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WHERE THERE IS NOTHING

a synopsis and analysis of the play by William Butler Yeats

The following essay on Where There Is Nothing was originally published in The Social Significance of the Modern Drama. Emma Goldman. Boston: Richard G. Badger, 1914. pp. 252-60.

Where There Is Nothing is as true an interpretation of the philosophy of Anarchism as could be given by its best exponents. I say this not out of any wish to tag Mr. Yeats, but because the ideal of Paul Ruttledge, the hero of the play, is nothing less than Anarchism applied to everyday life.

Paul Ruttledge, a man of wealth, comes to the conclusion, after a long process of development and growth, that riches are wrong, and that the life of the propertied is artificial, useless and inane.

PAUL RUTTLEDGE: When I hear these people talking I always hear some organized or vested interest chirp or quack, as it does in the newspapers. I would like to have great iron claws, and to put them about the pillars, and to pull and pull till everything fell into pieces.... Sometimes I dream I am pulling down my own house, and sometimes it is the whole world that I am pulling down.... When everything was pulled down we would have more room to get drunk in, to drink contentedly out of the cup of life, out of the drunken cup of life.

He decides to give up his position and wealth and cast his lot in with the tinkers -- an element we in America know as "hoboes," men who tramp the highways making their living as they go about, mending kettles and pots, earning an honest penny without obligation or responsibility to anyone. Paul Ruttledge longs for the freedom of the road -- to sleep under the open sky, to count the stars, to be free. He throws off all artificial restraint and is received with open arms by the tinkers. To identify himself more closely with their life, he marries a tinker's daughter -- not according to the rites of State or Church, but in true tinker fashion -- in freedom -- bound only by the promise to be faithful and "not hurt each other."

In honor of the occasion, Paul tenders to his comrades and the people of the neighborhood a grand feast, full of the spirit of life's joy -- an out-pouring of gladness that lasts a whole week.

Paul's brother, his friends, and the authorities are incensed over the carousal. They demand that he terminate the "drunken orgy."

MR. JOYCE: This is a disgraceful business, Paul; the whole countryside is demoralized. There is not a man who has come to sensible years who is not drunk.
MR. DOWLER: This is a flagrant violation of all propriety. Society is shaken to its roots. My own servants have been led astray by the free drinks that are being given in the village. My butler, who has been with me for seven years, has not been seen for the last two days.
MR. ALGIE: I endorse his sentiments completely. There has not been a stroke of work done for the last week. The hay is lying in ridges where it has been cut, there is not a man to be found to water the cattle. It is impossible to get as much as a horse shod in the village.
PAUL RUTTLEDGE: I think you have something to say, Colonel Lawley?
COLONEL LAWLEY: I have undoubtedly. I want to know when law and order are to be reestablished. The police have been quite unable to cope with the disorder. Some of them have themselves got drunk. If my advice had been taken the military would have been called in.
MR. GREEN: The military are not indispensable on occasions like the present. There are plenty of police coming now. We have wired to Dublin for them, they will be here by the four o'clock train.
PAUL RUTTLEDGE: But you have not told me what you have come here for. Is there anything I can do for you?
MR. GREEN: We have come to request you to go to the public-houses, to stop the free drinks, to send the people back to their work. As for those tinkers, the law will deal with them when the police arrive.
PAUL RUTTLEDGE: I wanted to give a little pleasure to my fellow-creatures.
MR. DOWLER: This seems a rather low form of pleasure.
PAUL RUTTLEDGE: I daresay it seems to you a little violent. But the poor have very few hours in which to enjoy themselves; they must take their pleasure raw; they haven't the time to cook it. Have we not tried sobriety? Do you like it? I found it very dull.... Think what it is to them to have their imagination like a blazing tar-barrel for a whole week. Work could never bring them such blessedness as that.
MR. DOWLER: Everyone knows there is no more valuable blessing than work.

Paul Ruttledge decides to put his visitors "on trial," to let them see themselves as they are in all their hypocrisy, all their corruption.

He charges the military man, Colonel Lawley, with calling himself a Christian, yet following the business of man-killing. The Colonel is forced to admit that he had ordered his men to fight in a war, of the justice of which they knew nothing, or did not believe in, and yet it is "the doctrine of your Christian church, of your Catholic church, that he who fights in an unjust war, knowing it to be unjust, loses his soul." Of the rich man Dowler, Paul Ruttledge demands whether he could pass through the inside of a finger ring, and on Paul's attention being called by one of the tinkers to the fine coat of Mr. Dowler, he tells him to help himself to it. Threatened by Mr. Green, the spokesman of the law, with encouraging robbery, Ruttledge admonishes him.

RUTTLEDGE: Remember the commandment, "Give to him that asketh thee"; and the hard commandment goes even farther, "Him that taketh thy cloak forbid not to take thy coat also."

But the worst indictment Ruttledge hurls against Mr. Green. The other professed Christians kill, murder, do not love their enemies, and do not give to any man that asks of them. But the Greens, Ruttledge says, are the worst of all. For the others break the law of Christ for their own pleasure, but "you take pay for breaking it; when their goods are taken away you condemn the taker; when they are smitten on one cheek you punish the smiter. You encourage them in their breaking of the Law of Christ."

For several years Ruttledge lives the life of the tinkers. But of weak physique, he finds himself unable to withstand the rigors of the road. His health breaks down, and his faithful comrades carry him to his native town and bring him to the monastery where Paul is cared for by the priests. While there he begins to preach a wonderful gospel, a gospel strange to the friars and the superior -- so rebellious and terrible that he is declared a dissenter, a heathen and a dangerous character.

PAUL RUTTLEDGE: Now I can give you the message that has come to me.... Lay down your palm branches before this altar; you have brought them as a sign that the walls are beginning to be broken up, that we are going back to the joy of the green earth.... For a long time after their making men and women wandered here and there, half blind from the drunkenness of Eternity; they had not yet forgotten that the green Earth was the Love of God, and that all Life was the Will of God, and so they wept and laughed and hated according to the impulse of their hearts. They gathered the great Earth to their breasts and their lips,... in what they believed would be an eternal kiss. It was then that the temptation began. The men and women listened to them, and because when they had lived ... in mother wit and natural kindness, they sometimes did one another an injury, they thought it would be better to be safe than to be blessed, they made the Laws. The Laws were the first sin. They were the first mouthful of the apple; the moment man had made them he began to die; we must put out the Laws as I put out this candle. And when they had lived amidst the green Earth that is the Love of God, they were sometimes wetted by the rain, and sometimes cold and hungry, and sometimes alone from one another; they thought it would be better to be comfortable than to be blessed. They began to build big houses and big towns. They grew wealthy and they sat chattering at their doors; and the embrace that was to have been eternal ended.... We must put out the towns as I put out this candle. But that is not all, for man created a worse thing.... Man built up the Church. We must destroy the Church, we must put it out as I put out this candle.... We must destroy everything that has Law and Number.

The rebel is driven from the monastery. He is followed by only two faithful friars, his disciples, who go among the people to disseminate the new gospel. But the people fail to understand them. Immersed in darkness and superstition, they look upon these strange men as evildoers. They accuse them of casting evil spells on their cattle and disturbing the people's peace. The path of the crusader is thorny, and Colman, the friar disciple of Paul, though faithful for a time, becomes discouraged in the face of opposition and persecution. He weakens.

COLMAN: It's no use stopping waiting for the wind; if we have anything to say that's worth the people listening to, we must bring them to hear it one way or another. Now, it is what I was saying to Aloysius, we must begin teaching them to make things, they never had the chance of any instruction of this sort here. Those and other things, we got a good training in the old days. And we'll get a grant from the Technical Board. The Board pays up to four hundred pounds to some of its instructors.
PAUL RUTTLEDGE: Oh, I understand; you will sell them. And what about the dividing of the money? You will need to make laws about that. Oh, we will grow quite rich in time.
COLMAN: We'll build workshops and houses for those who come to work from a distance, good houses, slated, not thatched.... They will think so much more of our teaching when we have got them under our influence by other things. Of course we will teach them their meditations, and give them a regular religious life. We must settle out some little place for them to pray in -- there's a high gable over there where we could hang a bell--
PAUL RUTTLEDGE: Oh, yes, I understand. You would weave them together like this, you would add one thing to another, laws and money and church and bells, till you had got everything back again that you have escaped from. But it is my business to tear things asunder.
ALOYSIUS: Brother Paul, it is what I am thinking; now the tinkers have come back to you, you could begin to gather a sort of an army; you can't fight your battle without an army. They would call to the other tinkers, and the tramps and the beggars, and the sieve-makers and all the wandering people. It would be a great army.
PAUL RUTTLEDGE: Yes, that would be a great army, a great wandering army.
ALOYSIUS: The people would be afraid to refuse us then; we would march on--
PAUL RUTTLEDGE: We could march on. We could march on the towns, and we could break up all settled order; we could bring back the old joyful, dangerous, individual life. We could have banners. We will have one great banner that will go in front, it will take two men to carry it, and on it we will have Laughter--
ALOYSIUS: That will be the banner for the front. We will have different troops, we will have captains to organize them, to give them orders.
PAUL RUTTLEDGE: To organize? That is to bring in law and number. Organize -- organize -- that is how all the mischief has been done. I was forgetting -- we cannot destroy the world with armies; it is inside our minds that it must be destroyed.

Deserted, Paul Ruttledge stands alone in his crusade, like most iconoclasts. Misunderstood and persecuted, he finally meets his death at the hands of the infuriated mob.

Where There Is Nothing is of great social significance, deeply revolutionary in the sense that it carries the message of the destruction of every institution -- State, Property, and Church -- that enslaves humanity. For where there is nothing, there man begins.

A certain critic characterized this play as a "statement of revolt against the despotism of facts." Is there a despotism more compelling and destructive than that of the facts of property, of the State and Church? But Where There Is Nothing is not merely a "statement" of revolt. It embodies the spirit of revolt itself, of that most constructive revolt which begins with the destruction of every obstacle in the path of the new life that is to grow on the débris of the old, when the paralyzing yoke of institutionalism shall have been broken, and man left free to enjoy Life and Laughter.

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