In 1917, the poet T S Eliot published a review of Ezra Pound’s, ‘Noh’ or Accomplishment: A Study of the Classical Stage of Japan in the August issue of the literary journal, The Egoist.
It follows a little known and extraordinary performance of a play, written by the Irish poet W B Yeats and performed in front of a small private audience at the residence of society hostess, Lady Cunard. In a way, at such a distance in time this solitary, unrecorded event is perhaps of little importance and yet, because of those present (let us forget for the moment, Queen Alexandra) – T S Eliot, Ezra Pound, W B Yeats, it might be said that the event marks a watershed in the continued influence of Edo culture on modernism, the defining European cultural movement of the twentieth century.
It is thankfully, increasingly commonplace to give due credit to Japanese culture in the field of the visual arts… there are now many instances where museums and academics acknowledge the influence of Japanese woodblock prints on artists such as the impressionists, or post-impressionists like Gauguin, van Gogh or Bonnard. Less notice is taken of the enormous debt that architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright owe to Japanese aesthetics and construction. Stilll less credit is given to the place of Japanese literature in the fields of European poetry and drama, both of which were changed fundamentally by Ezra Pound’s career in translation, his own compositions and the critical influence that he brought to bear on his peers. Yeats also, as we shall see, imported many ideas from the noh theatre of Japan which shared much of it’s imagism with kabuki drama and then latterly with European poetic coteries.
The poet Ezra Pound was a frequent visitor to the British Museum Print Room in the first decade of the twentieth century, and by April of 1909 he had joined the Poet’s Club at weekly meetings in Soho, where according to F. S. Flint the ‘Japanese tanka and haikai’ were much in the air and among the forms considered promising with the aim of revitalising an English poetry that all present agreed had gone stale.
In addition, Pound was working as secretary to the famous Irish poet W B Yeats, and by the winters of 1913 – 1916, Pound and Yeats were ensconced in ‘Stone Cottage’ in Sussex, furiously forging a new shape for British and Irish poetry, a new language of modernism that used the mythology of the celtic mysteries and the structure of Japanese poetics and drama. What emerged from this forge in part was the playscript At The Hawk’s Well… the play that was eventually to be performed as a part dance-drama more or less of the Edo tradition, at the residence of Lady Cunard in 1916.
The first performance of At The Hawk’s Well was on 2nd April in the drawing room of Cunard’s Mayfair house. The work was performed in part by the Japanese dancer Michio Ito who is pictured above. There was a tremendous sense of mystery to this event. Yeats especially refused entry to the press or to anyone not in his circle. The only record that survives are a series of photographs of the rehearsals, all of them taken by the avante-garde photographer, Alvin Langdon Coburn. The play embroiders upon a version of an Irish myth. For Yeats Irish mythology was a key to re-establishing an authentic Irish identity under British rule. Through the mystical, occult even, creation of poetry and drama a new vision of an independent Ireland would somehow materialise.
The Hawk’s Well begins with an old man before a magical spring. He waits for the source to run freely because by drinking from it he will gain eternal life.Unfortunately for him he is constantly distracted by the magical interventions of the hag of the mountain… an old witch, the mountain witch, the unappeasable shadow… itself a common trope in kabuki and Japanese puppet theatre. A young man aproaches; Cuchulain of legend. The old man angrily orders him away but is lulled to sleep by the sound of a distant song, Cuchulain is led away by the approach of a dancing hawk… this is Ito in the hawk costume, dancing a Japanese dance borrowed from Japanese theatre. The costume was designed by the artist Edmund Dulac, part of the modernist clique at the time and an illustrator of poetical works and a popular artist today in fact. The old man awakes, Cuchulain has been tricked also… the hawk was none other than the mountain witch. All that remains is the damp sand to show that the stream of eternal life had recently flowed. Old and young wasting their lives on the delusion of dreams rather than living the reality of the moment.
The stage directions simply require Ito to ‘move like a hawk…’ but the photographs that we have of Ito so strongly suggest a kabuki performance as indeed does the plot and the shape of the dance drama that it is hard not to conclude that there is indeed more noh/kabuki here than there is celtic myth.
Dulac’s costume for Ito’s hawk derives much of its appearance from the various dance dramas that tell the story of the tragic ducks, the Oshidori. In fact, all of the costumes including the old man (above) owe a great debt to kabuki costumes, many of which Dulac would have seen in woodblock prints. The illustration below from 1916 in fact, shows his complete immersion in Japanese style.
This important moment then, introduced the notion of serious Japanese literary and cultural form into the very heart of London’s literary, artistic elite. Such an event and the few subsequent performances would have established the notion of an imagist Japanese art, the ‘realism of the mystical event’ – as Eliot was later to write about it, set against the subjective materialism of western dramatic verse. In Eliot’s view, the Japanese theatre offered the pschological, the mystical phenomenum as a given, physical entity… our apprehension of the characters is dependent upon how they respond to those manifestations. For Eliot, what was interesting was how that illuminated the psychological character of English drama, namely the character’s invention of the idea of a ghost say… but as a fiction.
The influence of Japanese poetry is well attested in Pound’s verse… especially his major work, the Cantos. It is harder to see in Eliot. Perhaps it surfaces in the Four Quartets but it is surely visible to greater or lesser extent in his plays. He famously referred directly to noh theatre when instructing an amateur group in the performance of his unfinished drama Sweeney Agonistes, in May 1933, to wear masks; and in a revival of that play that he attended in 1934, all but the main character wore Japanese style masks. In Eliot’s later plays I think one can make the argument that the powerful presence of the mystical within the humdrum, the presence of grace in the drawing room or the office owe as much to Japanese influence as they do to Greek drama as is conventionally attested.