Japanese Nô Plays

Donald Keene and his students have almost doubled the number of Nô plays available in English. With the works available in German and French, especially those of Noël Peri in French, Ezra Pound and Arthur Waley in English, this means that the Western world can now study a representative collection, seen from a variety of points of view, of one of the three most remarkable dramatic traditions that man has ever evolved.

There was nothing like Japanese Nô drama in the West until Thomas Sturge Moore and William Butler Yeats imitated the first Pound-Fenollosa translations. Iphigenia at Aulis and Salomé bear a faint resemblance to Nô, but there is a fundamental difference. They are plays of action and of the developing interaction of persons, and they culminate in dramatic climax. The typical Nô play contains no action at all but rather the recollection of action, and although it commonly culminates in a dance, the dance is not a climax but the manifestation of the crystallization of the realization that has grown and pervaded the play. Many Nô plays concern revenants — ghosts who are bound by passion to re-enact the critical moment of bygone lives — critical not in a dramatic sense, but in the sense of decisive karma. At the end the prayers of a pilgrim priest, who has encountered a long-dead hero and heroine in a windy nightfall on a lonely moor, release them from the endless re-enactment of dead fate and consequence. They are unbound, and reciprocally, realization of the meaning of being itself pervades and saturates the minds of the audience, and precipitates a crystal called release. In other words the Nô drama is more like solemn high mass than it is like a Western play — although a process like this goes on, behind the scenes so to speak, in a very few great Western dramas, notably Shakespeare’s Tempest. In the Nô drama this mode of esthetic realization is stripped to its essentials and reduced to an art form which is at the same time a Buddhist ritual.

It is quite impossible to convey, least of all by the printed text, the extraordinary novelty of a Nô play to an audience which has never seen one. The words are chanted in a slow, choking moan, in an accent incomprehensible to a modern Japanese who has not been taught it. The dances are considerably slower than any ritual motions anywhere in the West. The acting consists of highly stylized, symbolic gestures, unbelievably slow, whose significance is not apparent to the untutored. The costumes of stiff, elaborate brocade bear little relation to anything worn in the real world and the principal actors are masked. The stage is always the same — a small platform, like a boxing ring, with a resounding floor, approached from the dressing room by a bridge on which are three dwarf trees. The “backdrop” is a screen painted with a highly stylized pine. The chorus and orchestra sit on the stage and the chorus not only “choruses” but often takes over the actor’s lines, especially while he dances. Finally, all roles are played by men.

All of this sounds so exotic that it would seem completely unexportable. Quite the contrary. The Japanese Nô drama represents an art form so highly purified that its impact is irresistible to any person who lays himself open to it. From William Butler Yeats to Bertolt Brecht to Paul Goodman to the Living Theater, Eisenstein, Maiakovsky or Genêt, ever since the first translations, Japanese Nô has profoundly affected the best European theater. In addition there is probably no better closet drama except for a few plays of Sophocles and Aeschylus. The greatest Nô plays, especially those of Zeami, read in the study, are the finest dramatic instruments of meditation, objects of contemplation, in all literature, when read, they certainly take less getting used to than seen performed.

Donald Keene gives a new version of one of the greatest Nô plays — Nishikigi, Pound’s best translation — which Keene dismisses as too inaccurate. The difference is illuminating. Accurate the new version may be, but Pound’s is great poetry, in spite of its pseudo-Irish accent, and the new version is not. Furthermore, knowing really almost nothing about Japanese culture, Pound did capture the yûgen, the mystery and revelation of Nô, to a degree no one has done since. That is not to quarrel with this new collection. It is really wonderful, and constitutes an addition to the non-Western supplement to the Hutchins-Adler 100 Best Books, a list so lacking in the deepest spiritual insights of non-acquisitive cultural traditions. Perhaps we can learn most about Buddhism by studying the beautiful objects it has produced, the frescoes of Ajanta and Horyuji, statues of Buddhas and bodhisattvas, poems of Ono no Komachi and Bashô, novels like The Tale of Genji, and perhaps its finest esthetic distillate of all, the greatest Nô plays.

It is not often in our omnivorously eclectic society that we can thank someone for giving us knowledge of hitherto unknown major accomplishments of the human spirit, and that of course is exactly what Donald Keene does. It is a little as though someone had turned up a thousand lines lost from Homer or Isaiah.



This review of Donald Keene’s Twenty Plays of the Nô Theater (Columbia University Press, 1970) originally appeared in the New York Times (1971) and was reprinted in The Elastic Retort (Seabury, 1973). Copyright 1971. Reproduced here by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.

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