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Three Plays by Yeats

At the Poets' Theatre

By Thomas K. Schwabacher

The poet William Butler Yeats was also a prolific playwright, with no less than twenty-four dramas, two adaptations from Sophocles, and several unpublished juvenile efforts to his credit. From this canon, which consists almost wholly of rather short works, the Poets' Theatre presents three in its current production. Although only one of the offerings is completely satisfactory, the result is still a worthwhile evening of theater.

The first of the plays, The Words Upon The Window-Pane, is far and away the best. Written in prose and naturalistic in form, the work reflects Yeats' lifelong preoccupation with spiritualism by restaging a seance in modern Dublin. The seance is disturbed by the intrusion of a "hostile spirit," who turns out to be Jonathan Swift. It is a wonderfully gripping work, with an atmosphere both eerie and convincing.

The success of this play depends largely on the abilities of the actress who plays the medium, since she must be able to speak with the voices of three women, a child, and a man. Lillian Aylward is in every way equal to her assignment, and achieves the necessary effects by altering her speech rhythms. The six supporting players, particularly Michael Linenthal as a pompous doctor and Liam Clancy as a skeptical Oxford student, also turn in fine performances.

The second play of the evening, The King of The Great Clock Tower, is the shortest and least satisfactory of the three. This selection is from a group of works which Yeats called "plays for dancers," an exceedingly condensed and ritualistic form which owes much to the influence of Japanese Noh drama. At first glance, this play would seem to be ideally suited for the purposes of the tiny Poets' Theatre, since it was written for intimate production before a select audience. But the difficulties of the play, which would probably remain obscure in the best of productions, are all too apparent in the present performance.

Through the use of symbol-studded poetry, music, and dancing, Yeats tried to build a ritual pattern, every part of which must be fully apprehended before the play can be understood. Even then, the story of a poet who chooses a mysterious queen as the ideal figure of his verses, only to be beheaded by her jealous husband, is open to a multitude of different interpretations. But Liam Clancy, the poet, and Lew Petterson, the king, do violence to Yeats' poetry by speaking in a falsely declamatory manner. And John Lancaster's music usually conceals the playwright's words rather than underlining them.

The last of the three plays, On Baile's Strand, is a heroic tragedy based on a legend about Cuchulain, a sort of Irish Achilles. The legend fragment which the play dramatizes depicts warrior-king Cuchulain reluctantly submitting to the rule of the more civilized High King Conchubar, only to be forced into a battle in which he kills his own son.

On Baile's Strand is a romantic, youthful work conceived in grandiose terms. To be properly staged, it requires an elaborate set and a large cast. The Poets' Theatre has neither at its disposal, and even the excellent direction of Edward Thommen cannot keep the production from appearing cramped. Sitll, the play offers many rewarding moments. William Driver, who is clearly trained in the delivery of verse, makes a properly tragic Cuchulain, and William Cavness is a fine Cunchubar. Liam Clancy and Michael Linenthal once more distinguish themselves as, respectively, a Fool and a blind man. In this play, as well as in the evening as a whole, Poets' Theatre does more things right than wrong.

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