Certain Noble Plays of Japan

by Michael Chan

Certain Noble Plays of Japan: From the Manuscripts of Ernest Fenollosa, Chosen and Finished by Ezra Pound, with an Introduction by William Butler Yeats (hereafter Certain Noble Plays of Japan) is a collection of four plays published in 1916 by Ezra Pound. As the title states, Pound selected these translations based on manuscripts written by Ernest Fenollosa, an American professor of philosophy and Orientalist aesthete. After Fenollosa’s death in 1908, the manuscripts were given to Pound in 1913 by Fenollosa’s widow. Pound subsequently extensively revised and rewrote Fenollosa’s fragmentary translations under the auspices of William Butler Yeats, for whom Pound was acting as a secretary at the time. This volume serves as a predecessor to his later and perhaps more widely-released volume, ‘Noh’ or Accomplishment (London, 1916), which was later revised into Classic Noh Theatre of Japan (New York, 1959).

Certain Noble Plays of Japan contains four plays: Nishikigi, Hagoromo, Kumasaka and Kagekiyo. In Nishikigi, a traveling priest helps to unite two spirits who were unable to be together when they were alive. In Hagoromo, a priest meets a tennin, a heavenly spirit, in search of her feather mantle, which she needs in order to return to heaven. In Kumasaka, a priest meets the spirit of a man who was killed by Ushiwakimaru, a young man who would eventually grow up to become Yoshitsune, a key general in the Genpei War and in subsequent literature based on the period, and must help him to find catharsis by reliving the battle. In the final play, Kagekiyo, a daughter searches for disgraced father, only to find he has become a blind beggar who, in his disgrace, does not want her to know his identity out of fear that his disgrace will spread to her. Of the four plays, Kagekiyo is the only play that is not previously published: according to Pound’s afterword, Nishikigi appears in “Poetry,” Hagoromo in “The Quarterly Review,” and Kumasaka in “The Drama.” All four plays are included in the later ‘Noh’ or Accomplishment.

Pound’s collection of plays, both here and in his later volumes, presents complex issues that require untangling, particularly where they indicate the disjoint approaches to that were being taken by Japanese thinkers and Western thinkers. Such a disjoint concerns not only Pound, but the other scholars participating in the creation of Certain Noble Plays of Japan and subsequent volumes.

Ernest Fenollosa had begun to study chanting in 1883 with Umewaka Minoru, a key figure in the revival of after the Meiji Restoration in 1868.[1] Fenollosa had a rudimentary knowledge of Japanese, and his manuscripts of plays were augmented by notes from his interpreter, Hirata Kiichi, a recent graduate from The Higher Normal School in Tokyo (present-day Tsukuba University). However, Hirata himself possessed only a basic understanding of form, a reflection of the academic standing of at the time.[2] Although the two consulted several authoritative texts in the preparations of the manuscripts, the versions received by Pound remain not necessarily direct translations of the plays, but in reality collections of notes taken by Fenollosa with imperfect transcriptions and commentaries.[3]

The lack of understanding of Hirata and, consequently, Fenollosa onwards, of the form is ostensibly not the result of personal ignorance, but rather indicative of the instability surrounding reconsiderations of forms of drama, including , as a result of the Meiji Restoration of 1868 and the destabilizing genbun itchi movement. With the Meiji Restoration, the former patrons of the form were ousted from power and the state of the form fell into shambles. Furthermore, with the genbun itchi movement, a movement that served to “modernize” the Japanese language as a “unification of speech and writing” that took place in the Meiji period (1868-1912), erstwhile “classical” texts and forms such as fell out of use in education. These texts were eventually brought back into popular use in the 1880s thanks to kokubungaku (national literature) scholars and national theater reformers.[4] However, Hirata, who was at the time a recent high school graduate, truly did not possess a sophisticated knowledge of particularly because it did not reappear extensively in normal schooling until the Taisho Period (1912-1926), by which point Hirata was already in Fenollosa’s services.

The instability of position in Japanese literature following genbun itchi further problematizes comparisons made by Pound and Yeats between and Western art forms. During the 1880s,,or Nōgaku, as it had been renamed by kokubungaku scholars, was given credence through scholars comparing it to European art forms, particularly the opera. This served the purpose of realigningas a dramatic form under the influence of “the Western notion of dramatic literature, particularly the Greek tragedy, Shakespeare’s plays, and European opera.”[5]

Certain Noble Plays of Japan is also an important volume for the introduction to the volume prepared by William Butler Yeats. Just as proceeded to be a major influence in Pound’s The Cantos, it was also influential to Yeats’ interest in the dramatic form, as seen in his works such as Four Plays for Dancers and At the Hawk’s Well. At the time of his preparation of these materials, Pound was serving as a secretary to Yeats at his Stone Cottage. Furthermore, as scholars have argued, Yeats’ influence can be seen to various degrees in Pound’s “translations” of these plays.[6]

Yeats saw as an aid to his own agenda to develop a type of Irish drama that was more sophisticated and aristocratic. In particular, Yeats found issue with recent trends in drama that found the human subjugated to impressive artifice, particularly elaborate sets and costumes which caused the human to seem “no longer a human being but an invention of science.”[7] In exchange, Yeats praised the simplicity of the form, particularly its use of masks, the privileging of the human over other elements of the drama.[8] He viewed these elements as catalysts for a psychological experience that allowed the audience to probe the characters’ states of minds: “The arts which interest me, while seeming to separate from the world and us a group of figures, images, symbols, enable us to pass for a few moments into a deep of the mind that had hitherto been too subtle for our habitation. As a deep of the mind can only be approached through what is most human, most delicate, we should distrust bodily distance, mechanism and loud noise.”[9]

Furthermore, Yeats also appreciated the self-reference and deliberateness of authors: “The men who created this convention were more like ourselves than were the Greeks and Romans, more like us even than are Shakespeare and Corneille. Their emotion was self-conscious and reminiscent, always associating itself with pictures and poems.”[10] This remark is rather ironic in light of the attempts by scholars in Japan at the time to reauthorize by comparing it to the Greek tragedies and Shakespearean plays in particular. Although certainly Yeats and Pound were interpreting Nō by comparing it to equivalent Western works, by the same token, it is interesting that their conceptions of were rooted, via Fenellosa, in a very different lineage than their Japanese equivalents. In this sense, it can be thought that via the vessel of , Yeats and Pound’s “novel” conceptions of European drama as struggling against works like Shakespeare, etc., were actually founded in the very works from which they tried to abscond.[11]


  1. ↑ Miyake, Akiko et al. A Guide to Era Pound and Ernest Fenollosa’s Classic Noh Theatre of Japan. The National Poetry Foundation, 1994, p. xviii
  2. ↑ Miyake et al. 1994, p. xviii.
  3. ↑ Miyake et al. 1994, pp. xviii-xix.
  4. ↑ Shinada, Yoshikazu. “Man’ yōshū: The Invention of a National Poetry Anthology.” Inventing the Classics: Modernity, National Identity, and Japanese Literature, ed. Haruo Shirane and Tomi Suzuki. Stanford University Press, 2000, p. 37.
  5. ↑ Shirane, Haruo. “Issues in Canon Formation.” Inventing the Classics: Modernity, National Identity, and Japanese Literature, ed. Haruo Shirane and Tomi Suzuki. Stanford University Press, 2000, p. 8.
  6. ↑ Miyake et al. 1994.
  7. ↑ Pound, Ezra. Certain Noble Plays of Japan: From the Manuscripts of Ernest Fenollosa, Chosen and Finished by Ezra Pound, with an Introduction by William Butler Yeats. The Cuala Press, 1916, p. iii.
  8. ↑ Pound 1916, p. xii.
  9. ↑ Pound 1916, p. v.
  10. ↑ Pound 1916, p. xvi.
  11. ↑ This article prepared by Michael Chan.