'I Usually First See a Play as a Picture': Lady Gregory and the Visual Arts

Article excerpt

This essay discusses the aesthetic values Lady Augusta Gregory developed through her knowledge of the visual arts and the impact they had on her dramas for the Abbey Theatre. In the process, the significant differences between Gregory and Yeats in the understanding of art and the theatre is demonstrated. Drawing on Gregory's holograph diaries, written during the years of her marriage to Sir William Gregory, the essay shows how the familiarity she acquired with a wide variety of visual art works during the Gregorys' Grand Tours of Europe in the 1880s came to play a crucial role in her development as a dramatist of the Abbey Theatre. Gregory's plays, including Spreading the News, Hyacinth Halvey, The Full Moon, The Deliverer, and The Travelling Man, are considered in relation to major works of art which influenced the compositional technique she adopted for these plays. These include works by the Spanish master Diego Velazquez, the Flemish artist Jan van Eyck, and the painters of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. In so doing, Gregory's place within the artistic milieu of late-Victorian London society is brought to the fore, highlighting her consciousness-long before her encounter with Yeats--of important debates on the question of the relationship between the Sister Arts that drew significantly upon Lessing's 1766 work on the subject, Laocoon.


Patron, co-founder, and playwright of the Irish National Theatre, Lady Augusta Gregory shaped the way the dramatic movement developed in Ireland at the turn of the twentieth century. Despite the fact that her work was highly praised by her contemporaries, literary criticism today generally considers her plays subordinate to that of William Butler Yeats in originality and quality. There seems to be a critical consensus that the main significance of her work at the Abbey Theatre lay in providing assistance to her fellow-playwrights, first and foremost to Yeats, in order to help them realize their artistic visions. No doubt, the support she offered to J.M. Synge, W.B. Yeats, or Sean O'Casey was immense, but it is misleading to think that she did so at the expense of realizing her own artistic ideas in the theatre. In the assumption that much of her artistic views were shaped by Yeats, whose enthusiasm for Irish culture fascinated her, critical opinion has doubted that Gregory had a truly independent artistic vision.

This essay paints a portrait of Gregory as an artist who seriously reflected upon Victorian aesthetic debates about the nature of the visual and the verbal arts and whose vision was distinctive from that of Yeats. The 1911 double-bill of Yeats's The Hour Glass and Gregory's The Deliverer provides a helpful starting point in examining the matter. The staging of both plays was designed by the renowned English theatre practitioner Edward Gordon Craig, who gladly accepted Yeats's invitation to use the Abbey stage for his revolutionary theatrical experiments with screens. Craig's production of Yeats's The Hour Glass was an undeniable success for critics and audiences alike. The Evening Herald expressed the view that the new stage design greatly improved the theatrical experience of the play. Critics applauded the arrangement of the screens, the combination of colours, and the ways lighting was used to elaborate the emotional progress enfolding in the play. (1) The reviewer of The Irish Times compared the stage picture to the figure studies of James M. Whistler, a revolutionary fin-de-siecle painter celebrated for his experiments with minimalist colour schemes. (2) In discussions before the performance Yeats himself complimented Craig on his success 'to invent decorative and ideal scenery for poetic work'. (3) The Freeman's Journal pointed out that the employment of the screens allowed Craig and Yeats to achieve a complete unity of text, acting and setting--the colour scheme blending it all together to form 'a harmony of mood'. (4)

Craig's staging inventions did not work for Gregory's play. …