Weill & Britten – Yeats & Pound

(N.B.: I am most grateful to Martina Kleinert who digitized the films and sound recordings included here.)




1 | The old spelling, Noh (as in Michio Itoh’s surname), was meant to indicate vowel length – closed rather than open. English speakers don’t differentiate in a binary fashion whereas Italians do – solo vs. lō sō.








2 | See Nancy Duvall Hargrove, T. S. Eliot’s Parisian Year. Gainsville, FL; University Press of Florida, 2010.

The extent of Ezra Pound’s actual understanding of Nō has been very little questioned, as well as the claim that he actually translated the plays published in Noh, or Accomplishment (1916) (or, for that matter, the poems of Cathay [1915]). The authority of the Fenollosa papers has never received attention, not to mention the state of existing scholarship either in East Asia or Western Europe before 1913. Background as to the real nature, origins, and cultural context of Nō needs be established before attempting to compare or evaluate twentieth century borrowings. The very nature and extent of literary assimilation ought also to be addressed not to mention those of production techniques.

At the time Pound was editing the Fenollosa texts, he was living with W.B. Yeats in Sussex; neither were British subjects and consequently turned out of war-torn London. Both were fascinated by Fenollosa’s notes and affected by them. European culture was then awash with Japonisme and Chinoiserie.

Edwardian England had also been much influenced by the Symbolist movement, as well as the aims/ideology and performance techniques of Art Theatre – not to mention the expressiveness of modern dance. The relationship between words (texts) and Cubist art is reasonably well known, but that between literature and modern dance is, unfortunately, not.
| 2 | The point of the present discussion is not only to estimate just how Nō-like Yeats’s dance dramas and Pound’s four plays actually are, but also the very nature of imitation/assimilation. The chamber operas of Kurt Weil and Benjamin Britten come into question.
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Ernest Fenollosa (1853-1908) went out to Japan in 1878 as Professor of Philosophy at the University of Tōkyō which had been established in the previous year. He was then twenty-five years old. Such an appointment can only be explained by the excesses of ‘Westernization’ in the wake of the Meiji Restoration (1868) and the patronage of Samuel Morse, an entrepreneurial Professor at Harvard, who pushed a promising student fast-forward. Fenollosa’s strongest interests then lay in the ethics/philosophy of Herbert Spencer, but once in Tōkyō he went seriously native. Japanese and Chinese classical art held his attention, and he bought extravagantly in a market where inestimable treasures were selling for next to nothing. The incomparable collection at the Boston Museum of Fine Art attest to his taste. From 1888 to 1890 he served the Imperial Administration as Commissioner for Fine Art and then returned to America where he capitalized on his private collection. He returned to Japan (1897-1901) with an ambitious, second wife in pursuit of yet more early Asian art and exercised a mild interest in Nō. Back in America he established the Smithsonian Oriental Gallery and went on to guide American-student tours in Europe, where he died of a heart attack in 1908 at the age of fifty-four. Later, Mary McNeill Fenollosa edited and published his completed text of Epochs of Chinese and Japanese Art, 2 vols (1912, rept 1913, 1917, & 1921) | 3 |. The remaining, and unedited, papers were passed on to Pound in 1913. They amounted to little more than working notes.

3 | London; William Heineman, 1912.

The Nō texts among Fenollosa’s papers are, to say the least, problematical. Five of them were not included in Pound’s edition of 1916 and six of those which were, are Han Nō, scenes or excerpts from complete scripts. Eight others are more or less complete but offer prose paraphrases rather than actual translations. The ‘Fenollosa’ redactions aim only at literal meaning and any likelihood of understanding formal structures or aesthetic textures is laughable. The overblown rhetoric of late Victorian English hardly does justice to the sharp and condensed language of the originals, which actually approximates a modernist idiom.

Comparison of Fenollosa’s texts with published versions shows that Pound acted as editor, not translator. He did change a word or two here and there, as most editors will do. In the first appearance of selected texts he introduced phrases in Irish vernacular, but mercifully edited them out in the Macmillan publication of 1916. | 4 |


At that time he had no knowledge of contemporary Japanese, and certainly none of the convoluted, rarified, medieval-court language in which the plays were written. In addition he had no access to texts in Kanji (Japanese script). The fact that he had no legitimate claim to having translated either the Chinese or Japanese classics, in no way deminsishes the accomplishment of introducing East Asian poetry to the West. The conduit, of course, was Yeats, who was easily seduced by influences which answered his own purposes.

Donald Gallup writes: “[Fenollosa] had studied the Noh drama intensively [?] in Japan from 1898 to 1901, and with the help of Japanese scholars had prepared outlines and full [?] translations of many of the plays given in monthly performances by Umewaka Minoru, the leading Nō master of the period.” | 5 | In the case of Fenollosa’s inadequate ponies there was actually only one collaborator, Hirata Tokuboku | 6 |, a colleague at the secondary school where Fenollosa taught during his second stay in Tōkyō.



4 | ‘The Classical Stage of Japan’, Drama, V, 18 (May 1915), 199-247.

5 | Ezra Pound, Plays Modelled on the Nō (1916), ed. Donald C. Gallup (Toledo; Friends of the University Library, 1987),
p 1.

6 | Throughout this text Japanese names are given surname first. Whenever citing published sources, however, Europeanized versions are followed.

Furukawa Hisashi. A much later literary critic and historian, quotes Hirata:“We prepared an outline based on my account of the play, and I discussed it with him, but in the case of Hogoromo [Feather Robe] at least, he worked out the lyrics, and one can see that the translation is complete.” | 7 | It isn’t.

Another problem with Noh, or Accomplishment (1916) is that Pound did not always understand the plots. In Aoi no Ue [Lady Hollyhock], for example, it is the Lady Rokujō who is uncontrollably jealous of her lover’s wife and had accidentally crashed into Aoi no Ue’s carriage at a horse race (see Gengi Monogatari). The hanya | 8 | (pronounced han-yah) in Act II is the incarnation of Rokujō’s overpowering and evil willfulness (see also Cantos, LXXVII: 39 & CX: 131). Pound turns the relationship up-side-down.

In another instance – the shrine at Ise does boast venerable pines, but the original of Takasago concerns a single pine at Takasago Bay and another at the very distant strand of Sumiyoshi (Suminoye) – trees which personify an elderly couple who represent Fidelity and Longevity (IV: 74-5 & XXI: 120). In the Nō performance included here, only the husband appears. Pound accepted Fenollosa’s notes as they stood and even assumed that the essay entitled ‘Fenollosa on the Noh’ (pp. 99-130) had been written by him. In fact it is a translation by Hirata, of an article authored by himself which was puplished in a Tōkyō newspaper.

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At the end of the nineteenth century serious analysis of Nō had yet to be established. A canon, or canons, certainly existed in Japan, but neither textual criticism nor historical scholarship had yet evolved. The tradition throve on secretiveness. Texts were jealously guarded by various schools although copies were in circulation among amateurs who thought of performing Nō as an elevating, cultural, and spiritual accomplishment. Over the years pirated copies in circulation  became altogether corrupt.

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Nō originated during the Muromachi period (late fourteenth century). The then Shogun, Yoshimitzu Ashigaga, became enamored of a boy actor, Ze-ami, who preformed at court in his father’s Dengaku troupe. Dengaku was a robust form of ritual folk-theatre and then highly valued. Yoshimitzu, however, yearned for a more elevated form which would manifest state authority (political power), and predicate moral/aesthetic values – something like the musical/theatrical interludes at Burgundian court banquets hosted by Charles, the Bold, or Elizabethean/Jacobean Masques (certainly not Greek drama as Fenollosa lamely proposed). At a stretch one might even invoke early French romances which mirrored a chivalric aristocracy (warrior caste) whose commitment to combat was countered by idealization of the eternal feminine – Troubadour tradition. Those romances, however, lacked both the extreme interiority of Nō and its consummation as Gesamtkunstwerk.

Yoshimitzu played patron to Ze-ami and his father, Kan-ami, who, together, created Nō. They established the Kanze school, writing and performing plays which were imitated and extended over later generations. Until the Meiji Restoration, Nō remained elitist and performed only for nobility. It exemplified cultural caché and, subsequently, was held to be semi-sacred (cp. Wagner’s Parsifal). The usual East Asian assertion that traditions and acting techniques remained unchanged over centuries is belied in many ways. For example, a performance of Aoi no Ue in Yoshimitzu’s day lasted half an hour, but now takes more than twice that time. Artists are not automatons, nor known to avoid creative innovation. How, otherwise, does one explain the present existence of five, disparate schools of performance. The original Kanze style was subverted, over and over again.

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As assimilated in the West, Nō tradition was distorted through misunderstandings on several levels. Both Yeats and Pound assumed that the plays were character and plot oriented – narratives, similar to the dramatic forms with which they were familiar. Hirata’s Victorian rhetoric also misled them, and they mistook his plot summaries for ghost stories – projecting visions of a shadowy supernatural neither-world. In fact Nō represents a psychological retreat from reality into a condition of intense subjectivity. Rather than narratives they are poetic meditions on morals, mores and heroic/tragic ideals.

The projection of states of mind, rather than character study, is the hallmark of most early East Asian literature. The donné of a Nō play is a well-known, classical event, not recounted, but rather re-imagined (re-constituted) from the point of view of both a supposedly external observer and then the inner-self of the protagonist. The exact phrasing of a classical text anchors the re-presentation, but as collage (cut and paste), embellished with relevant quotations from other familiar sources.

A typical Nō play, should there be such a thing, begins with a monk or court official visiting the site of a legendary event. A lyrical description of circumambient and seasonally-oriented nature follows and then a meditation on relevant philosophical or theological concepts. The traveler then encounters a humble, local character, and through dialogue, the salient action is rehearsed. The local character performs a graceful dance which expresses an objective view of that experience.

There may or may not be an interlude between the two acts. A Kyōgen (comic actor) might come forward to recount the legendary happening as a straight-forward (linear) narrative in order to cover an off-stage change of costume and mask. In Act II the main character returns in his or her legendary grandeur and re-enacts the crucial moment of the event, expressing through dance, the intensity of its emotion.

A complete Nō program is comprised of at least five plays and four Kyōgen (comic interludes) with a sixth, Okina, opening the performance on occasions of the greatest state – such as New Year’s Day in the presence of the Imperial Family. I was present at one of those in 1963; a magical happening which took more than 12 hours to run its course. The basic pattern begins with a God play, such as Takasago, in which supernatural providence is seen to be diffused through the benevolent reign of the Emperor. Then comes a Warrior piece, usually the tale of a heroic and tragic death in battle attendant nostalgia and regret. The third involves a woman’s unrequited, blighted love, and the next, a Mad piece in which either a man or woman is driven beyond self-control by an excess of emotion. The final performance returns to the supernatural world, but now a joyous presentation of minor, spirit figures who frolick – a prancing lion or orangutan for example, a troll or elf basking in happy fulfillment. The framing pieces reconcile the supernatural and natural worlds while the three plays concerning human experience emphasize either heroic transcendence through steadfast courage, philosophical/religious strength, and elevating beauty – or tragic failure.

7 | Hisashi Furukawa, Ō Bei jin no Noh gaku ken kyuu (European and American Studies of Nō) Tōkyō, Joshi Daigaku Gakkai Sōshi [Publication of Tōkyō Women’s College], 1, Tōkyō, 1962

8 | Japanese, like French, for example, has no syllable stress.