Stage Directions in The Only Jealousy of Emer

Yeats gives extremely specific stage directions in The Only Jealousy of Emer, which is unusual in the plays that I’ve read. Now I’m not a drama expert, but I found it strange that the stage directions were so specific about the costumes of the musicians being exactly the same as in The Dreaming of the Bones, and the dance scene with the Sidhe was so specific about her metallic appearance and her other-than-human qualities. In other respects of staging, however, Yeats is purposefully ambiguous, as in his including in the stage directions that “The stage as before can be set against the wall of any room.” In either case, Yeats is very controlling of what his play will look like, because he wants it to affect his audiences in a specific way. He imagines that there is a single formulaic way to do that and he includes the critical elements of that formula in stage directions.

I have been told that stage directions are often tossed to the wind when actually putting on a play, and that playwrights are generally aware of this, so that they provide only very general stage “suggestions” more than stage “directions.” Not so with Yeats. He writes so much of his own vision into this play that it would be tough for lots of different directors to stage it differently. I think therein lies the point, that Yeats imagines his plays as art that does something, that pushes audiences’ buttons in specific ways to achieve a specific effect. For example, including in a stage direction that the stage can be in any room invites people to put on the play in garages, shops and warehouses and not just theaters. If the working class takes Yeats up on his offer and produces the play in local underground, this would diversify his audience and possibly attract the lower class to his and the cultural nationalists’ vision for Ireland. Specifically including that the Woman of the Sidhe should look otherworldly, “more an idol than a human being,” nicely epitomizes Yeats’ vision for how women are to be used in his art, as symbols rather than people. Yeats wants to make absolutely sure that exactly his vision for the play is what audiences see, to that they are affected in exactly the way that he has calculated.

3 Replies to “Stage Directions in The Only Jealousy of Emer”

  1. I think it has a lot to do with Yeats wanting to appeal to the aristocracy and those who he believes understand his art more clearly. I think because this specific play was only produced in the homes of the aristocracy, like Professor Doggett said, Yeats uses this opportunity to fully apply his artistic insight to each aspect of the play. He orders the Woman of the Sidhe to portray a specific color because he knows that his wealthy audience will understand it. If the play was meant to be for a more general audience then I think Yeats would not have paid as much attention to the stage cues and similar things. Ultimately, it boils down to, in my opinion, that Yeats knows his audience, so he knows that they will understand his artistic direction.

  2. Yes, that makes sense. For Yeats, the theater was to be “like a secret society” where only certain people are allowed in. Just as the hostess controls who gets invited to a wealthy dinner, Yeats wants to control who gets to see his plays. The wrong audience (like gatecrashers at an aristocratic dinner or, say, a couple of skeptical journalists at an elaborate occult ceremony) will never understand the symbolic meaning of the work–which is why, according to Yeats, his early plays never really caught on with the Irish public. Thus, he basically says, “well, I’ll only show my work to the right people–the kind of people who will naturally understand what I’m trying to do.”

  3. This is absolutely fascinating; in drama we’re usually taught to focus on the playwright’s dialogue rather than the stage directions; taking these into account is like reading a book with an eye to the paper the author had it printed on. (At least for me.) One of the few playwrights who’s often discussed in non-theater contexts is Shakespeare, who is popularly viewed to have eschewed detailed stage directions because he could simply tell his actors what he wanted them to do, and thus never bothered to write them down. The idea that a playwright’s character can shine through in their stage directions as strongly as it does in the play itself is fairly new. The idea that Yeats would use this platform to further reinforce his pseudo-modernist views of society (if you took Doggett’s British Novels and Modernism class last semester you know what I’m talking about; aristocratic ideals of social status, based off of cultural immersion rather than economic standing.) on the other hand doesn’t surprise me in the least.

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