University of Iowa News Release
Release: Feb. 14, 2003
University Theatres Produces Trio Of Plays By W.B. Yeats
The University of Iowa department of theatre arts will serve up a rare literary and theatrical treat, complete with original music, dance, and Japanese bunraku puppetry, when the University Theatres Mainstage presents "Uncontrollable Mystery," a trio of plays by Nobel Prize winning poet William Butler Yeats, Feb. 27 through March 9.
Performances of the three plays -- "Cathleen ni Houlihan," "The Dreaming of the Bones" and "Purgatory" -- will be at 8 p.m. Feb. 27-March 1 and March 5-8, and at 3 p.m. Sundays, March 2 and 9, in the David Thayer Theatre of the UI Theatre Building.
"Although Yeats didn't necessarily intend these plays to be performed as a trilogy when he wrote them, the three plays when placed together examine a cycle of violence that is not so distant from our own," says director Kristin Horton, a graduate student in the department of theatre arts.
"Yes, these are Irish stories, but the themes and questions apply directly to us today, in this time and place. We live in an increasingly Romantic era filled with passionate advertisements for or against war, with each dominated by haunting images of our past. In these plays, the invisible forces that influence our lives driving us to extreme choices of violence are embodied, and we are, just as the characters are, confronted with the emotional landscape this mystery creates."
To heighten the atmosphere of the plays, Horton decided to augment the poetic drama with music. "Setting the poetry to music lifts the words off the page in ways that simply speaking them often cannot," she says. "Music elevates the language as well as creates the atmosphere these plays demand.
"We've had the privilege of working with a composer. Michael Cash, who comes to rehearsal regularly; he watches how a section of the play evolves and then writes the score. Rarely does one get the opportunity to work this way; often the music is written before the rehearsals begin."
Yeats, who lived 1865-1939, is considered one of Ireland's greatest poets -- in fact, one of the greatest poets of the English language -- and he was also one of the most active and outspoken advocates for the revival of traditional Celtic culture.
But during his lifetime Yeats was also renowned as a playwright, and he wrote, "I need a theatre. . . and I seem to myself most alive at the moment when a room full of people share the one lofty emotion."
Yeats wrote 26 plays, including farces, folk dramas, verse plays based on mythology and even experimental plays for dancers. He was one of the founders of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, and in his later plays he incorporated concepts from Japanese Noh theater to develop a "theatre of the mind," an experimentation that influenced other prominent artists, including Beckett and Brecht.
Yeats wrote drama throughout his creative career, and the three plays collected in this production span 37 years of his writing life.
The symbolism of "Cathleen ni Houlihan" -- in which Irish culture is personified as a mistreated old woman -- was not lost on Irish militants, and it became a rallying cry for the Irish republican movement.
The Noh influence is prominent in "The Dreaming of the Bones," written in 1919. In this production Japanese bunraku puppets, musicians and dancers depict characters from the spirit world, in a play that is a thinly veiled commentary on the political and social upheaval of the Irish Civil War.
Bunraku puppets, which are usually about half of life-size, are carried and manipulated by artists who are visible on-stage. In traditional bunraku theater, each puppet is manipulated by as many as three artists simultaneously, to create exceptionally detailed movements and expressions.
"Purgatory" was one of Yeats' last and most influential works, and it appropriately depicts an old peddler returning to his boyhood home to face recollection, death and judgment.
"The Irish like the Japanese live with the dead; in both of these cultures the dead have a strong presence in their literature, art, and everyday life," Horton observes. "The presence of the dead continually reminds one of one's history both in a personal way as well as in the larger context of one's society.
"In these plays we're looking at how the presence of the dead affects the way we make decisions, weigh the consequences, take responsibility, etc -- how the past acts on us and shapes our future."
Other artistic contributors to "Uncontrollable Mystery" include puppet designer William Barbour and dramaturg Nancy C. Mayfield.
Tickets are $16 ($8 for UI students, senior citizens and youth) and may be purchased in advance from the Hancher Auditorium box office. Any remaining tickets for each performance will be available one hour before curtain time at the Theatre Building box office.
Hancher Auditorium box office business hours are 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. weekdays and 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturdays. From the local calling area, dial (319) 335-1160. Long distance is toll-free, 1-800-HANCHER. Fax to (319) 353-2284. People with special needs for access, seating and auxiliary services should dial (319) 335-1158, which is equipped with TDD for people with hearing impairment who use that technology.
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