I know better than anyone what it’s like to have an elder sibling that is hugely successful. I know how it feels to have an older brother who was always far more popular and smart and lucky than you could ever be. Thankfully, my brother wasn’t also an aspiring playwright.
In the late 1930s, Jack Yeats managed to get one of his own compositions staged at the Peacock Theatre, shortly after the death of his brother W. B. Yeats. In fact, letters I found in the New York public library suggest that he’d been in conversation with Ria Mooney for some time before W.B. Yeats’ death about staging the play with her Experimental Theatre group. Jack was six years younger than W.B. and whether the elder dismissed or encouraged Jack’s efforts is not known.
Ria, always one to notice the underdog and give it all the help she could, worked with the younger Yeats to edit and prepare the scripts. She then talked F.R. Higgins into staging the play at the Peacock, using the company formed by her pupils in the acting school, the Abbey Experimental Theatre Group. The group, under the supervision of senior pupil Cecil Ford, had been directing and producing their own work for some time, but Ria herself would direct this play.
For years, I’ve been tantalised by the titles of his works for the stage: Harlequin’s Positions (1939) and La La Noo (1942) are some of the best play titles I’ve ever come across, yet I knew nothing about the subject of these works because I couldn’t find the texts themselves. As often is the case, I’d been looking in all the wrong places…
Jack wrote novels as well as his famous painting, but perhaps the greatest clue that he considered himself an artist rather than a playwright is that his manuscripts (along with detailed stage designs by his niece Anne) were donated to the National Gallery Archives, where they’re open and free to access. The staff are incredibly welcoming and friendly; they were dismayed when I asked if they needed details of my research institution, declaring themselves a ‘public institution, open to all.’
His first play Harlequin’s Positions was written in his rounded, cursive hand in pen. The complete play spanned four manuscript notebooks. He used his crayons to put the title in colour on each of the notebooks. The dialogue of the play comes AFTER detailed sketches for each of the Acts in the four-act play, as if this painter always thought first in shape and colour before adding the dialogue.
The painterly vision of Ria Mooney was re-inspired by these beautiful drawings (firstly done in graphite, then in pen and ink). He worked with his niece, Anne Yeats, then establishing herself as a scene designer of real talent after years of training with Tania Moseiwitch in the Scene Room of the Abbey.
SO – you know what I’m going to say next, right? The photos I have taken of the scene designs can’t be published here. If your curiosity won’t abate, email me and I’ll let you see my copies, or you’ll just have to visit the National Gallery archives yourself!
The key features of these designs was the strength of the colour. His sketch for the sitting room of Madame Rose Bosanquet’s sitting room in Act 1 includes the note: “general colour: heavy; no whites showing.”
The walls were covered in heavily flowered paper. There was a dark green carpet; dark claret-coloured porticos over the door; along with a stuffed pheasant on the wall and a glass globe with snow storm on the table.
When the curtains revealed the sitting room, an audience may have been lured into a sense that this was a traditional family drama. But then Alfred Clonboise (27), a distant cousin of the family, returns from South America and everything takes a strange turn.
Act 3 was set on a “Grassy knoll overlooking small harbour and roofs of town. Side of pilots black wooden shelter on right; at left high board fence of hurley ground. Wooden seat to right of middle.” His notebooks add: “general colours: light blue and light green. Grass practical; masts of steamers small, roofs of houses.”
The rehearsals were set to begin in the spring of 1939 and in April Jack wrote to Ria from his home in Fitzwilliam Square:
Dear Miss Mooney, How are the rehearsals of my play getting on. And is the work yet in a condition in which you would like me to come and see it?
He was getting anxious, and in the end attended at least four rehearsals, occasionally adding or cutting lines.
In her sketchbook/notebook/diary, Anne Yeats records meetings with Ria Mooney about the set in between projects for the Abbey main stage, lunch at the Country Shop in Stephen’s Green and shopping. But if Jack and Anne were working hard on designs, the actual work of building and painting the sets was all done by the students themselves. This group of amateurs, rehearsing in the evenings and weekends, arranged extra sessions where they hammered and painted and re-painted sets to satisfy their expert designers.
There were over forty students working with the AET, which was managed by a Committee of students and Ria Mooney. Director Hugh Hunt maintained a veto over the productions, although it never appears to have been used. The secretary of the Committee was a woman named Josephine Fitzgerald, a mother of three children who rushed through her housework duties to spend as much time as possible at the theatre. Some time ago, I met her daughter and she shared with me this photo of the students on stage after Harlequin’s Positions:
If you look closely, you can see Jack Yeats (arms crossed) with his wife in the centre, and on the right (as you look at the picture) are Ernest Blythe and his wife.
Huge energy and commitment went into Harlequin’s Positions, but after the opening in June 1939 the newspapers saw little in it other than an attempt to showcase the Abbey School of Acting’s talent. They said:
“Harlequin’s Positions” is an excellent play for a company like the Abbey Experimental Theatre. It gives nearly every member of the cast the opportunity of playing a leading part in at least one of the five acts. There were parts of the play which might have been better in the hands of more experienced performers. On the whole, however, the players had a strange piece of material. What the plot was, if there was a plot at all, became more and more difficult to decide as the piece proceeded.
It is indeed difficult to ascertain the plot of the piece, but Jack Yeats clearly was exploring a state of mind that was perhaps far too abstract for most to grasp. Ria Mooney, used to such conceptual work from her time with Eva le Gallienne, was enthused by it. In the first act, Alfred Clonboise tells the family about a harlequin he encountered in “in Pernambuco or Lima, or somewhere.”
He described the graceful figure:
He turned always from one to the other to complete the series, five in number:- Admiration. Pas de Basque. Thought. Defiance. Determination. I have committed them to memory – Harlequin positions and have made them my order of — order of existence, if I may put it that way. I often start a journey in a state of ‘admiration’ and end it with ‘determination’.
Younger siblings generally do find their own ‘order of existence’. By 1942, Jack Yeats’ work La La Noo made it to the main stage. And I’ve a sense that if W. B. was watching from a higher place in 1939, he may just have been proud to see his little brother perplex the critics and entertain this group of aspiring actors…