Read BOOK IV - Chapter I of The Trembling of the Veil, free online book, by William Butler Yeats, on

Two or three years after our return to Bedford Park The Doll’s House had been played at the Royalty Theatre in Dean Street, the first Ibsen play to be played in England, and somebody had given me a seat for the gallery.  In the middle of the first act, while the heroine was asking for macaroons, a middle-aged washerwoman who sat in front of me, stood up and said to the little boy at her side, “Tommy, if you promise to go home straight, we will go now;” and at the end of the play, as I wandered through the entrance hall, I heard an elderly critic murmur, “A series of conversations terminated by an accident.”  I was divided in mind, I hated the play; what was it but Carolus Durand, Bastien-Lepage, Huxley and Tyndall, all over again; I resented being invited to admire dialogue so close to modern educated speech that music and style were impossible.

“Art is art because it is not nature,” I kept repeating to myself, but how could I take the same side with critic and washerwoman?  As time passed Ibsen became in my eyes the chosen author of very clever young journalists, who, condemned to their treadmill of abstraction, hated music and style; and yet neither I nor my generation could escape him because, though we and he had not the same friends, we had the same enemies.  I bought his collected works in Mr. Archer’s translation out of my thirty shillings a week and carried them to and fro upon my journeys to Ireland and Sligo, and Florence Farr, who had but one great gift, the most perfect poetical elocution, became prominent as an Ibsen actress and had almost a success in Rosmersholm, where there is symbolism and a stale odour of spoilt poetry.  She and I and half our friends found ourselves involved in a quarrel with the supporters of old fashioned melodrama, and conventional romance, and in the support of the new dramatists who wrote in what the Daily Press chose to consider the manner of Ibsen.  In 1894 she became manageress of the Avenue Theatre with a play of Dr. Todhunter’s, called The Comedy of Sighs, and Mr Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man.  She asked me to write a one act play for her niece, Miss Dorothy Paget, a girl of eight or nine, to make her first stage appearance in; and I, with my Irish Theatre in mind, wrote The Land of Heart’s Desire, in some discomfort when the child was theme, as I knew nothing of children, but with an abundant mind when Mary Bruin was for I knew an Irish woman whose unrest troubled me and lay beyond my comprehension.  When she opened her theatre she had to meet a hostile audience, almost as violent as that Synge met in January, 1907, and certainly more brutal, for the Abbey audience had no hatred for the players, and I think but little for Synge himself.  Nor had she the certainty of final victory to give her courage, for The Comedy of Sighs was a rambling story told with a little paradoxical wit.  She had brought the trouble upon herself perhaps, for always in revolt against her own poetical gift, which now seemed obsolete, and against her own Demeter-like face in the mirror, she had tried when interviewed by the Press to shock and startle ­to seem to desire enemies; and yet, unsure of her own judgment being out of her own trade, had feared to begin with Shaw’s athletic wit, and now outraged convention saw its chance.  For two hours and a half, pit and gallery drowned the voices of the players with boos and jeers that were meant to be bitter to the author who sat visible to all in his box surrounded by his family, and to the actress struggling bravely through her weary part; and then pit and gallery went home to spread their lying story that the actress had a fit of hysterics in her dressing-room.

Todhunter had sat on to the end, and there were, I think, four acts of it, listening to the howling of his enemies, while his friends slipped out one by one, till one saw everywhere their empty seats, but nothing could arouse the fighting instincts of that melancholy man.  Next day I tried to get him to publish his book of words with satirical designs and illustrations, by Beardsley, who was just rising into fame, and an introduction attacking the public, but though petulant and irascible he was incapable of any emotion that could give life to a cause.  He shared the superstition still current in the theatre, that the public wants sincere drama, but is kept from it by some conspiracy of managers or newspapers, and could not get out of his head that the actors were to blame.  Shaw, whose turn came next, had foreseen all months before, and had planned an opening that would confound his enemies.  For the first few minutes Arms and the Man is crude melodrama and then just when the audience are thinking how crude it is, it turns into excellent farce.  At the dress rehearsal, a dramatist who had his own quarrel with the public, was taken in the noose; for at the first laugh he stood up, turned his back on the stage, scowled at the audience, and even when everybody else knew what turn the play had taken, continued to scowl, and order those nearest to be silent.

On the first night the whole pit and gallery, except certain members of the Fabian Society, started to laugh at the author and then, discovering that they themselves were being laughed at, sat there not converted ­their hatred was too bitter for that ­but dumbfounded, while the rest of the house cheered and laughed.  In the silence that greeted the author after the cry for a speech one man did indeed get his courage and boo loudly.  “I assure the gentleman in the gallery,” was Shaw’s answer, “that he and I are of exactly the same opinion, but what can we do against a whole house who are of the contrary opinion?” And from that moment Bernard Shaw became the most formidable man in modern letters, and even the most drunken of medical students knew it.  My own play, which had been played with The Comedy of Sighs, had roused no passions, but had pleased a sufficient minority for Florence Farr to keep it upon the stage with Arms and the Man, and I was in the theatre almost every night for some weeks.  “Oh, yes, the people seem to like Arms and the Man,” said one of Mr Shaw’s players to me, “but we have just found out that we are all wrong.  Mr Shaw did really mean it quite seriously, for he has written a letter to say so, and we must not play for laughs any more.”  Another night I found the manager, triumphant and excited, the Prince of Wales and the Duke of Edinburgh had been there, and the Duke of Edinburgh had spoken his dislike out loud so that the whole stalls could hear, but the Prince of Wales had been “very pleasant” and “got the Duke of Edinburgh away as soon as possible.”  “They asked for me,” he went on, “and the Duke of Edinburgh kept on repeating, ‘The man is mad,’ meaning Mr Shaw, and the Prince of Wales asked who Mr Shaw was, and what he meant by it.”  I myself was almost as bewildered for though I came mainly to see how my own play went, and for the first fortnight to vex my most patient actors with new lines, I listened with excitement to see how the audience would like certain passages of Arms and the Man.  I hated it; it seemed to me inorganic, logical straightness and not the crooked road of life and I stood aghast before its energy as to-day before that of the Stone Drill by Mr. Epstein or of some design by Mr Wyndham Lewis.  He was right to claim Samuel Butler for his master, for Butler was the first Englishman to make the discovery, that it is possible to write with great effect without music, without style, either good or bad, to eliminate from the mind all emotional implication and to prefer plain water to every vintage, so much metropolitan lead and solder to any tendril of the vine.  Presently I had a nightmare that I was haunted by a sewing machine, that clicked and shone, but the incredible thing was that the machine smiled, smiled perpetually.  Yet I delighted in Shaw the formidable man.  He could hit my enemies and the enemies of all I loved, as I could never hit, as no living author that was dear to me could ever hit.

Florence Farr’s way home was mine also for a part of the way, and it was often of this that we talked, and sometimes, though not always, she would share my hesitations, and for years to come I was to wonder whenever Shaw became my topic, whether the cock crowed for my blame or for my praise.