Thursday, March 7, 2013

Yeats and Noh Theatre

****During his middle and later years, Yeats was compelled to explore the world of theater and was highly influenced by the mysterious elegance and beauty of the art of the Japanese Noh Theater. He sought to establish what is referred to as “strange intimacy” in his plays as opposed to the “familiar distance” evoked by contemporary naturalistic productions popular both in England and at the Abbey Theatre at the time.

I need a theatre. I believe myself to be a dramatist. I desire to show events and not merely tell of them...two of my best friends were won for me by my plays, and I seem to myself most alive at the moment when a room full of people share the one lofty emotion. –W.B Yeats 1917

            The two “best friends” he is referring to here, of course, are Ezra Pound and Ernest Fenollosa who introduced Yeats to the Noh Drama. Yeats borrowed structural elements from Japanese Noh as well as to incorporate this highly stylized theater into his own plays. Two Yeats plays showing this influence of the Japanese Noh Drama were At the Hawk’s Well, performed at the Abbey Theater in Dublin in 1917 and The Death of Cuchlain first published in 1939 and performed at the Abbey Theater in 1945.

****Modern Japanese poet, Yone Noguchi once said,

…the actors and audience go straight into the heart of prayer in creating the most intense atmosphere of grayness, the most suggestive color in all Japanese art, which is the twilight soared out of time and place. (Hakutani, 17)

            This was precisely the energy, atmosphere and style Yeats aimed to emanate in his plays; two of these being At the Hawks Well and The Death of Cuchulain and the westernization of the Japanese Noh began. Edmund Murray puts it perfectly in his article, in his article, Noh Business:

. . a journey, a surprise meeting, a revelation, a disappearance from the surprise meeting, an interlude of explanation, then a reappearance in a transformed state, which results in some expiation or resolution, often of a past event, which leads to a dance, all in a landscape which is imbued with the power of the past event, which is embodied in a ghost or spirit or god. The waki is like the base, the shite like the lead guitar. ( Murray, 60)

            In his initial flush of enthusiasm for Japanese theater Yeats wrote the first series of “dance plays,” and the most frequently discussed of these is At the Hawks Well . It was his first attempt at a drama consciously patterned on the Noh. It explicitly uses elements such as dance, masks and the supernatural. The stage is a “bare space before a wall which stands a patterned screen.” (Finneran, 219) In his notes to At the Hawks WellYeats argued that;

Painted scenery is unnecessary because our imagination kept living by the arts can imagine a mountain covered with thorn-trees in a drawing room without trouble. (Hakutani, 17)

****Not only did Yeats adapt Noh scenery into this play, he also incorporated the use of masks. All the characters in this play are wearing masks or have faces with make-up that resemble a mask and this serves to create a sense of “simplicity, impersonality, and profundity in symbolism. (Hakutani, 17) 

****The black cloth is refolded again at the end of the play. This ritual of unfolding and refolding the cloth creates an atmosphere subtle strangeness and intimacy and the chanting here has a haunting quality to it. Both of these are aspects directly drawn from Japanese Noh. This was very exciting for Yeats who was always on the lookout for new ways of using occult research, “to hear that the Japanese Plays were full of spirits and masks, and that the crises in plays usually occurred when a character who had appeared to be an ordinary mortal was suddenly revealed to be a God or spirit” (Ellmann, 216)

****Unlike contemporary productions which were concerned with ‘slice of life’ themes, like the Noh Yeats’ At the Hawks Well is not concerned with slices of life, but rather the whole pie. Rather than focusing on the struggle of one character, Yeats explored universal issues, such as the dichotomy between artifice and nature. For example, in At the Hawks Well Cuchulain and the Old Man are characters searching for immortality. The young man speaks to the guardian of the well, “ Do what you will, I shall not leave this place / Till I have grown immortal like yourself (Finneran, 227) and they old man states,
If I may judge by the gold
on head and feet and glittering in your coat,
You are not of those who hate the living world.
(Finneran, 222.)

            They both seem to be obsessed with their own eternal human state and are aching for immortality.

****Yeats was an artist, not a copier. In April of 1916, in one of his most famous essays of drama criticism, "Certain Noble Plays of Japan," Yeats described his revolutionary conception for a new form of drama:
With the help of Japanese plays . . . I have invented a form of drama, distinguished, indirect and, symbolic, and having no need of mob or press to pay its way – an aristocratic form -W.B Yeats 1916

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