The Countess Cathleen is not only the first play written by William Butler Yeats, but also the first play of the great Irish Renaissance. It is fundamentally a charming peasant fable, embroidered with beautiful threads of words, and although it lacks the more open humor and the more dignified grandeur of much of Synge, or of the later Yeats plays, it obtains strength from its air of simplicity, from the purity of the mythical tale its tells.
"The scene is laid in Ireland and in old times," and the peasants all around are starving. Two devil-merchants come, offering gold to the poor people for their souls--which seems rather a good idea to most of the peasants, but horrifies the local patron, The Countess Cathleen. She, just returning to her estate after a many year's absence, promptly sends away for grain and cattle for the starving peasants. The devils, who see their lovely valley-full of souls slipping away, steal Cathleen's fortune of gold and tell her that her grain and cattle ships have been lost; she therefore signs away her own (immensely pure and valuable) soul to save the souls of all the others. Brokenhearted by her deed, she dies.
Underneath the story of the gentle, Christ-like Cathleen, Yeats suggests morals, and points to open questions, usually on the level of simplicity and common sense. Famine, for example, is clearly a great road away from religion. Devils are often triumphant in the material world; they pay. Moreover, they can even pay with Cathleen's--and through her, God's--money.
What the Poets' Theatre makes of all this is not distinguished. The charm that should be so great a part of the play is never really reached. Partly, the fault is simply that the stage and theatre are so small that only the scene inside a peasant's hut seems to have the right amount of breathing space. The woods scenes, despite the set designer's good try, are cramped and static, without even achieving intimacy.
The director, Michael Linenthal, coordinates action and characters adequately, but the actors themselves hardly ever achieve competence. Cathleen would be a fine role for Siobhan McKenna, as Sylvia Weld no doubt realizes, but Miss Weld's half-hearted imitation of Miss McKenna often becomes mannered, and shrinks the great beauty of Cathleen's character.
As the chief peasant, Edward Chamberlain is sometimes interesting, and Royall Tyler, as his son, is similar but a bit more awkward. On the other hand, Lillian Aylward, as Chamberlain's God-fearing wife, uses forth-right gestures and voice to create a strong characterization. As Oona, Cathleen's foster-mother, Gail Kepner shows perfectly adequate control of a dull part, but her attention, understandably, often wanders away from it. Liam Clancy, who looks like a feckless young Irish poet, plays one, but with mere wistful lyricism; his voice lacks distinction as much as his spirit lacks life. Finally, the two devils, despite their appropriate looks, need shape, and are neither enticing nor sympathetic nor humorous.
As a whole, the production suffers from an absence of humor and intensity, and adds little worthwhile to Yeats except a chance to see and hear him.