Sands - The Influence of Japanese Noh Plays on William Butler Yeats
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The Influence of Japanese Noh Theater on Yeats

by Maren Sands


            Though W.B. Yeats is considered first and foremost a poet, his poetry is only one of the many genres in which he worked in his life as a writer. Yeats also identifies himself a dramatist, and some of his most influential and profound work was in his plays. 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. Yeats received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923 and in his acceptance speech noted that would not have happened if it were not for his plays.

            Before examining these two Japanese Noh inspired plays it is appropriate to examine the elements and history and origins of Japanese Noh Drama. The preface of Inoura Yoshinobu’s, A History of Japanese Theater states;


The History of Japanese Drama is not, contrary to popular thought, anything extraordinary, isolated from the rest of the world, but is an integral part of the history of world drama. (Yoshinobu, 1)


            Some of the most ancient Japanese drama began as early as 600 A.D. According to Yoshinobu, “During this period the traditional Japanese Arts were guarded and fostered.” (Yoshinobu, 1) Buddhism was introduced to the Japanese culture at this time and had an incredible influence on religion, thought, learning, and materialization. Oddly, Noh Drama sprung from bottom scale entertainers who traveled from village to village, much like vagabonds, performing magic tricks, acrobatics, juggling, and occasionally sacred rituals or dances concerning gods or rituals.

            Characters of traditional Japanese Noh plays include, the “ Shite," or the primary actor, the “Tsure” who is the Shite’s companion, the "Jiutai," which is the chorus made up of six to eight actors, the "Koken" who are two to three stage assistants. The “Wakikata” or the “Waki” is a secondary role that is the counterpart of the Shite. (Coldiron, 133) A typical Noh play will involve all of those actors and usually takes thirty minutes to an hour and a half in length. There are six categories of Noh plays including,” God plays, warrior plays, woman plays, mad woman plays, and demon plays.” (Coldiron, 133) The stage is almost completely bare and there is often a plain backdrop with the simple image of a pine tree on it and all actors wear masks or wear make-up that appears to be a mask to create a sense of illusion, and intense absurdity. The actors speak in a haunting chant and dance about the stage in a stylized manner. 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 Well Yeats 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 play begins with the musicians of the play unfolding the cloth and chanting a famous opening line,


I call to the eye of the mind

A well long chocked up and dry

And boughs long stripped by the wind

And I call to the mind’s eye

Pallor of an ivory face

Its lofty dissolute air,

A man climbing up to a place

The Salt sea wind has swept bare



            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)

            In At the Hawk’s Well the Old Man and Cuchulain wait by the well to get water giving eternal life. Both are tricked by the Guardian of the well into missing the water. Cuchulain goes out to fight (and live life to the full) while the Old Man continues to waste his life waiting by the well.

            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.

            At the Hawks Well first published in March 1917 in Harpers Bazaar first performed in Lady Canard’s drawing room in London, England on April 2, 1916. Both T.S. Elliot and Ezra Pound attended this premiere.

            Toward the end of Yeats’ career he wrote The Death of Cuchulain, a dance play which was one of his final works. It is the tale of the degeneration of a mystical hero. This play, much like At the Hawks Well dismissed a traditional, contemporary, literary style and theme. Rather than a hero finding glory at the end of the play, the Death of Cuchulain portrays the degeneration of the hero figure. In this play, Yeats claims he calls all his characters together as if to say, “here is the universe which I have created and peopled and made as real as anything in the world.” (Hellmann, 284.) The battle Cuchulain fights in this play is not a battle with men but rather a battle with death itself and in his final struggle; he takes the shape of his destiny, his reincarnated self, a bird.

            Cuchulain seeks glory in a fight against the odds, and is rewarded with a vision of the birdlike shape he will take after death. At the end of the play he faces the old blind beggar, a character who appeared in Yeats’ earlier play, On Baile’s Strand. Cuchulain’s final speech;


The shape that I shall take when I am dead

My soul’s first shape, a soft feathery shape,

And is not that a strange shape for the soul

Of a great fighting man? (Unterecker, 291)


            This is the climactic moment of the play and the character, Emer dances the dance of victory over his enemies with the masked warrior goddess Morrigu. The blind man is the last person to hear Cuchulain speak. The music stops, action is ceases, and the stage is clear as he is killed by the knife of a blind beggar and “There is silence, and in the silence a few faint bird notes.” (Unterecker, 292) Cuchulain’s death scene is obscure, and the imagery and action parallels that of the Japanese Noh Theater.

            As noted earlier, Yeats was fortunate enough to be able to work with his two friends, Ezra Pound and Ernest Fenollosa in his exploration of this new form of art. Ernest Francisco Fenollosa , born in February of 1853 was an American professor of philosophy and political economy at Tokyo Imperial University. Fenollosa was an enthusiastic orientalist who did much to preserve traditional Japanese art. He spent much of his time in Japan studying the Japanese Noh Theater and explored ways to bring it to western culture.

            Ezra Pound is known as one of the great American s writers born 1885 in Haily, Idaho. When Yeats first met Pound their relationship was rocky. Yeats considered him a “stimulating yet irritating friend and companion” (Unterecker, 116) initially. In a letter to Lady Gregory Yeats wrote, “He spoils himself by too many experiments and has more sound principles than taste.” (Unterecker, 116) However, during these middle years Pound had a great influence on Yeats who eventually began to appreciate Pound’s forthcoming advice.

            A final important figure who should not go without recognition in the westernization of the Japanese Noh is artist, composer, and writer, Edmund Dulac . Born in Toulouse, France in 1882 he grew up in a very comfortable petit bourgeois home. Dulac was educated at the Lycée de Toulouse, Dulac showed an early talent for drawing and art nouveau work. One of his first major works was the illustration of Jane Eyre but he especially well known for his illustrations in children’s books. Dulac collaborated with his friends W. B. Yeats and Ezra Pound in the staging of Japanese Noh plays. In 1920 he composed music for a production, costumes, sets, and makeup for Yeats' At the Hawk's Well.

            The following is an introduction by Yeats to Certain Noble Plays of Japan by Pound and Fenollosa quoted in Ezra Pound and Ernest Fenollosa, The Classic Noh Theater of Japan (New York: New Directions, 1959)


A Mask will enable me to substitute for the face of some commonplace player, or for that face repainted to suit his own vulgar fancy, the fine invention of the sculptor, and to bring the audience close enough to the play to hear every inflection of the voice. A mask never seems but a dirty face, and no matter how close you go is still a work of art; nor shall we lose by staying the movement of the features, for deep feeling is expressed by a movement of the whole body.


            Critics have differed in assessing the degree to which the Yeats work captures the effects of the Noh, and complain that Yeats misunderstood it because he did not replicate it. It is important to keep in mind that Yeats had a limited knowledge of Noh. Everything he knew was based on Ezra Pounds work and Ernest Fennelosa’s translations. Yeats conceived of his plays as a new form, not a copy of the Japanese form but the same in spirit. Yeats, having never seen a Noh play performed, neither aspired, nor attempted to recreate replicas of Noh plays in his Four Plays for Dancers (Four Plays). 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

Works Cited

Coldiron, Margaret. Trance and Transformation of the Actor in Japanese Noh and Balinese Masked Dance-Drama. New York: The Edwin Mellon Press, 2004

Ellman, Richard. Yeats, The Man and The Masks. New York: Norton, 1979

Finneran, Richard. The Yeats Reader, Revised Edition: A Portable Compendium of Poetry, Drama, and Prose. New York: Scribner, 1997

Hakutani, Yoshinobu. Modernity in East-West Literary Criticism. New Jersey: Associated University Presses, 2001

Murray Edmond.  Noh Business. Berkeley: Atelos, 2005. 

Yoshinobu, Inoura. A History of Japanese Theater: Noh and Kyogen. Japan: General Printing Co, 1971

Unterecker, John. A Readers Guide to William Butler Yeats. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1996

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