On 10 May 1899 a letter of protest against WB Yeats’ The Countess Cathleen was published.
The letter followed the first performance of The Countess Cathleen on 8 May, a performance which Joyce attended. Some of Joyce’s university friends decided to write a letter of protest against the play and the letter was left on a table in the university for all to sign. Joyce refused to sign but some of his close friends, Tom Kettle, Richard Sheehy, Francis Skeffington, and John Francis Byrne, were among the signatories.
The letter claimed that, in the first place, the subject was not Irish – in fact, it was claimed that the story was based on a German legend. Yeats was accused of presenting “the Irish peasant as a crooning barbarian, crazed with morbid superstition, who, having added the Catholic faith to his store of superstition, sells that faith for gold or bread in the proving of famine.”
Accusing Yeats of turning the “gold of thought” into the “tinsel of melodiously meaningless verse,” the authors of the letter state: “…we feel it our duty, in the name and for the honour of Dublin Catholic students of the Royal University to protest against an art, even a dispassionate art, which offers as a type of our people a loathsome brood of apostate.”
For his part, Yeats later defended himself in notes to the edition of the play published in 1912, by saying that though “some forty Catholic students” had been persuaded to sign a protest against the play, he had “no reason to regret the result, for the stalls, containing almost all that was distinguished in Dublin, and a gallery of artisans alike insisted on the freedom of literature.”
It was probably this idea of the ‘freedom of literature’ that was behind Joyce’s decision not to sign the protest. In ‘The Day of the Rabblement’ Joyce claimed that the reaction to The Countess Cathleen, in which the ‘rabble’ declared the play to be “vicious and damnable,” had led the Irish Literary Theatre to shy away from producing even more challenging work by European writers such as Ibsen, Tolstoy or Hauptmann. “Nothing can be done,” Joyce wrote, “until the forces that dictate public judgment are calmly confronted.” For Joyce, the precedence of the artist and the work of art was absolute, and was not to be compromised by politics or religion.
Sources & Further Reading:
Ellmann, Richard: James Joyce – New and Revised edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.
Joyce, James: Occasional, Critical, and Political Writing, edited with an Introduction and Notes by Kevin Barry, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.