On this day…8 May

On 8 May 1899 Joyce attended the first performance of WB Yeats’ play The Countess Cathleen.

The first performance of Yeats’ play The Countess Cathleen took place in the Antient Concert Rooms on Brunswick Street on 8 May 1899. Florence Farr played the part of the poet Aleel, May Whitty played the Countess, and Anna Mather played Oona. It was also the inaugural performance of the Irish Literary Theatre, established in 1899 by Yeats, Lady Gregory and Edward Martyn.

The play is set in a time of famine, and tells the story of the Countess Cathleen who sells her soul to the devil in order to save the peasants from hunger. In the end, her self-sacrifice is rewarded and she ascends to heaven. Yeats published a version of it (called The Countess Kathleen) in 1892 and revised it further before its first performance in 1899.

The play was controversial even before the first performance. A pamphlet by Nationalist MP Frank Hugh O’Donnell, called Souls for Gold, prompted Cardinal Michael Logue to write to the Daily Nation newspaper, condemning the play as heretical without having read it. As a result, Edward Martyn, who was funding the new Literary Theatre, threatened to withdraw his support, though in the end he didn’t.  Anticipating trouble on the first night, Yeats had asked for police to be present at the theatre, but in the end there was no trouble.

According to the Freeman’s Journal on 9 May 1899, “An audience of between 400 and 500 assembled to witness the presentation of The Countess Cathleen. A small organised knot of less than a dozen disorderly boys, who evidently mistook the whole moral significance of the play, cast ridicule upon themselves by hissing the demons under the impression that they were hissing the poet. But the audience, representative of every section of educated opinion in Dublin, was most enthusiastic, recalling the actors and the author again and again and cheering loudly.”

Joyce, who sat in the gallery for the performance, liked the play but most of his friends from university were among the “disorderly boys” who booed and hissed the play. In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen recalls in detail the events of this night, including lines from the play, the burly sweating policeman ready to take action, and the catcalls and abuse shouted at the players and author.

It was also the first occasion on which Joyce heard the lyric ‘Who will go drive with Fergus now?’ which he later set to music, and which became one of his favourite poems. Lines from the poem are quoted in the ‘Telemachus,’ ‘Proteus’ and ‘Circe’ episodes of Ulysses.

While living in Trieste Joyce worked with Nicolò Vidacovich on an Italian translation of The Countess Cathleen but Yeats refused to authorise it as they had translated the earlier version of the play and Yeats wanted the later version translated instead. The later version omitted the song ‘Who will go drive with Fergus now?’ that Joyce liked so much.

The play was dedicated to Maud Gonne.


Sources & Further Reading:

Ellmann, Richard: James Joyce – New and Revised edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Norburn, Roger: A James Joyce Chronology, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

Ross, David A: Critical Companion to WB Yeats – A Literary Reference to his Life and Work, New York: Facts on File Inc., 2009.