- All That Trouble and Nothing to Show for It: Yeats’s The Herne’s Egg and The Misbirth of a Nation
- Irish-American Cultural Institute
- Volume 32 & Volume 33, Number 4, Geimhreadh/Winter 1997 / Number 1-2, Earrach/Samhradh/Spring/Summ
- pp. 29-65
- View Citation
- Additional Information
ALL THAT TROUBLE AND NOTHING TO SHOW FOR IT: YEATS’S THE HERNE’S EGG AND THE MISBIRTH OF A NATION SUSAN CANNON HARRIS i may as well start by answering the question that is probably uppermost in my readers’ minds: Is The Herne’s Egg—an obscure, forgotten, bizarre play which was never produced during Yeats’s lifetime and has hardly ever been produced since—really worth all of this trouble? Although I admit that there are good reasons why the play has been languishing in obscurity , I still believe the answer is yes, it is worthy of study—but not just because The Herne’s Egg was written by Yeats, or even because Yeatsians have in general chosen to expend their efforts on more rewarding texts and thus have left the hopeful Herne’s Egg scholar a relatively clear field. What matters about The Herne’s Egg is what it can tell us about the cultural forces that were influencing the course of Irish politics and the course of Yeats’s own political career. Contextualizing the play in terms of the economic war, the rise of the Blueshirts, and Yeats’s embrace of eugenics—as I am about to do—is important not just because this historical context helps us make sense of a cryptic literary text, but because that text can contribute to our understanding of one of the most complicated and critical phases in the development of the modern Irish state. Yeats, de Valera, O’Duffy, and their various colleagues and detractors were all struggling with the question of what to do with the incomplete victory that had given birth not to a unified Irish republic with boundaries drawn “by God” (as one contributor to An Phoblacht put it), but a truncated man-made compromise with boundaries engineered by bureaucrats.1 Looked at in this context, The Herne’s Egg becomes a highly effective—if also highly disturbing—illusYEATS ’S THE HERNE’S EGG AND THE MISBIRTH OF A NATION 29 1 “You may cut a line as deep as hell through stone and soil and sod,/ But Ireland knows no other bound than that set out by God.” From “The Partition of the Green,” an anonymous ballad appearing in An Phoblacht, 18 December 1925. tration of how that misbirth, and the conflicts it engendered in Irish politics , shaped and continues to shape the sexual politics that affect Irish women. Yeats submitted The Herne’s Egg to the Abbey board in 1936 but professed himself relieved when it was rejected: “I am no longer fit for riots, & I thought a bad riot almost certain.” (qtd. in Armstrong xxv). Yeats’s “almost ” seems naïvely optimistic, since in terms of both violence and sexuality The Herne’s Egg makes Synge’s Playboy look like Brigadoon. Realistically , the only way the play could possibly not have caused a riot would be if it proved, in the words of Ernest Blythe, to be “so obscure that no one would notice it was obscene” (O’Connor, qtd. in Armstrong, xxv). The plot is certainly bizarre enough to provide some camouflage for the obscenity. In the first scene we meet Congal and Aedh, two adversaries who have finally grown so tired of fighting that they call a truce and plan a banquet to celebrate. Congal wants to banquet on hernes’ eggs, which brings him in conflict with Attracta, a virginal priestess who believes herself to be the divinely appointed bride of the Great Herne and guardian of all hernes’ eggs in the vicinity. Congal steals the eggs without her permission , and Attracta curses him, prophesying that Congal will die by the hand of a fool. At the banquet, Congal is served a hen’s egg instead of a herne’s egg and assumes that Aedh has done this intentionally to insult him. Congal discovers only after killing Aedh that it was Attracta who switched the eggs. As punishment, Congal and his six henchmen rape Attracta . When Congal boasts about this attack afterward, Attracta refuses to believe him and calls on the Great Herne to “declare her pure” (Yeats 1032), which he does. Congal then tries to thwart the Great Herne’s curse...