The Ongoing Saga---A Listing of Noh Plays in English
Compiled by Richard Emmert
Theatre Nohgaku’s stated mission is to create and perform English-language plays in the traditional Japanese noh style. So, considering that there has been little previous history regarding noh in English, it pretty much goes without saying that TN is at the forefront of expanding that history now.
In the program for TN’s 2002 “At the Hawk’s Well National Tour” with Theatre of Yugen I wrote a brief history of noh in English entitled “How Noh in English and Theatre Nohgaku Have Made It This Far.” While I don’t wish to repeat that here, I do want to give first- time viewers of a TN performance some background to what we are attempting to do by briefly describing some of the English noh plays of the past. What follows in a rough chronological order are the names of plays that have been performed in English which, in my opinion, come the closest to being considered noh plays.
St. Francis (1970)
Text by Arthur Little, former drama professor at Earlham College in Indiana. Music by Leonard Holvik, former music professor at Earlham College. Choreography by Eleanor King, well-known modern dancer of the 50s thru 70s.
Story: A street beggar in Calcutta appears to a traveling Quaker and then reappears in his true form as the spirit of Francis of Assisi. First performed in 1970 by noh seminar students at Earlham (including this author). Remounted in 1975 in Tokyo by Tokyo-based kyogen performer Don Kenny with Richard Emmert as musical director and Kita school shite actor Akira Matsui as choreographer. Third production in 1988 again at Earlham College with new noh music adapted by Richard Emmert and direction by Akira Matsui.
At the Hawk’s Well (1916/1981)
Text by W. B. Yeats, Irish poet-playwright. Written in 1916 after Yeats had read Ezra Pound’s edited translations of noh by Earnest Fenollosa.
Story: Irish mythological figure Cuchulain, as a young man, seeks a well whose waters confer immortality. An old man has already waited by the well for 50 years. The well, guarded by a young woman possessed by the spirit of a hawk, bubbles up but the hawk-woman entices them away so neither old man nor young man can drink. First performed in 1916 with very little actual noh influence in terms of performance elements. Several Japanese noh versions have been created in the post- war era, notably Taka no Izumi (Hawk’s Well) in 1949 and Takahime (“The Hawk Princess”) in 1967, both written by noh scholar Yokomichi Mario. The latter is still performed occasionally today.
First English noh performance in 1981 in Kyoto and Osaka. Directed by Jonah Salz, director of the NOHO Theatre Company of Kyoto. Music by Richard Emmert. Remounted in 1982 in Tokyo with direction by Richard Emmert, in 1984 at the University of Sydney co-directed by Akira Matsui and Richard Emmert, in 1985 in Kyoto again directed by Jonah Salz, and in 1990 in Kyoto directed by Richard Emmert. It became the first play rehearsed and performed by Theatre Nohgaku when it was toured in 2002.
Crazy Jane (1983)
Text, music and choreography by David Crandall, composer, noh performer and Theatre Nohgaku member.
Story: A deranged woman named Jane wanders about a seaside village in search of her lost lover, Tom. She encounters a young man who reminds her of her Tom and entices him to dance with her. After she disappears, it becomes clear that she was merely an apparition in the mind of the young man, who is actually the crazed one. First performed in 1983 in Tokyo with Crandall’s music for a Western ensemble. In 2001, Crandall began making a new noh music version. Theatre Nohgaku performed and toured the premiere of the full noh version in March- April 2007 in Seattle, Tacoma and Olympia, Washington. The most recent performances of the piece were in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania in 2010 with a notably all women's chorus.
Drifting Fires (1985)
Text by Janine Beichman, poet, translator and professor of literature at Daito Bunka University, Tokyo. Music by Richard Emmert. Choreography by Umewaka Naohiko, Kanze school shite actor.
Story: Travellers in space come upon the remains of the planet earth and there encounter the spirit of the last human being who dances for them in memory of the beauty of the now ruined planet. First performed in 1985 at the Tsukuba Exposition in Japan and again in 1986 at Tokyo’s Zojoji Temple. Remounted by Theatre of Yugen in 1993 in San Francisco directed by Yuriko Doi.
The Linden Tree (1986)
Text and music by David Crandall. Choreography by Sano Hajime, Hosho school shite actor.
Story: A traveler visits a legendary linden tree which blooms in midwinter. An old man appears and tells him of the man who planted it, Christian Flood, who lost his family to pestilence. When Flood himself died in grief, the linden bloomed to mark his passing. In the second half of the play, the spirit of the linden tree appears in the moonlight and dances for the traveler. First performed in Tokyo in 1986 with music for a Western ensemble.
Text by Allan Marett, specialist in Japanese and aboriginal music and professor of ethnomusicology at the University of Sydney, Australia. Music by Richard Emmert. Choreography by Akira Matsui.
Story: A traveler to Fraser Island, off the coast of Australia, meets a woman who tells him the story of Eliza Fraser who had been forced to live with the aboriginal peoples when she was shipwrecked. The traveler realizes she is making up the stories of the horrors she faced in order to fit with the beliefs of the white settlers. In the second half, the woman now freed from her tormented existence appears as a dancer at a corroboree—an aboriginal ceremony.
First performed in 1989 by students of the University of Sydney co-directed by Akira Matsui and Richard Emmert. It was remounted in Tokyo in 1990, again directed by Matsui and Emmert.
Crazy Horse/Moon of the Scarlet Plums (2001)
Text by Erik Ehn, playwright and drama professor at California Institute of the Arts. Directed by Yuriko Doi. Music by Richard Emmert with additional Indian songs by Darrell Paskimin. Choreography by Hanay Geigamah.
Story: A young Lakota Native American traveler is troubled by a dream of an eagle she had the night before at a Pow wow. She meets a mechanic who interprets her dream saying that the eagle is the spirit of the dead Lakota hero Crazy Horse. In the second half an eagle appears and then turns into the spirit of Crazy Horse. After the spirit dances, both spirit and traveler pray together for peace among mankind. First performed in San Francisco as Crazy Horse in 2001. Remounted and toured to Japan and the United States in 2005, renamed as Moon of the Scarlet Plums.
Pine Barrens (2005)
Text by Greg Giovanni, theater director and founder of Big Mess Theater. Music and Direction by Richard Emmert.
Story: a fifth-category demon piece which deals with the legends of the Jersey Devil, an evil monster said to reside in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey. Two witches travel to the desolate New Jersey Pine Barrens to hunt for a comrade who disappeared there while practicing their sacred art. When they arrive, they meet the demon in two different forms, one a young child who warns them of the dangers of the swamp, the other the demon in his true terrifying form. A trio of New Jersey mosquitoes provides a humorous kyogen interlude.
The Gull (2006)
Text by Daphne Marlatt, British Columbia poet. Music by Richard Emmert. Choreopgraphy by Akira Matsui. Concept and production by Heidi Specht, Pangaea Arts.
Story: Two young Japanese-Canadian brothers, after spending WW II in internment camp with their parent, in 1950 return to the Coast to fish. A creature appears to them, to one brother a seagull, to the other a woman. The woman-gull sings of her connection to the village of Mio on the Wakayama coast of Japan, the same village where the brothers’ mother was from. The brothers realize that it must have been the spirit of their mother, who then appears in her true form leading to a discussion of how what was home to her, Mio in Wakayama, was not home to the young brothers born and raised in Canada. First performed in Richmond, near Vancouver, BC in 2006 directed by Akira Matsui and Richard Emmert.
Text by Jannette Cheong Music by Richard Emmert
Story: Pagoda is a contemporary noh play rooted in the story of the author’s grandmother, who, to avoid the famine that ravaged China’s rural areas in the 1920s, sent her youngest son away to sea when he was a young boy; he never returned. After his death in London in the 1970s, Ms. Cheong herself made the journey to China to find her father’s birthplace. Her experiences, at once both tragic and uplifting, are combined with an ancient Chinese legend to form the basis of this noh-structured play. Premiered at the Soutbank Centre, London, England in 2009 and performed in Dublin, Oxford and Paris during the '09 EU tour.