The Redemption of W.B. Yeats

By Lapisardi, Fred | American Theatre, July-August 1992 | Go to article overview
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The Redemption of W.B. Yeats

Lapisardi, Fred, American Theatre

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.

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