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The Living Stream

Warwick Gould


W. B. Yeats, The King of the Great Clock Tower and A Full Moon in March, Manuscript Materials, ed. Richard Allen Cave (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2007), 448 pp.

Nicholas Grene

Texte intégral

1Richard Cave has a tangled story to tell in presenting the manuscript mate-rials for these two interlocked plays, and he tells it with exemplary clarity and scrupulous precision. From 1927, Yeats’s working relationship with Ninette de Valois and the Abbey School of Ballet that she led had made possible new productions of his dance plays: The Only Jealousy of Emer (recast as Fighting the Waves), The Dreaming of the Bones and At the Hawk’s Well. When de Valois gave notice in 1934 that she would have to give up her Abbey connection to concentrate on her work in England, the first (prose) version of The King of the Great Clock Tower was planned to provide her with a vehicle for a farewell performance. De Valois had always made it a stipulation of her theatre work with Yeats that she would dance but not speak on stage. This, then, was made a key feature of the plot. The woman who appeared mysteriously a year before the action at the court of the King of the Great Clock Tower and was made his Queen has never told her name or place of origin. She sits silent on her cube throne, refusing to respond to the King’s demands that she divulge her origins, refusing to speak to intercede for the Stroller who is about to be decapitated for his insolence to her, only rising finally to dance, as the Stroller prophesied she would, to greet the song sung by the severed head which she finally kisses. The play was conceived as early as November 1933, but the bulk of the composition appears to have come in the spring of 1934. The first extant draft, from quite late in this process, shows Yeats writing in alternative stage directions for the Peacock or ‘an ordinary theatre’ such as the Abbey, where in fact the play was premiered with great success, directed by Lennox Robinson, in July 1934.

2For much of the time when the play had already gone into rehearsal, Yeats was in Rapallo where he showed the script to Pound. According to Yeats’s own account in the Preface to the 1934 Cuala published text of the play, Pound’s one-word response was ‘putrid’. In fact, as Cave shows from an entry in Yeats’s notebook/journal kept at the time, it was the much more tellingly damning judgement, ‘Nobody language’ (xlvi). Yeats was stung by this into trying to re-write the play making the nameless, placeless King of the Great Clock Tower an O’Rourke of Breffny and tying in the story to O’Rourke’s ancestor who was married to Dervorgilla, legendary cause of the Norman invasion. He soon abandoned this effort, clearly seeing that, whatever about the individuation of the dialogue, the play depended for its effect on its abstract unlocated strangeness. However, associated with this phase of re-writing in the Rapallo notebook from this time in June 1934, are early versions of lyrics that provided the germ for his next re-conception of the play as A Full Moon in March.

3Originally thought of as a reduced Noh-style version of the King of the great Clock Tower, A Full Moon in March was written, quite quickly by Yeats’s standards, in the autumn of 1934. Once again, it was designed with a particular performer in mind, in this case the actress Margot Ruddock. But where de Valois would not speak on stage, Ruddock apparently could not dance—ironically, in that she is identified for most Yeats readers with his beautiful lyric ‘Sweet Dancer’. So the King was cut from the action and the original triangle of King/Queen/Stroller was transformed into a face-off between a newly haughty, unmarried Queen and the Swineherd who, in all his matted hair and rags, offers to join the Turandot-style life or death singing contest for her hand. Ruddock was to play this strong speaking part in a mask, so that, at the climax of the dance before the severed head, a dancer could take over the role: Yeats seems to have hoped to continue to involve de Valois as well. Intriguingly, there was a possibility that A Full Moon in March might have been produced by the London-based Group Theatre that had staged Eliot’s Sweeney Agonistes in a spring 1935 season with plays by Eliot and Auden. This plan foundered in part because others involved did not share Yeats’s besotted admiration for Ruddock’s acting.

4What is most striking in following the compositional sequence, spelled out so carefully by Cave in this edition, is the relationship between lyric and drama, prose and verse in Yeats’s creativity. The occasion for King of the Great Clock Tower might have been theatrical, and the Cuala edition, as Cave shows, contains detailed revisions based on Yeats’s experience of the Abbey production. But one of Yeats’s avowed motives in writing the play was to break his block in writing poetry which had extended for over a year since the death of Lady Gregory in 1932. This was a recurrent strategy, as he explained in a letter of 1921, when he was beginning to write the sequence eventually to become ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’. ‘I begin to find a difficulty in finding themes. I had this about twelve years ago & it passed over. I may have to start another Noh play & get caught up into it, if these poems turn out badly’ (CL InteLex 3900). The concentration on writing choral lyrics for his plays for dancers was a way of re-gaining confidence as a lyric poet. But it worked the other way as well. The lyrics for the Attendants in A Full Moon in March, the opening song, ‘Every loutish lad in love’, and ‘He had famished in a wilderness’ that divides the acted from the danced section, preceded the drafting of the play. And by the time Yeats came to write A Full Moon in March near the end of 1934, he was in full flow, composing the ‘Supernatural Songs’ in which he pursued the same theme of the relationship between embodied time-driven sexual desire and some timeless transcendent version of it that animated the world.

5It was this too that prompted the final stage in this story of intertextual generation, the re-writing of King of the Great Clock Tower in verse. Yeats was unhappy with ‘Saddle and ride, I heard a man say’, the original song for the severed head in the staged version of King of the Great Clock Tower, though he considered it good enough to be retained as an independent lyric in the 1935 collection A Full Moon in March. But the collection of images from his own earlier work that it represented, a sort of circus animals’ reunion, perhaps did not seem right for the climactic song of the play, and he composed instead the more directly relevant ‘Clip and lip and long for more’ with its clanging final refrain, ‘A moment more and it tolls midnight’. This led on then to the versifying of the prose dialogue of the play itself, with the assurance of the poet who, over the winter of 1934-35, was writing prolifically in poetry once again. It was Yeats’s habitual practice, of course, to sketch his subject, his ‘theme’ as he called it, in prose before attempting to turn it into verse. We can see this strategy illustrated again throughout these manuscripts, so that the verse King of the Great Clock Tower may be considered as the logical final outcome of its prose predecessor, with A Full Moon in March a by-product of the revivifying poetic movement of the period around 1934-35.

6As so often with the diaspora of Yeats manuscript materials, Cave has had to re-assemble his texts from their scattered archival homes: the Burns Library of Boston College, the British Library in London, the National Library in Dublin, Southern Illinois University Library, the libraries of the University of Chicago and the University of Texas at Austin. One can only admire the patience with which he has examined the evidence represented by these (often all but illegible) holograph drafts, corrected typescripts and proofs. He supplies a very full introduction setting out the chronological sequence, in so far as it can be established, and the implications of the detailed metamorphoses that the play texts underwent. The facsmile reproductions of manuscripts allow a reader to marvel at the skill and exactitude of the transcriptions on facing pages. The footnotes to the transcriptions not only provide added information and cross-referencing but minutely illuminating commentary. Throughout the edition, with its appendices including Arthur Duff ’s score for the lyrics in the original production of King of the Great Clock Tower, Cave shows his subtle understanding of the complex interaction of word and image, action, song and dance in the conception of these plays, what Yeats was to call with his inimitable spelling the ‘complete asthetisism’ of the stage (CL3 674).


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