If you want a standard of reality with which to compare these passages of Abbey-Theatre rhetoric, you have only to turn to Lady Gregory’s own notes at the end of Irish Folk-History Plays, where she records a number of peasant utterances on Irish history. Here, and not in the plays—in the tragic plays, at any rate—is the real “folk-history” of her book to be found. One may take, as an example, the note on Kincora, where some one tells of the Battle of Clontarf, in which Brian Boru defeated the Danes:—
Clontarf was on the head of a game of chess. The generals of the Danes were beaten at it, and they were vexed. It was Broder, that the Brodericks are descended from, that put a dagger through Brian’s heart, and he attending to his prayers. What the Danes left in Ireland were hens and weasels. And when the cock crows in the morning the country people will always say: “It is for Denmark they are crowing; crowing they are to be back in Denmark.”
Lady Gregory reveals more of life—leaping, imaginative life—in that little note than in all the three acts about Grania and the three about Brian. It is because the characters in the comic plays in the book are nearer the peasantry in stature and in outlook that she is so much more successful with them than with the heroes and heroines of the tragedies. She describes the former plays as “tragic comedies”; but in the first and best of them, The Canavans, it is difficult to see where the tragedy comes in. The Canavans is really a farce of the days of Elizabeth. The principal character is a cowardly miller, who ensues nothing but his own safety in the war of loyalties and disloyalties which is destroying Ireland. He is equally afraid of the wrath of the neighbours on the one hand, and the wrath of the Government on the other. Consequently, he is at his wits’ end when his brother Antony comes seeking shelter in his house, after deserting from the English Army. When the soldiers come looking for Antony, so helpless with terror is the miller, that he flies into hiding among his sacks, and his brother has to impersonate him in the interview with the officer who carries out the search. The situation obviously lends itself to comic elaborations, and Lady Gregory misses none of her opportunities. She flies off from every semblance of reality at a tangent, however, in a later scene, where Antony disguises himself as Queen Elizabeth, supposed to have come on a secret visit of inspection to Ireland, and takes in both his brother and the officer (who is himself a Canavan, anglicized under the name of Headley). This is a sheer invention of the theatre; it turns the play from living speech into machinery. The Canavans, however, has enough of present-day reality to make us forgive its occasional stage-Elizabethanism. On the whole, its humours gain nothing from their historical setting.