Staging the Phantasmagorical: The Theatrical Challenges and Rewards of William Butler Yeats
James W. Flannery
In my three years as a student at the Yale School of Drama, I heard the dramatic work of William Butler Yeats mentioned exactly twice. The first time was in a directing class when we were told that plays like those of Yeats were impossible to stage. The other instance occurred when the noted drama critic John Gassner dismissed Yeats as unworthy of serious consideration as a dramatist because of the "fantastical" elements in his plays.
For a considerable time, I, too, had little interest in the plays of Yeats. My notes for what was to have been a doctoral thesis at Trinity College, Dublin, on the dramatic theories of the founders of the Abbey Theatre are filled with a series of perjorative comments about Yeats and his vision of theater. Irrelevant, obscure, elitist, frivolous, arcane, and foolish are some of the milder terms I employed. But my most severe criticism was reserved for precisely those fantastical aspects of Yeats that I have since come to love in his work. Because, essentially, I failed to understand the profoundly religious impulse beneath Yeats's pursuit of mystical and occult experience, I dismissed this aspect of his work as the product of a deranged--a mind inimical not just to theater but to the process of living a sane and civilized life.
I have, of course, drastically changed my views on all of the above, and, as I shall explain, this has largely occurred through the experience of actually staging twenty- one of Yeats's plays. Over the past thirty years, as a theater artist and scholar, by far the most rewarding work I have ever done has occurred in trying to meet the enormous challenges of these plays. Seen from another perspective (that is, through the lens of the phantasmagorical), what once seemed to me strange and puzzling--perhaps even frightening--I now perceive as both artistically fruitful and life-enhancing.
The word "phantasmagorical" was employed by Yeats throughout his life in his poetic symbology and in his views of himself as an artist. 1 The word was originally coined in 1802, much in the same way that the modern word television was coined, that is, to describe a new technological invention. In the case of phantasmagoria, it