Many of the world’s greatest artists, like Irish poet and playwright William Butler Yeats, have drawn inspiration from ancient myths and legends. But while Yeats’ younger contemporaries James Joyce and T. S. Eliot turned to Homeric epic and Arthurian romance, Yeats — who also drew from Homer — mined sources closer to home in ancient sagas about the Irish warrior Cuchulain. Scena Theatre’s Three by Yeats explores this national mythology in three short plays Yeats wrote in the early decades of the 20th century, as Ireland fought a bloody war for independence from Great Britain.
Myth can be dangerous, if thrilling, territory for theater-making. Its stories are often fantastic, its characters larger than life, its settings grandiose if not otherworldly. It almost demands an expansive canvas. You can either go big, as they say, or go home. Or you can write verse drama expressly for the drawing room, as Yeats did in the first of the plays on offer here — At the Hawk’s Well (1915) — privileging language and sound over external action. Let the imagination provide the heroic grandeur. This brings us to what is almost an occupational hazard for poets who write drama in verse: Which is more important, the language or the action? Where is the audience’s focus to be?
It is not entirely Scena Theatre’s fault that the short plays in Three by Yeats come across more as closet dramas best read and heard than as full-blown plays meant for the stage. The plays or playlets — At the Hawk’s Well (1915), The Death of Cuchulain (1939), and Purgatory (1938) — emphasize language and story but offer little in the way of character development or emotional involvement with the action onstage. When the Old Man in Purgatory tells his teenage son about the demise of their family — pictured in the literal razing of the family manor — and of his murder of his own father, we can almost see how the ghostly story will end, but we don’t really feel it. Likewise, the encounter between Cuchulain and an Old Man at the Hawk’s well — a place whose water is said to convey immortality, could one drink it — does not convey the menace one is led to expect. The last play in the series, The Death of Cuchulain, feels heavy with exposition, as figures from Cuchulain’s life, including his former lover Eithne, a crow-headed war goddess, and a Blind Man all taunt the dying warrior through references to his past that can seem obscure to contemporary audiences. As a result, Scena’s actors have a limited range of character material to explore and can sometimes be tempted toward overacting. Fortunately, this is not often.
Watching Three by Yeats, one has the sense that the great poet isn’t really concerned with the usual dramatic elements of tension, catharsis, or even emotional connection. Rather, he seems to be giving a lesson in traditional folklore and mythology for people who will soon be citizens of a newly independent nation requiring its own cultural touchstones — like the tales of Cuchulain. In between the first and second plays, Director Robert McNamara, in the guise of an early, flamboyant director of these works, comes out to apprise the audience of as much, delineating some of the cultural context of the dramas and repeatedly acknowledging that they are now “out of style,” but he is hard to hear, and his commentary seems extraneous. Better might be a historical framing of these plays as a kind of cultural propaganda, executed by one of the world’s greatest poets, in an attempt to reconnect Irish audiences with a folkloric past entirely their own. (After hundreds of years of English domination, such a cultural recovery effort was no doubt sorely needed.) One could imagine a very interesting post-show discussion around this subject.
If Scena’s staging of these plays lacks the epic expansiveness the material would seem to demand, the company attempts to make up for it with a nod to the stylized movement and ritualistic atmosphere of a Japanese Noh drama, one of Yeats’ acknowledged influences. In the hands of a master choreographer and highly skilled dancers, such as those regularly employed by Arlington’s Synetic Theater, this stylization and abstraction can imbue even the simplest drama with a touch of the otherworldly. Here, artistic considerations and perhaps spatial limitations in the very small DC Arts Center theater make this kind of transport elusive. Instead, the dance of the Guardian of the Well in At the Hawk’s Well — a signal moment in the short drama that Yeats himself remarked on — can seem forced, and live vocal effects by cast members come across as less than effective. One could wish for a stronger sound design to support transitional moments between the plays and in the action and, perhaps, a more robust musical ensemble than the current pennywhistle and small drums offer, although David Johnson, Robert Sheire, and Aniko Olah do an adequate job with what they have. Likewise, one might wish that more could be done with the wooden panel (painted red) at the rear of the small stage, which is the only significant set piece. Does it represent the shedding of blood, which is an important idea in at least two of the plays? Could it be made to represent some of the mythological aspects of the stories themselves, or even suggest the delicate screen of a Japanese Noh drama?
Commendations must go to Scena Theatre, its director, and the cast and crew of Three by Yeats for staging poetic works that are, almost certainly, more often read than seen. Theirs is an epic task, undertaken with commitment and limited resources. If they did not entirely win the day, well, Cuchulain didn’t either.
Running Time: Approximately 75 minutes, no intermission.
Three by Yeats plays through June 4, 2023 (Thursday to Saturday at 7:30 pm, Sunday at 2:30 pm), presented by Scena Theatre performing at DC Arts Center, 2438 18th St. NW, Washington, DC. Purchase tickets ($40) online.
COVID Safety: Masks are optional.
Three by William Butler Yeats
At the Hawk’s Well
Singers: Danielle Davy, Aniko Olah, and Melissa Robinson
Old Man: Ron Litman
Young Man: Lee Ordeman
Guardian of the Well: Ellie Nicoll
Understudies: Kim Curtis “Old Man”; Aniko Olah “Guardian” Dance
Old Man: Buck O’Leary
Boy: Robert Sheire
The Death of Cuchulain
Musician: David Johnson
Old Man: Robert McNamara
Cuchulain: Lee Ordeman
Eithne Inguba: Danielle Davy
Aoife: Ellie Nicoll
Emer: Aniko Olah
The Morrigu: Melissa Robinson
A Blind Man: Ron Litman
A Servant: Robert Sheire
Singer: Danielle Davy
A Singer, Piper, Drummer: David Johnson, Robert Sheire & Aniko Olah
Understudies: Kim Curtis “Cuchulain”; Anne Nottage “The Morrigu”;
Stacy Whittle “Aoife”‘ Aniko Olah “The Morrigu” Dance
Director and Artistic Director: Robert McNamara, Musical Director: Scott Morrison, Sound Designer: Denise Rose, Lighting Designer: Marianne Meadows, Costume Designer: Mei Chen, Costume Consultant: Alisa Mandel, Set Designer/Masks: John D. Antone, Choreographer: Kim Curtis, Movement/Dance Coach: Lee Ordeman, Assistant Director: Anne Nottage, Stage Manager: Sarah Graham