Yeats and the Women Who Loved Him
Pearce, Michele, American Theatre
I am still of the opinion that only two topics can be of the least interest to a serious and studious mind: sex and the dead." So proclaimed William Butler Yeats in one of his letters. Sandra Deer's new play, Sailing to Byzantium, would surely satisfy Yeats, as it features him as a central character and delivers an ample supply of his two favorite themes.
Premiering at Atlanta's Actor's Express through Feb.16 under the direction of Chris Coleman, Deer's literary drama is set in 1916, in the London house of Olivia Shakespear, a lady novelist and Yeats's former lover. Desire abounds. Yeats still pines for Irish Nationalist Maud Gonne, for whom he wrote some of his most famous poems, and who has refused his proposals of marriage for years. ("It's no easy task being the heartless beloved of Ireland's great poet," Maud notes sardonically.) Yeats, in turn, is beloved by both the married Olivia and her niece, Georgie Hyde-Lees, to whom he becomes engaged. As if that were not enough romance, Olivia's daughter Dorothy insists on marrying the penniless American poet Ezra Pound, who is serving at the time as Yeats's secretary. The real surprise about this tangle of relationships is that they are not the playwright's invention but historically accurate, although Deer did use some poetic license to compress these events into a single weekend in 1916. "I find it intriguing to work in that blurred line between fiction and actuality," Deer says. "I wanted to write a play that was about people who make literature, and have it not be about poetry but about their lives, the history they lived in, and its relationship to their work."
Indeed, the historical events of the play are of powerful significance in shaping the characters' lives, artistically and personally. In the first scene of the play, Yeats discovers that three of his friends have been executed by the British for their roles in Dublin's Easter rebellion, an event that prompts him to eventually return to Ireland and write some of his greatest poems. …