Yeats held a life-long interest in Japanese culture, and employed the images, knowledge and inspiration he gained from Japan in many of his literary works. On the whole, it was the Japanese literary form that was most significant in his development as a writer. It was through the translations of Ezra Pound and Ernest Fenollosa that Yeats became acquainted with Noh, the medieval Japanese drama. It is generally agreed that Yeats’s encounter with Noh marked a turning point in his career as a dramatist. The Noh led him to create “a form of drama, distinguished, indirect and symbolic...an aristocratic form.” In “Note to At the Hawk’s Well,” Yeats writes:
I have found my first model—and in literature, if we would not be parvenus, we must have a model—in the ‘Noh’ stage of aristocratic Japan.
From this statement, we can see how significant the Noh-form was to Yeats in his development as a playwright. When Yeats was first introduced to Noh, he immediately perceived affinities with Irish legends and beliefs. The Noh was not something completely new or alien to Yeats. It was the discovery of an ideal, an ideal form for him to express his perennial themes of the tension between the physical and spiritual worlds. Yeats’s Noh-inspired plays are often categorized as “dance plays” and we can see that “dance” was an important symbol which Yeats developed through his experience with Noh. Yeats wrote in his “Introduction” to Certain Noble Plays of Japan that it was a Japanese dancer, Ito Michio, who inspired him to write his new play, At the Hawk’s Well (1916). In Noh, the dance which is usually danced by a supernatural figure, is placed at the centre. Here, the supernatural dominates the stage and the action develops toward a moment of enlightenment. Yeats precisely points out this fact and writes that in his new play, instead of “the players working themselves into a violence of passion...the music, beauty of form and voice all come to climax in pantomimic dance.” However, since Yeats intended Cuchulain as the central figure of At the Hawk’s Well, the theatrical effect of the dance had to differ from that of Noh. Another characteristic of this play is that it dramatizes the ‘transformation’ of the Guardian of the Well, the role which Ito Michio played, through spirit possession. This change in personality is conveyed by means of a change in costume(she throws off her cloak to reveal a dress suggesting a hawk). This is a method resembling ‘monogi(物着),’ one of the most important dramatic conventions of Noh. Yeats explores this device again, in The Only Jealousy of Emer(1919), another dance play modeled on Noh, but this time using different masks to show the change in personality. Yeats’s interest in this motif of spirit possession eventually led him to write The Words Upon the Window-Pane(1930), a play where he dramatizes a seancē. Here, the dramatic tension is concentrated mainly on a supernatural manifestation through the ‘protagonist’ who is a professional spiritual medium. In this paper, I have discussed Yeats’s relationship with Noh through a detailed analysis of At the Hawk’s Well. In this play, we can see many aspects of Noh. The simplified stage, the musicians, the mask, the dance, the use of a square blue cloth to represent a well; these are characteristics reminiscent of Noh. However, we must note that this play was not merely an imitation of Noh but a completely new form of creative writing. Richard Taylor indicates the influence of Yoro, a felicitous Waki-noh, or God Play on this play. A comparison of these two plays reveal that Yeats had no intention of following the Noh paradigms faithfully. However, the inspiration he gained from Noh opened a wide range of dramatic experiments enabling him to write a sequence of dance plays. In later plays such as The Words Upon the Window-Pane and Purgatory, Yeats succeeded in achieving a dramatic effect closer to that of Noh.