When the clerk in a Dublin bookstore discovered I was interested in William Butler Yeast’s plays, she confessed that she didn’t think much of the man. “Americans,” she said, “are more fond of him than we are.” But when she learned that James W. Flannery’s festival at the Abbey offered all five Cuchulain plays on a single bill, she allowed she might go see them because it was “good value for money.”
Her comments are iffy on both counts. The man himself may be acceptable on this side of the Atlantic, but it’s not uncommon to hear American theatre professionals and academics alike dismiss Yeast’s plays as unstageable. Nobody, they charge, could sit through even one of those things and like it; five would extend the torture. So how could a Yeats festival be “good value for money”?
Maybe it took an American director as brash as Jim Flannery, untainted by slow-to-heal Irish political grudges, to give W.B. Yeats the audience he secured for others but never for himself. It’s not just that Flannery props up Yeats with lectures, art shows, poetry readings, rock concerts and the like. Under his direction, Yeats’s words come to life on the stage, and an often surprised begins to realize there’s good value in the plays after all.
Flannery, whose home base is Theater Emory in Atlanta, concedes he doesn’t cater to old-school academic audiences or the drawing-room crowd in search of 19th-century poetic drama. “I’m interested in the legacy of Yeats being picked up by the young people of Ireland,” he says, “but I’m also deeply committed to the international reputation of Yeats and to developing an audience which shares his understanding of life.” To this end, he has at times, as columnist Fintan O’Toole put it, reduced “the Great Poet to the level of showbiz.” Flannery admits, for example that his Cuchulain’s costume and mannerisms were based on rock artist Bono of U2.
But it it Yeats?
Backed by a generous grant from Coca-Cola Atlantic, Flannery’s productions deliver pyrotechnics Yeats only achieved once when the gels caught fire. There’s music the tin-eared Yeats could never hum, costumes and sets his abbey couldn’t afford, and movement and dance that would dry the spit in the old man’s mouth. After attending a performance of her father’s work at the first of these festivals, Anne Yeats said; “It’s a wonderful night in the theatre, but is it Yeats?” She wasn’t the only one in the house to pose that question.
For nothing, it seemed too musical for Yeats. But music is the key to the Flannery Yeats, and composer Bill Whelan typifies the Flannery touch. Whelan has produced music by the Dubliners, Van Morrison and U2, orchestrated Gilbert and Sullivan for Noel Pearson, and composed Irish myth based scores for the National Symphony Orchestra. He admits, though, that he hadn’t even read Yeats’s plays until Flannery recruited him to do the Cuchulain Cycle.
“I had to go out and buy a copy of the Collected Plays,” Whelan told me. Totally unfamiliar with any of the music written for these plays in the past, Whelan sat in on rehearsals, listened to the spoken words, watched movement director Sarah-Jane Scaife’s drills where chorus and cast members writhed into sensual, slow-twisting, ever-fluid shapes, then went backto his studio to compose music that emphasized the mood Flannery was drawing out of the text.
A singer from childhood, Flannery surrounds himself with lyric talent. He listens for melodic qualities in people’s voices. Once, while rehearsing John Olohan as the Old Man in Purgatory, Flannery took the veteran actor aside for an hour to work with him on drawing one specific primal sound as if from the depths of his bowels to capture the emotion of the play’s final moment.
Puppets, strobes and nudity
“What happened at that rehearsal it is impossible to say,” Olohan recalls, “except that Jim made me feel at ease with the physical attributes of a bitter, tortured old man which married with the text. From then on the staging hit the right mark.”
Still, with an American director working in an Irish theatre, misunderstandings are inevitable. It’s not just that Yeats isn’t accepted there the way Joyce, Beckett, O’Caseyor even the once-controversial Synge are. Despite the studied good manners of most of its people, this is a country emerging from 700 years of oppression. Foreigners are suspect
“My strength,” Flannery claims, “is that I’m not Irish.” Yeats, he explains is to Ireland what Sophocles, Moliere, and Shakespeare are to their national theratres. Each of these figures begins in his own culture then explode into global magnitude. Flannery’s expressed intention with this festival is to “help restore Yeats’s dramatic work to the repertoire of his beloved Abbey theatre.” That sounds more than a tad presumptuous, but Flannery has won the respect of those who work most closely with him. It hasn’t been easy, and it hasn’t happened all at once.
Over the first three summer festivals, Flannery has staged 11 of Yeats’s 26 plays. Public support has not been universal–some nights even the 106-seat Peacock doesn’t fill-but Flannery prodcutions have drawn greater acclaim than Yeats’s literary drama has known before. In the first year’s five-play Cuchulain Cycle, Flannery used bizarre gargantuan puppets to heighten the mystical elements, assaulted his audience with a barrage of mythopoeic grunts, huffs and screams as well as blinding strobes and flashes, and added explicity sensuous movement that would have set the old articer’s blood boiling. But he never once violated Yealts’s mose sacred dictum, that the words not be drowned by stage devices.
Still, the Cuchulain Cycle was pretty much off-the rack. Flannery didn’t have to make decisions about which works best suited his “Poet with a Thousand Faces” theme of multicultural heroes and their masks. In the second year, dubbed “Masks of Transformation,” Flannery wanted to weld the intellectual freedom he found in Yeats to the momentous changes taking place in Eastern Europe and around the globe. He chose Cathleen ni Houlihan, The Dreaming of the Bones and Purgatory, and used four principal devices to turn these seemingly disparate works into a unified manifestation of his transformation theme: Whelan’s music, a chorus, an expresionistic set and multiple-role casting.
Spectral, gray-costumed choric figures writhed and twisted across a desolate stage into the opening of Cathleen. Designer Bronwen Casson threw out the traditional cottage set, covered the stage with sand and scattered around five black Z-shaped wrought-iron forms, which transformed into table and chairs as the principals emerged from the chorus. Their movements evolved out of Sarah-Jane Scaife’s daily butoh sessions: Everything had to be fluid, from the pelvis; head, arm and leg motion seemed guided by invisible strings.
The chorus became part of the set. In Purgaroty, two of their number represented a symbolic tree, while the others formed the ruined house and the window from which the naked lovers, the groom and the mother, appear. Although Senator Michael Yeats protested that Flannery’s use of nudity was out of keeping with the times in which his father’s play was set–when “even a married couple would not appear unclothed before each other,” he said–these nude ghosts, bathed n red light, unseeing but seen witnesses to murder unleashed meanings central to the conlifcts and transformations not only Purgatory, but of the entire program.
By casting powerful-voiced Olwen Fouere as Cathleen, then Dervogilla and finally the vision of the mother, and by using Conor Mullen in the successive roles of Michael in Cathleen, the young rebel in Bones and the Boy in Purgatory Flannery established the connections from one character to the next and among the plays’ distinct manifestation of Ireland’s past, present and future.
In 1991, Flannery took “Sacred Mysteries: The Celtic Way of Sexuality” as his theme and enlisted Bly and Betty Friedan as lecturers. He said he intended to celebrate sex “as an essential aspect of human wholeness” and show how the laws and customs of ancient Celtic society “reflect an equality and harmony between men and women.”
Flannery selected Deirdre, A full Moon in March and The Shadowy Waters because each play “focuses on a transformational act in which there is a mutual exchange and absorption of male and female energies”–and in each, he said, “the heroine makes the decisive choice that brings into being a new order of the heart and mind.”
As Flannery’s plans for an international Yeats workshop continued to take shape, production-assistant interns arrived from American universities, trainee director Karin McCully joined the company on an award from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, and New York-based puppeteer Roman Paska joined the company to co-direct The Shadowy Waters. And though there was some grousing on the part of abbey regulars that there were “too many foreigners about,” when Flannery pointed out that he was a foreigner, set designer Casson lept immediately to his defense: “Oh, no. Not you, James. You don’t count. You’re one of us.”
Much as Jean Anouilh found 20th-century applicability in Antigone, Flannery drew contemporary relevance from one of the most oft-told tales in Celtic literature, the conflict between Deirdre and Conchubar, king of the ancient Red Branch. Joan O’Hara, an actress with the Abbey since 1948, expressed to me her sense of consternation that the Abbey had “those wonderful plays all these years and never knew what to do with them.” Flannery had convinced her that Yeats was neither “airy-fairy) in his early plays, nor “blasphemous and sexually perverted” in the later work, much less “untheatrical” across the board which, shed said, had long been responsible for “the prevailing semi-dismissive attitude” of the Abbey toward its founder’s work.
The Shadowy Waters, oe of Yeats’s most difficult plays to produce because of its overriding romanticism, demanded the season’s closest attention. Flannery and Paska decided to augment Yeats’s dramatic text with passage from the reading version included in his Collected Poems. Throughout the play, actors and puppets moved in and out of the roles, but this was no Punch and Judy show. Puppets were used more like masks, creating an alienation effect that kept the audience from being suduced into the romantic goo of the subject matter. Flannery sees strong mythic elements at work in yeats’s plays and has often expressed the idea that there must be conscious audience input into any production. “Yeats’s theatre is ritualistic, and the audience must get emotionally and intellectually involved, much in the way onlookers are expected to take part in a religious service.”
This year’s festival may be the last in which all events take place at the Abbey. Flannery plans to reestablish the Abbey School of Acting in association with Trinity College, Dublin, with Yeats at the core of the curriculum. “Yeats is an extraordinary training device,” Flannery insists. “His plays offer the entire range of theatre needed to be a total actor. We proved that in the first three years of the festival. At Trinity we’ll be able to deal more thoroughly with Yeats on the intellectual level, to relate the work to international ideas.”
With The Countess Cathleen as its centerpiece staged by Yale Repertory Theatre artistic director Stan Wojewodski–this summer’s festival, scheduled Aug. 25-Sept. 18, will explore multiculturalism from Irish, American and European perspectives. Flannery has lined up Conor Cruise O’Brien to lecture on Ireland’s cultural role in the new world order, Jung specialist James Hillman to address theh aesthetic dimension of international culture, and poets Joseph Brodsky and Derek Walcott to read from their works.
Flannery concedes that maybe the crowd that never liked Yeats never will. But he insists that he has brought Yeats back to the audience he originally set out to reach the young Irish and a growing fold of believes who perceive this playwright as a major voice in world drama rather than a parochial curiosity left over from a misguided age.
Fred Lapisardi teaches modern drama and journalism at California University of Pennsylvania, and served as literary adviser to the second and third annual Yeats festivals.