Lady Gregory’s farces have primarily made her fame. Spreading the News (1904), Hyacinth Halvey (1906), The Image (1910), and The Bogie Men (1913) are representative of her vigorous and well-constructed farces. They are varied in subject, the incidents are well developed, the characters are genuine Irish peasants and villagers, and the humor is infectious. It is interesting to note that Lady Gregory has continued to write farces because of the demand for them in the Irish National Theater, in order to offset the large number of tragedies by other authors.
William Butler Yeats.—In addition to delightful poetic fancy, Yeats possesses considerable dramatic ability and stagecraft. In The Countess Cathleen (rewritten in 1912), the poor peasants are driven by a famine to the verge of starvation. Many die; but some are fed by the Countess Cathleen, while others sell their souls for the price of food to demons disguised as merchants. When these demons steal Countess Cathleen’s stores in order to stop her charities, with instant Irish quickness and generosity, she sells her soul for a great price to the demons, in order to save her people here and hereafter. Such a tremendous sacrifice, however, is not permitted. Because of the purity of her motive, armed angels save her soul in the last impressive act. Supernatural powers, both pagan and Christian, participate in the play. Spirits haunt the woods, enter the peasants’ cottages, and cast spells on the inhabitants. The play is Irish in story, in symbolism, and in the fancifulness of the conception.
The Land of Heart’s Desire is another drama that has sprung from the soil and folklore of Ireland. This play was one of the first Celtic dramas to be produced, and in its present revised form (1912) it is one of the most engaging of the Irish plays. Partly in prose and partly in verse, it is the story of a young bride who tires of her monotonous life and calls upon the fairies to release her. The old parents tell her that duty comes before love of the fairies.
The good priest begs her not to forsake her faithful young husband; but the fairy wins, and, leaving a dead bride in the cottage, bears away the living bride to a land where—
“The fairies dance in a place apart,
Shaking their milk-white feet in a ring,
Tossing their milk-white arms in the air;
For they have heard the wind laugh and murmur and sing
Of a land where even the old are fair,
And even the wise are merry of tongue."
Patriotic love for Ireland is the very breath of Cathleen ni Hoolihan (1902), a one-act prose play in which Cathleen symbolizes Ireland. The Shadowy Waters (1900) and Deirdre (1907) are more poetic than dramatic. The first of these with the mysterious harper, the far-sailing into unknown seas, the parting with everything but the loved one, shows Yeats in his deeply mystical mood. In Deirdre is dramatized part of a popular legend of the great queen by that name, who was too beautiful for happiness. She has seven long years of joy and then accepts her fate in the calm, triumphant way of the old heroic times.