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Yeats's Mask

Margaret Mills Harper
Warwick Gould


Michael McAteer, Yeats and European Drama (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), pp. xii, 223

Tara Stubbs

Texte intégral

1It is perhaps counter-intuitive to begin a review of Michael McAteer’s Yeats and European Drama by quoting from its conclusion,but McAteer’s summary of his own arguments describes fittingly the ambition and scope of this study. In defending Yeats’s plays against traditional critical standpoints, which tend often to describe the dramas as no more than ‘exotic embellishments’, McAteer offers instead the following riposte: ‘Those cultural interchanges of Irish, Greek, Arabian, Indian, Tibetan and Japanese traditions evident in the varieties of experiment Yeats adopted in the plays were more than exotic embellishments; not only a means of sharpening a consciousness of human alienation engendered through commerce and stage regulation, they also suggested new forms of religious and cultural expression that might reinvigorate Christian traditions growing lethargic in Europe’ (195). But this statement also underlines the difficulty of the project, attempting as it does to provide an overview of a range of dramatic ‘experiments’ that shifted in scope, subject and influence throughout Yeats’s career: experiments that sometimes appeared to be at odds with Yeats’s more critically discussed works in poetry and prose.

2In providing a critical reassessment of Yeats’s plays, McAteer continues a recent trend in Yeats studies, which argues for the significance of certain of Yeats’s writings because of the importance Yeats himself accorded to these works. We might recall, for example, Margaret Mills Harper’s Wisdom of Two (2006), which contends that we must take seriously Yeats’s automatic writing experiments – and, most notably, A Vision – because of the emphasis Yeats placed on the spiritualist aspect of his work. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, McAteer’s opening sentences contrast Yeats’s own belief that the Nobel Prize in 1923 was awarded to him ‘as much for his achievements in the theatre as for his poetry’ with R. F. Foster’s claim that such a belief was ‘laughable’ (1) – both forestalling the antipathy to Yeats’s drama that often informs Yeats criticism and underscoring Yeats’s confidence in the significance of his plays.

3The study progresses logically, considering Yeats’s plays chronologically and setting them against the context of recent developments in European drama as well as external events such as the Easter Rising and the First World War. This is a neat move on McAteer’s part, as it situates Yeats’s plays right in the centre of things, so that they cannot be ignored. There are moments when these contextual efforts seem somewhat forced, however – or example, where McAteer contends that when we consider The Dreaming of the Bones in relation to Calvary, we might notice how ‘Yeats engaged the absurdist mode characteristic of Pirandello as the means more appropriate to represent the historical meaning of the 1916 Rising’ (149). Though this is an intriguing argument, and makes a useful comparison with Pirandello, it is less convincing when McAteer moves on to consider this apparent ‘farce’ within the play alongside the ‘deep betrayal’ that he sees as characteristic of Yeats’s response to the Rising in his poetry and correspondence.

4A similar issue arises when the question of influence is raised. McAteer is careful to trace lines of influence backwards as well as forward, as well as nationally and internationally – so that we find comparisons not only with Strindberg, Ibsen and French Symbolism, but also with Irish models (Synge in particular). More vitally we are shown how Yeats’s dramas, initially forbiddingly individualistic, might actually provide models for other writers: McAteer’s work on Yeats’s influence on Beckett is particularly intriguing in this light. On the other hand, however, sometimes these lines of influence can seem to be drawn too clearly, so that they become almost too convenient. For example in a discussion of Calvary, McAteer notes that ‘the play went beyond the Faustian mode to historicise the solitary self-begetting of what would later become the existential hero in the plays of Sartre, Camus, Ionesco and Beckett’ (148). Is this delineation of character from play to play quite so straightforward?

5McAteer’s decision to confront head-on the problematic politics of Yeats’s later dramas is commendable, as is his willingness to highlight Yeats’s flaws as a writer and critic: for example, in his chapter on The Dreaming of the Bones and Calvary, he draws our attention to Yeats’s ‘relative ignorance of Marx’s own writings’, which complicated his attitude towards Marxism in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution (148). Meanwhile Chapter 5, on The Death of Cuchulain, confronts head-on the critical tendency to regard Cuchulain’s death in Yeats’s last play ‘as a theatrical and critical failure’ (121). Yet by acknowledging the broken harmony of this play, and its apparent inability to complete the cycle that Yeats has himself set up, McAteer can offer instead the suggestion that through his refusal of ‘closure’ within the cycle Yeats might be ‘rejecting the authority of myth within a mythic frame’, and therefore ‘deliberately disturbing the circular completion of mythic pattern’ (121). The effect of such readings is to provide a nuanced impression of the ambition and flaws of Yeats’s dramatic experiments – and to offer an enlightening re-reading of these texts.

6The title of the book – Yeats and European Drama – is oddly constrained when related to the scope and range of this study, which actually goes beyond lines of influence to re-site Yeats’s plays within his own work, within the work of others, and within the external contexts of performance. But perhaps as a result of this ambition, there is one area which seems slightly lacking. Although the author makes bold claims for the texts themselves, there is not a great deal of close reading to back up some of the arguments – and this is a shame. Though perhaps the study itself, through its sheer tenacity, will open up the field for further discussion, and inspire other critics to consider more closely the language and concerns of individual plays.



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