Essay: Ezra Pound and the Rediscovery of the Noh Play

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Ezra Pound and the Noh Play

Ezra Pound and the Japanese Noh Play

In the West, the Japanese Noh play is most often studied by students of drama, poetry and literature to understand its effects on poet W.B. Yeats (Teele 1957, p. 346). Early in the process, students undoubtedly become aware that Yeats was first exposed to the Noh play through his colleague, friend and sometimes nemesis, Ezra Pound. Pound is credited with being the first Western poet to embrace the Noh play through his translations with Ernest Fenollosa of several manuscripts in 1913 (Ibid).

As a result of his tremendous enthusiasm, Pound succeeded in creating a broader interest in the genre among his peers in Europe and America, even though his translations were usually harshly criticized in Japan (Ibid). However, he appears to have abruptly abandoned his passionate foray into the Noh shortly afterwards. It was not until the middle of the 1930s and beyond that Pound re-discovered and truly championed the Noh as an artistic drama production worthy of world-wide acclaim.

Basic Elements of the Noh Play

The Japanese Noh play is a form of classical Japanese musical theater with a history that is over six centuries old. The Noh plays typically fall into one of two categories: the "Gendai Noh" which is known as the realistic Noh or "Mugen Noh." Mugen Noh plays generally consist of two acts. In the first act, called the shite, the main character is disguised as another character, called the waki. In the latter act, the shite emerges in his or her true form (Nagahata 116).

While both female and male roles are depicted, historically, males have played all the roles, often wearing masks, which are the hallmark of Noh play costumers (Fenollosa and Pound, p. 6). A traditional Noh performance lasts all day and is usually comprised by five consecutive Noh plays spelled by shorter, comical kyogen pieces. This has changed some recently, however, as contemporary Noh performances now more typically consist of two Noh plays bookending one Ky-gen play (Brandon n.p.). Stages and sets are dramatically limited, if not eliminated altogether from the Noh Play and the predominate color is grey (Nagahata, p. 115).

Many characters are masked, with men playing male and female roles.

Popular Noh Plays

"Kayoi Komachi," is an example of a popular Noh play where the ghosts of Ono no Komachi, a woman who lived in the 8th century and was known to be of legendary beauty was courted for ninety-nine consecutive nights, and Shii no Shosho, the man courting her, appear, speak and dance in the real world (Ibid). Many Noh plays featured ghosts venturing into the here and now of the real world, the here and now (Ibid). According to Pound's translation, because Shosho would not accept Buddhism, his and Ono's spirit will be kept apart (Fenollosa and Pound, p. 27).

In "Suma Genji," the main character Gengi runs afoul of Buddhist morals when he develops 'oedipal' type complexes because he yearns for a romantic relationship with any female that reminds him of his mind (Van Dyne, 3). In this play, Pound identifies another common Noh feature, unity of image, which in the case of Suma Genji is the blue-grey waves and wave pattern (Nicholls 4).

A third Noh play is Kumosaka, which heroically portrays a pilgrim priest who prays for the soul of an unknown dead man in the face of adversity around him. The priest's spirit is rewarded for his righteous perseverance (Fenollosa and Pound, p. 63). The Noh plays frequently portray spirits dressed as simple and destitute characters who face a moment or situation of crisis. If the character navigates the crisis properly, the character's spirit is rewarded. If not, the spirit is punished. Whether or not the character acts properly is based on the morality and ethics set forth in Buddhism and its eightfold path (Van Dyne, n.p.).

Pound's Re-Discovery of the Noh Play Pound first became enamored with Noh in the years leading up to World War I. In 1911,

Pound corresponds with his Japanese friend Noguchi and observes a distinct lack of knowledge regarding any aspect of the Japanese society. Pound comes to believe that East can meet West, but it should happen slowly and it should happen first through the arts

. Thus, the early seeds are planted within Pound to spread Japanese culture through dramatic and musical Noh.

the dawn of World War II that Pound began the process of rediscovering the Noh. To best understand the process of how this happened, Pounds letters to Japanese correspondents from 1938 to 1968 should be examined.

As of March 1939, Pound began working seriously to learn to read both Japanese and Chinese. A year later he became nostalgic for Japan when he saw a 'fragment' of a film that featured a segment from a noh play. In fact, Pound, proving that he is indeed on culture's cutting edge states in his correspondence that all of the Noh plays should be filmed and the musical scores should be recorded as the sound tracks

When Pound came across the fragment of the Noh play in the film, he conclusively identified the scene as Noh based on the music. Even though, he was sure that he had not heard a note of Noh since the early 1920s, he knew Noh the instant it sounded. To Pound, Noh 'is like no other music'

. Pound's ultimate goal, much like it had been over twenty years prior, was to use Noh to open up the Tokyo market for himself and to further create a Japanese-Anglo cultural relationship

In 1940, Pound discovered a culture gap between traditional Japanese culturists and the more sensible modern Japanese. Though he had visited the Japanese Cultural Relations Bureau in Rome, in an effort to locate information about the country and in particular Noh, he was advised 'to get wise to MODERN Japan and not bother with Noh.' The officials that he dealt with in Rome were not at all enamored with Noh and never heard of Fenollosa

At the end of 1940, Pound begins to inquire about George Bernard Shaw's knowledge of the Noh, even assuming a protective, selfish stance with respect to the Noh. Pound wonders 'when did Bernie Shaw ever see a Noh play and why did he think he knew what it was driving at?

' The more important connotation of this correspondence is that Noh had already become at least little more popular in Western culture by this time.

Even as Japan's involvement in World War II increased, Pound continued to insist on the importance of the Noh as a link to Eastern civilization and the positive impact that would result from having films made of the major Noh plays

. Pound goes so far as to contact Japan's diplomatic officers in hostile countries to praise Noh and offer assurances that if the Noh were to widely disseminated throughout the West, that could singly prevent any large scale anti-Japanese sentiment from forming

Impact of Pound's Efforts to Disseminate Noh to the West

By the end of the war period, Pound was openly acknowledging that his works were inspired by his rereading of Noh translations

. Pound himself considered Fenollosa to know more about Noh than anyone who has ever spoken the English language. Noh's impact on Shaw was sizeable and has already been discussed. This essay began by acknowledging Noh's influence on Yeats. However, this influence warrants closed analysis because of the magnitude of both Noh's influence on Yeats and Yeats' impact on English literature in the twentieth century.

While Yeats is best known for his poetry, he was an actually an exceptionally diverse writer, excelling in many genres in his lifetime. As a result of exploring the world of theater, Yeats became "highly influenced by the mysterious elegance and beauty of the art of the Japanese Noh Theater" (Sands, n.p.). Yeats fancied himself a dramatist, and in fact, authored some influential and profound plays. Even as he won a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923, Yeats firmly credited his accomplishment to his study of Noh drama.

Yeats wrote a series of "dance plays" that mirror the structure of the Noh, most notably among them was At the Hawks Well (Sands, n.p.). It is clear that this drama was consciously patterned on the Noh from its use of dance, masks, supernatural spirits an relatively barren wall. Perhaps the most obvious indication of the homage paid to Noh by Yeats is the presence of the chorus chanting the morality tales, as is a constant in the Japanese Noh (Sands, n.p.)

Conclusion

Pound, and Yeats and Shaw, have succeeded in spreading the genre of the Noh the West as it has become more of a part of popular culture in the twentieth century. Noh has had an impact on composers, playwrights and poets throughout the world. This worldwide interest has also helped to maintain its popularity in Japan. The practice of Noh thrives in Japan today.… [END OF PREVIEW]

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