Yeats and Drama


"I need a theatre. l believe myself to be a dramatist. I desire to show events and not merely tell of them...and I seem to myself most alive at the moment when a room full of people share the one lofty emotion."

W. B. Yeats, 1916

W. B. Yeats wrote twenty-six plays. They include farces and conventional folk dramas, verse plays based on Irish myths, and the experimental Plays for Dancers. All of the plays show a playwright continually experimenting with dramatic form, content and style of presentation, and open to collaboration with fellow artists, among them the designer Gordon Craig and the dancers Michio Ito and Ninette de Valois.

The first of Yeats's plays to be performed in the professional theatre was The Land of Heart's Desire, presented at the Avenue Theatre, London, in 1894.

He completed his last play, The Death of Cuchulain, a few days before his death in January 1939.

(left) Mrs. Patrick Campbell as Deirdre in Yeats's "Deirdre". (right) The Old Abbey Theatre, Dublin.

He has had a significant influence on the history of world theatre in the 20th century, principally because he incorporated into his later plays, theatre techniques from the Japanese Noh to create a minimalist "theatre of the mind." Many theatre artists, including Bertolt Brecht and Samuel Beckett, are in his debt.

As T. S. Eliot said of his own attempts to write verse drama, "Yeats had nobody, we had Yeats."

The Plays

  • The Countess Cathleen
  • The Cat and the Moon
  • On Baile’s Strand
  • The Land of Heart’s Desire
  • The Pot of Broth
  • Purgatory
  • A Full Moon In March
  • Cathleen Ni Houlihan
  • At the Hawk’s Well
  • Calvary
  • Deirdre
  • The Hour Glass
  • The King’s Threshold
  • Oedipus Rex
  • The Resurrection
  • The Shadowy Waters
  • The Words Upon the Window Pane
  • The Green Helmet
  • The Only Jealousy of Emer
  • The Unicorn from the Stars
  • The Player Queen
  • The Dreaming of the Bones
  • The Death of Cuchulain

Reading

Because of his devotion to his art it is probably true to say of Yeats that from his childhood on he chose to read only those who moved him to an emotional or poetical response. He sought the response in his literary and philosophical studies which were extensive - Theosophy and occult works; Plato and the Neoplantonists; St. Thomas Aquinas; the Kabbalah; Irish Myths and Legends; Dante, Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Donne, Castiglione, Vico, Swift, Berkeley, Burke, Blake, Shelly, Kant, Nietzche, Ferguson, Mangan, Standish O'Grady.