Tom Lalor’s Yeats cartoon

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 4 (Winter 2004), News, Volume 12

70_small_1247575473A cartoon that accompanied TV Eye’s review of RTÉ1’s ‘The Abbey Theatre: the first hundred years’ (HI 12.1, Spring 2004) was captioned: ‘Yeats addressing the audience . . . during the Playboy disturbances, 1907’. Similar (erroneous) captions have been reproduced in several books on the period. In fact, the cartoon shows Yeats giving a lecture on ‘The Theatre and Beauty’ at the opening of an exhibition of the stage designs of Gordon Craig in the Central Hall, Westmoreland Street, on 18 March 1913. (The pictures visible on the wall are presumably intended to resemble Craig’s designs.) The meeting was chaired by Casimir Markievicz (husband of the famous countess) and the audience included W.F. Bailey (the man with the white moustache), a land commissioner, art-lover and director of the National Gallery heavily involved in the campaign to build an art gallery across the Liffey for Hugh Lane’s pictures.

 
According to the Irish Times report the following day, Yeats said

‘. . . he had always wondered why no one had written a history of vulgarity. They had books on every conceivable subject, but this was the one subject which had never been even given a definition. It was a subject that could be written in many volumes, and he supposed somewhere in the last chapter of the tenth volume would be given a final and complete definition of vulgarity. He would like to say what he would do in one chapter of that unwritten book. That chapter would be given to the theatre. They had vulgarity all around them. It was quite a modern thing. It did not enter the theatre of Sophocles or the theatre of Shakespeare, or the wonderful theatre of the fifth century in India—the most subtle of all the primary arts. The reason of it was that in olden days there were just well educated men and wholly uneducated men. Those uneducated men had in their own homes beautiful poetry and ballads, and they learned them in their own way from their fathers.

 
When the history of vulgarity was written it would be seen that there was something that made the men of today sing not “Barbara Allen” but some music-hall ditty. They wanted the history and psychology of that. He thought the psychology of it was the tendency all over the world to educate men whether they liked it or not, and when they had educated a man against his will he revenged himself by liking all the worst things. So all over the world the natural instinct and taste had been destroyed, and instead had been put a very unreal taste, and so there had arisen the popular play, the insincere play, the play which did not make them think, but which enabled them to stop thinking. So, too, was it with the insincere novel. Those kind of ideas had gone all over the world, and in every European country there had spread this insincere literature . . .

 
The uneducated mob now paid the piper and exacted the tune, and all the art movements of to-day were attempts to recover control of the means of expression, the most powerful of which was the theatre, which was also the most debased, because nowhere else had the uneducated mob got so tight a grip . . . A book could be published and expenses paid if about two hundred copies were sold, but a play could not be staged without a great expenditure of money. Therefore, the theatre was the place where the half-educated mob had got the tightest grip. Besides, the theatre had its hold on the newspapers through advertisements and notices. They had a combination of the theatre of commerce and the newspapers supporting it. It was a vast vested interest of the ill-educated expressing itself in multitudes of copies day after day . . .

 
If they viewed Mr Gordon Craig’s models . . . they would realise the extraordinary beauty which was got by the very simple mechanism of screens. Mr Gordon Craig . . . had brought the stage back to express those things which alone it could express better than art . . .’

Yeats also gave an interview to Francis Cruise O’Brien (Freeman’s Journal, 19 March 1913) in which he spoke at length on Craig’s achievement.

 
Tom Lalor was a commercial artist (he worked on the big Irish Independent poster campaigns of the early 1930s) who between 1912 and 1923 supplied a weekly half-page cartoon to D.P. Moran’s Leader, accompanied by a verse commentary by ‘A M W’ (a Kilkenny-born journalist, John Swift). After Swift’s death Lalor continued to contribute occasional cartoons to the Leader until at least 1937.

 
Swift’s verse combines a burlesque summary of Yeats’s speech (probably based on the Irish Times report) with some of Moran’s characteristic jibes at Yeats. (Swift characteristically repeats Moran’s catchphrases.) From the first appearance of the Leader, Moran (who was briefly acquainted with Yeats when they both attended Irish Literary Society meetings in London in the 1890s) presented the Irish Literary Revival as an exercise in charlatanism, got up by déclassé bourgeois Protestants (like the ‘bearded philosopher’ George Russell—‘the hairy fairy’) with the twin aims of selling confected ‘Celtic’ literature to credulous English audiences at a profit while devising a new form of pseudo-spirituality better suited than evangelicalism to mystify ‘mere’ Irish Catholics into accepting Protestant pretensions to spiritual superiority. The Abbey conflicts of the Edwardian era merely intensified this animosity; Moran liked to mock the contrast between the dreamy spirituality of the Celtic Twilight and what he saw as the ‘morbid naturalism’ of Synge.

 
After Yeats accepted a Civil List pension for his services to literature, Moran incessantly called him ‘Pensioner Yeats’, accompanied by mocking references to his earlier flirtations with separatism. (Moran’s separatist rival Griffith confined himself to some self-consciously dignified remarks to the effect that having denounced T.W. Rolleston for accepting official patronage he could not refrain from judging Yeats by the same measure, but that it was unseemly to dwell on the subject ‘for the sake of a great Irish poet [the early Yeats] who is dead’.) Following his employer’s example, Swift ridicules Yeats and his audience as products of Rathmines (then a self-governing suburb of Dublin, regarded by Irish Irelanders as the epicentre of complacent West British snobbery; ‘Rathmines Johnnies’ were young white-collar clerks of high social pretensions, conservative politics and doubtful morals—habitués of bookies and music-halls) and thus embodiments of the vulgarity which they professed to despise.

 
The cartoon originally appeared on p. 153 of the 29 March 1913 issue. It was headed THE RATHMINES MIND and captioned ‘The Pensioner—“They had vulgarity all round them”’, followed by Swift’s verse: –

THE IDEAL BEAUTY SHOW
SCENE—A hall filled with long-haired bards, bounders and other intensely cultured persons. Pensioner Yeats comes forward to chant, and is received with a tremulous outburst of rhythmical cheering, followed by an opal hush.

Yeats—Oh, ideal beauty! not past is your day
When here I behold such a cultured array.
Lost eras of art on my soul surges back
Before such a grand psychological pack.

Oh, never was hall with true beauty so graced.
Old Bailey I see full of culture and taste.
Here, too, full of glamour and soul superfine
Are Robinson, Colum, and Cruso O’Brien.
Before me I see all the beautiful signs
Of soulful psychology made in Rathmines.
The Johnnies of Art that Rathmines cultivates
Are dear to the heart of this Pensioner Yeats.

’Tis awful to think what our clique has to face
In fighting the vulgar, commercial and base,
The people who smile at our raven-locked pates,
And laugh at the antics of Pensioner Yeats.

So vulgar are they that the ‘Playboy’ so chaste
Could make not a change in their low, common taste.
Oh, never I fear will such ignorant bands
High culture receive from the Pensioner’s hands.

Our poets and sages but count with the mob
As bounders prospecting for pension and job.
Our hairy philosophers all do they take
As vulgar adventurers out on the make.

Our talk of the drama commercial don’t go
With those common people so vulgar and low,
Who say that no one is more keen on the gates
Where come the spondoolicks than Pensioner Yeats.

Oh, friends, with deep sorrow my bosom now melts
At such disrespect to our banshees and Celts.
When thoughts the most soulful but ridicule reap
It makes a poor fairyman Pensioner weep.

But still with our rhythmical twilights we’ll fight
Against this most awful vulgarity blight;
Will still in the crowd seek to kindle Art’s gleams
With Pegeens and Playboys and other freak dreams.

And for this campaign for an Art great and free
I count on old Bailey and others I see;
I count on Rathmines with its grand fighting line,
And Colum, and Robinson Cruso O’Brien.

 

 

Since Swift produced his verse after seeing the relevant cartoon, it is not clear whether Lalor deliberately caricatured Yeats or simply produced a naturalistic representation of the scene (the latter seems likelier—anyone familiar with Lalor’s cartoons knows that he could have produced a much broader caricature). It is ironic that the adventitious survival of the original drawing in isolation from its original publication context has allowed what was originally one component of a lampoon on Yeats to be mistaken for a rendering of one of his proudest moments.

Patrick Maume lectures in history at Queen’s University, Belfast.

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