MuseumsWeekend

The Irish for Noh: The Masks of William Butler Yeats

Although the poetry of William Butler Yeats is often misconstrued as autobiographical, the poet scorned such transparency, calling it “unimaginative” and comparing realism to “putting photographs in a plush frame.”

Alvin Langdon Coburn’s portrait of W. B. Yeats, from the book Men of
Mark, 1913.

“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person,” declares Oscar Wilde, “Give him a mask and he will tell you the truth.” Wilde’s fellow Irishman — poet William Butler Yeats — agreed.

Although Yeats’ poetry is often misconstrued as autobiographical, the poet scorned such transparency, calling it “unimaginative” and comparing realism to “putting photographs in a plush frame.”

From his “Crazy Jane” poems (1933) to his eulogies for the cause of Irish nationalism, Yeats donned many masks throughout his poetry career – from the punch-drunk dreamer in “Lake Isle of Innisfree” (1893) to the doomed pilot in “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death” (1917) to the inhibited aesthete of “Among Schoolchildren,” (1928) and the dying sage of “The Tower” (1928).

For Yeats the personae — the Latin word for “masks” — voicing his poems are as meaningful and expressive as the poem’s words. This is why he looked back to ancient Greek models of “sung” verse and why he sought a modern literature in which form and content are indivisible, a quest he immortalized in the famous rhetorical question, “How can we know the dancer from the dance?”

And it is Yeats and dance — not Yeats and poetry — that takes center stage in the multimedia exhibition, Simon Starling: At Twilight (After W.B. Yeats’ Noh Reincarnation) at Japan Society, which explores the Irish poet’s debt to the formalism of Japanese Noh theater.

The exhibition draws extensively on material relevant to British artist Simon Starling’s theatrical production, At Twilight. When it was performed in Glasgow last summer, At Twilight included as part of its staged docudrama a creative revival of Yeats’ one-act Noh-inspired play At the Hawk’s Well (1916) which combined chant, verse drama, masked actors, pantomime, dance, gesture, and a musical score.

Simon Starling, “At Twilight: The Guardian of the Well, (After Edmund Dulac)” (2014–2016), hand-painted cotton muslin. Made in collaboration with Kumi Sakurai and Atelier Hinode, Tokyo. (image courtesy the artist and The Modern Institute/Toby Webster Ltd., Glasgow)

The star of this expansive exhibition is a video installation featuring the spellbinding “hawk dance” from Yeats’ play, performed by the Scottish Ballet and choreographed by Javier de Frutos, a revival based on archival photos of the original production costume, which was created by the French designer and illustrator Edmund Dulac.

Appropriately, the exhibition is as multilayered as Yeats’ detours into writing for the stage. Around the turn of the 20th century, as he reached the peak of his poetic powers, he began composing verse plays while struggling to establish an Irish national theater that might voice what he cryptically called the “deep mind” — truths embedded within traditional Irish legends and myths. As tireless as Yeats was in pursuit of this perfected art, the results were mixed.

In 1899, Yeats co-founded the short-lived Irish Literary Theater but years later managed to help set up the far more enduring Irish National Theater Society, housed at the Abbey Theater. He also wrote ten original plays, none more culturally hybrid than the Noh-inspired At the Hawk’s Well.

How Yeats came to Noh theater is one of the great plot lines behind At Twilight. While World War I raged in Europe, Yeats was living in Stone Cottage in the forests of Sussex, England. There he was assisted by the expatriate American poet Ezra Pound, with occasional visits from Japanese poet Yone Noguchi. Both poets had a hand in introducing Yeats to the refined, abstracted aesthetics of classical Japanese verse and Noh drama. In both art forms, the affective impact of the work supersedes its meaning. Yeats was ripe for such an indoctrination.

Noh mask dating back to 17th-18th century (Zō-onna type), Tokyo National Museum (via Wikipedia)

More than a decade earlier, in his polemical essay, “The Reform of the Theater” (1903), Yeats had argued against the then-prevalent realism, typified by the British stage productions of that period. He called instead for a stylized and aristocratic theater with “simplified acting” built around “emotional subtlety” that restores to language its lost “sovereignty” and replaces the “broken and prosaic speech of ordinary recitation” with “the musical lineaments of verse or prose that delights the ear with a continually varied music.”

This call for the “reform” of theatrical realism laid the groundwork for the poet’s interest in Noh while revealing his conflicted loyalties about class and national identity. Yeats was a Protestant born in Dublin, raised partly in London and in County Sligo where he absorbed Irish traditional legends and folkways. Unlike his generational peers who came from similar upper-class Anglo-Irish stock, Yeats was an Irish nationalist who hoped for a postcolonial Ireland revitalized by an embrace of the Celtic imagination and the folk beliefs of its agrarian past.

Irish Volunteers barricade Townsend Street, Dublin, to slow down the advance of troops, during the Easter Rising, 1916. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images, public domain)

Yeats’ Irish populism was always complicated, however. In fact, though he served in the Irish Senate late in life, he was, during his years working in the theater, more of a political idealist and reactionary than a progressive or a pragmatist. He loathed any popular craving for realism, both in literature and in the Realpolitik of post-Parnell Irish nationalism. He abhorred what he considered crass provincialism among Irish working-class audiences, the very people who took to the streets in the April 1916 Easter Uprising and fought in the ensuing Irish Civil War — two bloody conflagrations that stirred as much ambivalence in Yeats as did the narrow aesthetics of Irish theater.

Sure enough, in 1913, while learning about Noh theater, which flourished in 14th and 15th-century Japan, Yeats thought he had found what he was looking for – a form of theater that could reconcile these cultural tensions. He probably detected in Noh’s yūgen – loosely translated as “graceful elegance” or “subtle mystery” — a formally strict construct within which he could update old Irish tales while elevating such material above the “mob” mentality, framing the stories into abstract plays that could “pass for a few moments into a deep of the mind that had hitherto been too subtle for our habitation.”

So the Noh model allowed Yeats to craft such a non-realistic, aristocratic play as At the Hawk’s Well, combining mysticism, ritualized gesture, stark scenery, a poetic libretto, and “pantomimic dance” into a single art form.

Simon Starling, “At Twilight: Old Man (After Edmund Dulac)” (2014-2016), Paulownia wood, Japanese lacquer, gesso, pigment, glue, animal hair. Mask made in collaboration with Yasuo Miichi, Osaka. (image courtesy of the artist and The Modern Institute/Toby Webster Ltd., Glasgow)

Yeats’ At the Hawk’s Well recasts the Irish myth of Cuchulain by depicting the warrior as a “Young Man,” who seeks the “life-giving waters” at a well, where he meets both an embittered “Old Man” and a mysterious girl/witch/hawk who is “Guardian of the Well.”

And though Yeats’ play provides the unifying thread, Starling’s exhibition casts a far wider net, taking into account countless Modernist crossroads where Eastern aesthetics met the European avant-garde of the 1910s – in poetry, sculpture, painting, and design.

To do so, the exhibition juxtaposes historical photos and works by Western artists with original and replica Japanese Noh masks, each animated in a timeless almost ecstatic expression — part scowl, part grimace, part grin.

There are new masks and costumes made by Starling in collaboration with Japanese mask maker Yasuo Michii and costume designer Kumi Sakurai. Certain masks represent poets and artists in Yeats’ circle. In addition to a Noh-inspired mask of the Irish poet, other Modernists have cameos in the exhibition. The hieratic face of Ezra Pound as immortalized in the famous sculpture by Henri Gaudier-Brezska inspired one mask, while another borrows the sleek, totemic, abstract style of Constantin Brancusi for the arts patron Nancy Cunard, in whose London salon Yeats’s play was first staged. These are gracefully suspended from sculpted replicas of a stark, leafless tree that was featured in the original production of At the Hawk’s Well — and will remind many visitors of the similarly jagged, bare, and nearly dead tree in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (1953). Years later, Alberto Giacometti sculpted a reiteration of the tree, possibly inspired by the Yeats work, for a 1961 production of Godot.

Simon Starling, “At Twilight: W. B. Yeats” (2014-2016), Paulownia wood, Japanese lacquer, gesso, pigment, glue, animal hair. Mask made in collaboration with Yasuo Miichi, Osaka. (image courtesy of the artist and The Modern Institute/Toby Webster Ltd., Glasgow)

Despite the well-curated profusion of archival materials – photographs, notes, letters and even a sprawling, wall-sized “Mind Map” that charts the zigzagging influences among various Modernist art forms — it is not so easy to figure out what Yeats specifically thought about what he had achieved, artistically speaking, by adopting Noh techniques and methods for At the Hawk’s Well.

In an introductory essay he wrote for the collection Certain Noble Plays of Japan (1916), edited by Pound and Ernest Fenollosa, Yeats provides at least one clue, homing in on the way Japanese Noh dramatic verse recursively exploits a single recurring image or metaphor. Yeats describes this centrifugal or catalyzing force as the “rhythm of metaphor” and compares to it to “the echoing rhythm of line in Chinese and Japanese painting.”

The Irish poet’s insight indirectly associates the swaying dynamism of key words within Noh dramaturgy to the slow, studied, dance-like motions of the masked actor onstage. Echoing Yeats, Royall Tyler, a British translator and specialist in Japanese literature, refers to the push-and-pull poetics of recurring images and metaphors in Noh drama as “pivot phrases” or “pivot words” in which “a word, or even part of a word, may mean one thing when taken with what precedes and what follows.”

More recently, in her new study of Noh and European Modernism, Learning to Kneel (Columbia University Press, 2016), Claire Preston further theorizes that Yeats’ was seduced by the supernatural qualities delivered in Noh stagecraft, such that “By translating the masks, chorus, music and dance of noh for his Cuchulain cycle, Yeats hoped to turn the actor’s body […] into a container that can be filled by spirits, ghosts and gods.”

Simon Starling, “At Twilight: Young Man (After Edmund Dulac)” (2014-2016), Mask: Paulownia wood, Japanese lacquer, gesso, pigment, glue, animal hair. Mask made in collaboration with Yasuo Miichi, Osaka. (image courtesy of artist and The Modern Institute/Toby Webster Ltd., Glasgow)

Perhaps Yeats found in the model of Noh theater a fine balance, which he pursued in his own poetry, between the spirit world of the dead and the embodied one of the living. Put another way, Yeats’ poetics seek a balance between surface and depth, between the mask of a human face and the personality hidden beneath it.

After all, Yeats returned constantly to the subject of faces. In the poem “Before the World Was Made” (1933), he celebrates the “vanity” of mirrors and of makeup, as the speaker declares that, although she seems to be polishing a bodily surface, she is ultimately producing “the face I had before the world was made.”

Thirty years earlier, in his dramatic dialogue between lovers in the poem “The Mask” (1903), Yeats pits the romantic magnetism of the lover’s face against the need to see into the essence below the surface, “lest you are my enemy.”

In the end, the lover refuses to figuratively unmask, reminding the companion that the theater of life is the only reality there is. And, besides, “What matter [the mask], so there is but fire/In you, in me?”

Simon Starling: At Twilight (After W. B. Yeats’ Noh Reincarnation)continues at Japan Society (333 East 47th Street, Midtown East, Manhattan) through January 15.

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