The Only Jealousy of Emer
by W. B. Yeats
Directed by Ray Yeates
Origin 1st Irish Theatre Festival 2018
at Torn Page/Apartment 929
Cast Includes: Ben Becher, Kolbe Handal, Elissa Middleton, Josefina Scaro, Will Warren, and Lenard Petit (Tony Torn, February 9-11; Jack McGee, February 17-18)
Designers: Ernesto Linnemann, Anthony Subietas
Production Team: Clark Middleton, Marina Montesanti, Ernesto Linnemann
Stage Manager: Nora Montesanti
Whether one reads W. B. Yeats’ The Only Jealousy of Emer as a closet drama or sees it in a convincing (indeed outstanding) production like the one mounted by Torn Page Apartment 929 this winter, one gets a strong feeling that the action and speech are unfolding on two levels: the mythic and the experiential, i.e. biographical, in relation to Yeats. As stated in the program note, “Yeats is a poet as much of fact as of feeling. Every work of his has a source—whether from folklore, legend, mythology, the occult, or history: each a source that for him had a definite objective reality. The demands of this world and of that other world of Yeatsian spiritual reality often conflict. His verse play The Only Jealousy of Emer, particularly in its early drafts, offers a vivid portrayal of such a struggle.” When he began the play in 1919, he was finally a married man, and his life had become more stable. He had proposed marriage to Maud Gonne on several occasions, and he began his steps towards matrimony by proposing to her in 1916, now that her estranged husband had been executed, setting her free. When she declined, he turned to her twenty-one-year-old daughter, Yseult, who also refused his proposal. Finally, in 1917, Georgie Hyde-Lees, who was twenty-five, agreed to marry Yeats, who was fifty-two at the time. The marriage, which was a success, was the result of a process of putting his past life in order, of putting his twenty-seven-year obsession with Maud behind him. One can readily sense the development and the layers of Yeats’ attachments in the Cuchullain-Emer-Eithne Inguba triangle. Of course we shouldn’t expect the relationship between material life and the mythic (and by nature spiritual) world to be exact in a literal sense, and the presence of the poet’s life relationships dissolves somewhat as he continued to revise it, first in the early 1920’s and later, when it was published in 1934. As we experience it in the final version, the myth has become universal, the object of contemplation as an acted, danced stage work with music; yet the ghost of Yeats’ love life makes it all the more poignant.
One can only fully understand the story through Yeats’ poetry, but in its bare bones, the action begins with Emer and Eithne Inguba standing over the supposedly dead body of Cuchulain, called the Figure of Cuchulain in the play. Emer claims he is not dead, and she has called for his mistress to help revive him. Unable to accomplish this herself, she calls on his most recent love to bring him back. Eithne Inguba’s kiss makes him able to speak. Then, a woman of the Sidhe (Fairies) enters and converses with the Ghost of Cuchulain, attempting to seduce him. He turns to Emer, yearning for her. The Figure of Cuchulain confronts her, saying that the only way to save him is to renounce his love forever. This she does, reluctantly, giving her husband over the Eithne Inguba, and the Figure awakes. The musicians who introduced the play close it with a lyric.
Ray Yeates, the distinguished Irish director of this production, said in his note, that “I have worked on his plays for thirty years and more and recently got interested in the immersive site specific approach, by staging them at a tenement house that was formerly an aristocratic home in Henrietta Street, Dublin. Moving through decaying rooms, these supernatural characters literally bumped into the necessarily tiny intimate audience. Yeats’ original idea of staging these plays in drawing rooms rather than theatres was given new meaning.” The play seemed entirely at home at Torn Page, the venerable home of actors Geraldine Page and Rip Torn, now maintained as a center for theatrical performance and training by their son, Tony Torn. The old town house shows her age, gracefully and sweetly, reminding me very much of some houses where I have stayed in Ireland, very happily. Mr. Yeates’ production migrated from a long room in front and a smaller, almost square, back room. With the audience sitting in chairs around the walls, the actors began the performance sitting around a long table, acting the Musicians’ introduction, which bridged the gap between a theatrical performance and a salon, with friends greeting and toasting one another, some members of the audience invited to read a few verses—all bringing to mind Lady Gregory’s salons at Coole. There can hardly be a more intimate performance space than this. The action began and developed in this room, until Brichiu, the malevolent demon, brings the cast into the back room for Cuchulain’s encounter with the Woman of the Sidhe. Then we returned to the long room for the awakening of the Figure and the concluding song of the Musicians.
Ray Yeates, a former Deputy Artistic Directore of the Abbey Theatre, has directed Yeats’ plays since the beginning of his career in 1980. The deep understanding he has developed of these difficult plays informed every moment of the performance. All the actors showed a secure, lively sense of the text’s meaning and color which can only come from such a director, equally deep knowledge of the plays, or clairvoyance. And, in themselves, they brought a high level of talent and experience to the evening. Lenard Petit spoke his part of the introduction with glowing warmth and confidence, and later, as the dreaded Briachriu, a fearsome grimness, leavened by color and variety of tone. Will Warren spoke his parts as Musician with elegance and a a literate command of the verse. Elissa Middleton was nuanced, colored, and eloquent as Emer, bringing off her social persona in the introduction with sophistication floating on a cloud of seasoned spiritual research, evoking thoughts of Georgie or perhaps Lady Gregory as well. Josefina Scaro’s Woman of the Sidhe was imposing in her gilt costume, sensual, and menacing. Kolbe Handal as Eithne Inguba projected a sensuality of a less disturbing nature, centered in loving comfort and the affirmation of life. Benjamin Becher’s contributions showed a through grasp of the text and a gamut of handsome inflections of vocal color and expression in voicing Yeats’ poetry. The intricacy and expressiveness of the all-important masks by Ernesto Linnemann were crucial additions to the feeling and power of the evening.
This was an unforgettable immersion in Yeats’ poetry and Noh-inspired drama. Yeats, who rivals T. S. Eliot as the greatest poet of the twentieth century, put a great deal of time, effort, learning, and reflection into his theater work. It is a pity that some obtuse and lazy critics consider it deficient. And more the pity that we rarely see his plays performed, let alone this brilliantly. One can only hope that Mr. Yeates and Torn Page will offer further productions, and that local actors, directors, choreographers, and designers will come to see them and be inspired.