January 2nd, 2009


Plays for dancers

I've been looking for a particular cassette, a recording of four short plays by W.B. Yeats which I must've made -- I think from an Open University production -- in the early 1980s. This tape not only has a ritualistic atmosphere -- Yeats adapted Celtic folklore to the austere forms of Japanese Noh theatre, which he'd learned about from Ezra Pound -- but has become part of my own personal ritual. Whenever I move house, I play this tape, usually in a bare white room, and often while painting it.

I haven't moved house, but the new year, and the fresh fall of snow we're experiencing here in Berlin, makes it feel like a good time to listen to this tape, which is full of a Modernist sense of "making things new". I planned to make an mp3 of the Four Plays for Dancers and put it up here. But after a good three hours of rummaging in my boxes, bringing them up one by one from the dry pine-scented cellar, through the snowy garden, I still haven't located the tape (there was a false alarm when I found another tape marked YEATS, which turned out to be me reading his poems).

What I can do in the meantime is tell you about the pieces, and show you sketches of the actors from the beta flip book of the 1921 Macmillan edition of the plays. The first play, At The Hawk's Well, is laid on a bare stage in a high, windy place set only with the emblems of a tree, a rock, and a hawk. The actors and musicians have masks painted onto their faces, and a plain bamboo flute, a harp or zither, a drum and gong stand on the stage. The action concerns the Irish legendary hero, Cuchulain, and an Old Man, who fail to drink from a holy well -- a well sporadically spurting out the water of immortality itself.

There's a line from these plays to some of Beckett's work -- the radical reductions, the strange, stilted atmosphere and the combination of Ireland and somewhere timeless and placeless. The lack of conventional dramatic action is also very Beckett, and very oriental: as Paul Claudel put it, a Western play is where something happens, a Noh play is where someone appears.

In the afterword for The Only Jealousy of Emer, Yeats talks about the importance of economy in this "small, unpopular theatre". "I have written a little play that can be played in a room for so little money that forty or fifty readers of poetry can pay the price," said Yeats. "There will be no scenery, for three musicians, whose seeming sunburned faces will, I hope, suggest that they have wandered from village to village in some country of our dreams..." Looking back to his days of more commercial theatre, Yeats laments "The worst of it is that I could not pay my players, or the seamstress, or the owner of the stage, unless I could draw to my plays those who prefer light amusement or have no ear for verse..." Rather than sit with bored people, Yeats cut his overheads with the new plays (started in 1916, first staged in 1917). "Intended for some fifty people in a drawing-room or a studio", these plays knew "freedom from the stupidity of an ordinary audience".

But it wasn't enough for Yeats to appeal to a small, aristocratic audience of poetry lovers. His plays -- and this may be the most important reason I like them -- call into existence a parallel world, an entirely new civilisation: "In writing these little plays I knew that I was creating something which could only fully succeed in a civilization very unlike ours. I think they should be written for some country where all classes share in a half-mythological, half-philosophical folk-belief which the writer and his small audience lift into a new subtlety. All my life I have longed for such a country, and always found it quite impossible to write without having as much belief in its real existence as a child has in that of the wooden birds, beasts, and persons of his toy Noah's Ark."

That country was based on Japan: Ezra Pound had received Noh translations from the widow of Ernest Fenollosa. He was working on these translations in 1913 and 1914, reading them aloud to Yeats, who -- says biographer Richard Ellmann -- found in Asian convention "a sense of life as ceremonial and ritual, and of drama as august, formal, traditional". Pound's poem Kakitsubata was a particular influence. When Yeats published the first draft of At the Hawk's Well in Harper's Bazaar in 1916, he dedicated it to Pound.

It's a theme we've seen before here on Click Opera: the Western new thing is the Eastern old thing, your past is our future. In this case, we catch Western literary Modernism -- at a key moment in the nineteen teens -- drawing its "shock of the new" from an ancient Japanese form of theatre. Seen from the right angle, traditional culture might be far ahead of the avant garde.