Three by Yeats
From Scena Theatre's Three by Yeats; credit: Jae Yi Photography

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The verse of Irish poet William Butler Yeats is known on these shores, but his plays are performed less often. Yet as a founding member of Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, he was no mere dabbler. Yeats, an Irish nationalist, did not just aim to write on Irish themes but to create new theatrical forms distinct from the melodrama and naturalism of the English stage that were also in fashion in America. Scena Theatre and artistic director Robert McNamara have long specialized in staging classics of European modernism. In their latest endeavor, they present the anthology Three by Yeats, a triptych of tragedies.

As the house opens and the audience takes their seats, they see musician David Johnson sitting cross-legged on a mat to stage right, still and silent, a great many small instruments laid out before him: a penny whistle, a zither, percussion mallets, hand drums, all ready to be taken up and sounded. Johnson lifts the penny whistle to his lips and blows the first notes, beginning At the Hawk’s Well

Three singers (Danielle Davy, Aniko Olah, and Melissa Robinson) dance onto the stage, their backs elegantly extended and curved as their arms cross over their torsos, circling a metal cylinder reflecting the stage lights. Yeats first published this play in his book Four Plays for Dancers and while frequent Scena company member Kim Curtis, a ballet dancer, doesn’t appear in this production, he does serve as choreographer for the show.

The singers serve as an oracular chorus introducing the mythical forest setting and the next character, an Old Man (Ron Litman). Litman is a skilled mime and has tensed his musculature into the gnarled form of a man who has waited half a century for a dry well to flow again, for a legend says that whomever would drink from the well will not die. Ominously perched in the aisles like a bird of prey is the well’s Guardian (Ellie Nicoll). Then the final player appears: Cuchulain (Lee Ordeman), the hero of Irish legend, dressed like a 1980s action hero. The young warrior and demigod also seeks the well’s immortality-giving waters. Ordeman has studied the movement art of Shintaido and his physicality is well suited for the role of Cuchulain as he challenges the guardian of the well through movement.

Yeats wrote At the Hawk’s Well as a political act. Like many Irish artists with similar political leanings, he had long been interested in The Ulster Cycle, a medieval collection of heroic legends purported to be from pre-Christian Ireland. In 1904, Yeats wrote his first play based on the Ulster Cycle, On Baile’s Strand. A decade later, Yeats’ personal secretary, the poet Ezra Pound, published his poetic translation of the Noh play Hagoromo. Yeats became fascinated with the idea that Noh offered an alternative to the naturalism and melodrama of the London stage, one that captured the mythic, metaphysical, and tragic themes he wished to explore. Meanwhile, both poets came into contact with the Japanese classical dancer Michio Itō. The three artists began to work together, and Yeats created At the Hawk’s Well, relying on Itō’s expertise in adapting Noh aesthetics. (Itō would play Cuchulain in the 1916 premiere and introduce the play to a Japanese audience, leading to its inclusion in the modern Noh repertoire.) The story of this and other similar collaborations is chronicled in Carrie J. Preston’s Learning to Kneel: Noh, Modernism, and Journeys in Teaching.

While At the Hawk’s Well is written in verse, 1938’s Purgatory is in prose. An Old Man (Buck O’Leary) has brought his son (Robert Sheire) home to gaze upon the burnt-out ruins of the house he was raised in. The father was 16 when the house was razed and the son is 16 when they return. He recounts both their family’s prestigious lineage and its decline into alcoholism and violence, starting with his own mother’s wedding night when he was conceived, and her death in childbirth. An apparition is seen in one of the windows of the gutted house. Of course Purgatory’s role in Christian theology is a realm where souls purge their sins before entry into Heaven. Is the ghost the old man’s mother, herself in Purgatory? Or does Purgatory serve as a metaphor for something else? Has he brought his son with him to purge the family’s sins while he still lives, in a way that does not square with the theology Yeats grew up with? Despite its 20th-century setting, it still ties in Yeats’ interests in Noh with the mysterious bridging between the metaphysical and physical realms.

The final play, The Death of Cuchulain, which Yeats had finished correcting just days before his death in 1939 (he had previously told the story in an 1892 poem of the same title) is a more eccentric and eclectic creation. Before returning to Ireland’s mythic past, director McNamara takes the stage as the third old man of the evening. This one is Yeats’ own self-caricature, “out of fashion and out of date … [and] so old that I have forgotten the name of my father and my mother,” claiming that others made him write this play. McNamara is one of the area’s few directors who casts himself in his own shows, though often in smaller roles that break the fourth wall. McNamara’s comic staccato is funny and strange, made stranger that it is meant to introduce another tragedy.

Cuchulain, again played by Ordeman, has retreated from battle and as he bleeds from six mortal wounds, receives a series of visitors: Eithne Inguba (Davy), his mistress and the servant of his wife, Emer (Olah); Aoife (Nicoll), a woman warrior he had defeated in battle and assaulted afterward, only to kill their son many years later in battle without knowing his identity; and a blind man (Litman), the father of another man dead by Cuchulain’s hand in another play. Each has reason to give the final coup de grace. 

The Death of Cuchulain is fast-paced and may be intimidatingly dense for those not versed in Irish mythology, or at least not the events leading up to Cuchulain’s wounding, but the combination of movement, poetic language and music is mesmerizing, especially in a venue as intimate as the DC Arts Center’s black box.

Three by Yeats may be an offering on an American stage, but it is a strange and magical one performed in a manner that plays to the particular strengths of the artists with whom McNamara has collaborated over the decades. For those intrigued by the spectacle, Yeats has written several more Cuchulain plays and perhaps Scena will stage those in future seasons.

Three by Yeats: At the Hawk’s Well, Purgatory, and The Death of Cuchulain by William Butler Yeats, directed by Robert McNamara, and presented by Scena Theater runs to June 4 at the DC Arts Center. $40.