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Overland magazine feature

Murray Edmond: No Paragraphs

Meditations on Noh, Poetry, Theatre and the Avant-garde

‘sentences are not emotional and... paragraphs are’

— Gertrude Stein, ‘Plays’

This piece is 8,000 words or about sixteen printed pages long

Kenneth Koch’s three-line play, ‘Searching for Fairyland,’ features the Irish poet and dramatist William Butler Yeats. The play opens with the singular stage instruction ‘Mist.’ When Yeats speaks, the back story is immediately clarified: ‘I have coom all this distance, looking for faeryland.’ An old man, now nearing the end of his life, his Irish accents announce a story of journey and search. Perhaps it is a journey which began in youth — ‘The silver apples of the moon,/The golden apples of the sun’ — which now returns to haunt its own past. Up to this point the question of time haunts the drama: it has been so long and now it is too late; a life time’s search stumbles to its sudden, ironic, always inevitable inconclusion. But when the other character, Old Crone, speaks in reply, the question of time is whisked away like old laundry: ‘Well, ye have time, auld father. Tis not yet dark.’ The Crone replaces time with endlessness: between now and nightfall, there is time to find faeryland. It is difficult to tell if Yeats’s response continues his search or abandons it: ‘Accents change, and all things change, but Beauty is like a stone.’ Perhaps Koch wants us to believe that in this instance Yeats loses his Irish accent. Change, time’s effect, is noted, but the honorifically capitalised ‘Beauty’ takes time’s place, still, obdurate, unchanging, stone. The realisation of what Beauty might be apart from a stone lies outside the dialogue and outside the control of either of the characters. The stage instructions announce: (A snowfall.). Beauty arrives in its most ephemeral, time-ridden shape, a stage-manager’s nightmare, which engulfs the world.

Kenneth Koch, One Thousand Avant-garde Plays (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988) p.6.

W.B.Yeats, ‘The Song of Wandering Aengus,’ in The Collected Poems of W.B.Yeats (London: MacMillan, 1963) p.67.

Noh play 1

‘In the established structure of many no plays, the dream of a priest wandering about the country on a pilgrimage summons up a person long dead, who plays out again a life already lived; the drama makes use of the realm of reverie and consciousness,’ Tadashi Suzuki writes in his collection of writings, The Way of Acting. Suzuki asserts the Noh can be defined by four characteristics: the lack of ‘inert’ or ‘non-human’ energy; its ‘non-realistic . . .expression’; its fixed environment; and by the fact that ‘even if a no actor, in the middle of his role, falls dead on the stage, the performance continues.’ The actor, entering the role is already dead, a ghost. Was it this, the sense of art as supreme sacrifice, which appealed so strongly to Western romanticism and the avant-garde? The other three factors Suzuki lists are all more immediately persuasive. As he writes, ‘the first two of them [the use of human energy and the repudiation of realism]... can be seen in the avant-garde theatre developed around the world since the 1960s.’ And the fixed aesthetics of the performing space held the Rosicrucian Yeats in thrall, as he wrote to The Daily Chronicle on 27th January 1899: ‘Such scenery might come, when its makers had mastered its mysteries, to have a serene beauty, such as one finds in Egyptian wall paintings, and it would be more beautiful, even at the beginning, than the expensive scenery of the modern theatre, even when Mr Tree has put into the boughs in the forest those memorable birds that sing by machinery.’ Through the body fallen in the line of art, the fulfilment of the military origin of the avant-garde metaphor, the Noh offered the avant-garde a sense of sublime commitment to the religion of art proposed by ‘the secret society of modernism.’ This is the phrase James Longenbach uses to describe the idea that was established in Ezra Pound’s mind over the three winters he and Yeats spent together (1913–1916) in the ‘Stone Cottage’ in Sussex, the same three winters in which Pound introduced Yeats to Fenollosa’s manuscripts of and writings about Noh theatre and Yeats began the first of his ‘Four Plays for Dancers,’ his dramas specifically imitative of Noh. Longenbach describes this ‘secret society’ as embedded in the ‘metaphors of the occult’ Pound and Yeats shared. In the Noh they thought they found sanction for such ‘high art,’ separated from the ‘mob,’ and such a sense of mystery and strangeness as dignified the battle they were both committed to fight.

Tadashi Suzuki, The Way of Acting: The Theatre Writings of Tadashi Suzuki, trans. J. Thomas Rimer (New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1986) p.30 and p.31.

Sylvia C. Ellis, The Plays of Yeats: Yeats and the Dancer (London: St Martin’s Press,
1995) p.118.

James Longenbach, The Stone Cottage: Pound, Yeats, and Modernism (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1988), v. esp. pp. 251–269.

Noh play 2

One of the things which attracted Yeats and Pound to the Noh was the lack of narrative, the way the plays seemed to want to catch a moment in time. As Paul Claudel put it: ‘In the Western drama something happens, in Noh someone arrives.’ Pound, writing in similar vein, specifically links this difference to the experiments of Imagism: ‘I dare say the play, Suma Genji, will seem undramatic to some people the first time they read it. The suspense is the suspense of waiting for a supernatural manifestation — which comes.... When a [Noh] text seems to ‘go off into nothing’ at the end, the reader must remember ‘that the vagueness or paleness of words is made good by the emotion of the final dance,’ for the Noh has its unity in emotion. It has also what we may call Unity of Image.... This intensification of the Image, this manner of construction, is very interesting to me personally, as an Imagiste, for we Imagistes knew nothing of these plays when we set out in our own manner. These plays are also an answer to a question that has several times been put to me: ‘Could one do a long Imagiste poem, or even a long poem in vers libre?’’ The Noh was also to be the origin and inspiration for theatrical innovation. On 2ndApril 1916, with the staging of At the Hawk’s Well at Lady Cunard’s house in Cavendish Square, London, Yeats envisaged the birth of a new theatre: ‘He has done a new play of his own on the Noh model, and is preparing a new dramatic movement, plays which won’t need a stage, and which won’t need a thousand people for 150 nights to pay the expenses of production.’ Certain notions about Noh which Pound and Yeats picked up from Pound’s access to Ernest Fenollosa’s papers contributed to an idea of a new theatre: poetry, mask and dance (a kind of rarefied version of Wagner’s ‘total work of art’) as opposed to naturalistic dramatic conflict in prose; an aristocratic audience; a theatre without commercial trappings, bare and simple as any literary salon. Conversely, certain aspects of Noh, which Pound and Yeats knew about very well from Fenollosa’s papers, were ignored. ‘Half a dozen players who can bring all their properties in a cab and perform in their leisure moments’ is not an adequate description of the elaborate physical and social structure of the Noh theatre. Of course Yeats was drawn ‘to symbolism, to pattern like the Japanese,’ as he put it in his 1911 lecture ‘The Theatre of Beauty,’ before he had read the text of any Noh play. And Michio Ito, who danced in At the Hawk’s Well, Yeats’s first formal attempt at a ‘Noh’ play, was trained as a dancer by Emile Jacques Dalcroze and inspired by performances of both Nijinsky and Isadora Duncan. Ito, like Pound, was also in Europe looking for something. Only when he saw Nijinsky in 1911, Ito wrote, ‘did I see total art, combining dance, singing and music, for the first time.’ When Pound had first approached Ito about the Noh translations, he had responded by saying, ‘as far as I’m concerned there’s nothing more boring than Noh.’ The connection that reversed his attitude was when he realised the ideas of stage innovators of that time, like Gordon Craig, were ‘really nothing but Noh.’  Noh became the container, the mysterious nothing, into which the ‘something new’ of modernism could be placed.

Caption to photograph in A Dictionary of Theatre Anthropology: The Secret Art of the Performer, eds. Eugenio Barba and Nicola Savarese (London: Routledge, 1999) p.127.

Ezra Pound, ‘Noh Plays,’ in Translations (New York: New Directions, 1963) pp. 236–237.

James Longenbach, Stone Cottage: Pound, Yeats, and Modernism (Oxford UP, 1988) p.205. And p.197, p.198 and p.200.

Liam Miller, The Noble Drama of W.B.Yeats (Dublin: Doleman P, 1977) p 216. First published in The Wild Swans at Coole (1919).

Noh play 3

‘When a Noh actor leaves the stage because to all extents and purposes the performance is over, he has a singular habit: he moves very slowly, as if his exit was an integral part of the performance. He is no longer in character, because the character’s action is finished, but neither is he in his daily reality. He is in an intermediate state. In a certain way he is performing his own absence. But this absence is performance and is therefore a present absence.’ It may be possible to borrow Moriake Watanabe’s idea of ‘present absence’ to bring to light some of the problems of cultural borrowing and interculturality. While it is true that the (usually four) musicians enter the stage first in Noh performances, and in Yeats’s play At the Hawk’s Well three musicians enter to begin the play, the musicians in Noh do not unfold and fold up a cloth as Yeats has them doing to reveal the first character in the play, a device he employs in all of the four ‘plays for dancers’ — The Only Jealousy of Emer, The Dreaming of the Bones, Calvary, and At the Hawk’s Well. The Kathakali theatre of India uses a cloth with great theatricality to introduce new characters, but — though this is pure speculation - the origin of Yeats’s technical innovation with the musicians’ cloth may lie in the fact that At the Hawk’s Well was first presented in the drawing room of Lady Cunard’s London home, where it was necessary to contrive a theatrical entrance; certainly the drawing room lacked a structure as extensive as the ‘Bridgeway’of the Noh stage. So which borrowed elements of the Noh were ‘present’ at Lady Cunard’s drawing room and which were ‘absent’? The musicians (if not their style of music) bore some resemblance to Noh; the cloth did not. It might have been as if the Noh was performing its own absence, was the ghost of itself, a thing nobody knew anything about, but everyone knew was something new, that April evening in Cavendish Square: the place became an ‘Orient of the Occident,’ as Baudelaire’s poem ‘Invitation to the Voyage’ puts it, going on to speak of ‘that nostalgia for the country which we do not know, that anguish of curiosity.... a China of the West.’ As Rostom Bharucha has pointed out, Artaud, ‘one of the most inspired mythologisers of the ‘oriental theatre’.... created his own ‘East’, an imaginary Orient, from which he derived sources of rejuvenation.’ Artaud used his vision of ‘Oriental’ theatre, namely the Balinese dance drama he saw at the 1931 Colonial Exhibition in Paris, to tell the Occident what its theatre might be. For Edward Gordon Craig, whose writings on mask and in his magazine The Mask were important to Yeats, the theatre of the East became a stick, not to beat others, but to flagellate himself, in what Bharucha describes as ‘an apotheosis of self-deprecation’: ‘We Europeans and Americans are in the utmost need for we know very little... we are like fools beside wise men, we Europeans and Americans standing by Asiatics... and we of the theatre hammering away like slaves, we are the most ignorant of all.’

Moriake Watanabe, Between Orient and Occident, quoted in Barba and Savarese, p.195.
Traditional Japanese Theatre: An Anthology of Plays, ed. Karen Brazell (New York: Columbia UP, 1998) p118.

Charles Baudelaire, Twenty Prose Poems, trans. Michael Hamburger (London: Jonathan Cape, 1968) p.32.

Rostom Bharucha, ‘Collision of Cultures,’ in Theatre and the World: Performance and the Politics of Culture (London: Routledge, 1993) pp.14–15.

Bharucha, p.19.

Artaud’s dreams live on. At the International School of Theatre Anthropology in Holstebro, Denmark, founded in 1979, but reaching back into the 1960s through the history of the Odin Theatre, Eugenio Barba still pursues his search for common roots and origins in performance, subsuming the outward form and content of different theatre practices from different times and places and cultures under the umbrella of ‘pre-expressivity,’ the performing state of the body and mind to which performers subscribe, ‘a secret art of the performer.’ Here is another secret society, long dreamed of, which delineates the ‘recurring principles which determine the life of actors and dancers in various cultures and epochs.’ Artaud bumped into Bali in Paris. Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, anthropologists, went in search of Bali and the mysteries of performance and recorded their visions in their 1938 film Trance and Dance in Bali. The irony of that film is that the men of the trance club of Pagutan arranged for young women to perform especially for the filming, but Mead and Bateson concentrated their camera on one old woman who ‘accidentally’ went into trance. ‘It seems that members of the trance club were angry at this old woman because they felt that her trance disturbed the aesthetic refinements they had rehearsed for foreign eyes.’ Bateson and Mead were better pleased with her than the young women dancers. Which was authentic, which traditional? The figure of the anthropologist is a performing absence, slowly moving across the stage, yet not part of the drama. Barba has links with many ‘oriental’ theatre artists, among them Katsuko Azuma for her knowledge of Noh. With Barba’s work, even with Yeats’s, the anthropologist is trying to stop, turn round, and re-enter the drama; anthropologists trying to become their own subjects. As Bharucha has written of Barba: ‘Barba’s theory can be seen as the domestication of his life as a migrant. It is the alter ego of a man destined to travel from place to place, from one source of knowledge to another, always slightly ill at ease with the world around him.’ Could this description not also be easily shifted to apply to Ezra Pound (though the tragedy and sordid farce of his fascist allegiances bear no resemblance to Barba’s work)? Or like the old Yeats coming at nightfall to faeryland? Beside all the ‘anguish of curiosity’ of the quest and its multiple illusions and delusions, ‘acting’ in Noh can sound remarkably simple: ‘When you cry in Noh, you put your hand in front of your face, but this is not to show that you are crying, it is to dry the tears. The action is completely neutral and consists of drying tears, nothing more. It doesn’t matter how you do it, some actors lower their eyes, other actors look up. The simple action of drying tears has been chosen as a paradigm for the act of crying. All other unnecessary gestures have been eliminated.’

Barba and Savarese, p.268.

Richard Schechner, ‘Restoration of Behaviour,’ in Barba and Savarese, p.210.

Rostom Bharucha, ‘The Theatre of Migrants, in Bharucha, p.67.

Noh actor Hideo Kanze, quoted in Barba and Savarese, p.257.

A New Noh play

ANTHROPOLOGIST: This library was once the place to which I brought the results of my research. Then one day I lost all my research in this place. Now I have come back to this place to research this place itself, in search, as it were, of my research. But this library is not as it was. It is as if it is not here at all, but has become some other site.
The site of learning no longer
The site of loss
The loss of sight
I am blind to my own desire

A group of wandering librarians
Without a library or libraries
Remains bitterly aware of the analogies
And/or metaphors they might provide
Which is why they regularly hide
In the tops of old pine trees
Or cover their dusty backs with filaments of dew
Or take up residence from time to time
In abandoned theme parks
Such as this one which commemorates
The twentieth century avant-garde
It is many years now since any visitor
Set foot in here and the ice-cream parlour
Has long run out of its selection
Of surrealist flavours of the minute  —
But who is this seeker dressed in velvet
With shoulder length hair?
Is it male or female?
Poet or poseur?
And what manuscript does it carry?

MICHIO ITO: I have a transcript of my conversation in German with Prime Minister Asquith, which I am willing to sell.

CHORUS: We have lost our libraries and cannot buy

MICHIO ITO: Then I shall sit here on this Jacob Epstein head and rest my travelled feet on this Gaudier-Breszka and wait for the author, so these words can be returned to their origins, the rightful place whence they sprung, the essence of the past.

CHORUS: But you are the author!

MICHIO ITO: I am? Then I can go? And come no more?

CHORUS: And come no more!

(Ito dances a dance of departing.)

YEATS: (a disembodied voice and a faint glow passing in the background)
When have I last looked on
The round green eyes and the long wavering bodies
Of the dark leopards of the moon?

CHORUS: Another failure to achieve closure.

Ezra Pound, The Cantos of Ezra Pound (London: Faber and Faber, 1964) ‘Canto LXXVII,’ pp. 498–499.

W.B. Yeats, ‘Lines Written in Dejection,’ in The Collected Poems of W.B.Yeats, pp. 163–164.

In the 1953 version of ‘Try! Try!’ (the first, from 1951, was sub-titled ‘A Noh Play’) Frank O’Hara gives the character John (the part was originally played by poet John Ashbery) the lines: ‘Do you think everything can stay the same,/like a photograph? What for?’ Thorton Wilder was convinced that he had seen a work of significance when he attended the Poets’ Theater production of Try! Try! and he rose from his seat to sternly rebuke members of the audience who had laughed during O’Hara’s play. Wilder’s efforts only provided further comic pleasure as he clearly misjudged the tone of Try! Try! which is satirical and surrealistic, even self-reflexive in a self-parodying manner: ‘It’s not easy to be/ spectator or audience./Always overruled by/ someone else’s plan/ of what you really want.’ Yet, the first production was not without its pretensions to serious pedagogical mission in providing the audience with instructions for its role in the theatre: ‘The Noh plays are ancient ritual one-act plays of Japan. The audience once dressed for them as if for a religious service in elaborate ceremonial robes.... The movement is photographic rather than dramatic. The audience is supposed to know all the plays by heart.’ In these comments one can hear the hypnotic fascination the Noh casts, both in its complex rules and the exoticism of providing another kind of theatre occasion. John Ashbery has described the work of the Poets’ Theater as ‘even then a kind of avant-garde theatre movement.’ Between 1950 and 1955, the Poets’ Theater produced plays by poets Ashbery, Rene Char, Cid Corman, and James Schuyler (among a number of others), sponsored Dylan Thomas’s first American reading of Under Milk Wood in 1953, and staged Yeats’s Purgatory and The Player Queen under the heading of ‘classical revivals.’ In introducing O’Hara’s volume of plays (originally titled Selected Plays, but now re-issued with the O’Hara-esque title of Amorous Nightmares of Delay), Joe LeSueur comments on the gap between high modernist poetics and the popular theatre: ‘its [the popular theater’s] use of language would strike them [such poets] as deplorable, since it has nothing to do with what they’re up to; and partly what they’re up to is having total control, a creative situation playwrights obviously can’t have.’ But the theatre has also beckoned to the avant-garde, partly for the very temptations which LeSueur suggests are unacceptable: that loss of control (something O’Hara welcomed) and, sometimes too, the presence of that same ‘deplorable’ language: ‘He has a funny style, doesn’t he? It seems like a pose but it must be that he isn’t used to writing. He wasn’t a journalist or anything, was he?’

Frank O’Hara, ‘Try! Try! [II]’ in Selected Plays (Full Court Press) p. 48.

O’Hara, ‘Try! Try! A Noh Play,’ in Selected Plays, p.21.

Joe LeSeuer, ‘Introduction,’ Selected Plays, pp. xiii–xiv.

John Ashbery, ‘Interview with Roger Oliver,’ in Conversations on Art and Performance, eds. Bonnie Marranca and Gautam Dasgupta (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1999) p.218.

O’Hara, ‘Try! Try! [II],’ in Selected Plays, p.39.

O’Hara’s Noh plays are among his most stageable dramas. Try! Try! presents a simple love triangle between the ghost of a soldier killed in the Pacific in World War II (Jack), and his girl back home (Violet), and the new man who has moved in (John). Some of his other plays have been described as ‘unplayable, line by line, and unstageable as a whole.’ Yet even at their wildest (‘Awake in Spain,’ for example, has over 80 characters in a play only 18 pages long), O’Hara’s writing sustains a realism of content and language which is in complete contrast to the priests, ghosts, demons, mad women and defeated warriors of the traditional Noh texts or Yeats’s Celtic equivalents:

(A bull enters the Cedar [Bar])
GEORGE: What’ll you have Jackson?
GEORGE: Oh. The usual. Remember no cursing.
JACKSON POLLOCK: Fuck you. (Turning to KK [Kenneth Koch]) My wife is a lousy lay, but you’re the worst.
KENNETH: You’re a bald-headed idiot, and a perfect example of what I mean. America is very strong, but all it amounts to is action. You’re about as necessary as an automatic salt shaker. But don’t mistake me, I love your painting.
KENNETH: How can we tell today? That’s the tragedy, Jackson. I’m sorry I called you baldy. Were you serious about me?

The secret society is no longer secret; nor is it any longer particularly esoteric or mystical, though O’Hara is present in his absence as the anthroplogist of his own sub-culture. When O’Hara began writing his plays, Yeats was a real ghost and Pound another kind of ghost in St Elizabeth’s; Koch was a friend and fellow-poet who drank at the Cedar Bar, the birthplace of Abstract Expressionism. Nevertheless, the dream of a ‘Poets’ Theatre,’ for which Noh had been such an inspiration in earlier versions of the avant-garde, persisted in the New York Modernism of O’Hara, Koch, and Ashbery. When Nick Robinson, Eileen Corder, Carla Harryman and Steve Benson initiated another Poets’ Theater in San Francisco in 1979 amongst the group known as the Language Poets, the first play they staged was O’Hara’s Try! Try!. O’Hara had been a ghost about as long as Yeats had been when O’Hara wrote Try! Try! Genealogy is sometimes never less than startling.

Joe LeSeuer, ‘Introduction,’ Selected Plays, p.xiii.

O’Hara, ‘Kenneth Koch: A Tragedy,’ in Plays, p.129.

In the case of the Language Poets in the San Francisco Bay area, an already established avant-garde grouping received an injection of theatrical possibility with the arrival of Nick Robinson and Eileen Corder in 1978. Just before their arrival Bob Perelman and others had staged a performance of Louis Zukofsky’s ‘A24.’ The poets were at a point in their group life where they shared the desire to be performative. The history of this group’s activities under the title of ‘Poets’ Theater’ lasted from 1979 through 1985, although some such as Carla Harryman and Leslie Scalapino have continued to write for performance. The poets themselves joined in as performers in each others’ plays and some of these plays were published in the magazine Hills. Carla Harryman’s ‘Third Man’ was published in Hills No.8 in Summer 1981 and then, in No.9 in Spring 1983, under the heading ‘Plays from the San Francisco Poets’ Theater,’ Hills printed Bob Perelman’s ‘The Alps,’ Kit Robinson’s ‘Collateral,’ Alan Berheimer’s ‘Particle Arms,’ Eileen Corder’s ‘Under the Midwest,’ and Stephen Rodefer’s ‘A & C.’ Nick Robinson said that although such works were original, solo-authored pieces of writing, in some cases the writers attended rehearsals and made revisions as the productions took shape. The Poets’ Theater did not stage only new and original plays. Apart from O’Hara, other plays from other times and other places included plays by Gertrude Stein, Bertolt Brecht and Max Jacob. Robinson had come from a music and theatre background in which he had been exposed to some of the notable formations of the 1960s and 1970s such as Joseph Chaikin’s Open Theatre and Julian Beck and Judith Malina’s Living Theatre and had encountered the work of Luis Valdez and El Teatro Campesino at the University of California at Santa Cruz, where there was also a teacher who taught after the ideas and methods of Grotowski. Robinson and Corder, at the same time as being the pivotal figures in the Poets’ Theatre, were also studying Indonesian theatre and the gamelan whose music accompanies the puppet performances in the Wayang Kulit. An experimental theatre and an experimental writing for a short time experienced a happy confluence. Seasons were likely to consist of performances on three consecutive weekends in venues such as cafes and arts centres, possibly in conjunction with a poetry reading series. In some respects these performances continued the century-long tradition of the salon and the soiree, but with more of the atmosphere of the ‘Art Cabaret’ (as beloved by Wedekind, Karl Valentin and Bertolt Brecht), where there is direct interaction between audience and performer, where the audience is made to feel as if they are being teased or tricked, and heckling in return or laughing too loudly are validly part of the performance itself. The Brecht play the Poets’ Theater produced was one of the Lehrstucke, Badener Lehrstuck vom Einverstandnis (‘The Baden Baden Instructional Play Concerning Understanding’) in a version by Robert Grenier, which was published in This magazine, No 11, in Spring 1981, edited by Barrett Watten. This attempt at didactic drama, which was first produced at the Baden Baden music festival in July 1929, is most often remembered for the interlude of three clowns who cut the arms and legs of one of their number. Brecht’s next attempt at an ‘Instructional Play’ (Lehrstuck) was Der Jasager (‘He who said Yes’), which was, in fact, almost nothing more than Elisabeth Hauptmann’s translation into German of Arthur Waley’s translation into English of Zenchiku’s Noh play Taniko (The Valley-Hurling).

Notes from a telephone conversation between Nick Robinson and Murray Edmond, Berkeley, July 2000.

Arthur Waley lost virtually all the sight in one eye before he even began to study Classical Chinese and Classical Japanese. He was an autodidact who taught himself these languages while working as an Assistant Keeper in the British Museum, after completing a Classics degree at Cambridge. Waley and Pound both undertook their translations of Classical Chinese poetry and Japanese Noh plays during the First World War. They knew each other well enough to often dine together on Monday evenings at a restaurant in Frith Street in London (usually with T.S.Eliot and Ford Maddox Hueffer). Waley’s linguistic achievement is remarkable, yet he ‘never made any serious attempt to learn spoken Chinese or Japanese, and.... was virtually inarticulate in Chinese and Japanese.’ Pound knew no Chinese, relying on Fenollosa’s papers. However, Waley deeply admired Pound’s translations: ‘I think Pound often improved the things that he translated. I wouldn’t wish Pound’s translations to be any other way.’ Waley also greatly valued the advice he received on those Monday evenings in Frith Street: ‘[W]hat he [Pound] said about poetry and this business of making poetry is much the best that I’ve ever heard said in the course of my life.... I think we differed very much. Pound objected to my retaining the length of the line of the original, and kept on screaming, “Break it up — break it up”.’ Unlike Pound, Waley was a loner, not happy with any particular school or group, though he inhabited the fringes of several such as Bloomsbury and Edith Sitwell’s as well as Pound’s. He does not seem to have had much interest in modern theatre, and was reported as remarking, as he left Waiting for Godot at half-time, ‘I don’t think one need wait any longer.’ Nevertheless, his ‘Introduction’ to his 1921 volume The No Plays of Japan shows he was aware of the attempts at ‘stage-reform’ that were going on around him and aware that his translations of 19 Noh plays were part of another direction in theatre: ‘The theatre of the West is the last stronghold of realism. No one treats painting or music as mere transcripts of life. But even pioneers of stage-reform in France and Germany appear to regard the theatre as belonging to life and not to art.... A few people in America and Europe want to go in the opposite direction. They would like to see a theatre that aimed boldly at stylisation and simplification, discarding entirely the pretentious lumber of 19th century stageland. That such a theatre exists and has long existed in Japan has been well-known here for some time.’

Ivan Morris, ‘The Genius of Arthur Waley,’ in Madly Singing in the Mountains: An Appreciation and Anthology of Arthur Waley, ed. Ivan Morris (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1970) p.70.

‘Arthur Waley in Conversation,’ BBC interview with Roy Fuller (1963), in Morris ed. p.148 and p.140 and p.145.

Arthur Waley, The No Plays of Japan (Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle, 1994) p.17.

‘In the autumn of 1928, one of [Elisabeth] Hauptmann’s closest English friends, Margaret Mynatt, had visited her in Berlin and brought her a copy of Arthur Waley’s English versions of The No-Plays of Japan. ‘I was,’ Hauptmann [said]... ‘overwhelmed by Waley.’ Hauptmann, fluent in English and German, had collaborated with Brecht on a number of major projects of ‘the Brecht circle,’ as it was known in Berlin, such as Man is Man, The Little Mahagonny, The Threepenny Opera, Happy End (almost entirely her work), The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, St Joan of the Stockyards, and the new style of instructional plays known as ‘Lehrstucke,’ The Flight Over the Ocean and The Baden Baden Instructional Play Concerning Understanding. From 1924, when Brecht moved to Berlin and met Hauptmann, until 1932, when Brecht left Germany (not to return until after the Second World War), Hauptmann was an important figure in the ‘Brecht circle,’ which included others such as the designer Caspar Neher, composer Kurt Weill, and actress Lotte Lenya. This circle had initially been a collection of young, smart, bohemian enfants terribles. By 1928 — 1929, in response to the rapidly escalating social conflict and confrontation in Weimar Germany between the Left and the Right, Brecht began a serious self-education in Marxism and attempted to formulate a new direction for theatre which had been inherent in some of the productions of the Brecht circle. The famous document that emerged from this was the two lists, ‘Dramatic Theatre’ and ‘Epic Theatre,’ which were printed as Notes on the Opera The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. The new Epic Theatre proposed that it would present ‘man as a process’ and would arouse the spectator’s ‘capacity for action’ by forcing ‘him [sic] to take decisions.’ The human being, ‘alterable and able to alter,’ will be ‘the object of the inquiry’ of the new theatre. Somehow Waley’s translations of Noh fitted the purpose perfectly. Brecht took Waley’s translation of Zenchiku’s Taniko (The Valley-Hurling), a play about a boy who goes with a group of pilgrims on a pligrimage of ritual mountain climbing and is hurled to his death by the pilgrims when he becomes sick and impedes the pilgrimage, and turned it into two plays, Der Jasager and Der Neinsager, with the same story and contradictory endings. In one, as in Taniko, the boy agrees to be thrown to his death, as is the custom; in the other, he confronts the custom and points out that customs need ‘rethinking’ in ‘every new situation.’ The plays were to be presented to audiences at the same time and used as the basis for discussion about political action and change. As Roswitha Mueller has suggested, these plays were more for the classroom than the theatre, designed as ‘the correlative for adults of a pedagogy in the theatre’ for the beleaguered German Left. Strangely, Waley’s translations became more ‘life’ than ‘art,’ remarkable for their everyday political efficacy. Yet they are also part of Modernist ‘stage-reform.’ Brecht’s efforts to stop the theatre in the theatre and get the theatre out of the theatre retain, to this day, an avant-gardist status. Noh was at the service of the Brecht circle as they made their assault on what Brecht’s list had called the ‘Dramatic Theatre,’ where the human being is ‘taken for granted’ and is ‘unalterable,’ and the spectator ‘shares the experience’ of the actors in their roles, with the effect that the spectator’s capacity for action is ‘worn down.’

John Fuegi, ‘The Zelda syndrome: Brecht and Elisabeth Hauptmann,’ in The Cambridge Companion to Brecht, eds. Peter Thomson and Glendyr Sacks (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994) p. 112.

Bertolt Brecht, ‘He who says no,’ in The Measures Taken, and Other Lehrstucke (London: Methuen, 1977) p 79.

Roswitha Mueller, ‘Learning for a new society; the Lehrstuck,’ in Thomson and Sacks eds.

Aristotle made the effect of Tragedy on its audience central to its definition: ‘accomplishing by means of pity and terror the catharsis of such emotions.’ Brecht’s Epic Theatre declared itself anti-Aristotelean when it said it wanted ‘the spectator to stand outside and study.’ Gertrude Stein, in her lecture ‘Plays,’ focused her questions about theatre on the relationship between actor and audience: ‘the emotion of the one seeing the play is always ahead or behind the play.’ And she goes on to ask in what way such a situation might be adjusted. The question was the path to knowing for Stein, more than the answer: ‘[I]n asking a question one is not answering but one is as one may say deciding about knowing.’ What she decided was that, ‘if a play was exactly like a landscape then there would be no difficulty about the emotion of the person looking on at the play being behind or ahead of the play because the landscape does not have to make acquaintance.’ And what of this landscape? ‘The landscape has its formation and as after all a play has to have formation and be in relation one thing to the other thing and as the story is not the thing as any one is always telling something then the landscape not moving but being always in relation, the trees to the hills the hills to the fields the trees to each other any piece of it to any sky and then any detail to any other detail, the story is only of importance if you like to tell or like to hear a story but the relation is there anyway. And of that relation I wanted to make a play and I did, a great number of plays.’ Stein realised that theatre is not only ‘story and action.’ She said that she preferred to ‘think about theatre from the standpoint of sight and sound and its relation to emotion and time.’ Though there is no evidence that Noh held any interest for Stein or influenced her at all in writing her plays, still her theoretical position articulated in her ‘Plays’ lecture has some relation to the following passage from the treatises of Zeami Motokiyo (1363 — 1444), particularly in the way that theatre is imaged in landscape: ‘That which creates seed and blossom of the full range of no is the mind playing through [the actor’s] whole person. Just as the emptiness of crystal gives forth fire and water,... the accomplished master creates all the colours and forms of his art out of the intention of his mind.... The mind that gives forth all things, even to the four seasons’ flowers and leaves, snows and moon, mountains and seas — yes, even to all beings sentient and insentient — that mind is heaven and earth.’ As Royall Tyler notes, ‘no plays are often watched as sequences of dance and musical forms.’ Just as Stein was aware that the initial experience of theatre is far from Aristotelean drama: ‘Generally speaking all the early recollections of a child’s feeling of the theatre is two things. One which is in a way like a circus that is the general movement and light and air which any theatre has, and a great deal of glitter in the light and a great deal of height in the air, and then there are moments, a very very few moments but still moments.’

Aristotle, Poetics, trans. Richard Janko (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1987) p.7.

Gertrude Stein, ‘Plays,’ in Writings and Lectures 1911 — 1945, ed. Patricia Meyerowitz (London: Peter Owen, 1967) p.61 and p.64 and p.75 and p.77 and p.64 and p.69.

Japanese No Dramas, ed. and trans. Royall Tyler (London: Penguin, 1992) p.19 and p.17.

Leslie Scalapino is one of the Language Poets from the San Francisco Bay area who has written plays and theatre texts since the Poets’ Theater ceased to function. Her Goya’s L.A., which was performed at The Lab in San Francisco in 1994, features characters such as Dead Souls who is a ‘Japanese woman,’ Akira ‘who is a samurai,’ and Shadow-Akira, ‘a Japanese man speaking the lines in Japanese.’ In ‘As:All Occurrence in Structure, Unseen - (Deer Night),’ her strange, difficult re-write of The Tempest, a text which is partly a performative text and partly prose narrative and partly self-meditative essay, Scalapino writes: ‘I think the essence of the Noh drama is the ghost (one’s own dead self) passing before the live one (one viewing); and so aware there is no distinction of present, being alive as the same as being dead (the past/future?). This occurs by one’s dying having been before one realizes being alive there. This isn’t different from some other, not alive, being in one — existing in time neither past, present, or future — as one’s mind’s phenomena.’ Scalapino here proposes the Noh might function as a psychodrama, which we might add to the other functions the Noh has served. Psychodrama is an unlikely possibility for Noh, where ‘the ‘meaning’ of a play is a sort of by-product of accomplished form... and not an issue in itself.’ Moreover, Scalapino’s psychodrama in Deer Night bears little or no resemblance to the psychodramas of Expressionism from the early 20th century, where the self appeared represented on stage in its multiple facets as different characters. Scalapino’s drama is pitched on the level of language and consciousness, intertextuality with Shakespeare, and interculturality (elsewhere she describes Deer Night as ‘interior-of-’here’-and-’Asia’). Scalapino designates the particular experience that preceded Deer Night: ‘This work was written during and after return from travelling in Bhutan and Thailand.’ The sheer density of the writing in Deer Night makes it difficult to conceive how its 45 pages might be realised in performance. As such, it remains a profoundly conceptual text compared to her other plays, and, also, compared to Stein’s equally ‘unusual’ plays, which, for all their apparent deficiencies of character or action (although these vary from text to text), abound in invitations to performance in terms of sound and sight and time and space and emotion. When Scalapino is writing about the poetry of the American poet Philip Whalen, whose dedication to Zen Buddhism is an important aspect of his writing, she uses the phrase: ‘I just want to wreck your mind.’ Possibly Deer Night sets out to achieve just this noble Zen-like aim. The term Zeami used to describe the theatrical ideal of Noh was yugen, a term which almost exists because of its difficulty to define: ‘no is often held to exist only in performance. Yugen transcends words.’

Leslie Scalapino, Goya’s L.A. (Elmwood, Connecticut: Potes and Poets P, 1994) p. 9. Also by Scalapino, The Weatherman Turns Himself In (Gran Canaria: Zasterle P, 1995).

Lelsie Scalapino, ‘As: All Occurrence in Structure, Unseen — (Deer Night),’ in The Public World/Syntatcically Impermanence (Hanover, New England: Wesleyan UP, 1999) pp. 122–123. Also p.65

Royall Tyler, p. 18.

‘Silence and Sound/Text,’ in Scalapino, The Public World, p.29.

‘The Radical Nature of Experience,’ in Scalapino, The Public World, p.5.

John Davies’s play Te Tupua: The Goblin, a production of the NZ Noh Theatre Ltd, is another psychodrama, this time of history, culture, and genealogy, which draws on knowledge of the Noh. Davies is a New Zealand actor and director who spent ten years with the theatre company Red Mole, including the majority of the time between 1979 and 1984 performing with Red Mole in New York, where they were described by critic Erika Munk as ‘punk Bread and Puppet.’ When he returned to New Zealand he began to pursue an interest in Noh theatre, which took him to Japan to study and train. The NZ Noh Theatre had produced two ‘Noh plays’ before Te Tupua. One, by local poet Rachel McAlpine titled The Dazzling Night was about the relationship between Katherine Mansfield and her father; the other by Eileen Philipps was about the story of a Japanese woman who retreated to live by herself in a cave on Stewart Island, the third and smallest of the three major islands which make up New Zealand. Davies was involved in these plays as a producer and performer. However Te Tupua represents a different approach to the transmutation of Noh. For a start, this is a solo performance, written and enacted by Davies, in which he plays himself, his ancestor, James Graham, who was ship-wrecked on the coast of New Zealand in 1809, and 13 other characters who are part of Graham’s extraordinary, picaresque narrative. Stylistically, apart from the final few minutes (which I will come back to) of the 75 minute long show, there are no resemblances to Noh. It is not only Davies’s study of Noh which has fed into the creation of Te Tupua, but also his study of the Maori language. Davies is Pakeha (European New Zealander) and he has explained his learning of Maori as part of his own cultural and psychological development as a performer: ‘I first began study and learning of Te Reo Maori [Maori Language].... so that I could develop the confidence to use Te Reo on stage, to stand as a Pakeha New Zealander and speak.... about the colonisation of Aotearoa [New Zealand]... in a human context so we may proceed further along the path of understanding and reconciliation.’ The play enacts Davies own psychodrama as a performer by bringing on stage the ghost of James Graham, who after his ship-wreck was captured by Maori people, given a wife, who bore him children, and received a full facial tattoo, Ta Moko. He later returned to England, where in poverty he was forced to sell his tattooed face in a travelling carnival. At the beginning of the play, Davies welcomes us as guests in the common, formal way within Maori society, an oratorical style of greeting which also addresses the ground where one stands, the house in which one stands, and the dead who are present and must be asked to depart. At the end of the play, James Graham returns to Hell, a journey which is accomplished by a dance, in proper Noh fashion, with Davies wearing a stylised mask, after the manner of Noh, with the Ta Moko on it, and carrying the canoe paddle he had been given during his time with the Maori. The evocation of the ghost, the precious ancestral object, the dance and the mask are the elements of Noh-like performance Davies has chosen to amalgamate with what is a vigorous, comic, full-bodied piece of story-telling. ‘[O]n certain summer evenings, alongside where the grass grows deep on the bank of the river, a ghostly figure can be glimpsed paddling a small canoe, Te Tupua The Goblin is still amongst us.’

Erika Munk, ‘Burrowing from Without,’ The Village Voice, 24 Sept. 1979, p.89.

John Davies, Proposal to Creative New Zealand, 2000.

John Davies, Programme notes for performance of Te Tupua The Goblin at Waipapa Marae, Auckland University Marae Dining Room, 23rdAugust, 2001.

Kenneth Koch’s short play (just two pages long), ‘A Song of the Avant-Garde,’ features the Avant-Garde as a shape-shifter, in a sequence of changes which sketch a picture of both the Avant-Garde’s history and its nature. The Avant-Garde begins life as ‘just a silly little thing.’ Before too long it becomes ‘Like a great, great stone’ that has ‘usurped all of history.’ Then it seems as if it has disappeared: ‘O Avant-Garde! / Come back, take heart, and tell us now / What life will, and what art will, do!’ Avant-Garde is not sure it can any longer fulfil this function: ‘Maybe my mission is finished. / Each movement in culture or history is but a stage / Fitting to the age / And it may be the one I had is ended.’ However all is not over. After a tremendous apocalypse of sound effects and stage instructions, Avant-Garde reappears as ‘a small old woman.’ When asked, ‘What’s happened?’ Avant-Garde, using magical powers, transforms into ‘a shining, almost blinding CUBE,’ and announces triumphantly, ‘ANDIAM’ [‘Let’s go’ in Italian and ‘And I am’ in English]. Just as the avant-garde has had many manifestations, ‘Noh theatre’ seems to have had as many manifestations inside the avant-garde. 20th century Western versions of Noh theatre, almost all of which have some claim to avant-gardist status, have served the serious intent of initiating a new poetic theatre as well as supporting high camp parodies of the same. This Noh has been Post-colonial and Orientalist. Noh has been overtly political, serving the oppressed in their struggle, and overtly elitist, seeking ‘an audience like a secret society where admission is by favour and never to many.’ Sometimes discovering Noh was not discovering Noh: ‘[T]hey [Pound and Yeats] thought they had discovered the living tradition of Noh dancing. But in their ignorance they had really discovered something better: a dancer trained in the same aesthetic tradition that produced Yeats’s ‘The Symbolism of Poetry’ and Pound’s Imagist poems.’ Sometimes, as Sean O’Casey wrote of Yeats, the dreams of Noh produced no visions and there was not even ‘the ghost of the theatre’ in the actual product. In other instances, the borrowed Noh was seen as the perfect representative of the theatre as theatre, ‘play’ as ‘play.’ Perhaps, rather than pursuing the question, ‘What did the Noh offer the Western avant-garde?’ one might (as Stein suggests, using a question to ‘decide about knowing’) ask the question, ‘What did the Western avant-garde see the theatre as lacking?’ Or even, ‘What was in theatre and play which the Western avant-garde was lacking?’ The Noh then becomes like a present absence round which the characteristic groupings of avant-gardist movements could cluster from time to time, sometimes as little old women, sometimes as new-born dancers, sometimes as shining, obdurate cubes, but each time as the ghosts of what was not and yet might be.

Kenneth Koch ‘A Song to the Avant-Garde’ in One Thousand Avant-Garde Plays (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988) pp.30–31.

W.B.Yeats, quoted in James Longenbach, Stone Cottage (Oxford: OUP, 1988) p.206.

Longenbach, p.198.

Sean O’Casey, quoted in Liam Miller, The Noble Drama of W.B.Yeats (Dublin: Dolmen P, 1977) p.232.

Photo of Murray Edmond

Since his first book of poems Entering the Eye in 1973, Murray Edmond has published a further seven books of poetry and has also written plays, theatre texts, criticism and theory. He has co-edited three anthologies including The New Poetsin 1987 and Big Smoke (Auckland University Press) in 2000. His most recent poetry title was Laminations in 2000. A new collection, A Piece of Work, is forthcoming from Tinfish, Hawai’i in 2002. Murray Edmond teaches English and Drama at the University of Auckland in New Zealand.

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