“When I was at Yale in graduate school, a friend of mine brought me to see a play that the undergraduates were doing and it was ‘The Only Jealousy of Emer,’” David Duchovny recalls one rainy day over lattes at Tavern on the Green. “It’s a verse play, so it’s kind of unwatchable. But I got the gist of it, which was a very cool wager about love, and it stayed with me forever.”
Naturally, since this is Fox Mulder of “The X-Files,” there’s a supernatural element and a parallel universe. And since this is also Hank Moody of “Californication,” there’s some drinking and womanizing, too.
In the Ulster Cycle of Irish mythology, Emer and the warrior hero Cu Chulainn fall in love and marry after trading cryptic riddles.
The Yeats play conjures a moment when Cu Chulainn inadvertently kills his own son in battle and then, distraught, begins fighting “the deathless sea” and almost drowns. A demonic Irish fairy, called a Sidhe, appears and offers Emer a cruel bargain: If she gives up her fondest hope that the warrior will tire of his mistress — also at his sickbed — and grow old with her, the fairy will let Cu Chulainn live.
“He’ll never sit beside you at the hearth,” the Sidhe tells Emer, “Or make old bones, but die of wounds and toil, on some far shore or mountain, a strange woman beside his mattress.”