If tonight is like last night, many who come to the Eliot House library just a bit before eight will be turned away. And that is as it should be. Yeats wanted his plays performed before a small group for good reason. They are delicate weldings of poetry, music, and dance--all in a mystical world existing only in the minds of romantic men. The plays extol the hero Cuchalain and with him all brave deeds and fearless men. They reject the objective intellect--the only intelligence that exists for them is that of cunning or wise counsel in the art of war. The mind alone, the scholar, the academician, even the satirist is not mocked or belittled--he just does not exist. The play On Baile's Strand sees Cuchalain, the brave, and Conchubar, the wise, parodied by a fool and a blind beggar as a counterpoise. But Yeats is not laughing at his heroes; he is ironically presenting the extremes and tacitly assuming his ideal universal. For his poetry to hit the listener at full power, it must be completely accepted in this context. And when his plays are performed, the actors must carry a delicate bundle to their audience without crushing, smudging, or dropping it.
Those who performed last night are indeed lightfingered. Robert Layzer brings a rich expressive voice to the role of Cuchalain. He is at his best in On Baile's Strand, which sees the hero inadvertently murder his son, then go mad battling vainly against the sea. In this, the second of the four plays, Richard Eder is also outstanding as he crafty sightless man, who like Ireland's High King Conchubar both fears and mocks Cuchalain. Chris Beels plays the king. In this and also as the old man in At the Hawk's Well, both his speech and acting are intelligent interpretations of two characters who are despised, yet strangely accepted by Yeats.
Besides these performers and Donald Stewart as one of he musicians, two of the female leads were especially good. Mary Arnold's lithe dancing contributes a certain color and beauty to the performance. And Elizabeth Hubbard's singing of the harlot's song in The Death of Cuchalain gives the four plays a fitting lyrical ending.
Caldwell Titcomb's music for the flute and drum provides a highly effective setting for the poetry, and Louis Begley has done an excellent job abridging the plays. In all it is an excellent job, one that should be repented often with other pieces which might fit into a similar staging.