Progress and identity in the plays of W. B. Yeats, 1892--1907

Date of Completion

January 2000


Literature, Modern|Theater|Literature, English




“Progress” takes as its point of departure the cultural milieu in which colonial definitions of class, gender, and ethnicity were cultivated. Examining Yeats's plays written and produced in the 1890s and early 1900s within the context of modern drama, I trace Yeats's evolution from a writer of popular nationalist drama to a writer of esoteric verse drama, and read his plays against the standard line of criticism that denies his career a social agenda. When read in a cultural context, Yeats's plays become dramatizations of a crisis of social as well as individual identity. More specifically, my study provides a reevaluation of Yeats's essentialist definitions of identity within the historical context in which progress and identity came to be seen as inseparable cultural constructs. I explore the ways in which Yeats's doctrine of the mask provides a method of changing what science, Platonism, and materialist bourgeois ideologies claimed to be inescapable qualities of self. That is, Yeats makes inclusive, flexible, and broad-minded formerly exclusive, essentialist, and normative definitions of progress and identity. The implications of this study thus extend beyond Yeatsian scholarship and into identity theory. ^ Chapters One and Two outline both the ways in which predominant discourses of progress—informed by Darwin, Huxley, Arnold, and Renan—manifested themselves in cultural institutions, and Yeats's alternative vision of progress. Showing his peasant characters to be motivated by bourgeois materialism, in Chapter Three, I discuss Yeats's critique of progress from the perspective of class in The Countess Cathleen, Cathleen ni Houlihan, and The Land of Heart's Desire. In Chapter Four, I outline Yeats's critical assessment of essentialist notions of gender and his promotion of psychological androgyny in The King's Threshold, On Bades Strand , and Deirdre. Chapter Five addresses Yeats's arguments against stereotyping and his concomitant advocacy of multivalent forms of identity, which reflect Victorian, and foresee contemporary theorists', arguments about hybridity. I also examine the critical response to Yeats's plays and explore, with Where There Is Nothing as example, the correlation between Yeats's failure to reach his contemporary audience and their relationship to conventional conceptions of progress and identity. ^