Few plays are more forgotten than those of WB Yeats. Revered as a poet, he’s ignored as a dramatist yet he deserves to be remembered for a number of reasons. He cofounded the Abbey theatre in 1904, he put Irish legend and history on stage, and he sought to create a drama “close to pure music”. His output was huge – his Collected Plays runs to more than 700 pages – and I’ve plucked out two of his works that, while vastly different in style, show his fixation with death, expiation and eternal recurrence.
The Words Upon the Window-Pane (1930) is in many ways exceptional: it is Yeats’s only play with a realistic modern setting. Its subject is a seance held by the Dublin Spiritualist Association in rooms once occupied by Jonathan Swift’s Stella. Yeats has much fun at the expense of the visitors – one of whom wants advice about setting up a teashop in Folkestone – but the main concern is to expel an evil spirit who has been haunting past sessions. It turns out to be that of Swift whom we hear – through the medium, Mrs Henderson – bitterly rejecting offers of love from the two women who most adored him.
What is astonishing is the way Yeats pulls off a double trick. Far from being an attack on Swift, the play is a defence of his refusal to beget children because of his dread of the future. But, rather like David Mamet’s The Shawl about a phoney clairvoyant with psychic gifts, the play suggests that the money-grubbing Mrs Henderson may actually have conjured up the crabbed spirit of Dublin’s celibate dean.
I’d love to see the play on stage. I have seen Purgatory (1938), widely considered to be Yeats’s masterpiece, which John Crowley memorably revived for the RSC in 1998. The play is a potted tragedy: an updated Oresteia that runs barely half an hour. It shows us a beggarly Old Man and his 16-year-old son standing in front of a ruined house with a bare tree in the background. We learn that, when he was the boy’s age, the Old Man killed his father: a profligate groom who had married the grand lady of the house, drunkenly raped her and squandered her fortune. But the most potent image is of a lit window in the ruined house showing the lady, who died in childbirth, as a girl on her disastrous wedding night.
Again, what is astonishing is how much Yeats crams into a short space. As the title tells us, this is a play about purgatory and the Old Man’s attempt to release his mother’s tortured soul. It also contains a pointless human sacrifice that the Greeks would have understood. And, in its portrait of a ruined house, the play is, as Yeats himself said, about “the destruction that is taking place all over Ireland today”. Maybe not all Yeats’s plays stand up but these do and I’m reminded of Eric Bentley’s comment that Yeats was both a histrionic figure and one who, like Shaw, definitely belonged in the theatre.