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  • Artistic Liminality:Yeats's Cathleen ni Houlihan and Purgatory
  • Stephanie J. Pocock

In March, 1902, Maud Gonne, rehearsing for the role of the Old Woman in W.B. Yeats and Augusta Gregory's short play Cathleen ni Houlihan, wrote to Yeats to suggest a small change. "My dear Willie," she began,

We rehearsed Kathleen tonight, it went splendidly all but the end. It doesn't make a good curtain—We are all of the opinion that Michael ought to go right out of the door instead of standing hesitating. It doesn't seem clear if he doesn't go out. If he goes out Delia can throw herself on Bridget's shoulder in tears which makes a much better end. Please write at once and say if we may do that.1

Yeats acquiesced, as he was wont to do whenever Gonne pleaded with him, and the final step of Michael Gillane across the threshold of his small cottage in pursuit of the "young girl" with "the walk of a queen" met with roaring approval.2 The cheers of its nationalist audience have long since died down, although not, perhaps, the effects of the political fervor that the play inspired. Critics still ponder whether the play is better read as political propaganda, or as literature. The sensationalism of Yeats's political opinions—whether passionately nationalist or darkly eugenicist, as in his penultimate play Purgatory (1938)—have proven distracting to discussions of his plays' literary and theatrical merit. Because of his involvement in the creation of a national theater that sought to "build up a Celtic and Irish school of dramatic literature," Yeats's plays have often been considered artifacts of his public life, evidence of the political and cultural beliefs that under girded his creativity.3

Conor Cruise O'Brien cautions that Yeats's politics should not be overlooked as an important influence on his literature, for "throughout his life as a writer Yeats had abiding, and intensifying, political interests and passions. It is [End Page 99] misleading to make him essentially non-political, on the strength of certain disclaimers, refusals, and ironies."4 Yet, once Yeats's political involvement enters the critical fray, the temptation arises to oversimplify the relationship between politics and art, and to view political events as material from which the artist may draw. Such an oversimplification assumes that political views are inflexible sources for art, and remain unaltered by the process of artistic creation.5 For Yeats, the relationship between politics and art was far more complex; the imaginative force of art was as likely to shape political convictions as the reverse.His ideal artist occupied a carefully negotiated space between public and private goals, and was free to address relevant events and issues while maintaining a personal vision free from the tyranny of opinions. Yeats's political views depended upon the maintenance of this liminal space; he supported the creation of a nation in which poetry could be both created and understood, and he reacted both politically and artistically when he felt that ideal threatened.

Though Yeats was for many years an ardent nationalist, Gonne's brand of nationalism troubled him. Single-minded violence or self-sacrifice in the service of a cause produced, as the narrator of "Easter, 1916" tells us, "hearts . . . enchanted to a stone," invulnerable to the ambiguities of their situation, ambiguities vital to the creation of literature.6 Yeats understood violence as a necessary part of the historical cycle, but only inasmuch as it led to rebirth and creativity. Without the artist to remember and to reinterpret heroic acts, to build on the ruins of objective violence like the honey-bees in the crumbling walls of Thoor Ballylee, political ideals were empty, and heroism merely self-immolation.7 [End Page 100] His disappointment with the Irish Free State arose from its failure to incarnate a uniquely literate society from war's ruins. Instead, he found himself, in Seamus Heaney's words, in a "world of illiterates and politicians"; a world where some of his compatriots were less concerned with the creation of poetry than with the burning of Ascendancy houses.8

Yeats's resulting despair is clearest in Purgatory, a...


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