Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The possibilities of an absolutely unemphasized art - Modernism meets Noh drama

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.


  1. I never tried Noh, but I did go to a famous Kabuki theatre on my one trip to Tokyo - and it was impenetrable, with people yelling out seemingly random comments at certain moments.

    In fact, it reminded me a little of 'The Rocky Horror Picture Show' screenings you occasionally get at cinemas...

  2. And Kabuki is easier than Noh! Kabuki is younger than Noh, which probably helps a little.

    When I went to the Kabuki-za Theater in Tokyo, the audience was almost entirely Japanese. Everybody rented the headset which explained the action, history, relations between the actors, and so on.

    Then, to my amazement, the third piece was a physical farce from the 1920s that was hilarious and required almost no explanation. The story involved trying to hide a corpse and a lot of booze.

    1. I've been lucky enough to see both kinds of theatre, and the main differences I remember between them (although how much of this was due to choices of script, director, venue, etc, I do not know) were the speed, the deliberation, the seriousness, and the amount of onstage furniture (more for kabuki); the noh was more formal, even the audience was formal, and they were quieter than the kabuki audience, older, less rowdy, more demurely dressed.

      Everything in noh was small and emphasised, especially the dancing, one fairy-character slowly planting her foot, slowly lifting her hand, moving her hand in a circle so that the lobe of her sleeve went back and hooked itself over her forearm, stopping to let that action reverberate, taking another careful step, planting the opposite foot, moving the hand again so that the lobe unlooped and fell back into the original hanging position, taking another step, slowly establishing the foot, doing the sleeve thing again with the same arm in exactly the same way, entrancing the male protagonist, who was crouching by a pond, I think, and staring at her, though she was in fact a very stocky, stuffed, lawyer-looking man under the makeup and his stout tummy was rounding out the obi. The protagonist fell in love but it ended in sadness due to her fairy-nature and the incompatibility of their lifestyles. I think that was the way it went. But if the iris dance in Kakitsubata is anything like that then it would be the most glacial piece of movement you've ever seen, like the formation of stalagmites, and all of the syllables in the singing would be drawn out for about two minutes each.

    2. Ub, I am an idiot - I shoulda mentioned that. Yes, the great obstacle for most people with Noh is its almost inhumanly slow pace. That is how five of the eight page plays I read can end up filling an entire day.

      due to her fairy-nature and the incompatibility of their lifestyles

      Oddly, I just read a W. S. Gilbert poem on exactly that topic.

    3. Clearly this is a problem that transcends cultures.

      I've thought of a sporting analogy -- cricket -- noh is a Test match, kabuki is a one-dayer. Everything more meticulous in the Test. A seagull lands on the pitch and you're mesmerised.

  3. Kabuki, Noh and then there's Joruri or Bunraku: puppet theater. It was the odd fate of Chikamatsu Monzaemon to write absolute masterpieces for this kind of drama. Imagine Shakespeare writing his plays for Punch and Judy shows or Ibsen writing his dramas for Archie comics and then having those works recognized as the best your nation has produced in literature! The great G B Shaw once wrote a little Punch and Judy playlet about a fight between Shav and Shakes, IIRC.

  4. I read, with Donald Keene's assistance, some Chikamitsu plays a year or two ago. They're pretty hard, too! But it is all a matter of learning about the deep Japanese literary tradition. The Noh plays in the Pound volume seemed less obscure than the last Noh plays I read, several years ago.

    That Shaw play came up in comments here a few months ago. Amazing. Shaw was 93 when he wrote it.

    I hope to get to some puppet plays of Arthur Schnitzler's - no idea what they are like. More Punch and Judy than Chikamitsu, or so I assume.

  5. Thank you for the pointer to that comments thread: it was very interesting. Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go and do some google-fu to find me the fifth act of Cymbeline as written by Shaw. I got a feeling that tonight is gonna be a good night, as some black eyed peas once said.

  6. Drank! L'chaim! Whatever else does Fergie say in that song!

  7. Wow, I wasn't sure how you were linking up noh and Pound and what curious (and informative) addition to the Japanese reading challenge. What an exciting cultural crossover moment to have documented. :)

  8. Whatever problems I have with Pound, the man loved literature. You are right, it was an exciting moment, kind of a world-expanding moment. At the same time, painters and sculptors were "discovering" African and Asian art, composers began to study non-Western musical systems, and so on. Some of the results were pretty clumsy, but it was a beginning.

  9. Not long ago I read five Noh plays by Yukio Mishima, translated by Donald Keene. There are elements of absurdism and they push his agenda a bit but very much worth reading. He wrote one Noh play called "our friend Hitler"

  10. Mishima, no kidding. Parodies or travesties of Noh plays, very interesting.

  11. I see them more as. Marriage of Noh plays with Jarry and Beckett. Not at all travesties or parodies.

  12. Jarry's and Beckett's plays are parodies and travesties!