'I Sing What Was Lost and Dread What Was Won': W. B. Yeats and the Legacy of Censorship

Article excerpt

The historiography of theatre censorship has recently undergone a transformation. Received wisdom formerly held that since there was no legislative censorship of theatres, no censorship occurred, but work by Joan FitzPatrick Dean and Peter Martin has significantly revised the understanding of the way that censorship operates. In Censorship in the Two Irelands, Martin devotes a chapter to 'Censorship Without Censors: Theatre and Radio' in which he briefly outlines the Abbey's receipt of a grant (which 'gave the state an uncertain influence over the theatre'), the well-known attacks on O'Casey's The Plough and the Stars in 1926, the objections to the Abbey's touring programme in 1933, and the controversy over The Silver Tassie in 1937. (1) In all of these cases, the Abbey defeated the attempted censorship. Martin concludes, 'theatres had more freedom than cinemas or publishers, as well as more allies to defend them if controversy erupted'. (2) Yet Martin's assertion of freedom is complicated when the financial considerations of the theatres, which relied on public (and in the case of the Abbey, government) support, are taken into account. In Riot and Great Anger, Joan FitzPatrick Dean extends the traditional definition of stage censorship in her argument that theatrical censorship occurred on an ad hoc basis through the control of funding, the selection or rejection of plays for production, and the legal statutes regulating performance, which restricted 'indecency, public disorder, hate speech, and incitement to riot'. (3) Dean asserts that 'one of the most potent sources of censorship' is the control of funding. However, in her analysis of the Abbey Theatre, Dean maintains that although censorship as a result of its state subvention was attempted, it was ultimately unsuccessful. (4) I argue that censorship of the Abbey Theatre did occur, and these cases of censorship were inextricably tied to the financial relationship between the theatre and the state. Furthermore, W. B. Yeats was not the uncompromising champion of artistic freedom he has been assumed to be. (5)

This is not such a drastic reconfiguration as it might first seem. R.F. Foster's biography is a portrait of Yeats's depth and unity and--importantly for this context--of a politically savvy thinker in a constant process of negotiation with regard to his political, intellectual, and artistic ideals. A careful account of Yeats's actions on the Abbey board in the years before his death dismantles simplified histories of the theatre that lionize its founder and vilify characters like Ernest Blythe and Richard Hayes, whom I shall discuss further. Moreover, in the early history of the Abbey, there was a tradition of self-censorship and thus a precedent for the kinds of changes made to plays during the subsidized years. In his essay on 'The Beginnings' of the Abbey Theatre, Sean McCann emphasizes Yeats's 'flexibility'; it was evident, for example, in the changes made to The Countess Cathleen for the Irish Literary Theatre's opening programme. (6) Edward Martyn (whose play The Heather Field was to debut alongside Yeats's Countess Cathleen) objected to what he believed were anti-Catholic elements in Yeats's play. Martyn was an important financial contributor to the Irish Literary Theatre, and it was important to keep him on board the enterprise, so Yeats partially altered the play to appease him. (7) Martyn's objections were exacerbated by further opposition from the conservative Catholic nationalist quarter, spearheaded by Frank Hugh O'Donnell, who circulated a pamphlet, Souls for Gold, which objected to Yeats's portrayal of the Irish peasantry. Although Yeats and Lady Gregory anticipated difficulty over the Countess due to the advance publicity, a public controversy was regarded positively (as long as the Abbey kept its funding). (8) Likewise, before Synge's The Playboy of the Western World was staged, the manuscript was subject to cutting to eliminate 'bad language' and 'violent oaths', which Lady Gregory believed would detract from the thrust of the play. …