Tony’s Reading List has nothing but Japanese literature all month. I am joining in by reading the little anthology The Classic Noh Theatre of Japan (1916) by Ezra Pound and Ernest Fenollosa. Fenollosa was one of the great early American experts on Japanese art (see Christopher Benfey’s The Great Wave (2003) for more of that story). He died in 1908. Pound came across his papers and became fascinated by Fenollosa’s translations of Noh plays and his extensive but fragmentary notes on the subject. So Classic Noh Theatre includes fifteen complete plays translated by Fenollosa, notes by both Fenollosa and Pound and, as a bonus, a separate essay by William Butler Yeats.
Yeats had been trying to bring Celtic legends to the stage but in an “indirect and symbolic,” even “aristocratic” fashion (p. 151). He was part of an extended group of poets and playwrights like H. D. and Hugo von Hofmannsthal who were interested in finding alternatives to so-called realism, to Ibsenism. They turned to classical models like Greek drama. How startling it must have been to discover this preserved Japanese tradition that like Greek plays featured masks, a chorus, ritual music and dance, and compressed retellings of foundational stories, in the case of Noh from, for example, The Tale of Genji and The Tale of Heike.
And how pleasing it must have been, for Pound at least, to find that Noh drama is so compressed, intense, and laden with tradition that it can seem completely impenetrable. In a typical play – I will look at “Kakitsubata” by Motokiyo – a wandering priest encounters a spirit which appears first in ordinary form (a young girl) but after an act of devotion returns as a legendary figure, in this case a character from the 9th century Tales of Ise who is associated with the iris. She displays her fine robes and then, with the assistance of the chorus, dances and sings an iris dance:
SPIRIT: The flitting snow before the flowers:
The butterfly flying.
CHORUS: The nightingales fly in the willow tree:
The pieces of gold flying.
SPIRIT: The iris Kakitsubata of the old days
Is planted anew.
CHORUS: With the old bright colour renewed. (130)
The spirit fades as it “flower soul melts into Buddha.” Is this much of anything? Pound recognizes the difficulty; it is exactly his point of interest:
Our own art is so much an art of emphasis, and even of over-emphasis, that it is difficult to consider the possibilities of an absolutely unemphasized art, an art where the author trusts so implicitly that his auditor will know what things are profound and important. (130)
Noh does have other moods, though, even (profound, unemphasized) humor. See the epistemological confusion when the priest meets the ghost in “Tsunemasa”:
SPIRIT: I am the ghost of Tsunemasa. Your service has brought me.
PRIEST: Is it the ghost of Tsunemasa? I perceive no form, but a voice.
SPIRIT: It is the faint sound alone that remains.
PRIEST: O! But I saw the form, really.
SPIRIT: It is there if you see it.
PRIEST: I can see.
SPIRIT: Are you sure that you see it, really?
PRIEST: O, do I, or do I not see you? (55)
I have no doubt that other, later anthologies would serve as better introductions to Noh drama. But Pound’s hodgepodge is the moment English-language Modernism was introduced to Noh.