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  • The Manuscripts of Yeats's Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus
  • K. P. S. Jochum
W. B. Yeats. Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus: Manuscript Materials. Jared Curtis, ed. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2008. liii + 584 pp. $99.95

W. B. YEATS BEGAN to be interested in Sophoclean tragedy around the time of the founding of the Abbey Theatre in 1903–1904. As pointed out by Jared Curtis in the introduction to his edition of the manuscript materials of Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus, published in the Cornell Yeats series, Yeats had three objectives in mind, one of them political in nature. He wanted to defy the British censor, who had forbidden a performance of Oedipus Rex in England (the ban was lifted in 1910). Secondly, he as well as Lady Gregory and J. M. Synge, the directors of the Abbey Theatre, thought to expand the predominantly Irish repertoire to include selected European classics. And finally, he wanted to stage a "speakable" English translation, which should, in his words, be written in "the simplest sort of idiomatic prose for the Abbey stage." Curtis notes that Yeats may even have had didactic considerations in mind: Yeats intended "to make the classical idiom more accessible both to the actors who must speak it and the audience who must take it in." In this respect he found the existing translations of Oedipus Rex unsuitable; his efforts to recruit more congenial translators were unsuccessful.

Since he knew no Greek, Yeats turned to the translation of R. C. Jebb (1889) and began to adapt it to his own purposes, but abandoned the project after Gilbert Murray's translation had been performed to great acclaim in London in January 1912. At the urging of his wife, Yeats returned to Oedipus Rex in 1926, revised his earlier typescript several times and had the resulting version finally produced at the Abbey in December 1926. It was published in 1928. The manuscript drafts of what became known as Sophocles' King Oedipus: A Version for the Modern Stage were edited by David R. Clark and James B. McGuire and published in 1989 by the American Philosophical Society as the third and last volume of a different series, Manuscripts of W. B. Yeats. (The other two volumes are The Shadowy Waters and The Player Queen; these two plays as well as King Oedipus will not become part of the Cornell Yeats.)

The success of the 1926 performance prompted Yeats to try his hand at Oedipus at Colonus. The first entry in Curtis's "Chronology of Manuscripts" is a heavily revised typescript written in December 1926 and January 1927. Curtis notes that there are no extant holograph versions and thinks that Yeats dictated the dialogues "with Jebb's translation in hand" and then revised them. This prose version does not include the [End Page 111] choruses, which were added later and whose holograph drafts are presented by Curtis in a separate chapter. Photocopies of the manuscript choruses and dialogues are printed on the verso pages, the transcriptions on the facing recto pages.

The whole material is divided into three parts; the first includes the preperformance versions; the second includes the revisions of the prompt copies (the play was first performed in September 1927). Yeats continued to revise the play until he arrived at a reading text, which makes up the third part, collated with the variants made in proof. The play was first published in 1934 in The Collected Plays.

In his introduction, the editor chronicles Yeats's engagements with Sophocles and the genesis of the two Oedipus versions; he also looks at their biographical and political contexts. Curtis discusses the relationship between Yeats's sources and the plays he fashioned from them. Finally, he comments on the music that Lennox Robinson, the producer of the first performance, wrote for the choruses of Oedipus at Colonus and prints the score in an appendix.

What is one to make of all this material, collected and presented with infinite care and patience? As announced in the preface to this and other volumes in the Cornell Yeats series, the Editorial Board wants "to illuminate Yeats's creative process." This works well in the case of short texts such as poems...


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