BL. W. B. Yeats, Certain Noble Plays, and Japan
Late in his life W. B. Yeats developed an interest in Zen Buddhism that grew from a reading of D. T. Suzuki, and several critics have argued that this informed his late poetry (see 113 for a list of references). Also several of his poems draw energy from the nô (see 29, 32, 33, 36c) and others from the symbolic representation of an ancient but well-preserved Japanese sword he was given by an admirer (see especially 21, 30a, 32b, 48k, 57d-e, 124g). 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. The question has stirred more critical interest than any other related to the mediation of Japan by English-language poets, providing the focus of four books (131, 167, 180, 250) and dozens of chapters, articles, and theses. Much of this critical work is preoccupied with questions about the faithfulness of Yeats’s plays to the nô, reading his drama against either a tacit or an explicitly-detailed checklist of ‘authentic’ features of the nô itself, and finding, inevitably, that the Yeatsian drama falls short of the unique qualities of the Japanese original (see especially 233, 247, 250, 258, and BK207). This sort of commentary misses several important points, however, not least that Yeats’s plays mediated the nô, not copied it, or attempted to copy it. If the standard to which the plays are held is the degree to which they accurately represent an original Japanese essence then they fail, but fortunately things are more interesting than this.
In 1957 Frank Kermode suggested (in 96), and many later writers have agreed, that in his discovery of the nô Yeats came to a confirmation of previously-held ideas about the theatre rather than a sharp turning that set his work on a radically new path. Much of what he 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’ (3). 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. The pre-1916 drama is in many ways like the later drama, in other words, and often in the very ways the latter has been equated with the nô, both by Yeats himself and by others who have turned to his work. And yet when Yeats wrote in a 1916 introduction to Certain Noble Plays of Japan (11) that ‘with the help of [the] Japanese plays’ he had ‘invented a form of drama, distinguished, indirect, and symbolic, and having no need of mob or Press to pay its way—an aristocratic form’, or in a 1917 ‘Note on At the Hawk’s Well’ (12a) that he had found his ‘first model . . . in the “Noh” stage of aristocratic Japan’, he was not simply draping old ideas in the cachet of principles taken over from the Japanese. His excitement was genuine, and the effects of the nô in his later work considerable, even if it is true that it came to him, as the critical record mainly has it, not as an epiphany but as a confirmation that regarding particular matters he had been right all along, and then also as a model for working through problems in dramatising these that long had been vexing.
Many studies trace the characteristics of Yeatsian drama that either on Yeats’s own or internal evidence in the plays themselves are related to his understanding of the nô. These include his use of masks (see especially 11, 12, 12a, 14a-b, 36), chorus (11, 12, 12a, 14a-b, 28, 36a-b, 44a), and dance (11, 12, 14a, 17a, 36a-b, 44a), and principles of staging (14b, 28, 36b), stage and property design (7, 9, 12, 12a. 14b, 28, 36a-b, 44a-b), versification (11, 12), dramatic structure (14a, 44a), setting (11, 14a), and theme (11, 14a, 17a, 24a-b, 34, 38b2, 44b, 58). 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. Yet most commentaries about Yeats’s encounter with the nô do not place this perception at the centre of the inquiry but focus more particularly on 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 (though see Alvin Langdon Coburn’s marvelous photographs taken during a full dress rehearsal in the days before, reproduced in 105). 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). Yeats hoped also that evening that Prime Minister Asquith, Arthur James Balfour, John Singer Sargent, Charles Ricketts (Ap), Sturge Moore, and Augustus John might be in attendance (see 48e), but with the press forbidden the published record is not clear on the matter. One reporter did slip in, somehow, no doubt at least claiming to be a lover of poetry, and the anonymous account of the evening that appeared in the July Vogue (60) announced the play ‘structurally . . . true to the nô tradition’ and commended Yeats for bringing this ‘from Yeddo to Mayfair’, but of those in attendance at ‘the first performance of a nô play outside of Japan’ only the Queen and those ‘princesses, duchesses, and other personnages décoratifs’ attending upon her were mentioned.
The impulse to focus attention on At the Hawk’s Well in an account of Yeats’s debt to the nô is understandable, then. It was the first play that exemplified the ‘form of drama, distinguished, indirect, and symbolic’ that on his own evidence resulted from his turning to the nô; he called it a ‘Noh play’ (as he did the other ‘plays for dancers’ that followed [see especially 48f]); and it was an event remarked upon in high places that in its own day and for years thereafter was seen to be nô. But to place Hawk’s Well at the centre of an inquiry into the ways the nô affected Yeats’s work is to invite critical problems that never will be resolved. Like the nô it relies on a chorus and musicians, but so had Yeats’s On Baile’s Strand (1903) and Deirdre (1907). As is often true in the nô it culminates in the dance of a supernatural presence, but so had The Land of Heart’s Desire (1894). As is often the case in nô it sets forth the tale of a legendary hero at a moment of spiritual crisis, but so had The Shadowy Waters (1900), Cathleen ni Houlihan (1902) and The King’s Threshold (1904). As often in the nô it depicts a meeting of mortal with immortal, but so had The Countess Cathleen (1892) and The Hour Glass (1903). Like the nô it relies on stylised, anti-naturalistic stage design, but so had most of Yeats’s earlier drama. There can be no doubt that it was Yeats’s enthusiasm for the nô that led him to write At the Hawk’s Well and the dance plays that most immediately followed—Yeats himself is clear about the matter in the introduction to Certain Noble Plays and elsewhere—but beyond this attempts to read the nô into the work face considerable difficulties. The square of blue cloth that represents the well may have its origin in the folded kimono that represents the stricken Lady Aoi in Aoi no Ue (BK22), but similar devices had been in use in the Symbolist theatre for years. Yeats may have relied on Fenollosa’s Yôrô (BK75) as a source, but the image of the well of immortality also is central to many European tales. Yeats’s first use of masks probably resulted from his reading of nô, but he was not unaware of the Athenian drama.
The intention in raising this issue is not to suggest that At the Hawk’s Well is not importantly related to Yeats’s understanding of the nô. Yeats himself said repeatedly that it was, and the best of many commentaries that explore the connection, by Leonard E. Nathan (123), Liam Miller (185), Andrew Parkin (192), A. S. Knowland (214), Richard Londraville (227), and Yoko Chiba (255), among others, are both convincing and insightful. But to place At the Hawk’s Well at the centre of an analysis of Yeats’s adaptation of the nô is necessarily problematic, and all but solicits arguments that call attention to what had come before, and from this are able to conclude that the nô is not of particular importance in the development of Yeats’s later work. Yet it is no less a misunderstanding to claim that his interest in the nô was ‘superficial’ (173) or ‘interesting chiefly as a novelty’ (208) or ‘brief’ and ‘limited’ (238) as to suggest that At the Hawk’s Well follows ‘strict Noh rules with considerable fidelity’ (102), or captures ‘the essential structure’ of the Japanese form (164), or for that matter that it represents ‘the purest noh style’ in Yeatsian drama (A44).
The better place to focus an account of Yeats and the nô is where Yeats’s interest in the nô itself began, in Takahashi’s tout á coup, a ghost. In Yeats’s earliest sustained writing on the nô, in ‘Swedenborg, Mediums, and the Desolate Places’ (15a), composed in 1914 and published first as an appendix to Lady Gregory’s Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland, he is clear about the nature of his early interest in the form. He has discovered that across centuries and traditions artists and others have perceived that ‘the dead are near’, and are compelled at times to ‘keep the shape of their earthly bodies and carry on their old activities, wooing or quarrelling . . . in a round of duties or passionate events’. Since making this discovery he has ‘lived in excitement . . . constantly comparing’ accounts of such spirits, in the legends of Aran and Galway, in Homer, Herodotus, Dante, Paracelsus, Swedenborg, and Blake, and in the nô. Examples are offered of each of these, but it is in regard to the nô that Yeats concludes the essay, and most fully demonstrates his ‘excitement’. ‘Last winter Mr Ezra Pound was editing the late Professor Fenollosa’s translations of the Noh Drama of Japan, and read me a great deal of what he was doing’, Yeats writes, and it was in this work that his ‘discovery’ was revealed and confirmed. In the nô plays he found ‘nearly all’ that the mediums of Soho learn from their ‘familiars’, but presented ‘in an unsurpassed lyric poetry and in strange and poignant fables once danced or sung in the house of nobles’. These observations are followed by a lengthy passage in description of two unnamed plays, recognisably Nishikigi (BK8), which Yeats knew from Pound, and Motomezuka, which appeared in a work to which Pound had introduced him, Stopes’s Plays of Old Japan (see D23). These plays return to Yeats for the remainder of his life when his thoughts turn to the passionate dead, as they often did, and again and again inform his later poems, drama, and system of belief (see especially 11, 13, 14a, 17b, 22, 29, 32a, 33, 34, 36c, 38b1-2, 44b, and 57h).
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’.
Per Amica Silentia Lunae is the most fully-formed statement of Yeats’s system of belief to appear before the first edition of A Vision in 1925, and a declaration of ontological ‘conviction’ that underlies much of his later dramatic theory. Among the issues brought centrally into focus is the nature of the world of spirits, and central among the conceptual models Yeats calls upon to set forth his understanding is the mugen nô. 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.
First among these is The Dreaming of the Bones (14a), written in 1917. Suggestions that other of Yeats’s plays of the period are ‘based on’ or ‘assimilate elements from’ particular nô texts as they came to Yeats from Pound (or elsewhere unspecified)—At the Hawk’s Well from Yôrô, The Only Jealousy of Emer (14b) from Aoi no Ue , Calvary (17a) from Sumidagawa, Miwa, or Kakitsubata (BK23), The Cat and the Moon (24) from Kikazuzatô—are not always convincing even to a reader disposed to believe the nô of importance to Yeats. But there can be no doubt that The Dreaming of the Bones in conception, mood, and structure is closely modelled on the mugen nô, most particularly Nishikigi (see especially 102, 114, 180, 202, 236, 243, and 250 for analysis of the point). The play makes use of the devices of At the Hawk’s Well, the unfolding and folding of a cloth to mark off the time and ritual space of the drama, the chorus of musicians, symbolic properties, minimalist staging made suitable for performance in a drawing room. But to these The Dreaming of the Bones adds the ghosts and in important ways the dramatic construction of the mugen nô. An opening song establishes setting and lyrical mood. A traveller, here a young man, in the darkness of night approaches a place steeped in legendary associations, the ruined Abbey of Corcomroe, and encounters mysterious and oddly spoken strangers, a man and young woman, who tell a tale of ancient lovers and passion unresolved. As in the nô the strangers are masked, and as their tale unfolds gradually reveal themselves to be the spirits of the lovers of whom they speak, who ask forgiveness, and as dawn breaks over Galway they are moved finally, in the dramatic climax of the play, to dance their suffering and longing for release.
Yeats’s intention in The Dreaming of the Bones, as always in his Noh plays, was not faithfully to reproduce the Japanese model but to adapt what he found useful to his purposes, and so it should come as no surprise that in important ways the play departs from nô convention. This is particularly true in its polemics and lack of spiritual resolution. The ghosts are the lovers Diarmuid and Dervorgilla, whose ‘passionate sin’ led to the twelfth-century arrival of an English army on Irish soil, and the traveller is an Irish nationalist fleeing authorities after the 1916 Easter Uprising. He is moved by the anguish of the spirits but so bound by his own passion that he cannot grant them the absolution they seek. Central themes in this regard are of 1917 Ireland, not fourteenth-century Japan, but the understanding of the relation of spirit world to the world of the living, and the dramatic method of setting this forth, derive closely from the mugen nô, and ground The Dreaming of the Bones more firmly in nô tradition than any other work in the Yeats canon.
The conceit of the dreaming back of the dead allows Yeats in The Dreaming of the Bones to join Ireland’s past and its present effects in a single dramatic unfolding, much as understanding of the mugen nô facilitated the ‘compound tense’ of the earliest of Pound’s cantos (BK27) and again those written years later at Pisa (BK56). And like the plays Nishikigi and Motomezuka in which Yeats discovered the dramatic possibilities of the dreaming back of the dead the concept itself recurs in his work through the remainder of his life. It had underpinned the ontological stance of The Only Jealousy of Emer, and would return in the dramatic exploration of the dreamed-back passions of Christ in Calvary, the imagery of ‘Byzantium’ (32a), the ‘radical divergences’ from and ‘bold innovation’ on the ‘norm’ of the nô (235) in The Words upon the Window Pane (34) and Purgatory (44b), and is extended and further rarefied in the complex symbology of Book III of ‘The Phases of the Moon’, in Yeats’s ‘defence against the chaos of the world’, the second edition of A Vision (38b1-2). These along with earlier works discussed here have clear antecedents in the winter of 1913-14, when Pound and Yeats read nô at Stone Cottage, and constitute the most important legacy from the nô in Yeats’s work.
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 (see especially BC22, CA3, and CA9). But the forms and devices mediated in this work derive more from Yeats’s experiments than from the Japanese model itself, and often it has been this ‘Noh’ that has been carried forward in English verse drama, in Eliot’s Sweeney Agonistes (see CA10), Robinson Jeffers’s Dear Judas and Bowl of Blood (CA11), Kenneth Rexroth’s Phaedra, Iphigenia, Hermaois, and Berenike (CA13c), and Ulick O’Connor’s Three Noh Plays (Dublin: Wolfhound, 1980), among others.
Poems and plays are listed here according to their date of first publication, but page references are adjusted to Peter Allt and Russell K. Alspach’s Variorum Edition of the Poems of W. B. Yeats (London: Macmillan, 1957) and Alspach’s Variorum Edition of the Plays of W. B. Yeats (London: Macmillan, 1966). Most of Yeats’s poems and plays are readily available in various selected and collected editions, and much of his work has been reprinted often. Reprint information is limited here to works that are not found in standard editions of selected or collected poems or plays, and those selected and collected editions are not themselves listed. Yeats was an inveterate reviser, and many of his works appear in several versions. Only those variations of direct relevance to this study are noted.