Roland E. Martin

Yeats Between Two Worlds

As a professional musician, I have had many opportunities with which to explore a facet of William Butler Yeats’s plays: his fascination with Japanese Noh theater. Many of Yeats’s short plays are built on stories from Irish mythology. These plays inhabit a strange world somewhere between East and West. Here is an Irish poet/playwright writing in a traditional Japanese form, utilizing elements of each culture. The subject matter is near and dear to the Irish sensibility: stories drawn from ancient Irish history, mythology and religion, but the language is terse and formal. Yeats specifies where in these plays he expects music to be played, and which parts of the script are to be sung. He specifies what instruments are to be played and where.

Over the last several years I have been commissioned to compose music for three of these plays. When doing so, I similarly found myself caught between two worlds, not simply those of East and West, but also those of music and literature. What, then, are the boundaries between music and literature? How does one find an appropriate “sound world” for these stories, the characters within them and two geographically distinct cultures?