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Yeats’s Legacies

Warwick Gould

Review essays and reviews

W. B. Yeats, On Baile’s Strand: Manuscript Materials, ed. by Jared Curtis and Declan Kiely

(Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2014), pp. lvii + 5951

Richard Allen Cave

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  • 1 Note—Further information may have been gathered since this article was prepared for publication. If (...)

1It is fitting that On Baile’s Strand, the final volume of the Plays grouped in the Cornell Yeats in Manuscript series, should be dedicated to the memory of Stephen Maxfield Parrish, who presided with such kindness, generosity, dedication and insight over the whole project for so many years. Fitting too, that one of the collaborative editors of this volume is Jared Curtis, his one-time assistant, who increasingly took over the role of shaping how the individual volumes would appear to the reader. He deployed ever-subtler presentational devices to give transcriptions a distinctive look that reproduced to an astonishing degree the texture of the pages being interpreted. To compare a recto page with the opposed verso that it is transcribing is to marvel at the accuracy of the representation, while relishing a visual clarity that brings to scholarly reading an ease and immediacy. Our debt to both men is incalculable; the editions themselves are lasting testimony to the daring and brilliance of their achievement.

2There is an appropriateness too in the fact that it is a relatively early play by Yeats that marks the conclusion of this grand enterprise, but one that carries a profound significance for the development of Yeats’s career as playwright, for the gestation of On Baile’s Strand brought Yeats to his maturity and shows him steadily gaining his distinctive voice. Through the years between 1901 and 1906, Yeats worked on the play, drafting, revising, testing as director and as audience-member the stage worthiness of his conception, re-writing, amplifying, cutting and condensing until he realised exactly the ‘strong’ play of his initial imagining. Some thirty-eight items of relevant manuscript or published materials survive, all presented here: there are no significant gaps in that evolutionary cycle, from two scenarios, through the scrapbook-like version presented to the Lord Chamberlain’s Office to establish copyright and various publications of the play as a whole or excerpts from it, to the final text published in Poems 1899–1905 (October 1906), a version which had been staged at the Abbey Theatre earlier that year in April. That only some fourteen substantive revisions (print variants or inked annotations) were made by Yeats to proofs or editions between 1906 and 1939, as listed by Curtis and Kiely after meticulous scrutiny of the evidence, shows how deeply satisfied the dramatist was with the 1906 text in Poems as the summation of a powerful creative drive. That drive had seen him transform a good, though confused play (his own term) into a superb tragedy. What the manuscripts and their transcription here allow us to trace, stage by meticulous stage, are the progress and the process of that trajectory. What we observe overall is Yeats gaining a critical intelligence and learning how to apply it rigorously to his ambitions as a dramatist. He discovered in himself the strength of will to curb or excise his seductively poetic imagination the better to further a more purposeful objective. Crucially, he saw the need to simplify so that what remained had the logic of necessity. (He removed the purely decorative to find a precise phrasing that brought depth of expression by exploiting resonance and inference.) What he was to realise later in his career was how that logic brings with it the implacability which he believed essential to great tragedy; and implacability is the hall mark of the finished On Baile’s Strand.

3Viewing a range of the earlier manuscripts suggests that Yeats had difficulty at first in establishing a suitable heroic environment for the action. He was deeply indebted for his plot to Lady Gregory’s Cuchulain of Muirthemne, which, though not published till 1902, he had read throughout the stages of its composition. References to Celtic myth abound (to Daire, Maeve and to Deirdre’s curse on Conchubar and his kingdom), which might perplex the uninformed and certainly slow down the development of the main focus in the first half of the play: the uneasy relationship between Conchubar and Cuchulain. Realising that the latter’s seeming childlessness is to afford a powerful irony to the climax, Yeats initially introduces Emer in the first substantial draft (here categorised as Berg B); but, since she is seen organising the chairs in her home to receive the king’s court and council, she is robbed of any stature and she disappears before the point of her inclusion is thematically established. It is only with the appearance of the Young Man (sometimes in later drafts called Connla) that this random quality in the organisation settles down and Yeats begins the process of simplification that will in time make his plot ‘strong’, the epithet he used confidently in writing of his play to Sturge Moore (11 August 1901).

4To establish Cuchulain’s untamed nature, his daring and flamboyance, Yeats had in the early drafts included dialogue between the hero and his young followers about his particular ideal of womanhood, but it is a type of feisty, rebellious, warrior-woman that is extolled rather than a specific, named individual. The Young Man’s appearance from the land of Scotland brings memories of Cuchulain’s stay there in his own youth to hone his martial skills, of the queens he encountered, the pallor of their skins and their abundant red hair. In time Yeats was to re-situate Cuchulain’s talk of his ideal of femininity into his barely-contained quarrel with Conchubar to a degree where a particular woman, Aoife, is seen to haunt his imagination, though it is years since they parted. (By this stage of composition all reference to Emer has gone.) In its new placing, the ecstatic reverie intimates to the watchful and cunning Conchubar (shown as fearful that the hero will quit his role as the king’s champion before he can secure his allegiance by oath) how powerful a hold Aoife still exerts over Cuchulain. Even details of the hair and skin colouring come in the revisions to have a telling dramatic relevance: Cuchulain is drawn instinctively to bond with the Young Man on his arrival, and that strange attraction is later explained when Cuchulain breaks off arming himself (he has been goaded by Conchubar and his court to fight with Connla) to muse on the similarity of the Young Man’s features to Aoife’s. Fighting is instantly forgotten as Cuchulain loads exotic gifts on Connla and imagines them facing the world in arms together (‘We’ll stand by one another from this out’, 215). The play gains appreciably in tension and momentum as Yeats grasps the dramatic potential of building up the role of Aoife, as a dominant unseen presence in the action, so that the visibly desperate Conchubar, with his ceremonial oath-takings and his hysterical denunciations of witchcraft, does battle with the offstage but palpably menacing and vengeful Aoife for control of Cuchulain’s destiny.

5Yeats’s very first scenario had outlined the psychological tensions between Conchubar and Cuchulain but, as one reads through the manuscripts, one finds with each revision their relationship deepening in terms of the differences between them. Both are in their middle years but, where Cuchulain still pursues the carefree life in quest of honour through the exercise of his martial brilliance, Conchubar wishes to settle and make his realm, family and possessions secure. Nostalgia for their shared roistering past alone holds them together, if rather tenuously; and, realising this, Conchubar chooses to curb the very exuberance that gives Cuchulain’s life meaning. Through the revisions the quarrel becomes a conflict of differing principles and political values, which the Young Man’s arrival immediately throws into sharp relief again, coming as it does just as Cuchulain capitulates and agrees to participate in the oath-taking ceremony. Conchubar sees in Connla only danger, where Cuchulain knows him immediately as a fellow hero in the making and so a man worthy of his magnanimity (the image of the hawk that steadily comes to grace both men’s speech subtly intimates to spectators the affinity between their values). In the carefully developed contrast between Conchubar’s self-serving manipulations and Cuchulain’s wealth of generosity, Yeats found the means to define the heroic world without resorting to the arcane references to myth and legend that cluttered his earliest drafts. The treatment of Connla and Aoife now gives the play the cohesive structure it lacked at first and too a sharpness of outline against which Yeats during future revisions might test the relevance of more localised sequences and individual lines.

6It is characteristic of the experienced dramatist Yeats had become by 1904 and the opening of the Abbey Theatre that he was not to leave any part of his conception open to chance in the performing. The song of the Women proffering their bowl of fire before administering the oath-taking goes through several drafts: though much of what they sing is overlaid by Cuchulain’s ardent ritualised speech of submission to Conchubar’s will, the wording and the timing of the Women’s choric utterance is written into the scene with a careful precision. Yeats does not risk inviting the actresses involved to extemporize, which could easily get out of control especially in terms of the balance between the two vocal levels and the volume each aims for and sustains. Nothing must detract an audience’s attention here from the complexity of Cuchulain’s situation: he has resisted Conchubar’s values as demeaning of the heroic life, but has agreed finally to acquiesce almost on a whim shaped by his recognition of his and the king’s shared past. However, even then his integrity acknowledges a fine distinction between himself and his king: ‘Yet I had thought you were of those that… held | That a free gift was better than a forced’ (457). It is crucial that this is heard and appreciated, if Cuchulain’s rapid change of tone and vocabulary, when the Young Man appears, is to be sensed as the bursting out of the cage that Conchubar has tried to prevent. Getting the right degree of balance in the ceremony requires meticulous direction in a staging and an exacting control from performers. Yeats worked hard in the drafts to find the means to impose the complexity of the moment and the seriousness of his invention on his cast.

7Equally he did well virtually to excise the short sequence when, after Cuchulain has chased the Young Man out to fight on the strand, the courtiers (young and old kings) jostle in the doorway to go in pursuit: ‘We’ll be too late. | They are such a long time getting through the door… He will have killed him’ (219) later revised to ‘We’ll be too late. Quicker! quicker!’ (479) and then cut, as shown. Far from building tension, this inappropriately risks outright comedy. Ultimately Yeats was to keep some of this dialogue but required that it become lost in a cacophony of mounting sound with ‘confused cries’ and ‘words one can hardly hear because of the noise’, since ‘their voices drown each other’ (VPl 513). The implicit instruction is that the kings leave the stage as rapidly as possible. This sequence now provides a fitting contrast to the eerie silence that ensues, punctuated only by the distant clash of swords, which precedes the Women’s oracular prophecy of an unspecified doom to beset Cuchulain. Throughout the turmoil, they have remained still and silent: statuesque observers of men’s folly, which eventually moves them to despair. By the final version, Yeats’s control of dramatic atmosphere throughout the sequence is superb.

8The one aspect of the play that underwent little substantive change was the framing device of the Blind Man and the Fool: the two episodes at the beginning and the close of the play were part of the initial conception of the piece and, while they were expanded or refined as to details, the overall shape of these sequences was recognisably the same from the scenario dictated to Lady Gregory in 1901 to final publication in 1906. The need for a symbolic extension of Cuchulain and Conchubar’s character and their conflict was a clear imperative for Yeats from the first: ‘The relation between Cuchulain & Conchubar is emphasised by a fool & a blind man, who symbolise it’ (9). A matter of weeks later in the letter to Sturge Moore in which he refers to the ‘strong plot’ of his new play (quoted above), Yeats refers also to its ‘ironical humour’. This is interesting in light of how the stage time given to Blind Man and Fool was to develop, in that it seems to indicate how Yeats was already thinking of experimenting with what was later to become a distinctive feature of the dramaturgy in his later plays: the use of darkly comic, sardonic or nastily materialistic figures to offset the tragic experience of his nobler figures and enhance their isolation and passionate agony (the Old Man in At The Hawk’s Well; Bricriu in The Only Jealousy of Emer; the Blind Man again in The Death of Cuchulain). Increasingly through the revisions the contrast between the characters of the Blind Man and the Fool is honed in its definition: the former shaped over time to be cunning, shrewdly intelligent, wholly amoral and obsessed with survival at any price, while the latter is shown lost frequently to a world of his own imagining till physical depredations and hunger bring his attention back to his physical self and awareness of how he is continually tricked by his companion. It would be wrong to describe them, especially in their final form, as caricatures of Conchubar and Cuchulain respectively, since the dramaturgy even at first is never so crude. Rather they invite a more complex response where similarities and differences resist any strict and confining parallels. The couples shadow each other: Conchubar in the heroic pairing has all the qualities of the Blind Man but has in addition the depth brought by the responsibilities of kingship with its need to safeguard the realm and its inhabitants and look always to the future. Cuchulain has the Fool’s lack of a sense of danger and consequent foolhardiness (till brought sharply to sense he is trapped by circumstances created by others), but the visionary qualities of the hero are tempered by reminiscence of lost realities and, always in his fearlessness, he abides resolutely and courageously by his decisions for action.

9It was late in the creative process that Yeats made one final adjustment to the scene of Cuchulain’s return from his fight with Connla (Berg H (1), 27r, 492), but it is a change that heralds his access to a true maturity as a playwright, where words alone are not enough to convey the depth of feeling being experienced and the dramatist begins to trust the power of visual effects and the dramatic impact of sound and silence. In earlier drafts Cuchulain pieces together the information he gleans from Fool and Blind Man and voices his tragic apprehension that it is his own son that he has killed. Revisions in 1905–1906 had evolved the image of the three men seated on a bench where they talk of Aoife, the Young Man and Cuchulain’s time in Scotland, which culminates with the Blind Man sensing that someone is shaking their seat; the Fool informs him that it is Cuchulain who is causing the bench to shake and, as if to confirm the Fool’s observation, Cuchulain voices his terrible realisation. Re-assigning Cuchulain’s line to the Blind Man (‘It is his own son he has slain’) better affirms how that knowledge quite unmans the hero: how can he find words to express his inner torment, of which the shaking of the bench (and how that physically is accomplished by the actor) is now its only token? When Cuchulain does eventually speak, he has already embraced the madness that the torment pitches him into. Yeats trusts movement, the silence of compressed rage on Cuchulain’s part, the terror of his companions on the bench suspecting he will inflict violence on them in retaliation for bringing him to this nightmare, to carry his audience to the heart of the hero’s anguish. Words when they come are the meaningless ravings of a mad man, wildly brandishing his sword to no purpose. This is tragic dramaturgy of the highest calibre and it is remarkable that such a small correction to an apparently finished drama should achieve such momentous results.


W. B. Yeats, On Baile’s Strand: Manuscript Materials, ed. by Jared Curtis and Declan Kiely (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2014), pp. lvii + 595


1 Note—Further information may have been gathered since this article was prepared for publication. If you would like to find out if any further information has been discovered that may help your own research, why not write to the author at Apart from anything else, feedback is always welcomed.