Theatre Database
Home | Ancient Theatre | Medieval Theatre | 16th Century | 17th Century | 18th Century | 19th Century | 20th Century


THE COUNTESS CATHLEEN

a play in five scenes by William Butler Yeats
First performed in 1899

The following analysis of The Countess Cathleen was originally published in The British and American Drama of Today. Barrett H. Clark. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1915. pp. 185-7.

Yeats's greatest contribution to the [theatrical] movement he went so far to establish was not the plays he wrote for it, but his unfailing encouragement, his managerial ability, his propagandist endeavours. Yet his plays deserve consideration, as they are attempts at a new style of drama, not as to form but as to treatment of subject-matter, and literary style. This, of course, has very little to do with dramatic technique, but the study of these accessories is well worthwhile. In his preface to the second volume of the Poetical Works, he says: "I have chosen all of my themes from Irish legend or Irish history, and my friends have made joyous, extravagant, and, as I am certain, distinguished comedy out of the common life of the villages, or out of a fantasy trained by the contemplation of that life and of the tales told by its firesides. This theater cannot but be more interesting to people of other races because it is Irish, and, therefore, to some extent, stirred by emotions and thoughts not hitherto expressed in dramatic form...."

There is a mystical atmosphere in The Countess Cathleen which is comparable with the earlier plays of Maeterlinck. In what respects is this play similar in technique to The Intruder or Pelléas and Mélisande? Are there any indications that Yeats was influenced by the Belgian?

In a note to his Deirdre (in the Collected Works), Yeats says: "The principal difficulty with the form of dramatic literature I have adopted is that, unlike the loose Elizabethan form, it continually forces one by its rigor of logic away from one's capacities, experiences, and desires, until, if one have not patience to wait till it comes, there is rhetoric and logic and dry circumstance where there should be life." In this play are there evidences of this struggle of which the poet speaks? Where and of what sort are they? Does Yeats fall into conventional grooves?

Is there any special reason why the play should be divided into five scenes? Are there well-defined divisions in the play: exposition, development, climax, etc...?

As in Stephen Phillips's Paolo and Francesca, there are many lyrical passages and short speeches which are of independent value and striking beauty, apart from the dramatic context. Is

"You shall at last dry like dry leaves, and hang
Nailed like dead vermin to the doors of God,"

more effective because it is spoken by Maire in a certain place in this play, than it would be if it stood alone or as part of an epic? Are the superb lines,

"The years like great black oxen tread the world,
And God the herdsman goads them on behind,
And I am broken by their passing feet."

epic or dramatic?

Read Yeats's Kathleen ni Houlihan, a prose play which is eminently effective on the stage. Compare it carefully with The Countess Cathleen. In what respects do the two plays differ? Why is the prose piece more "theatrical"? In Kathleen ni Houlihan are there any passages, as there are in The Countess Cathleen, which might stand alone by reason of their intrinsic beauty?

Notice the stage-directions. They are simple, but they indicate the poet's sense of action and dramatic effect. The play closes with: "A sound of far-off horns seems to come from the heart of the Light. The vision melts away, and the forms of the kneeling PEASANTS appear faintly in the darkness." Often a dramatist throws out a hint, which the stage-manager is intended to act upon, filling in the necessary "business." How much leeway has the manager in the present play?

Back to William Butler Yeats