, The Unicorn from the Stars is a modern Morality play: a showing up of the weaknesses, gullibility, petty tyrannies of a cross-section of Irish society where, though the action ostensibly takes place in the eighteenth century, the implications are wholly contemporary. It is difficult to know from the copybooks whether it was Lady Gregory’s sole inspiration or hers together with Yeats’s that introduced into the action a critique of unthinking nationalism. The tinkers accept Martin as their leader in consequence of a confusion which leads them to suspect he is a rebel, newly escaped from prison, who has come to command them in an attack on the English. Apart from adding to the pattern of people at comic cross-purposes with Martin, the theme remains undeveloped. (Indeed the tinkers are less well realised than the chorus of subversive prototypes in Where there is Nothing.) More successfully achieved over the process of revision is the characterisation of Martin’s uncle, Andrew, who is the victim of his elder brother, Thomas’s reforming zeal. Andrew epitomises the man that Thomas would like to make of Martin and there is much amusement to be had in the revelation that Andrew has been hoodwinking his brother by quietly living his own preferred, libidinous way of life on the sly while pretending to be a model of industrious sobriety when in his brother’s presence. Andrew’s attempts to fraternise with Martin and cajole him into sharing in his rebellious schemes show how widely and absurdly he has misinterpreted Martin’s rhetoric of rebellion against the prevailing status quo. It is that rhetoric that increasingly creates a massive division between Martin and his various would-be supporters, who turn against him once experience shows them the extent of their misunderstanding. The tinkers’ concept of revolution is found in time to be little more than a hunt for treasure that will bring them a life of ease at the expense of the society that currently ostracises them. So moulded by material preoccupations is everyone else’s thinking that no one appreciates the extent to which Martin’s creed and its welcoming of universal destruction relates specifically to the inner life (‘The battle we have to fight is fought out in our own mind’) and the demise of those worldly appetites, aspirations and lusts that motivate the other characters (666). Martin’s philosophy, however, is a creed in the making: he quests continually for a ‘sense of suddenly enlarged being’ (180) such as he experiences when in a state of trance.

12The trances occur at several points in the action and Martin’s philosophy undergoes subtle changes with each ‘attack’. At first a trance causes him to espouse a Dionysian belief that ‘Life is in destruction, eternal joy is in destruction!’ (493); this culminates in the burning of his and his uncles’ home and business. This position is later renounced in face of a new Apollonian certainty that ‘My business is not reformation but revelation’ (666). During these trances Martin is kept offstage so the transformations he and his thinking undergo are not dramatised as a process but have to be taken by an audience on trust, once his new self speaks after his recovery. But, as Yeats came to appreciate, if a playwright wishes to create drama out of activity in the ‘deeps of the mind’, then form and style have to be adapted to render the subtly inter-related movements of the conscious and subconscious life. A revolution in dramaturgical practices had to be envisaged. Consider by contrast how brilliantly in theatrical terms Yeats renders the play of Cuchulain’s mind while he is trapped in a trance-like coma in The Only Jealousy of Emer. The Unicorn from the Stars largely conforms to the conventions of stage realism, perhaps under Lady Gregory’s influence; the composition of the play would appear to have shown Yeats how restricting such conventions would continue to prove, if he was determined to realise his particular and unique aspirations for drama. Such a mode of realism was not a style and form that he would tackle again, except perhaps in staging the séance that frames the ghost play in The Words Upon the Window Pane: that play shifts effortlessly between satire and seriousness, but it is the mysterious because wholly ventriloquised play for Swift’s voice which takes spectators into the dark reaches of the mind. If The Unicorn from the Stars falls short of Yeats’s best drama, it was nonetheless a necessary, if ultimately disappointing stage in his quest for a distinctive dramatic form.

13If the play also falls short of Lady Gregory’s best drama, it is because the philosophical undertow to the action (seemingly on his own admission, Yeats’s prime contribution to the piece) did not allow any of her characteristic styles of comedy to take a sustained hold on the composition. The unrelieved black comedy of The Deliverer (staged January 1911) – another exploration of the trope of the martyred messiah – shows what a creative precision and tonal control she could achieve when working independently with very similar material. Perhaps the disturbing, incisive, concentrated intensity of that play came to her as a consequence of wrestling at length with the apparently intractable problems of The Unicorn from the Stars. The copybooks (three only are extant, but clearly there were several other volumes involved in her endeavours) bear witness to the depth of her commitment to completing that project while staying loyal to both the collaboration undertaken with Yeats and the scenario devised with him. It is in editing the copybooks that van Mierlo’s skills are seen at their finest. At first glance they must present any would-be editor with a nightmare confusion: particular developments are dropped when the possibility of a revision suggests itself for a quite different section of an act; further thoughts about certain passages are incorporated by a variety of means into pages within one of these copybooks, though their actual drafting clearly occurred elsewhere. There is no logical progress through the pages of any of the three volumes. Van Mierlo confronts readers with a replication of how each volume appears as a document but then steers them effortlessly through the maze with a network of cross-references that indicate how a passage on this page connects with a passage on that; how this section of dialogue is completed by another section occurring several pages on (or maybe back) within the pages as ordered within the book; or how these notes for a particular development of an idea are realised elsewhere in the text. The patience and tenacity are exemplary that go to make such a cogent presentation of what is in effect a chaotic assemblage resulting from bursts of creative activity (and in handwriting that is often little better than a scrawl for pages at a time when such bursts of inspiration are at their height). Equally exemplary is van Mierlo’s discrimination in refraining from extensively substantiated guessing as to who exactly was responsible for what in the collaboration. The documents have to speak for themselves; and in the instance of these two plays that requires of an editor massive restraint as well as a profound engagement. We are acutely in Wim van Mierlo’s debt for rendering the collaboration embarked on by Lady Gregory and Yeats as transparently as circumstance and his meticulously garnered evidence allow.


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