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W. B. Yeats’s Four Plays for Dancers. Macmillan, London 1921.

First Edition, First Impression.


Four Plays for Dancers (1921), in the original publisher’s black and light-grey cloth, is the first of Yeats’s published dance plays, much influenced by Noh drama. This play is illustrated by Edmund Dulac and its iconic cover is designed by Thomas Sturge Moore. Yeats, Dulac, and Moore—three great artistic gems in literature, illustration, and book cover design—make this title a collector’s treasure.


Four Plays for Dancers is an allegorically rich, inner drama in which, through the bizarre world of masked figures and visionary encounters in At the Hawk's Well, The Dreaming of the Bones, The Only Jealousy of Emer, and Calvary, we can trace Yeats’s spiritual history and his path toward a visionary poet and playwright.


Yeats did not like “print and paper”—wishing instead to listen to “poems spoken to a harp”. So, when it came to publishing, Yeats took painstaking effort to make them as a liaison to his works. I find intriguing to read the cover designs of his books as doppelgangers of his texts: I see both his struggles and parallels.


Framing, paneling, and boxing—the signature minimalistic designs of Thomas Sturge Moore—are upfront.  And for more on Thomas Sturge Moore’s book design, read Warwick Gould’s “Yeats and his Books” in Essays in Honour of Eamonn Cantwell: Yeats Annual No. 20, free to download.


Looking at this iconic cover, one sees the Noh stage, a simple square stage, four columns with a roof, and no curtain separating the stage and the audience. The hawk from At the Hawk’s Well later becomes a personal symbol for Yeats: his soul perpetually hovering above the earth, never coming down. The space beneath appears to be transformed into the “deep of the mind” in this Yeats’s reverie play.


In adapting the Noh to his requirements, Yeats sought to express an absolute beauty, simplicity, and condensation of associations through images, and on the cover, there are two masks depicted, but rather than the traditional Greek comedy and tragedy faces an audience has come to expect, here we see four masks, representing the four plays—the Hawk, The Young Man, The Beautiful Woman, and the Christ figure—hung up as if waiting to be used. It is a tempting image, with the hawk and young man looking out from the cover as if in expectation.


With the pages are several more illustrations, showing the backstage and props managers suggestions on how to depict certain passages of the play. For example, these four illustrations shown here are to be used with the play “At the Hawk’s Well”, acknowledging the probable inexperience the Irish and Northern European would have with costumery influenced by the Japanese culture. Shown are a cloth to be unfolded to reveal a brooding hawk, and the depictions of the Noh-style mask and garb for the Old Man and the Young Man, two key characters of the play. These illustrations cleverly show the blend of cultures between Celtic and Japanese in order to create intriguing characters any audience would enjoy.


The interior is clean and bright, no loose pages and no markings, except for a neat ownership inscription. Condition: very good.


W. B. Yeats's Four Plays for Dancers

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