In the early 1960s single Nō plays were performed publicly for aficionados; singly on a week-day evening and in twos or threes on a Saturday afternoon. From time to time gala performances of a full cycle would be staged, and presumably, that pattern is still in vogue. Making up an individual program involves the same kinds of decisions as when arranging a European, music recital or concert.    

Literary texts usually have three, more or less equal, parts; a prosaic introduction (chanted rather than sung) which enters into gentle lyricism in an ambiguous dialogue between traveler and local figure, then rises in intensity during the replay of events and dance. In the second act the poetic element goes into high gear, and over all, there is an accelerando in both tempo and intensity of lyricism. Rather than operating by progression, however, sub-units of the text depend on contrast; stophe–transition/bridge–antistrophe, and each set is assigned a generalized subject matter as well as dramatic function. The literary form is nothing if not exactingly precise | 9 |.

Beyond the progressive intensity of its variable lyricism, which ranges between ritual chanting and pure song, another effect is accomplished by a very strained and unnatural voice-projection as well as a marked contrast between the use of single and multiple voices. Further variation is achieved, occasionally, by introducing the piping voice of a pre-pubescent boy. Either Waki, secondary character, or Shite (pronoucnced as a monosylable, Sh’tay) may be accompanied by one or more attendants (Tsure/Zure) chanting or singing in either unison or dialogue. A chorus of eight or ten men counters the single voice of the protagonist, either in dialogue, commentary, or voicing the main character’s thought. In so minimalist an art such contrasts are striking.

Music in Nō drama is not simply decorative. For example, the hand drums (shoulder and knee) are pitched – the strings which seat the drum-heads can be contracted or relaxed, and play strangely eccentric rhythms which punctuate emotions. Hard finger sheaths produce a sharp (non-vibrating) sound – much like an African slit-drum. There are no regular patterns; the effect is rather like listening to rain plopping from eaves after a summer shower. Both drummers whoop (yowl) as well – hence Fenollosa’s reference to ‘cats’. The single, stick drum, on the other hand, intensifies expressed emotion with hammering rhythms at moments of climax, while the flute cuts across everything with poignant (almost heart-breaking), linear lyricism.

As in most dance traditions, Nō is made up of a number of set patterns which can be refigured in many different combinations, according to subject matter and desired emotional effect. European ballet has its pirouettes, lifts, pas de deux, etc. as well as more fluid patterns of transition. The most singular feature of Nō however, is the sliding foot-step, tabi-shod, over polished floor-boards with only the ball of the foot raised after each movement. The practice derived from medieval, court protocol and can be seen re-enacted in historical costume films. Body posture requires bent knees so that the vertical motion of walking is denied. The torso is also angled forward with arms held stiffly, elbows well back and in line with body shape. Considering that actors wear voluminous robes, physical movement is concealed, and the effect is that of dehumanized, yet restrained, kinetic energy. When, in moments of passion, movement is speeded up, and the effect is that of floating, gliding, swooping – gulls hovering above open water.

9 | See 'Green Park' and 'Ezeulu' below.

Actual performances can be accessed here. * Both filmclips omit the introductory section and begin with the first appearance of the Shite.

[Aoi_no_ue]+ [Takasago]

Nō also embraces distancing (alienating) effects in order to force the spectator to experience meaning and emotion through imagination. The concept passed on into later forms such as Bunraku and Kabuki before being adopted by European, Expressionist theatre via Bertold Brecht.

Stylized physical gestures are also significant. Some have very specific implications while fan-play in general is largely decorative – but always in character. An open fan, however, held high in an outstretched hand and upward gaze signifies contemplation of the moon. When one or both arms, hands ridged, palms up, and elbows out, are raised ever-so slowly to lowered eyes, the character is either weeping gently or uncontrollably. Mime is also exploited as with the hanya’s aggressive hatchet in Aoi no Ue or the scooping up of holy water in the second act of Takasago.

Other effects have equal weight – the almost unbearable slowness of movement, for example. An action which takes thirty seconds to accomplish in real time, lasts everlastingly. A compressed universe opens inner space.

Even stage properties are highly stylized; boats and huts, for example, are simple outlines, quite out of natural proportion, made of slender bamboo wands wrapped in cloth bands. The only prop which even approaches realism is a huge, damask-covered, temple bell which falls on the protagonist in Dojoji and allows for a dramatic change of costume and mask. In those plays, which have no interlude between acts, it is quite normal for the protagonist to change on-stage facing the rear wall.

Yet another feature is the consistency of visual imagery within any given play. Yeats used the term ‘Unity of Image’. In Momiji-Gari [Viewing Autumn Leaves], for example, brightly colored leaves are often mentioned in the text and the protagonist carries an emblematic cutting, while the colors and patterns of the costume, as well as the painted fan carried by the protagonist, echo them. Similarly the hanya (Lady Rokujō’s jealousy) in Aoi no Ue wears an exposed under-kimono with a close pattern of black triangles on a silver background signifying its reptilian nature.

Neither Pound nor Yeats had much direct experience of Nō performance and Fenollosa’s notes give little concrete detail – after all, he had it all in his head. Loie Fuller’s Chinese dancers (see Yeats’s poem, ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’) who performed at the Paris Exhibition in 1901, were of Beijing Opera tradition | 10 |. That piece, by the way, is still in the repetoire. The Japanese troupe lead by Kawakami Otojirō, in which his wife, Yacco Sada starred, had taken London and Paris by storm in 1900-1, was a reformed version of Kabuki, but there is no evidence that either Yeats or Pound witnessed any of their performances.

10 | In Das Gedichtete behauptet sein Recht (2001), p. 205, I confused those dancers with Yacco Sada’s troupe .


Itō Michio, who choreographed and performed in the premiere of Yeats’s At the Hawk’s Well (1916), confessed to having seen Nō only once and when less than ten years old.
His uncle had taken him along as an aesthetic treat. There is evidence, however, that Itō had a friend, an amateur performer, who danced in formal kimono-hakama for Yeats and Pound in a dismal, North London flat. Yeats’s description in the ‘Introduction’ to Certain Noble Plays of Japan | 11 | is both accurate and perceptive.

11 | (Dundrum, County Dublin; Cuala Press, 1916), pp. xii-xiii.

Familiarity with more than three hundred performances of Nō plays as well as classical Japanese literature, interviews with actors, and the history/textual criticism of Nō tradition constitute a basis for the present analysis, but acquaintance with modern Western, dance styles is also relevant.

In 1962 a memorial performance in honor of Itō Michio was staged in Tōkyō, and his protogé performed the dance from At the Hawk’s Well, using both original choreography and costume. The vocabulary of movement was much closer to that of Martha Graham – formal and hieratic rather than Isadora Duncan’s more fluid and subjective style. For the other plays Ninette de Valois, who founded and directed The Royal Ballet, Covent Garden, choreographed and danced Yeats’s plays at the Abbey theatre, Dublin. During an interview (London 1969) – and in frustration at not being able to describe/analyse the choreography, she kicked off her elegant heels and performed all of them in her drawing-room. As in her most important full length ballet, Job, the vocabulary was expressionistic, featuring stiff, angular, and powerfully thrusting gestures.


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When considering descent or derivation, it is also well to pay as much attention to differences as well as similarities. The most common kind of literary transmutation is to re-imagine the original in another cultural context. Almost line for line Milton’s Samson Agonistes (1671) is based on Oedipus at Colonus, but none the less brilliant for that. At the other end of the spectrum is the case of Salman Rushdie [pronounced Rooshdi], who took the basic plot of a B–minus [lower second-class], science-fiction film set in the Home Counties – Village of the Damned – and superimposing India’s post-colonial experience, wrote a world-class novel, Midnight’s Children.

Kurt Weill’s Der Jasager [He Who Says Yes] (Heliodore, 1929) follows a faithful translation by Elisabeth Hautmann of Taniko as rendered by Arthur Whaley (The Noh Plays of Japan. London, 1921), but with a personal agenda. As was often the case with Hirata’s redactions for Fenollosa, Whaley’s text is not trustworthy. The resurrection scene is missing – otherwise the composer probably wouldn’t have used that text. Whaley’s truncated version, however, fitted in perfectly with Weill’s concept of Schul [didactic/instructive] Theater – the story of a youth on pilgrimage who becomes seriously ill atop a holy mountain and accepts the sacrifice of his life so that his peers not be imperiled. The opera, understandably, secularizes the action by substituting socialist motives for ritual and religious ones. The music, on the other hand, is vintage Weill (cabaret influenced, as was Drei Groschen Oper), but lovingly configured around the emotions evoked. *

[Der Jasager, Kurt Weill]

Benjamin Britten’s chamber opera, Curlew River – A parable for church performance (Decca, 1964), transposes the action of Sumida-gawa [Sumida River], to the fens of medieval, East Anglia. Britten had seen/heard performances of that play on a visit to Tōkyō in 1956. The bird imagery of the original is not only preserved but also highlighted by insistence on the local, Anglo-Saxon, word for ‘sea gull’. Britten’s drama is framed by processions of monks chanting ‘Te lucis ante terminum’, issuing from and returning to the sacristy. Before an altar, the ‘monks’ costume themselves, and fiction becomes reality. Curlew River follows the translation published by the Japan Society for the Promotion of Scientific [Academic] Research. | 12 | The plot features a demented widow, a noble woman, whose young son had been abducted and enslaved. Distraught and searching for him, she encounters a ferryman who tells the story of a boy, abducted by a merchant, whose grave-mound on the opposite shore has become an object of pilgrimage. She reaches the site, and her child is heard to sing. Brittan’s music is austere and exactly captures the Gnostic economy of the original. An excerpt is accessible here; no English text is offered as the libretto is perfectly clear. *

12 | Japanese Nō Drama, 3 vols. Tōkyō; Nippon Gakujutsu Shinkkai, 1955-60.


[Curlew River, Benjamin Britten]

On the other hand, Yeats’s assimilation/incorporation of elements from the genre is far more complex, but his interest was more in theater than music. He did borrow features as either discovered in, or catalyzed by, Fenollosa’s inadequate notes – recombining them in originally conceived structures. Indeed, his works include mythic/legendary subject matter, contrastive verse forms, choral chanting, masks, unifying imagery, travel songs (michi-yuki) with symbolic circuits of the stage, objective introductions, doubled characters, masks, stylized movement, expressive dance, and music. However, his creations are simply eclectic and basically very different from Nō tradition.

By and large he concentrated on Irish mythology (the Cuchulain cycle [pronounced Cu-hùlin]), and the historical betrayal of Irish sovereignty by Diarmuid and Dervorgilla [pronounced Dèrmot & D’vòrd’la], as well as folkloric anti-heroes – Lame Man and Blind Man). Foolishly I once began a study of Old Celtic in order to gauge Yeats’s use of mythology – only to find that he hadn’t even the first clue, and blindly followed Lady Gregory’s amateurish collection of folk versions. | 13 | Yeatsians tend to take Lady Gregory as an authority without checking scholarly evidence and they also assume that because a few ‘Fenollosa’ texts can be identified as sources, the Plays for Dancers were actually written in the tradition of authentic Nō.

At the Hawk’s Well (1917) is obviously modeled on a paraphrase of Yōrō, which was not included in Pound’s edition of 1916 | 14 |, but the differences far outweigh similarities. The original is a God Play and celebrates the beneficence of both the supernatural and temporal worlds. In Yōrō the waters of regeneration pour forth liberally in a lush landscape and are presided over by the harmonious relationship between father and son as well as God-Emperor-People. Yeats, however, offers a vision fraught with frustration and conflict. He relocates the action to a rocky, autumnal world where the miraculous well is guarded by a malevolent spirit who seduces Young Man in order to distract him when a trickle of water does appear. The conflict is that of youth against age, father against son. Yeats’s on-going preoccupation also dominates Purgatory (1939), which inspired Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and the mother/father figures in End Game. In Purgatory Yeats’s protagonist is an old tramp who kills both his father and son with the same blade that cuts his daily bread.

The protagonist is acknowledged as Cuchulain, hero of the Red Branch Cycle, and the Guardian of the Well is explicitly associated with Aoife [pronounced E-fé], a Scotts warrior-queen whom he overcame in battle and then raped. The Cuchulain of Yeats’s dance play is certainly not the bold and blood-thirsty warrior of the Gael, but rather an unfulfilled, quest-hero of the late-Victorian, mystical-occult revival.

The Only Jealousy of Emer [pronounced Ah-ver] (1919) begins where On Baile’s Strand [pronounced Boyle’s] (1904) left off. According to Yeats, Cuchulain is unconscious and near death after his supposed ‘fight with the sea’ – for Yeats a scene of impassioned desperation caused by the unexpected revelation that he had slain Aoife’s (and his own) son. In the original, however, Cuchulain knew perfectly well who the challenger was, as well as the nature of the challenge. The hero certainly wasn’t much bothered by remorse, but rather loped off, after butchering the boy, to the nearest banqueting hall.









13 | Cuchulain of Muirthemne. London; Murray, 1902. Rprt 1970.


14 | See Richard Taylor, The Drama of W.B.Yeats (New Haven & London; Yale University Press, 1976), pp. 121-127.

In ‘The Wasting Sickness [from wounds] of Cú Chulainn, and the Only Jealousy of Emer’,
| 15 | the hero, having slighted various noble women and dreamt that they had beaten him brutally, fell into a year-long coma. Emer, returned him to his true [sexual] self, and he entered into a month-long affair with Fand, daughter of Aed [fire]. She is named for the tears which pass over the fire [pupil] of the eye. Ethne Inguba was simply an earlier and, for Emer, tolerated concubine.

In Yeats’s version Cuchulain is seen as an object of contention between contrasting poles of physical desire, and on a spiritual level by the opposed forces of a Woman of the Sidhe (Fand?) and Brikriu, an anarchic God of Misrule – physical salvation vs spiritual condemnation. The plot is absurdly complex, and the distinction between the ‘Ghost’ of Cuchulain (the better part of his divided nature) and the ‘Figure’ of Cuchulain (possessed by Brikriu) is lost on an average audience. The plot has nothing to do with Irish mythology, nor with Nō. One might argue that the image of Aoi no Ue on her sick bed and attacked by the vengeful jealousy of Lady Rokujō, provided the donné, but Yeats’s play centers on mystical-occultism and follows the norm of multiple character conflicts in the narrative tradition of European theater.

15 | Serglige Con Culain, ed. & trans. Miles Dillon. Columbus, OH; H.L. Herdick, 1941.