Murray Edmond, Noh Business
Review by Janet Bowdan

"Noh texts are full of puns and allusions and quotations from other texts" (57), Murray Edmond writes in Noh Business, and so alludes to the nature of his own book, itself a sort of new Noh text, and his own role in it: "In between the two halves of a Noh play there is usually a prose passage [the kyogen] in which the Villager retells the essential story of the play" (59). Edmond is not simply the Villager; he has also written the two halves around the middle prose passage, the first part a series of very short, thought-provoking critical analyses of Noh which blend literary and theatrical history with lyricism, the third part a group of new Noh plays, claiming a role for both old and new Noh in the present.  The book conveys Edmond’s fascination with Noh, and with a lineage of twentieth century poets who were similarly intrigued. Edmond starts with William Butler Yeats.

This would be appropriate, since it was Yeats who introduced Ezra Pound and Ernest Fenellosa’s Certain Noble Plays of Japan (Cuala Press, 1916), explaining how useful he found "these beautiful plays" to expand the potential of Irish drama, informing his idea of a drama that would be "distinguished, indirect and symbolic, and having no need of mob or press to pay its way—an aristocratic form….it need absorb no one’s life, that its few properties can be packed up in a box, or hung upon the walls where they will be fine ornaments" (Yeats ii); Edmond notes that Pound and Yeats ignore "the elaborate physical and social structure of the Noh theatre" (Edmond 17), adapting selected ideas such as the "intensification of the Image" (Pound qtd. Edmond 16). Yeats comments, "I wonder am I fanciful in discovering in the plays themselves…a playing upon a single metaphor, as deliberate as the echoing rhythm of line in Chinese and Japanese painting" (Yeats xvi). Edmond does something comparable, playing on the metaphor of Noh (and/or of theatre) to inquire about performance, presence, absence, and poetry, ringing these changes through the book’s first section, "No Paragraphs: Meditations on Noh, Poetry, Theatre, and the Avant-garde." However, the Yeats in Edmond’s first "No Paragraph" is actually a character in a three-line play by Kenneth Koch, and Edmond analyzes the play’s discussion of time, endlessness, and beauty both evocatively and succinctly. The essay is a page long; I read it and wanted more.

In the following "No Paragraphs," Edmond traces the fascination of Noh through Brecht’s Epic Theatre in Weimar Germany, the New York Poets’ Theater (1950-1955), the San Francisco Poets’ Theater (1979-1985, and more recent plays by Leslie Scalapino), and the New Zealand Noh Theatre, Ltd. Each "No Paragraph" shows Noh as the productive site of collisions, whether between Yeats and Koch, Antonin Artaud and Margaret Mead and Geoffrey Bateson, Frank O’Hara and Thornton Wilder, Aristotle, Brecht and Gertrude Stein, Leslie Scalapino and Zeami, or John Davies, New Zealand history and Noh tradition.

In the second part of Noh Business, "Words Not My Own: A Journey to Noh," Edmond writes something of a journal (incorporating pieces of a travel diary, a dream journal, notes on his readings of Noh plays, notes on the performances he sees, quotes from his Japanese hotel’s information book, and other people’s notes, poems and comments). Because this is a journey to Japan to see (and hear) Noh plays, we follow his expectations into the performances; we expect to see the dialogue between the waki (the person at the side, often a Buddhist priest) and the shite (the protagonist), and to hear the villager figure re-tell the play concisely. Edmond explains the pattern of Noh:

a journey, a surprise meeting, a revelation, a disappearance from the surprise meeting, an interlude of explanation, then a reappearance in a transformed state, which results in some expiation or resolution, often of a past event, which leads to a dance, all in a landscape which is imbued with the power of the past event, which is embodied in a ghost or spirit or god. The waki is like the base, the shite like the lead guitar. (60)

This section has become its own Noh performance, and Edmond says, "I feel like a villager figure….if you like I’ll tell you what someone once told me" (79). Edmond is actor, audience, and author of this Noh text; in the third section he puts the ideas of the first two into play (literally—it’s impossible to avoid puns in and about this book, which is part of the fun of it), writing five new Noh plays—The God Play, The Warrior Play, The Woman Play, The Uncertain Play, and The Demon Play. With one exception, this follows the five traditional categories, which Donald Keene lists as "god plays, warrior plays, woman plays, realistic (or mad!) plays, and demon plays" (xi). Also as with traditional Noh, each play is linked to a season or a time. And yet most of the plays are set in New Zealand, where the season is antipodean—the Halloween of the warrior play is in springtime—the "demon of statistics" watches over the results of the blue moon burger lottery, and the setting of the god play is the iconic New Zealand Tip Top store, so that the god is the god of ice cream.

There is a loss of immediacy in presenting theatre on the page; Edmond circumvents this partially by letting us see the actors through his eyes, and by making us privy to his own surprise in various elements of the performances. At the Horin-ji Temple, where he is watching Makura Jido, the story of a boy who commits the fatal mistake of stepping over the Emperor’s pillow and whose death sentence is commuted to exile by the compassionate Emperor, he writes: "Nothing had prepared me for the music. The vibrant, discordant, piercing flute and the whoops, cries, shrieks, hollers, groans and intonings the drummers make as they play.  The stick drummer yelped like a dog, the hand drummer croaked like a frog, and the woman drummer with the little drum on her shoulder did not make a sound" (69-71). If Noh is "the perfect representative of the theatre as theatre, ‘play’ as ‘play’" (43), then Noh Business is the representative of the theatre as book, the book as theatre—and if not the perfect representative, it comes close in sheer play.

Noh Business is the latest in a series published by the Atelos project of writing that "challenges the conventional definitions of poetry" and is "involved in some way with crossing traditional genre boundaries."

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Edmond, Murray. Noh Business. Berkeley: Atelos, 2005.

Keene, Donald, ed., assisted by Royall Tyler. Twenty Plays of the No Theatre. NY: Columbia UP, 1970.

Yeats, William Butler. "Introduction." Certain Noble Plays of Japan, trans. Ezra Pound and Ernest Fenellosa. Dundrum: Cuala P, 1916.

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Murray Edmond is a New Zealand poet. For 14 years he worked in experimental theatre as a writer, an actor, and a director. He now teaches drama and theatre and poetry at the University of Auckland.

Janet Bowdan is writing a book on New Zealand. She teaches at Western New England College in Springfield, Massachusetts.


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