“For when the consequence is at an end/ The dream must end.”
– Old Man, “Purgatory” by WB Yeats
The celebrated Irish writer William Butler Yeats dealt in words that gave “expression to the spirit of a whole nation” (1923 Nobel prize citation). His defining sensibilities were Romantic and Symbolist, his phrasing tough yet mesmeric. Yeats the dramatist was overshadowed by Yeats the titanic poet. Possibly in counteraction, he chose in his Nobel acceptance speech to focus on the Irish Dramatic Movement and not on his poetics.
Purgatory is a place of biblical significance (more Catholic than Protestant), and in this eponymous drama its symbolic import derives from its staging in a recognisably earthly (earthy) setting. The lone bare tree around which the story takes place is elemental and natural, yet it is neither dead nor alive. Like a soul in purgatory the tree’s future hangs by a thread. In that stark place the story unfolds both forwards and backwards. In this insubstantial setting transpire a hazy past and unsubstantiated future, always under the eye of judgment; yet neither insight nor hindsight are enough in the state of purgatory—rather, our stories must be re-lived in an unbroken vicious cycle. Finally the old kills the young, in an attempt to nullify the misconception that is the precursor self.
This short play was first presented in at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, on 19 August 1938, a few months before Yeats' death. In his writing he was obsessed with the symbolic, but it is known that he also imagined every detail of his plays on stage. What is glaringly missing from the mystic writer’s epic imagination is the notion of the afterlife, and in this earth-bound setting redemption never materialises. In this astonishingly potent drama Yeats saw the stage as a cataclysmic ritual space for delving into man’s spiritual loneliness and moral agency. As his contemporary Nietzche wrote, “if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you”.
(from Aaron Lee's notes to the programme)