Deirdre and On Baile’s Strand are two plays by William Butler Yeats that incorporate a tragic vision. Both plays deal with a single tragic moment in the life of an important figure. The plays are similar in structure and style. Yeats interweaves supernatural elements in both plays — the Shape Changers in On Baile’s Strand and the circumstances of Deirdre’s birth and the question of her parentage in Deirdre. The endings of the plays are similar, however, the process of coming to a conclusion in the plays is different.
In both of these plays, Yeats gives readers the back ground, information about the characters, and sets the scene at the beginning. In On Baile’s Strand Yeats uses two characters, the Fool and the Blind Man, whose purpose in the play was to describe the situation and the characters involved. In Deirdre Yeats uses a
group of three female musicians to set the scenes and give information about the characters. Even with this similarity, however, there is a difference. In On Baile’s Strand the Fool and the Blind man are not directly involved in the action of the play. The exception is at the end of the play when through them, Cuchulain learns that he has killed his only son. The Fool and the Blind Man speak prose while the musicians in Deirdre sing. The three female musicians in Deirdre, however, are spoken to and answer the main characters in the play. In both instances, the Fool and the Blind Man, and the three female musicians have knowledge that the other characters do not.
The settings of the plays reflect the main characters. In Deirdre, a tragedy with a female main character, the setting is feminine and action takes place in a guest-house in sereneness of the woods. On Baile’s Strand, a tragedy with a male main character, the setting is masculine and the action takes place in an assembly-
house near a harsh sea.
No only is On Baile’s Strand masculine in the sense that it takes place near a harsh sea, it is also without fully human women. The one fully human woman, Aoife, that is mentioned in the play, is seen as an evil influence. Conchubar tells Cuchulain:
That very woman —
For I know well that your are praising Aoife —
Now hates you and will leave no subtlety
Unknotted that might run into a noose
About your throat … (28)
However, Cuchulain remembers her as being of “stone-pale cheek and red-brown hair” and stated that
None other had all beauty, queen or lover,
Or was so fitted to give birth to kings. (28)
With Cuchulain’s vivid descriptions of her, Aoife, although she is not seen in the play, is able to be seen as clearly as the other characters.
In both of the plays, the most dramatic part revolves around two things: death and the unknown. In Deirdre, Deirdre pleads with Conchubar to spare her and Naoise’s lives. She is unaware that Naoise is already dead. She did not see Conchubar motion to the “dark-faced men” who gag Naoise and pull him out of view. Deirdre pleads with Conchubar, telling him that he will need Naoise some day, but Conchubar only laughs. Deirdre tells him:
You will cry out for him someday and say,
“If Naoise were but living” — [she misses Naoise].
Where is he?
Where have you sent him? Where is the son of Usna?
Where is he, O where is he? (69)
This is the most tragic part of the play. Even more tragic than the deaths of Deirdre and Naoise because everyone except Deirdre knows that her pleading is futile.
The most dramatic scene in On Baile’s Stand comes after Cuchulain kills the Young Man, not knowing that he is his son. The Blind Man tells Cuchulain that he knows the Young Man’s mother:
BLIND MAN: I knew him and his mother there.
CUCHULAIN: He was about to speak of her when he died.
BLIND MAN: He was a queens son.
CUCHULAIN: What queen? what queen? [Seizes Blind Man who is now sitting upon the bench] Was it Scathach?
There were many queens. All the rulers there were queens.
And further into the conversation the Fool tells Cuchulain that the Blind Man said “the young man was Aoife’s son” and that he had also heard Aoife say that she has had only one lover, and he was the only one who had defeated her in battle. The Blind Man is the one to say “it is his own son he has slain.”
Another important element found in the play is the idea of treachery or betrayal of trust. In both Deirdre and On Baile’s Strand, treachery results in death. In Deirdre Fergus trusts Conchubar and is betrayed by him; and he betrays others in the play by not divulging knowledge he has. Naoise trusts Fergus, and to some extent Conchubar, and is betrayed. Deirdre trusts Naoise and becomes a victim with him after he is killed. Deirdre betrays Conchubar twice. First when she runs away with Naoise and hides for seven years, and again before taking her own life. Conchubar betrays both Deirdre and Naoise in order the win Deirdre and punish Naoise for stealing her from him and, in turn, this is when he is betrayed by Deirdre and Naoise. Early in the play, after Naoise realized that Conchubar has not sent a messenger to meet with them, Fergus tells Deirdre and
Naoise that Conchubar will arrive in person. Naoise responds that “he cannot break his faith” and “I have his word and I must take that word.” After seeing a chess-board and remembering the tale of Lugaidh Redstripe and his wife, who both died after being betrayed Naoise speaks:
If I had not King Conchubar’s word I’d think
That chess-board ominous. (53)
Fergus recalls the tall of Lugaidh Redstripe as “the tale of treachery, A broken promise” that is best forgotten.
In On Baile’s Strand, Cuchulain is betrayed by the oath he made to Conchubar when Conchubar calls him on it after the Young Man’s arrival. When Cuchulain refuses to fight the Young Man, Conchubar tells him that “witchcraft has maddened you.” Cuchulain realizes he had been betrayed after he kills his son. He runs out to the sea to fight the harsh waves, which he sees as an image of Conchubar.
Deirdre and On Baile’s Strand are two plays whose outcome is based on the tragedy upholding honor. Cuchulain’s honor of Conchubar in On Baile’s Strand, and Deirdre’s honor of Naoise and Naoise’s honor of Conchubar in Deirdre. The possession of knowledge the reader has about the events of the play heighten the tragic effects found in both Deirdre and On Baile’s Strand.