So on Friday, February 3 at 8:00 pm at Augustana Lutheran Church (assuming the world has not yet ended), my hardy band of players, singers, and musicians will do staged readings of two of Yeats’s dance plays: At the Hawk’s Well and The Dreaming of the Bones. Each play runs about 20 minutes and there will be a discussion afterward, as always.
I have posted this before. I am blogging about it tonight because we just finished our penultimate rehearsal and I want you all to know that this is going to be AWESOME.
I know I always say that. But you know what? That’s because it’s always true. I will even prove it to you.
Almost exactly seven years ago, Paul and I directed Yeats’s On Baile’s Strand. That play is, for Yeats, pretty typical–it’s basically Shakespearean in style, though with Yeats’s inimitable content–but it required the performance of a complicated “oath ritual” that involved three women singing some lovely but frequently unintentionally hilarious verse. (Ask me sometime about the grease of the ungoverned unicorn.) Yeats wrote verse plays and then, because that wasn’t enough poetry for him, went and stuck in self-contained lyric poems which he called upon people to set to music. This is one of the reasons he was overjoyed, sometime in the early 20th century, to discover Noh theater. (Conventional wisdom is that Ezra Pound introduced him to it in 1913 but some recent scholarship challenges this and suggests he might have encountered it earlier from other sources. Don’t get me started.) A dramatic form in which the show is made almost entirely of poetry, where everyone sings, and the protagonist transforms into a demon or ghost and does a climactic beautiful/terrifying dance? SIGN ME UP, said William Butler Yeats, ESPECIALLY if it means I don’t have to deal with props and scenery and can do the play in someone’s living room.
Last summer when we were proposing shows, Bill had proposed Rashomon. We didn’t end up putting it in the season; but I told Bill that if he was interested in doing music for something inspired by Japanese theater, we could maybe do a staged reading of At the Hawk’s Well. I sent Bill the play, and he read it, and he got excited about it. At some point he asked if we were doing anything with it, because the staged readings are supposed to be about an hour and At the Hawk’s Well doesn’t run more than about 25 minutes. I thought, well, I could just use the same cast for another one-act Yeats play. I thought about Purgatory, which is very short and which you can do with two people. And then I thought: wait a minute, I hate Purgatory. Sure, it’s interesting to teach; but the politics are repellent, and I’ve seen it done but frankly it’s never been that absorbing to me. And then I thought: OK. Let’s do The Dreaming of the Bones. It’s@#$! 2017, I’m ready to do a play about guilt, betrayal, and implacable hatred.
It turns out to be a great pairing. Both plays call for three actor/dancers and three singing musicians, so the cast is doubling, and that creates some interesting correspondences. ATHW was written in 1916, in the middle of a world war, about two weeks before the Easter 1916 uprising in Dublin; DOTB was written during the Liberation War between England and Ireland in 1919, a year Yeats hated so much he wrote an entire poem about how much it sucked (“Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen”). Both plays depict characters who are trapped in hells of their own making because they are unable to let go of a dream that has betrayed them. In ATHW, the Old Man has found a well whose water gives the drinker eternal life; but the water comes and goes only infrequently, and somehow when it flows up he can never catch it long enough to drink it. He’s been trying to get a sip of that water for fifty years by the time Cuchulain shows up. In DOTB, two ghosts whose love for each other led them, seven hundred years earlier, to invite the English to conquer Ireland, haunt their gravesites, constantly trying to touch but never able to. They believe that they would be free to unite once more if they could find one Irish person who would forgive them for betraying their country out of self-interest. One night, a Young Man who’s just fought in the failed Easter 1916 rising shows up on their hill, and they think he may be the one.
Making one mistake, then haunting that mistake forever: that’s the human condition as Yeats conceived of it. Bill’s music for both plays is haunting–Zoe, listening to it patiently from her exile down the hall, described it as “eerie”–and beautiful. I heard it live for the first time tonight after listening to computer-generated sound files for a couple weeks, and it’s fantastic. I was pleased to see that most of my movement ideas worked. Anthony improvises his own hawk dance in ATHW; the rest of the movement was thought up by yours truly. You wouldn’t know it to look at me now, but in my youth I took many years of modern dance and I really loved it. I’ve always wanted us to do more with movement, and this seemed like a good opportunity to do it. It’s exciting to see an idea of yours–even a really simple idea–realized in the playing area, and to think, OK. That actually works. And, you know, sometimes it doesn’t and then you just change it.
Paul has made the masks called for, and it’s startling how much they really do transform people. I’m glad everyone had a chance to work with them tonight, because it’s hard to adjust to them–and paradoxically, the fact that it’s not a full production makes it harder, because everyone’s still reading from scripts. Leslie H is going to do makeup for the other characters, which I cannot wait to see.
So everyone was in my living room tonight, and we banged both of the plays out in our own little mini-tech rehearsal. And let me tell you: I like the dance plays, I find them interesting, but I would always have said I didn’t love them. Now, I’m starting to understand what people see in them. So short, and yet so full of grief and loss. They’re beautiful, and kind of heartbreaking.
Of course, all our hearts are already breaking. On top of everything else, Trump’s regime has promised to cut funding for the arts. Fortunately this edict will have no effect on the HPCP whatsoever, as we never got any of that money. But during these terrible weeks it actually has significantly comforted me to be able to forget about the destruction of the republic for a couple hours a week to work on them. Thanks to everyone involved. There’s going to be at least one thing to look forward to about February 2017.