- Yeats’s Letters, IV
Publication of The Collected Letters of W. B. Yeats under the general editorship of John Kelly began in 1986. Volume one, covering the years 1876–1895, contained about 350 letters. In 1994, volume three was published out of order, with about 680 letters written between 1901 and 1904. Volume two (1896–1900) with about 630 letters came out in 1997. Now, twenty years after the inception of the project, we have volume four, covering a mere three years in about 640 letters. It includes more than fifty items that should have appeared in the previous volumes, but were discovered only recently. With more than thirty years of Yeats's life still ahead and at the present rate of publication the project, estimated to comprise fifteen volumes, will take many more years to reach completion.
Several letters appear only as paraphrases, especially those to Maud Gonne; the editors "tried to reconstruct, or at least cite, lost or untraced letters from other sources such as references in replies, memoirs, diaries." In this way, together with a very helpful chronology, a day-by-day biography emerges. The enormously detailed annotations and several biographical and historical appendices provide a rich context for Yeats's life, activities, and literary works. The appendices are mainly concerned with theatrical matters; they print the Rules and Constitution of the National Theatre Society and give a full account of the reactions to and reviews of the controversial first production of Synge's The Playboy of the Western World. The editing and presentation of the entire volume are exemplary.
The three years 1905–1907 are packed with important events. In their summarizing introduction, the editors single out Yeats's prolonged efforts to put the Abbey Theatre (which had opened on 27 December 1904 with Yeats's On Baile's Strand and Lady Gregory's Spreading the News) on a firm artistic, financial and organizational footing and draw attention to the many quarrels and compromises involving the directors (an occasionally overbearing Yeats as well as Synge and Lady Gregory), the financial backer (the prickly Miss Horniman), and misbehaving [End Page 107] actors and incompetent managers. The tangled Abbey affairs occupy a central place in Yeats's correspondence; reading about them in such detail tends to become a numbing experience.
Sometimes Yeats rises above immediate business matters. On 11 November 1905 he outlines the "Reasons for and against the Establishment of the Gaelic Co.": i.e., the possibility of performing Irish-language plays. At present he is opposed to an Irish-speaking company because ultramontane nationalists would consider it "the true national theatre" and ruin the English-language Abbey. In a country where only a tiny minority speaks Irish, the Abbey "must reflect the dramatic activity of a nation." With typically Yeatsian arrogance he notes that the Abbey's enemies "dislike us because we have intellect and culture." In a long memorandum of 2 December 1906, Yeats outlines the aims and functions of a national theater. He candidly admits that at present only the plays of William Boyle and Lady Gregory draw large audiences, whereas his own plays are unpopular and likely to remain so. A year later, he despairs of ever finding an audience for his verse plays other than "a little group of enthusiasts" (4 October 1907). The Irish audiences should be trained, however, to accept a national theater modeled on Continental European examples and to appreciate important world dramatists. Yeats has had this idea for some time; thus he tries (unsuccessfully) to persuade the classical scholar Gilbert Murray to translate Oedipus Rex for the Abbey; a performance would be an invaluable contribution to Irish cultural life (24 January 1905).
Apart from theater business Yeats devotes much time to the question of the Lane pictures and the proposal to house them in a special gallery. Another abiding concern is Yeats's relationship with Maud Gonne who, in 1905, was granted a separation from John MacBride. Other problems affect Yeats's private...