John Butler Yeats, Portrait of William Butler Yeats, 1900

John Butler Yeats, Frontispiece portrait of W. B. Yeats, 1886. In Mosada: A Dramatic Poem by W. B. Yeats, Dublin: Sealy, Bryers, and Walker, 1886.

The Early Drama

In one of his last publications, an essay explaining how and why he began to write, W.B. Yeats recalls his initial creative efforts.  He mentions – in an uncharacteristically modest way – "three plays, not of any merit" that he had written in his teens. 1   Yeats is curiously brief in describing this early work, which he dismisses as imitative and undeveloped. Scholars have tended to follow suit, underrating his plays – particularly his earliest attempts – in critical appraisals of his work.  But it is worth noting that Yeats's earliest writing was in the form of verse drama and narrative rather than lyric poems, and that the themes he developed in this work later informed much of his poetry.  His interests in the occult and magic, unsatisfied love and desire, mesmerizing women, the supernatural and mythology are all evident in the early plays and return as preoccupations in his later writing.

Indeed, as Bernard O'Donoghue attests, even the "magnificent language of Yeats's later lyric poetry was incubated in the plays" that he wrote as a young man. 2 O'Donoghue divides Yeats's dramatic career into three categories: the early playwriting, which concluded with the first version of The Countess Cathleen (1892); a sustained dramatic period in the first decade of the 20th century, one of collaboration and revision, and marked by the appearance of the nationalist play, Cathleen ni Houlihan (1902); and a final period in which his drama became more experimental, symbolic and esoteric.  The early period has received the least critical attention, owing in part to the admittedly rudimentary style of this period's plays and to Yeats's own misgivings over their aesthetic value.  Moreover, because the early plays have been described, not unfairly, as "deeply conventional" and "utterly unIrish," they are often overlooked in favor of his later work. 3 But these initial creative attempts reveal the influences that shaped his emerging poetic, and against which he reacted in his later work.

Title page of Mosada

Title page, 1886. In Mosada: A Dramatic Poem by W. B. Yeats, Dublin: Sealy, Bryers, and Walker, 1886.

Each of Yeats's early plays feature dominant female characters as magicians or enchanting temptresses wielding occult powers, and most were written before he had met Maud Gonne, said to be the muse for his mythologizing of women.  Vivien and Time, the revised Time and the Witch Vivien, The Island of Statues and Mosada all portray heroines who are by turns sinister, beautiful, dangerous and cruel.  Love and Death is no exception; its heroine, Ginevra, callously murders her father and sister in pursuit of her immortal lover. In 1915, Yeats confessed of his younger self, "women filled me with curiosity and my mind seemed never long to escape from the disturbance of my senses, I was a romantic, my head full of the mysterious women of Rossetti and those hesitating faces of [Edward] Burne-Jones which seemed always anxious for some Alastor at the end of a long journey." 4 The sense of unfulfilled desire to which Yeats alludes is evident in his early poetry, too.  Female characters assume textual and symbolic significance, but where they are powerful and decisive in the verse drama, they are often dreamy, ethereal and sensuous in Yeats's love lyrics. The context of desire and death remains the same, as does the theme of romantic and sexual frustration. Yeats's lyric speakers are in thrall to the woman's beauty and at her mercy; she is enchanting but potentially dangerous in the power she wields over him.

Love and Death, written in April 1884, when Yeats was eighteen, receives only a glancing mention in his autobiography, Reveries over Childhood and Youth (1915), but his description confirms that the play is of a piece with his other early drama:

I was writing a long play on a fable suggested by one of my father's early designs.  A king's daughter loves a god seen in the luminous sky above her garden in childhood, and to be worthy of him and put away mortality, becomes without pity and commits crimes, and at last, having made her way to the throne by murder, awaits his coming among her courtiers.  One by one they become chilly and drop dead, for unseen by all but her, her god is in the hall.  At last he is at her throne's foot and she, her mind in the garden once again, dies babbling like a child. 5

Like the other plays from this period, Love and Death features an otherworldly setting and a powerful female protagonist, whose death is dramatized as the play's inevitable climax. Class and gender divisions are clear, but the characters exist in a world free from economic concerns. Male characters, like King Ralph, Ginevra's father and the king, are weak compared to the women, who exercise control over the men. Just as he would elegize women in later lyrics, Yeats here introduces the trope of the female protagonist's death; but unlike the love elegies, in which the male speaker describes the female beloved's death, Ginevra "narrates and performs both her claim to power and her death, speaking until language meets mortality." 6 Ireland is conspicuous for its absence from this and other early plays, but when Yeats did begin to dramatize his nation, he returned to mythic and symbolic female characters and to the tension between power and mortality.

1. W.B. Yeats, "I Became an Author," in Uncollected Prose by W. B. Yeats 2: Reviews, Articles and Other Miscellaneous Prose, 1897-1939, Ed. John P. Frayne (New York: Columbia University Press, 1975), 507.
2. Bernard O'Donoghue, "Yeats and the Drama," The Cambridge Companion to W.B. Yeats, Eds. Marjorie Howes and John Kelly (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 106.
3. R.F. Foster, W.B. Yeats: A Life; Volume One: The Apprentice Mage (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 37.
4. W.B. Yeats, Memoirs, Autobiography – First Draft, Journal, Ed. Denis Donoghue (London: Macmillan, 1972), 33.
5. W.B. Yeats, The Autobiography of William Butler Yeats (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1965), 49.
6. Elizabeth Brewer Redwine, "'She Set Me Writing My First Play': Laura Armstrong and Yeats's Early Drama," Irish University Review 35.2 (Autumn-Winter 2005), 254.