The Words upon the Window-Pane
a chamber opera
Libretto by Hugh Maxton, adapted from the play by W. B. Yeats
Music by John Buckley
Miss Le Fanu Secretary to the Dublin Spiritualist Society
John Corbet A student
Cornelius Patterson A sporty type
Conway Mallet A young man
Mrs. Henderson A medium
A lodging- house room, an armchair, a little table in front of it, chairs at either side. A fire-place and window. A kettle on the hob and some tea-things on a dresser. A door at back and towards the right.
(Le Fanu leads Corbet into the room- lights rise as they enter)
Le Fanu Better sit down, your wrist-watch must be fast. Mrs Henderson is resting upstairs as she always does beforehand. She has come back from London to spread the movement here. A poor woman with the soul of an apostle.
Corbet (Handing his coat to Miss Lefanu) This is a wonderful room, for a lodging house.
Le Fanu This house….
Corbet (Interrupting) Wonderful
Le Fanu This house in the eighteenth century belonged to friends of Jonathan Swift, or rather of Stella. (She advances and points at the window) Somebody cut some lines from a poem of hers upon the window pane.
Corbet (Coming forward) I know these lines well – Stella wrote them for Swift’s fifty-fourth birthday.
‘You taught how I might youth prolong
By knowing what is right and wrong.’
Le Fanu I’ve shown these lines to several people, but you are the first to recognise them.
Corbet I am writing a thesis on Swift, a tragic life. All those great ministers that were his friends, banished and broken.
(Mallet and Patterson enter and take their seats)
Le Fanu Ah! Here’s Conway Mallet. (To Corbet, while drawing him towards the seated figure) And that’s old Cornelius Patterson. He thinks they race horses and whippets in the other world and is so eager to know if he’s right that he is always punctual.
Mallet My parents were drowned at sea, but constantly speak to me through Mrs. Henderson.
Le Fanu I am going to sit down beside Mister Corbet. (Mrs Henderson enters during bass clarinet solo. She enters from the hallway and goes directly to stand behind her chair.)
Mrs. Henderson, may I introduce you to Mr. Corbet, a young man from Trinity, and a sceptic. (Corbet stands and nods respectfully)
Patterson We were all sceptics once.
Le Fanu (To Corbet, both still standing) Sometimes I think it is all thought-transference. Then at other times, I feel like Job. The hair on my head stands up.
Corbet Do you feel like Job to-night? (Le Fanu and Corbet sit)
Henderson (Asserting her central role) I am glad to meet my dear friends again and to welcome Mr. Corbet amongst us. As he is a stranger, I must explain that we do not call up spirits. We make the right conditions, and they come. Miss Le Fanu, a verse of a hymn please, the same one we had last time.
(Le Fanu indicates start. They sing the following lines from Hymn, 564, Dublin Church Hymnal)
‘Sun of my soul, Thou Saviour dear,
It is not night if Thou art near:
O may no earth-born cloud arise
To hide Thee from Thy servant’s eyes’
(By the end of the hymn, Mrs Henderson is leaning back in her chair, snoring softly)
Henderson (In a man’s voice, Jonathan Swift’s) How dare you write to her? How dare you ask if we were married?
Le Fanu A soul in its agony – it cannot see or hear us.
Henderson (In Swift’s voice) You sit crouching there. (Rises suddenly) Did you not hear what I said? I found you an ignorant girl without intellect, without moral ambition.
Corbet It is Swift, Jonathan Swift, talking to the woman he called Vanessa.
Henderson (In Vanessa’s voice) If you and she are not married, why should we not marry like other men and women. (In Swift’s voice) I have something in my blood that no child must inherit. I have constant attacks of dizziness. O God, hear the prayer of Jonathan Swift, that afflicted man, and grant that he leave to posterity nothing but his intellect that came to him from heaven. (In Vanessa’s voice) Can you face solitude with that mind Jonathan? (In Swift’s voice) My God, I am left alone with my enemy. Who locked me in with my enemy? (Mrs. Henderson exhausted sinks into her chair and sleeps)
Mallet Another verse of the hymn. It will bring good influences. (They sing)
‘When the soft dews of kindly sleep,
My wearied eyelids gently steep
Be my last thought…
(During the hymn, Mrs Henderson has been murmuring ‘Stella’. The hymn breaks off due to Mrs. Henderson’s interruptions)
Henderson (Continuing in Swift’s voice) Beloved Stella
Corbet Vanessa has gone, Stella has taken her place.
Henderson (Continuing in Swift’s voice) Have I wronged you? You have no children, no lover, no husband. A cross and ageing man for friend. But do not answer – you have answered already in that noble poem you wrote for me:
‘You taught how I might youth prolong
By knowing what is right or wrong.’
Corbet The words, the words upon the window-pane.
Henderson (Continuing in Swift’s voice)
‘How from my heart to bring supplies
Of lustre for my fading eyes’.
Because you know I am afraid of solitude, afraid of outliving my friends and myself, you overpraise my moral nature. Yes, you will close my eyes, dear Stella. You will live long after me, but you will close my eyes, dear Stella. (She sinks back into her chair)
(Mrs Henderson, in her own voice) Go away, go away. (She wakes up)
I saw him a moment ago, has he spoiled things again?
Patterson Yes, Mrs. Henderson
Le Fanu Mrs. Henderson is very tired. We must leave her. You did your best. No one can do more. (Le Fanu and Mallet lay money on the table)
Henderson No, no, I cannot take any money, not after a séance like that.
Patterson A jockey is paid whether he wins or looses.
Le Fanu We must leave her to rest. (All are leaving. Mallet and Patterson exit rear left. Corbet holds back at the last moment)
Corbet I know you are tired, but I must speak to you. (He puts a pound note on the table) This is to prove that I am completely satisfied.
Henderson Nobody ever gives me more than ten shillings, and yet the séance was a failure.
Corbet I do not mean I am convinced. I think that you created it all, that you are an accomplished actress and scholar. But there is something I must ask you. Swift embodied the intellect of his epoch. He foresaw its collapse. He dreaded the future. Did he refuse to beget children because of that dread?
Henderson Who are you talking of, sir?
Corbet Swift, of course.
Henderson I know nobody called Swift.
Corbet Jonathan Swift, whose spirit seemed present tonight.
Henderson What? That dirty old fellow?
Corbet He was neither old nor dirty, when Stella and Vanessa loved him.
Henderson Now they are old, now they are young. They change all in a moment as their thought changes.
Le Fanu (At the doorway, coaxingly) Come along Mr. Corbet. Mrs. Henderson is tired out.
Corbet (Reluctantly) Good-bye Mrs. Henderson. (Corbet exits with Le Fanu)
Henderson How tired I am! I’ll make a cup of tea. (She counts the coins on the table, carefully wrapping them in the pound note given by Corbet. She stands to put the money in her skirt pocket. She goes right, finds the teapot and puts it on the shelf, looking around wearily for other utensils. Pauses. Re-commences the chore, absent-mindedly. Suddenly she lifts up her hands, and counts her fingers with great deliberation)
(In Swift’s voice) Five great ministers that were my friends are gone. Ten great ministers that were my friends are gone. I have not fingers enough to count the great ministers that were my friends and that are gone. (She wakes up with a start) (In her own voice) Where’s the cup and saucer? (She goes uncertainly to the shelf and finds the saucer) But where’s the cup? (She moves as if to check the table for the cup. The saucer falls and breaks) (In Swift’s voice) Perish, perish the day on which I was born.
The Words Upon the Windowpane
17 October 1991, Lombard St. Studios, Dublin Theatre Festival
Opera Theatre Company; Anne O’ Byrne (s), Collette McGahon (mz), Kevin West (t),
Jonathan Peter Kenny (ct), David Gantly (bar), OTC Ensemble, John Finucane (cond)
Com: Opera Theatre Company/Irish Arts Council