BL. W. B. Yeats


180. Taylor, Richard. The Drama of W. B. Yeats: Irish Myth and the Japanese Nô. New Haven: Yale UP, 1976.

An effort to ‘ascertain exactly what ideas [Yeats] borrowed from nô tradition, how accurately those ideas had been transmitted, and what effects they had on the already established course of Yeats’s theatrical innovations’. 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 conceptions’. Includes chapters on the early plays, Fenollosa and Pound as ‘agents of transmission’ of the nô, the nô itself , the ‘plays for dancers’, and ‘later assimilation’ of the form. Finds a ‘Japanese original’ for each of the plays for dancers, and that the later plays are ‘extensions and elaborations of these achievements’. A valuable work, even if flawed by attention to technical similarities at the expense of philosophical and spiritual affinities. In review of the work (see below) Yeats specialists tend to find the work strong on the nô and weak on Yeats, nô specialists the opposite.

a. Reviews: The work was widely reviewed. Most found it an advance on earlier writing on the subject, but several reviewers express reservations nonetheless.

1. In the most generally favourable reviews, P. G. O’Neill (Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 40 [1977]: 452) notes that study of Yeats and the nô ‘must have been the subject of more graduation theses than any other single topic’ and finds Taylor’s work ‘outstanding in the field’; A. G. Stock (Irish University Review 7 [1977]: 131-33) writes that Yeats scholars have known too little of the nô and suggests that Taylor ‘fills the gap with what appears to be thorough master[y] of nô theory and practice’; Roy E. Teele (Literature East & West 19 [1975 (1976)]: 267-69) has quibbles about details but finds the study ‘by far the best to date’ and ‘likely to be a standard reference work for many years’; George-Denis Zimmermann (English Studies 60 [1979]: 526-28) writes that Taylor’s ‘exhaustive account’ ‘fill[s] a gap in Yeatsian scholarship’; and Christopher Fitz-Simon (‘The Foundation Laid’, Drama 125 [1977]: 74-75) notes particularly the help the work might offer those few directors who want to ‘give a genuine-Japanese construction’ to the Plays for Dancers (17).

2. Richard Finneran (Journal of Modern Literature 6 [1977]: 738-43), Philip Marcus (Journal of English and Germanic Philology 76 [1977]: 265-68), Andrew Parkin (Nineteenth Century Theatre Research 6 [1978]: 119-20), Ronald Schleifer (Georgia Review 31 [1977]: 736-39), and Gary Davenport (‘Yeats in the Theater’, Sewanee Review 85 [1977]: 671-74), however, express doubts about Taylor’s treatment of Yeats. Finneran believes that Taylor is ‘a perceptive critic’ and that his study ‘contains . . . interesting readings of certain plays’, but also that he ‘seems uncertain about the importance of the Noh to Yeats’ and that his lack of appreciation for Yeats as a dramatist is a ‘prejudice . . . not absent from [his] analyses’; Marcus finds that while the work ‘avoid[s] excessive claims’ and is ‘restrained and judicious in . . . estimates of the degree of influence’, it is ultimately ‘unsatisfactory’ because of ‘value judgments and assertions’ about Yeats’s plays that are ‘usually subjective’, ‘extremely difficult to substantiate’, and ‘ought to be presented with . . . caution’; Parkin notes that the work includes ‘a number of . . . perceptive comments and a careful, enthusiastic account of nô’, but finds also that it ‘suffers from the tendency to see Yeats as most successful when nearest to nô, and to undervalue other important elements, particularly in the early plays’; Schleifer, while praising the ‘concise and useful history of the nô and . . . outline of its primary features’, believes Taylor’s ‘reading [of] Yeats against the Japanese theatre  . . . is recurrently prescriptive . . . without offering the Yeatsian and dramatic contexts’; and Davenport finds, simply, that the work is ‘much better on the nô than on Yeats’.

3. Other critics express doubts about either Taylor’s treatment of the nô itself or its effects on Yeats’s work. William Gordon (Dalhousie Review 57 [1977]: 393-95) notes the need for such a book, and believes the work goes a long way toward filling a gap in scholarship, but finds that it does not offer enough guidance about what the nô meant for Yeats, or whether ‘Pound and Fenollosa knew what they were talking about’; Reiko Tsukimura (Arcadia 13 [1978]: 211-15) finds the work ‘worthy of consultation . . . by Yeats specialists’, but is unconvinced by Taylor’s understanding of the nô and his conclusions about its effects in particular plays; John Kwan-Terry (World Literature Today 51 [1977]: 508) notes Taylor’s ‘careful and perspicuous argument [and] intelligent and sensitive commentary’, but believes he ‘has not escaped certain ambiguities, if not misjudgments’, particularly in lack of attention to the ‘religious element’ in nô and to what exactly in the form ‘galvaniz[ed] the attention of Yeats and his contemporaries’; and René Fréchet (Etudes anglaises 32 [1979]: 490-91) finds the work successful in its tracing of the development of Yeats as a dramatist, but lacking in its failure to come to a general conclusion about the role of the nô in his work.

4. Other reservations include those of Eileen Katô (Monumenta Nipponica 32 [1977]: 397-99), who believes the work will help ‘dispel . . . persistent misunderstandings’ but laments among other things its ‘ortho- or typographical errors’, many of which are noted; and Kathleen Draycott (Asian Affairs OS 65/NS 9 [1978]: 216-18), argues that while Taylor ‘has done a great deal of work’, he ‘does not fully succeed in substantiating’ his claim that Yeats’s utilisation of the nô is among ‘the most important developments’ in English-speaking theatre between 1890 and 1940.

5. Finally, several critics find the work lacking in more serious ways. Toshimitsu Hasegawa (Studies in English Literature 57 [English number, 1980]: 80-87), finds fault both with Taylor’s understanding of the nô and his ‘“overriding contention” that Yeats was primarily influenced by the general plot organization of nô plays’; Elizabeth Mackenzie (Notes and Queries OS 225/NS 27 [1980]: 471-74) is generally dismissive in finding that ‘interesting as the nô material is, one is reminded forcibly by such a book that it is the force of the poet’s transforming imagination rather than his raw material that is the literary critic’s most urgent concern’; and Vincent Mahon (Review of English Studies 29 [1978]: 239-41) writes that Taylor’s work is ‘one of those well-researched uninspired productions’, for ‘having established his thesis that Yeats was influenced not by the details of actual nô plays but by the[ir] general organization’, Taylor ‘plods on . . . with a judgement of Yeats that is greatly marred by the honorific status he confers on the term “modern”’, and in the end ‘his book, for all its learning, actually says very little’.

See also 186 and 191.





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