What Shall I Do for Pretty Girls? is a long one-act play in 15 scenes for four characters–William Butler Yeats, Maud Gonne, Iseult (her daughter), and Georgie, Yeats’ wife. A simple unit set represents different locations in France and London from 1917 to 1938. We hear the ocean and the sounds of many birds as the lights come up on Maud (late 40s) and Yeats (early 50s) in 1917 on the Normandy coast. The noise of her birds makes it difficult for them to hear what the other is saying until Yeats closes the door. Maud wonders if Yeats has come to ask her again to marry him, since her husband has recently died. She says she is worried about her daughter and thinks that Yeats should propose to her. Yeats says that Iseult asked him to visit, but Maud wants him to convince Iseult to come to Ireland with her to escape the war. Maud is terrified that her daughter will be killed before she has had a chance to live.
The lights fade and come up on Yeats and Iseult walking on the beach. She has overheard at least part of his conversation with her mother and asks if Yeats would like to kiss her and ask her to marry him. He does; she refuses. Yeats says he doesn’t want to be alone anymore and wants children. The lights fade on them and come up on Iseult and Maud in the house as Maud asks her if she had a nice walk with Yeats. She tells her daughter that he deserves a bit of happiness before he’s too old to enjoy it. Iseult tells her mother that she is moving to London, and the scene shifts to a tea shop in London as Iseult tells Yeats that she can’t marry him. He says that he has found someone named Georgie Hyde-Lees that he may ask to marry him.
In darkness we hear the sounds of a violent thunderstorm as lights come up on Georgie and Yeats on their honeymoon. Yeats is upset because he feels he has betrayed Maud, Iseult, and her. Georgie sits at a desk with pencil and paper and says that the pencil is automatically writing, that she has no control over it. Fascinated, Yeats reads what has been written and puts other pieces of paper under her hand, an event he describes to Maud in the next scene, telling her that every night they receive “page after page of complex messages from a bewildering variety of entities in the spirit world.” He says that when Georgie’s hand cramps the spirit voices talk in her sleep, giving him precise and detailed instructions about how to give his wife pleasure in bed.
In the next scene, Georgie is lying in bed in a trance, speaking to Yeats in “a strange, unearthly but somewhat dignified voice” about letting Iseult work out her own destiny. He follows the spirit voice’s instructions to get his wife some tea and then rub her feet. When he leaves, Georgie sits up in bed and says, “Shit and onions!” Then, in the eighth scene, Iseult and Georgie are having lunch in the tea shop and Georgie tells her that the spirits are concerned about Yeats spending so much time tormenting himself about Iseult. Georgie offers to introduce Iseult to one or two eligible young men. Iseult says that Georgie’s spirits are a “great load of ballocks” and calls her a charlatan. Georgie says that she and Yeats are moving to Ireland and that she is pregnant.
The scene changes to Maud’s house in Ireland where Maud and Iseult have come in out of the rain, Maud having escaped from an English prison. Yeats tells Maud that she can’t stay in her own house because Georgie is six months pregnant and is sick with pneumonia. He pleads with her to go, saying that he is terrified his wife will lose the baby. Maud stomps out into the rain and Iseult kisses Yeats, saying she wishes the child were hers. The scene ends as Georgie shouts at Yeats to close the door.
Yeats, now a father, is walking in a park in London with Iseult, cautioning her about her friendship with Ezra Pound. She says she has had sexual intercourse with Pound but that it should have been Yeats. She asks him to let her find her own happiness, or unhappiness. He says he reserves the right to worry. The lights fade on them and come up on Maud visiting Yeats and Georgie, complaining that Iseult has married a young man who gets drunk and beats her, is unfaithful to her, and abuses and humiliates her in public. Maud wants Yeats to convince Iseult to leave her husband. Georgie agrees and Yeats leaves. In the next scene Iseult tells him that she is pregnant and he insists that she leave with him.
Lights come up on Maud in prison, an effect created by the shadows of bars on the floor. We hear a cell door slamming shut as Yeats walks into the light and tells her that he is angry that the loveliest woman he ever knew “has turned herself into a bitter old crone for the sake of politics.” She refuses to let him get her out of jail, but asks that he take Iseult (who lost her baby) and her son. Iseult appears, “looking haggard,” and Maud orders her to go with Yeats. After the light fades on them we hear the sound of a ticking clock and Yeats tells Georgie that he has been getting Iseult out of prison. Georgie chides him for spending time with a “damned farting swami” and says that he never loved her. He says that they have their two children and she says that he has his “damned stupid metaphors for poetry.”
The last scene takes place in a farmhouse (created by the sound of chickens) in the late 1930s. Iseult tells Yeats that he married exactly the right woman but that she would run off with him to France if he wanted. Maud comes on to ask Yeats if he is going to propose to her one last time. Iseult tells Yeats that “only the poets win.” She and her mother sit on a bench on either side of Yeats, each taking one of his hands. Iseult wonders if they have gotten everything wrong, and Yeats says that they could have done nothing else, that, if one is lucky, one loves, and “that’s all there is to be said about it.”