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Flip the Script Friday: William Butler Yeats, Purgatory

Happy St. Patrick’s day, y’all! In honor of the obligatory day each year Americans become Irish in order to have an excuse to drink (and it’s a Friday this year, so of course it’s going to be a big, soggy mess), here’s a play from Ireland.

A few weeks ago, hiding in a corner of one of the bookshelves at the library was a tome entitled 13 Plays of the Ghosts and Supernatural. Naturally, I was intrigued, so I picked it up. I was delighted to find that rather than a bunch of boring classics or plays by nobody I had heard of, it contained a sweet little selection that crossed borders and genres. It’s been sitting at the bottom of various book piles ever since I got it, but I decided that today would finally be the day I’d pick one, read it, and write about it. So here’s an oldie, but a goodie: Purgatory by Ireland’s own William Butler Yeats.

Undated photo of the playwright (Wikipedia)

The Basics

Purgatory was first produced at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, Ireland, on 10 August 1938.

Characters

  • A Boy
  • An Old Man

Setting/Plot

Sometime, a ruined house with a bare tree in the background. The old man tells to the boy the story of his parents and this house, which was once theirs, alluding to people he sees in the windows which the boy cannot. After the old man tells of how his father was murdered in that house, and that he was the one who did it. He then demands that the boy – his son – hand over his backpack which is full of money. They struggle, breaking the bag and spilling the money on the ground. The boy threatens to kill the old man, but as he is distracted by the appearance of the silhouette of his grandfather’s ghost in the window, the old man stabs him with the same knife he used to murder his father.

My Thoughts

A short and thought-provoking piece that seems to give the reader more and more with each read. It’s written in kind of a modified rhythmic verse, which gives it a creepy edge; it doesn’t quite have a rhyme or a meter scheme, but seems to be purposeful in its pacing. The fact that the two characters are a father and son, and that rather than the perpetuation of the cycle, with the son killing the father, the father kills the son instead, thus breaking the cycle. But perhaps, in a way, sending the old man to purgatory, forever condemned to live and relive the murders of his own father and his own son.

Major Themes

Over and Over Again

OLD MAN: But there are some

That do not care what’s gone, what’s left:

The souls of Purgatory that come back

To habitations and familiar spots.

BOY: Your wits are out again.

OLD MAN: Re-live

Their transgressions, and that not once

But many times; they know at last

The consequence of those transgressions

Whether upon others or upon themselves;

Upon others, others may bring help,

For when the consequence is at an end

The dream must end; if upon themselves,

There is no help but in themselves

And in the mercy of God. (Yeats 179-180)

There’s this eerie quality about it. The old man speaks of purgatory and warns of what it entails. He seems to remember quite a lot; the type of binding of the books in the house, the exact conditions of the night when he was conceived. And when the boy starts to see the ghosts he has been denying, it’s almost as if he’s seeing into his father’s past.

After the old man stabs the boy, the stage darkens except for the only other thing on stage: the tree, surrounded by white light. Even though people have been murdered and one day the old man will die too, the tree has clearly been there since the old man was a boy and will continue to stand there after the man is gone. A bit reminiscent of The Giving Tree. But unlike the man and the boy, the tree cannot perpetuate a cycle of violence or procreate in the same way man can, just silently oversee the events in its presence.

A Horse, A Horse

Hoofbeats that are heard only by the old man, and not the boy. Horses seemed to contribute to both the birth and the undoing of the old man; his father was a groom in the stable owned by the family of the woman who would become his wife; he rode up to the house on a horse in order to sneak in and sleep with her; and he lost all her money betting on horses, sending his son, the old man, away. The old man kills his father out of rage, and the boy because he cannot bear the thought of him procreating with someone, potentially like his father and mother did. The logic is twisted – maybe it’s me – but there’s something about horses and sexuality that is really driving this old man to do these things.

How I’d Flip It

For some reason, I’m seeing black and white. Like, paper cuttings. The house is described as black and charred, after the old man’s father burnt it down while drunk, and the tree is in a white light. Purgatory itself is described as a gray area between heaven and hell, so I think my designs would incorporate that grayscale; no color at all. A lot of shadowing and dimensioning could be fun, especially with the outlines of the ghosts in the window, and possibly some sort of giant horse projection or something. For some reason I’m also thinking snow, and a lot of sharp angles, maybe even a leafless tree, one that almost looks like a tall hitching post rather than a tree.

I’ve probably had too much to drink (actually, I’ve had nothing at all to drink) but I managed to start and finish a Flip the Script in one sitting, so that’s something.

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Some Great Lesser-Known Irish Plays

I took a course in Irish theatre a few years back, and was amazed at the diversity of theatre that comes from one little island. Everyone knows Dancing at Lughnasa and Juno and the Paycock, but, in honor of St. Patrick’s Day, here’s a list of some Irish plays not everyone knows about, and why they’re great.

  1. Martin McDonagh, The Beauty Queen of Leenane

This play is a dark exploration of mother and daughter, spinster and invalid, and what happens when a man enters the picture.

2. Samuel Beckett, Happy Days

Winnie is buried in sand on the beach. She talks. That’s pretty much it, but it’s riveting.

3. William Butler Yeats, Cathleen ni Houlihan

4. Brian Friel, Translations

5. Denis Johnston, The Old Lady Says No!

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What I Saw (And Heard) on St. Patrick’s Day

Traveling on a holiday is always interesting, but traveling on St. Patrick’s Day was a new one for me.

Here’s my list of St. Patrick’s Day-like things I experienced today.

1. 10 AM, Espresso Royale, Madison, WI. There is Irish bagpipe music playing in the background. “What is this,” says my brain, “Irish Day?” … three seconds later … “Ohhhh, right, St. Patrick’s Day.”

2. 3:35 PM, General Mitchell International Airport, Milwaukee, WI. I board my flight to Tampa, and several people are dressed in green, no more than usual though. I’m in the first group of people on the plane, so I pick an aisle seat in an empty row. Some guy asks me if the two seats next to me are taken. I say go right in, and then his wife and son go into those seats. Sensing that someone’s a little bashful today, I offer up my seat, which accepts gratefully and with some surprise, as if he thinks that either a) he was actually expecting to put his wife and kid in a row with someone else already in it and just sit elsewhere, and then when that stranger offered up his seat, was taken aback, or b) he was hoping to put his wife and kid in a row with someone else and sit elsewhere in the plane with his mistress and/or girlfriend, or at least at a place where he wouldn’t get caught slipping his number to a flight attendant (and if this was the case…whoops, sorry for ruining your plans!)

3. Same time, same place. I sit in the row across from them, next to two girls from some community college in Minnesota decked out in lots of green and beads. One even has a light-up shamrock necklace. I kid you not.

4. Time unknown (maybe about 5 PM), in the air. I’m listening to music and reading, when Shamrock Necklace girl taps me on the shoulder and points to the drink menu. I’m all, “huh?” until she points out that since today is St. Patrick’s Day, Southwest Airlines offers free alcoholic beverages. And since we’ve been talking and have shared ages, she knows that unlike her, I am of age, so I celebrate accordingly. When the flight attendant comes around, I order a chardonnay and then opt to change it to a rum-and-coke, upon the guy behind me ordering the same.

5. Some time later, in the air. The drinks arrive, waters for the girls and my rum-and-coke, with a little wedge of lime. I wait until the stewardess passes, and then offer a sip to Shamrock Necklace girl (whose name is Natalie…unlikely that she’s going to read this). She looks at me incredulously, saying, “really?” I respond: “Go ahead, it’s St. Patrick’s Day and it’s not like you’re flying the plane.” She and her friend break out laughing and she sneaks a sip. Her friend politely declines.

6. Later, same place. I’ve gone back to reading/listening, and I get another tap from Natalie, who is giggling and holding a piece of plastic in her hand, the little piece that holds the tray table in the upright position. Apparently, her friend was playing with it and broke it off. And she wasn’t even the one who had anything to drink.

7. Same as above. Another tap from Natalie, and she gestures me to look to my right, where the guy who ordered the rum-and-coke is asleep with the little red Southwest Airlines toothpick hanging down out of his open, snoring mouth. We have a good laugh, and then we all hope that we don’t hit turbulence because it could result in us hearing “Is anyone on this plane a periodontist?” over the plane’s intercom.

8. 7:10 PM (EST now), Tampa, FL. We arrive, deplane, and take a tram to the main terminal, where we are greeted by a crowd watching a quartet of Irish dancers and an accompanying band of bagpipers. Apparently, we’re now in some Irish version of Florida.

9. 8 PM, Sarasota, FL. After my parents pick me up at the airport, our first stop is dinner at this pretty expensive seafood place. I order a sangria, because I can, and I surprisingly coerce my mother into sharing it with me.

10. 10:30 PM, Sarasota. We arrive at the hotel where my parents have been staying for the past few days. It’s a Hilton Garden Inn that’s practically in the middle of nowhere but “close to the ballpark” which is the reason for the trip, but a) the room only features two beds, which means that when my sister gets here in two days I’ll have to spend the next two nights sharing a bed with my father, b) we are in Florida and not walking distance from any beach, c) the hotel has a pool, but it’s a square about as big as two bathtubs put together, and d) when we walked in, the floor was wet in the room, so we will hopefully change rooms in the morning, but that still won’t solve the four-people-two-beds problem.

But I’m here, with my mom and dad, so I guess that’s what matters.

Happy St. Patrick’s day to all, and welcome to my two newest countries: Egypt (ترحيب!) and Montenegro (dobrodosao!)

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Hold On To Your Hats, It’s Time for Saint Pat’s

One thing I’ve been seeing a lot of lately is pictures of people wearing green and getting progressively drunker. Not surprisingly, they are in albums with labels like “St. Patrick’s Day 2014.” Yes, it’s that time of year….but it’s only March 9th. Last time I checked, St. Patrick’s Day was March 17. Every year.

I don’t know much about St. Patrick’s Day, but I think I know the rules (or what passes for them, anyway) that everyone’s Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, and that everyone gets green and wears drunk – I mean, gets drunk and wears green. And that it’s always, always on March 17.

Growing up as I did, there was no such thing as St. Patrick’s Day. It just didn’t exist. I think I first heard about it sometime in high school, at the earliest. One of the first things I learned was that it’s one of those holidays with a fixed date, like July 4th or New Year’s Day. In the Jewish calendar, holidays never have the same day due to the lunar dates corresponding with different solar dates every year. Thus, Passover could be in early April one year, in early May the next, and in late April the year after that.

But what confused me the most?

Not all non-Jewish holidays are on the same day every year.

It took me forever to nail down the fact that like St. Patrick’s Day, Christmas and Halloween do not change, but Easter, Ash Wednesday, and Good Friday do. Which brings me back to my original point; St. Patrick’s Day is, and yes, I did check again, not this week but NEXT week. Why are you having St. Patrick’s Day parties now? Why can’t you people wait a week and THEN deluge the Internet with your drinking pics? Why does the world insist on confusing me? Why do holidays do this? Why? Why?? Why???

At least I can fall back on the comfort of Judaism, where we never know the date our holidays will be on, but rest assured, they’re always too early or too late.