Encountering the Japanese Noh theatre in 1916, William Butler Yeats proclaimed that the form allowed him “freedom from the stupidity of an ordinary audience” (VPl 566). The form also provided Yeats a means to put the other world of fairies, gods, and legends of fighting men (which he encountered through Lady Gregory) on stage. The masks and stylized movements of the Noh theatre allow Yeats to investigate issues of nobility, supreme beauty, self-reliance, and heroism, all while casting his investigations in an entirely Irish subject. To stage his own Irish Noh theatre, Yeats often employs disabled characters as dramatic catalysts for a nationalist message. While Yeats's Noh style places his actors behind masks and employs minimal scenery to highlight the symbolism, the disabled characters inject an element of material reality into an otherwise ethereal production. This injected disability grounds the work, forcing the drama to a cathartic moment. Reading the play The Only Jealousy of Emer from a disability studies perspective opens up the text, moving the discussion of the play past a conversation of class, of good vs. evil, and of esoteric Yeatsian symbolism, into a discussion of nationalism, self-sacrifice, and social reciprocity.
As part of the ongoing discussion of identity and identity politics, disability studies grew out of conversations among race, class, gender, and culture in the late 1980s. Much of this discussion regarding literature centers on American literary and culture figures, yet I find that the disabled individuals in Irish literature are more dynamic and provocative than their American cousins. Rather than subjects that invoke pity or fear, or that exist at the margins of the text, the Irish disabled subject takes center stage, serving as a rallying point for political action. In the case of William Butler Yeats, the disabled individual serves as a character that is authentically Irish. For Yeats, interaction with the fairy world is inherently disabling, and his Noh inspired plays that involve the fairy world of the Sidhe, the Irish gods of the fairy world, almost always use a disabled individual as a bringer of truth, or, as a catalyst for social action. Significantly, these characters are at the center of action on stage.