Uploaded by Mark Wollaeger

Yeats and Noh Theatre, some notes

Copyright 1998-2008, Global Performing Arts Consortium. All Rights Reserved.
Noh performance of Nishikigi, 1985
[harvested from http://themargins.net/bib/B/BL/bl00.html]
The central question regarding Yeats’s mediation of things Japanese, however, has to do with the
ways understanding of the nô informed his later drama, much of it in verse, from At the Hawk’s
Well (12), written and first performed in 1916, to The Death of Cuchulain and Purgatory (44b),
Yeats’s last plays, published in 1939.
Richard Taylor book: Arrives at the ‘overriding contention . . . that Yeats was primarily
influenced by the general plot organization of actual nô plays and their concentration on a single
image or symbolic design and that it was his own adaptation of that basic form in recreating his
perennial themes that enabled him to break through the impasse of traditional dramatic
Kermode in the Romantic Image: Kermode’s statement of it remains among the most eloquent:
‘Much of [Yeats’s] earlier thought on the drama must have seemed to him a steady, though
unwitting, progress in the direction of the nô; he almost invented it himself. . . . Everything [he]
could discover about the plays confirmed him in opinions long held’, and ‘every aspect of the
technique and presentation . . . must have struck Yeats as certain proof of the soundness of his
own theory of drama’.
Much of what Yeats understood of the nô came by way of Pound (at work on Fenollosa’s
manuscripts) from late 1913 through 1916 (though see 257), but for years before this Yeats’s
writing on the theatre had emphasised ideas that after 1915 he equated with the nô, including his
belief in the need to establish a ‘literary theatre’ for the production of plays ‘remote, spiritual,
and ideal’ that the ‘right people may escape the stupefying memory of the theatre of commerce’
As early as 1894 he had written a play that reached its climax in the symbolic dance of a
supernatural being (2), by 1906 another that relied on a chorus of musicians who commented on
but did not take part in the stylised action (5), and most pre-1916 Yeatsian drama relied on
anti-realistic staging and esoteric themes, and legendary or archetypal characters, usually
depicted at a moment of profound spiritual conflict.
‘A Note on At the Hawk’s Well’. Yeats describes his distress at setting forth his ‘muses’ on the
stage only to have them ‘half-welcomed’, yet knows that he ‘need[s] a theatre’, and feels ‘most
alive at the moment when a room full of people share the one lofty emotion’. In his new play he
has resolved the problem, having found his ‘first model . . . in the “Noh” stage of aristocratic
Japan’, that ‘most subtle stage’ that has taught him ‘to get rid of scenery, to substitute for a crude
landscape painted upon canvas three performers who, sitting before the wall or a patterned
screen, describe landscape or event, and accompany movement with drum and gong, or deepen
the emotion of the words with zither or flute’. Includes discussion of the advantages of masked
players and of a small audience of ‘those who care for poetry’. The attempt in plays based on
these principles will be to ‘create once more heroic or grotesque types that, keeping always an
appropriate distance from life, would seem images of those profound emotions that exist only in
solitude and in silence’, and to provide dramatic expression to ‘the subtler forms of literature’.
Dated December 1916. First appeared as a preface to the play in Harper’s Bazaar, March 1917;
reprinted in whole or part as ‘Instead of a Theatre’, ‘Yeats on His Own Work’, and ‘Note on the
first performance of At the Hawk’s Well’ (see Wade [82]).
Points of convergence between no and Yeats’ drama:
his use of masks
principles of staging
stage and property design
dramatic structure
But: The most provocative outcome of Yeats’s marriage of the nô with his own dramatic
enterprise, however, has to do with his occultism. Yeats’s drama from the beginning was in
accord with the understandings of Mallarmé and Maeterlinck, and from beginning to end can be
read as an elaboration of the European Symbolist theatre, particularly as it reacted against the
realism of Ibsen and Shaw. But it was in the nô, as Takahashi Yasunari puts it in a brief article
mainly about Beckett (235), that in Yeats’s attempts to ‘overcome realism’ and move ‘beyond
the limitations of symbolism’ he discovered the ‘tout á coup that had been lacking: a ghost!’
When Yeats wrote in 1916 that the nô reminded him of ‘our own Irish legends and beliefs’ and
that ‘the men who created [its] conventions were more like ourselves than were the Greeks and
Romans, more like us even than Shakespeare or Corneille’ (11) he was addressing the anticipated
Irish readership of Certain Noble Plays of Japan, published in an edition of 350 by his sister’s
press in Dundrum, and he was referring not to Symbolist staging or design but rather to a
conviction that the spirits of the dead are with us, and ‘dream back’ their passions in the
world of the living.
On his own evidence it is the connection Yeats perceived between the nô and the legends and
beliefs of the Irish countryside, particularly as they concerned the world of spirits, that engaged
his imagination when he and Pound worked together through Fenollosa’s nô at Stone Cottage in
the winter of 1913-14
At the Hawk’s Well (12), the play that most immediately followed Yeats’s introduction to
Fenollosa’s nô. The work was dictated to Pound in their third winter at Stone Cottage and first
performed, famously, in the London drawing room of Lady Emerald Cunard in the spring of
1916. Pound and Eliot were in attendance and Itô danced the role of the hawk, which he also had
choreographed. Costumes and masks were by Edmund Dulac. Press and photographers were
forbidden. A second performance, two days later, was in the drawing room of Lady Islington,
which held 300, including Queen Alexandra, who was ‘wearied’ by Yeats’s preliminary
explanation of the nô (see 70, p. 297).
Bush, Ronald. ‘The “Rhythm of Metaphor”: Yeats, Pound, Eliot, and the Unity of Image in
Postsymbolist Poetry’. In Allegory, Myth, and Symbol, edited by Morton W. Bloomfield.
Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1981: Bush’s insight here is central to further understanding of
the role of Japanese subjects, in particular the nô, in the birth and development of
Anglo-American and Irish modernism. The essay demonstrates that ‘a series of irrecoverable
conversations . . . centered around the Noh’ took place among Pound, Yeats, and Eliot sometime
in 1916, and that these ‘provided all three poets occasion to ponder the value of controlling
images in the poetry they were preparing to write’. Bush traces the original insight involved to
Pound, who in preparing the famous Vorticist manifesto that appeared in Fortnightly Review in
September 1914 (12) had set aside his work with the nô, but returned to it as he was completing
the Vorticism piece, and ‘a spark flew between the two projects’, leading to the last-minute
addition of the footnote raising the question of whether ‘a long imagiste or vorticist poem’ is
possible, and answering it affirmatively by pointing to the unity of image ‘enforced by movement
and music’ in the nô. ‘We may regard Pound’s Cantos’, Bush contends, ‘as a long commentary
on the excited question and feverish reply in that footnote’. From this, Bush continues in
discussion of Pound’s second connection of ‘Unity of Image’ in the nô with the long imagiste
poem, in ‘The Classical Stage of Japan’ (17f), Yeats’s discussion of the ‘playing upon a single
metaphor’ in the nô in introduction to Certain Noble Plays (BL11), and Eliot’s cogent elaboration
of the point in the nearly-forgotten ‘The Noh and the Image’ (92b), which appeared in the Egoist
in August 1917. Bush notes that ‘the effect of the Noh plays’ was not as ‘sharp’ in Yeats and
Eliot’s poetry as in Pound’s, but the closing analysis of ‘the shaping power of the controlling
image’ in The Wasteland raises compelling issues related to this study that have yet to be
explored. See also 87, 112, and 165.
Nishikigi and Motomezuka are representative of the mugen nô, the ‘nô of ghosts’, which for its
dramatic effect depends upon understanding that the spirits of the dead in certain cases remain
bound to earth by the memory of a tragic event in life, and are condemned to relive their
suffering, often at a place that has become legendary through association with it, until they are
released in an act of repentance and forgiveness, represented on the nô stage in the slow and
beautiful dance for which the plays are justifiably famous. The relation of this understanding to
Yeats’s account of his ‘discovery’ in ‘Swedenborg, Mediums, and the Desolate Places’ is clear
enough, but it is in another text, Per Amica Silentia Lunae (13), written early in 1917, that Yeats
confirms (and extends) the connection, and gives a name to the condition of the spirits who
remain bound to earth by the ‘passionate events’ of life: the ‘dreaming back of the dead’.
Yeats on ghosts: He believes that between the Anima Hominis, the realm of experience
accessible to the common man, and the Anima Mundi, the ‘vast luminous sea’ of spirit to which
artists and heroes aspire and from which we all arise and to which eventually we all return, exists
a third, purgatorial state. This is a ‘condition of air’ inhabited by spirits of the dead bound to
earth by the ‘passionate necessit[ies]’ of their lives, who are condemned to re-enact these until
the passions are expiated and the spirits released from their suffering. This ‘dreaming back’ of
the passions of the dead, Yeats believes, may be apprehensible to artists and mediums, so that
some among the living ‘may see at certain roads and in certain houses old murders acted over
again . . . or ancient armies fighting above bones or ashes’. The ‘Japanese poets’ are among those
who have understood this and brought voice to it, Yeats writes (‘Anima Mundi’, I and VIII), and
in key passages of explanation he turns again to the plays that in ‘Swedenborg, Mediums, and the
Desolate Places’ had so stirred his imagination. The ‘ghost in a Japanese play . . . set afire by a
fantastic scruple’ and unable to escape memory of it (‘Anima Mundi’, VIII) is the spirit he knew
from Motomezuka, the ‘phantom lovers in the Japanese play who are compelled to wander side
by side and never mingle’ (‘Anima Hominis’, X) the lovers he knew from Nishikigi, and it is to
these that he returns in definition of the purgatorial ‘condition of air’ itself (‘Anima Mundi, X): it
is a ‘place of shades who are “in the whirl of those who are fading,” and who cry like those
amorous shades in the Japanese play:—“That we may acquire power / Even in our faint
substance, / We will show forth even now, / And though it be but in a dream, / Our form of
repentance.”’ The lines are from Pound’s Nishikigi (BK60, p. 295), and fairly summarise the
central conceit of several of Yeats’s later plays.
Yeats’s understanding of the nô was arrived at largely through the intervention of Pound at
Stone Cottage, but from the beginning was set forth in a circle that Pound’s nô alone would not
have reached in the same way. In the years after Yeats’s earliest experiments with the form
Gordon Bottomley, Sturge Moore, and Laurence Binyon, among others, would themselves turn
to the ‘Noh’ in their own contributions to the fragile renaissance of verse drama in England that
followed upon the early performances of At the Hawk’s Well