William Butler Yeats

Nobel Lecture

Nobel Lecture*, December 15, 1923

The Irish Dramatic Movement

I have chosen as my theme the Irish Dramatic Movement because when I remember the great honour that you have conferred upon me, I cannot forget many known and unknown persons. Perhaps the English committees would never have sent you my name if I had written no plays, no dramatic criticism, if my Iyric poetry had not a quality of speech practised upon the stage, perhaps even – though this could be no portion of their deliberate thought – if it were not in some degree the symbol of a movement. I wish to tell the Royal Academy of Sweden of the labours, triumphs, and troubles of my fellow workers.

The modern literature of Ireland, and indeed all that stir of thought which prepared for the Anglo-Irish War, began when Parnell fell from power in 1891. A disillusioned and embittered Ireland turned away from parliamentary politics; an event was conceived and the race began, as I think, to be troubled by that event’s long gestation. Dr. Hyde founded the Gaelic League, which was for many years to substitute for political argument a Gaelic grammar, and for political meetings village gatherings, where songs were sung and stories told in the Gaelic language. Meanwhile I had begun a movement in English, in the language in which modern Ireland thinks and does its business; founded certain societies where clerks, working men, men of all classes, could study those Irish poets, novelists, and historians who had written in English, and as much of Gaelic literature as had been translated into English. But the great mass of our people, accustomed to interminable political speeches, read little, and so from the very start we felt that we must have a theatre of our own. The theatres of Dublin had nothing about them that we could call our own. They were empty buildings hired by the English travelling companies and we wanted Irish plays and Irish players. When we thought of these plays we thought of everything that was romantic and poetical, for the nationalism we had called up – like that every generation had called up in moments of discouragement – was romantic and poetical. It was not, however, until I met in 1896 Lady Gregory, a member of an old Galway family, who had spent her life between two Galway houses, the house where she was born and the house into which she was married, that such a theatre became possible. All about her lived a peasantry who told stories in a form of English which has much of its syntax from Gaelic, much of its vocabulary from Tudor English, but it was very slowly that we discovered in that speech of theirs our most powerful dramatic instrument, not indeed until she began to write. Though my plays were written without dialect and in English blank verse, I think she was attracted to our movement because their subject matter differed but little from the subject matter of the country stories. Her own house has been protected by her presence, but the house where she was born was burned down by incendiaries some few months ago; and there has been like disorder over the greater part of Ireland. A trumpery dispute about an acre of land can rouse our people to monstrous savagery, and if in their war with the English auxiliary police they were shown no mercy they showed none: murder answered murder. Yet ignorance and violence can remember the noblest beauty. I have in Galway a little old tower, and when I climb to the top of it I can see at no great distance a green field where stood once the thatched cottage of a famous country beauty, the mistress of a small local landed proprietor. I have spoken to old men and women who remembered her, though all are dead now, and they spoke of her as the old men upon the wall of Troy spoke of Helen; nor did man and woman differ in their praise. One old woman, of whose youth the neighbors cherished a scandalous tale, said of her, «I tremble all over when I think of her»; and there was another old woman on the neighbouring mountain who said, «The sun and the moon never shone on anybody so handsome, and her skin was so white that it looked blue, and she had two little blushes on her cheeks.» And there were men that told of the crowds that gathered to look at her upon a fair day, and of a man «who got his death swimming a river», that he might look at her. It was a song written by the Gaelic poet Raftery that brought her such great fame and the cottagers still sing it, though there are not so many to sing it as when I was young:

O star of light and O sun in harvest,
O amber hair, O my share of the world,
It is Mary Hynes, the calm and easy woman,
Has beauty in her body and in her mind.

It seemed as if the ancient world lay all about us with its freedom of imagination, its delight in good stories, in man’s force and woman’s beauty, and that all we had to do was to make the town think as the country felt; yet we soon discovered that the town could only think town thought.

In the country you are alone with your own violence, your own heaviness, and with the common tragedy of life, and if you have any artistic capacity you desire beautiful emotion; and, certain that the seasons will be the same always, care not how fantastic its expression.1 In the town, where everybody crowds upon you, it is your neighbour not yourself that you hate and, if you are not to embitter his life and your own life, perhaps even if you are not to murder him in some kind of revolutionary frenzy, somebody must teach reality and justice. You will hate that teacher for a while, calling his books and plays ugly, misdirected, morbid or something of that kind, but you must agree with him in the end. We were to find ourselves in a quarrel with public opinion that compelled us against our own will and the will of our players to become always more realistic, substituting dialect for verse, common speech for dialect.

I had told Lady Gregory that I saw no likelihood of getting money for a theatre and so must put away that hope, and she promised to find the money among her friends. Her neighbour, Mr. Edward Martyn, paid for our first performances; and our first players came from England; but presently we began our real work with a little company of Irish amateurs.2 Somebody had asked me at a lecture, «Where will you get your actors?» and I said, «I will go into some crowded room and put the name of everybody in it on a piece of paper and put all those pieces of paper into a hat and draw the first twelve.» I have often wondered at that prophecy, for though it was spoken probably to confound and confuse a questioner, it was very nearly fulfilled. Our two best men actors were not indeed chosen by chance, for one was a stage-struck solicitor’s clerk and the other a working man who had toured Ireland in a theatrical company managed by a negro. I doubt if he had learned much in it, for its methods were rough and noisy, the negro whitening his face when he played a white man, and, so strong is stage convention, blackening it when he played a black man. If a player had to open a letter on the stage I have no doubt that he struck it with the flat of his hand, as I have seen players do in my youth, a gesture that lost its meaning generations ago when blotting paper was substituted for sand. We got our women, however, from a little political society which described its object as educating the children of the poor, which meant, according to its enemies, teaching them a catechism that began with this question, «What is the origin of evil?», and the answer, «England».

And they came to us for patriotic reasons and acted from precisely the same impulse that had made them teach, and yet two of them proved players of genius: Miss Allgood and Miss «Maire O Neill ». They were sisters, one all simplicity, her mind shaped by folk song and folk stories; the other sophisticated, lyrical, and subtle. I do not know what their thoughts were as that strange new power awoke within them, but I think they must have suffered from a bad conscience, a feeling that the old patriotic impulse had gone, that they had given themselves up to vanity or ambition. Yet I think it was that first misunderstanding of themselves that made their peculiar genius possible, for had they come to us with theatrical ambitions they would have imitated some well known English player and sighed for well-known English plays. Nor would they have found their genius if we had not remained for a long time obscure like the bird within its shell, playing in little halls, generally in some shabby, out-of-the-way street. We could experiment and wait, with nothing to fear but political misunderstanding. We had little money and at first needed little, twenty-five pounds given by Lady Gregory and twenty pounds by myself and a few pounds picked up here and there. And our theatrical organization was preposterous, players and authors all sat together and settled by vote what play should be performed and who should play it. It took a series of disturbances, weeks of argument, during which no performance could be given, before Lady Gregory and John Synge and I were put in control. And our relations with the public were even more disturbed. One play was violently attacked by the patriotic press because it described a married peasant woman who had a lover, and when we published the old Aran folk tale upon which it was founded, the press said the story had been copied from some decadent author of Pagan Rome. Presently Lady Gregory wrote her first comedy. My verse plays were not long enough to fill an evening and so she wrote a little play on a country love story in the dialect of her neighbourhood. A countryman returns from America with a hundred pounds and discovers his old sweetheart married to a bankrupt farmer. He plays cards with the farmer and, by cheating against himself, gives him the hundred pounds. The company refused to perform that play because they said to admit an emigrant’s return with a hundred pounds would encourage emigration. We produced evidence of returned emigrants with much larger sums but were told that only made the matter worse. Then after this interminable argument had worn us all out, Lady Gregory agreed to reduce the sum to twenty and the actors gave way. That little play was sentimental and conventional, but her next discovered her genius. She, too, had desired to serve, and that genius must have seemed miraculous to herself. She was in middle life and had written nothing but a volume of political memoirs and had no interest in the theatre.

Nobody reading today her Seven Short Plays can understand why one of them, now an Irish classic, The Rising of the Moon, could not be performed for two years because of political hostility. A policeman discovers an escaped Fenian prisoner and lets him free, because the prisoner has aroused with some old songs the half forgotten patriotism of his youth. The players would not perform it because they said it was an unpatriotic act to admit that a policeman was capable of patriotism. One well known leader of the mob wrote to me, «How can the Dublin mob be expected to fight the police if it looks upon them as capable of patriotism?» When performed at last the play was received with enthusiasm, but only to get us into new trouble. The chief Unionist Dublin newspaper denounced it for slandering his Majesty’s forces, and Dublin Castle, the centre of English Government in Ireland, denied to us privileges which we had shared with the other Dublin theatres, of buying for stage purposes the cast off clothes of the police. Castle and Press alike knew that the police had frequently let off political prisoners but «that only made the matter worse». Every political party had the same desire to substitute for life, which never does the same thing twice, a bundle of reliable principles and assertions.3 Nor did religious orthodoxy like us any better than political; my Countess Cathleen was denounced by Cardinal Logue as an heretical play, and when I wrote that we would like to perform «foreign masterpieces », a Nationalist newspaper declared that «a foreign masterpiece is a very dangerous thing ». The little halls where we performed could hold a couple of hundred people at the utmost and our audience was often not more than twenty or thirty, and we performed but two or three times a month and during our periods of quarrelling not even that. But there was no lack of leading articles, we were from the first a recognised public danger. Two events brought us victory, a friend gave us a theatre, and we found a strange man of genius, John Synge. After a particularly angry leading article I had come in front of the curtain and appealed to the hundred people of the audience for their support. When I came down from the stage an old friend, Miss Horniman, from whom I had been expecting a contribution of twenty pounds, said, «I will find you a theatre.» She found and altered for our purpose what is now the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, and gave us a small subsidy for a few years.

I had met John Synge in Paris in 1896. Somebody had said, «There is an Irishman living on the top floor of your hotel; I will introduce you.» I was very poor, but he was much poorer. He belonged to a very old Irish family and though a simple, courteous man, remembered it and was haughty and lonely. With just enough to keep him from starvation, and not always from half starvation, he had wandered about Europe travelling third class or upon foot, playing his fiddle to poor men on the road or in their cottages. He was the man that we needed because he was the only man I have ever known incapable of a political thought or of a humanitarian purpose. He could walk the roadside all day with some poor man without any desire to do him good, or for any reason except that he liked him. He was to do for Ireland, though more by his influence on other dramatists than by his direct influence, what Robert Burns did for Scotland. When Scotland thought herself gloomy and religious, Providence restored her imaginative spontaneity by raising up Robert Burns to commend drink and the devil. I did not, however, see what was to come when I advised John Synge to go to a wild island off the Galway coast and study its life because that life «had never been expressed in literature». He had learned Gaelic at College, and I told him that, as I would have told it to any young man who had learned Gaelic and wanted to write. When he found that wild island he became happy for the first time, escaping as he said «from the nullity of the rich and the squalor of the poor». He had bad health, he could not stand the island hardship long, but he would go to and fro between there and Dublin.

Burns himself could not have more shocked a gathering of Scotch clergy than did he our players. Some of the women got about him and begged him to write a play about the rebellion of ’98, and pointed out very truthfully that a play on such a patriotic theme would be a great success. He returned at the end of a fortnight with a scenario upon which he had toiled in his laborious way. Two women take refuge in a cave, a Protestant woman and a Catholic, and carry on an interminable argument about the merits of their respective religions. The Catholic woman denounces Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth, and the Protestant woman the Inquisition and the Pope. They argue in low voices because one is afraid of being ravished by the rebels and the other by the loyal soldiers. But at last either the Protestant or the Catholic says that she prefers any fate to remaining any longer in such wicked company and climbs out. The play was neither written nor performed, and neither then nor at any later time could I discover whether Synge understood the shock that he was giving. He certainly did not foresee in any way the trouble that his greatest play brought on us all.

When I had landed from a fishing yawl on the middle of the island of Aran, a few months before my first meeting with Synge, a little group of islanders, who had gathered to watch a stranger’s arrival, brought me to «the oldest man upon the island.»He spoke but two sentences, speaking them very slowly, «If any gentleman has done a crime we’ll hide him. There was a gentleman that killed his father and I had him in my house three months till he got away to America. It was a play founded on that old man’s story Synge brought back with him. A young man arrives at a little public house and tells the publican’s daughter that he has murdered his father. He so tells it that he has all her sympathy, and every time he retells it, with new exaggerations and additions, he wins the sympathy of somebody or other, for it is the countryman’s habit to be against the law. The countryman thinks the more terrible the crime the greater must the provocation have been. The young man himself under the excitement of his own story becomes gay, energetic, and lucky. He prospers in love and comes in first at the local races and bankrupts the roulette table afterwards. Then the father arrives with his head bandaged but very lively, and the people turn upon the impostor. To win back their esteem he takes up a spade to kill his father in earnest, but horrified at the threat of what had sounded so well in the story, they bind him to hand over to the police. The father releases him and father and son walk off together, the son, still buoyed up by his imagination, announcing that he will be master henceforth. Picturesque, poetical, fantastical, a masterpiece of style and of music, the supreme work of our dialect theatre, it roused the populace to fury. We played it under police protection, seventy police in the theatre the last night, and five hundred, some newspaper said, keeping order in the streets outside. It is never played before any Irish audience for the first time without something or other being flung at the players. In New York a currant cake and a watch were flung, the owner of the watch claiming it at the stage door afterwards. The Dublin audience has, however, long since accepted the play. It has noticed, I think, that everyone upon the stage is somehow lovable and companionable, and that Synge described, through an exaggerated symbolism, a reality which he loved precisely because he loved all reality. So far from being, as they had thought, a politician working in the interests of England, he was so little a politician that the world merely amused him and touched his pity. Yet when Synge died in 1910 opinion had hardly changed, we were playing to an almost empty theatre and were continually denounced in the Press. Our victory was won by those who had learned from him courage and sincerity but belonged to a different school. Synge’s work, the work of Lady Gregory, my own Cathleen ni Houlihan, and my Hour glass in its prose form, are characteristic of our first ambition. They bring the imagination and speech of the country, all that poetical tradition descended from the middle ages, to the people of the town. Those who learned from Synge had often little knowledge of the country and always little interest in its dialect. Their plays are frequently attacks upon obvious abuses, the bribery at the appointment of a dispensary Doctor, the attempts of some local politician to remain friends with all parties. Indeed the young Ministers and party politicians of the Free State have had, I think, some of their education from our plays. Then, too, there are many comedies which are not political satires, though they are concerned with the life of the politic ridden people of the town. Of these Mr. Lennox Robinson’s are the best known; his Whiteheaded Boy has been played in England and America. Of late it has seemed as if this school were coming to an end, for the old plots are repeated with slight variations and the characterization grows mechanical. It is too soon yet to say what will come to us from the melodrama and tragedy of the last four years, but if we can pay our players and keep our theatre open, something will come.4 We are burdened with debt, for we have come through war and civil war and audiences grow thin when there is firing in the streets. We have, however, survived so much that I believe in our luck, and think that I have a right to say I end my lecture in the middle or even perhaps at the beginning of the story. But certainly I have said enough to make you understand why, when I received from the hands of your King the great honour your Academy has conferred upon me, I felt that a young man’s ghost should have stood upon one side of me and at the other a living woman in her vigorous old age. I have seen little in this last week that would not have been memorable and exciting to Synge and to Lady Gregory, for Sweden has achieved more than we have hoped for our own country. I think most of all perhaps of that splendid spectacle of your court, a family beloved and able that has gathered about it not the rank only but the intellect of its country. No like spectacle will in Ireland show its work of discipline and of taste, though it might satisfy a need of the race no institution created by English or American democracy can satisfy.


* Yeats maintained that his lecture was written down from memory. It seems therefore appropriate to incorporate here certain improvements he made in a version published the in The Bounty of Sweden (The Cuala Press, Dublin, I925).

1. I was in my Galway house during the first months of civil war, the railway bridges blown up and the roads blocked with stones and trees. For the first week there were no newspapers, no reliable news, we did not know who had won nor who had lost, and even after newspapers came, one never knew what was happening on the other side of the hill or of the line of trees. Ford cars passed the house from time to time with coffins’ standing upon end between the seats, and sometimes at night we heard an explosion, and once by day saw the smoke made by the burning of a great neighbouring house. Men must have lived so through many tumultuous centuries. One felt an overmastering desire not to grow unhappy or embittered, not to lose all sense of the beauty of nature. A stare (our West of Ireland name for a starling) had built in a hole beside my window and I made these verses out of the feeling of the moment:

The bees build in the crevices
Of loosening masonry, and there
The mother birds bring grubs and fies.
My wall is loosening, honey bees
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

We are closed in, and the key turned
On our uncertainty; somewhere
A man is killed, or a house is burned,
Yet no clear fact to be discerned:
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

That is only the beginning but it runs on in the same mood. Presently a strange thing happened; I began to smell honey in places where honey could not be, at the end of a stone passage or at some windy turn of the road and it came always with certain thoughts. When I got back to Dublin I was with angry people, who argued over everything or were eager to know the exact facts. They were in the mood that makes realistic drama.

2. Our first performances were paid for by Mr. Edward Martyn, a Galway landowner with a house, part fourteenth century, part that pretentious modern Gothic once dear to Irish Catholic families. He had a great hall adorned with repeating patterns by that dreary decorator Crace, where he played Palestrina upon an organ, and a study with pictures of the poets in poor stained glass, where he read Ibsen and the Fathers of the Church and nothing else. A sensible friendly man with intelligence, strength of purpose, and a charming manner, he shrank from women like a medieval monk and between him and all experience came one overwhelming terror «If I do such and such a thing or read such and such a book I may lose my soul.» My Countess Cathleen and a play of his own were our first performances. My play’s heroine, having sold her soul to the devil, gets it back again because «God only sees the motive not the deed,» and her motive is to save starving people from selling their souls for their bodies’ sake. When all our announcements had been made Martyn withdrew his support because a priest told him that the play was heretical. I got two priests to say that it was not and he was satisfied, for we have democratic ideals. He withdrew permanently, however, after a few months, foreseeing further peril to his soul. He died a couple of months ago and with him died a family founded in the twelfth century. An unhappy, childless, laborious, unfinished man, typical of an Ireland that is passing away.

3. Josef Strzygowski in his Origin of Christian Church Art (a translation of a series of lectures, delivered in Upsala in 1919) says that art «flourishes less at courts than anywhere else in the world. For at the seat of power everything is subordinated to politics; the forces willing to accept this fact are always welcome; those which are not willing must either emigrate or remain aloof». The danger to art and literature comes today from the tyranny and persuasions of revolutionary societies and forms of political and religious propaganda. The persuasion has corrupted much modern English literature; and during the twenty years that led up to our national revolution the tyranny wasted the greater part of the energy of Irish dramatists and poets. They had to remain perpetually on the watch to defend their creation; and the more natural the creation the more difficult the defence.

4. Since I gave my lecture we have produced Juno and the Paycock by Mr. O’Casey, the greatest success we have had for years. In this play, which draws its characters and scenes from the Dublin slums, a mind, not unlike that of Dostoevsky, looks upon the violence and tragedy of civil war. There is assassination, sudden poverty, and the humour of drunkards and the philosophy of wastrels, and there is little but the out-worn theme of seduction, and perhaps a phrase or two of mechanical humour, to show that its author has not finished his artistic education. He is a working bricklayer who was taken out to be shot by English soldiers in mistake for somebody else, but escaped in a moment of confusion. He knows thoroughly the life which he describes.

From Nobel Lectures, Literature 1901-1967, Editor Horst Frenz, Elsevier Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 1969

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