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The Weeping Mothers in Sumidagawa, CurlewRiver, and Medieval European Religious Plays MlKIKO ISHII One ofthe happiest and the most creative meetings ofEast and West came about in a work by the British composer Benjamin Britten (1913-76). During a short stay of twelve days in Japan, he saw two performances of the Japanese medieval Noh play Sumidagawa, and eight years later he completed his opera CurlewRiver, which was based upon this Noh play. In November 1955, he and the tenor Peter Pears along with their patrons, Prince Ludwig of Hesse and Rhine and his wife Margaret, left England on a world concert tour. On 8 February 1955 they arrived in Tokyo, and three days later theyattended a performance ofSumidagawa (Sumida River), Jürö Motomasa's fifteenth-century drama, at the Suidobashi Noh Theater in Tokyo. Theperformance was being staged by the Umetani Group ofthe Kanze School with Takeshi Umewaka playing the leading role. The day was to be remembered as one ofthe most significant of the entire tour. Before leaving for Japan, Britten had been advised in advance by William Plomer, who was to become the librettist of Curlew River, that he should make a point ofseeing a Noh play. Plomer, having spent three years in Japan in his earlytwenties and beingwell versed in manyaspects ofJapanese culture,was certain that Brittenwouldbe inspiredbya strange dramatic experience such as this even though the composer knew little about the genre and did not understand the language at all. It is useful to see how Plomer described his own experiences ofthe Noh theater in his autobiography: 287 288Comparative Drama And what was Noh play? To this the European brought that total ignorance which, in its way, made him specifically impressionable. One did not understand the archaic language, the completely strange chanting; one knew nothing ofthe symbolism, and the briefly outlined plot was so steeped in the mysteries of antiquity, of a remote and venerable culture, of esoteric Buddhism, that one had to rely on little but the evidence of one's senses to perceive the great beauty and refinement and agelessness of a wholly nonpopular tradition and convention, which, in present-day jargon,would perhaps be sneered at as"elitist"—whatever that may mean. Perhaps, for those who use such a term, the best is too good.1 As Plomer had hoped, Britten was deeply impressed by the performance of Sumidagawa and wanted to see it again. This occurred on 19 Februaryjust before he left Japan for Hong Kong.As soon as he came back to England, he told Plomer "in a quiet voice but with ... a distinctive firmness" that he wished to compose an English version ofthe Noh play that he had seen.2 The composer was haunted by the memory of this extraordinary theatrical experience for many years. He wrote: The whole occasion made a tremendous impression upon me: the simple, touching story, the economy of style, the intense slowness of the action, the marvelous skill and control ofthe performers, the beautiful costumes, the mixture of chanting, speech, singing which, with the three instruments , made up the strange music—it all offered a totally new"operatic" experience. There was no conductor—the instrumentalists sat on the stage, as did the chorus, and the chief characters made their entrance down a long ramp. The lighting was strictly non-theatrical. The cast was all male, the one female character wearing an exquisite mask made no attempt to hide the male jowl beneath it.3 Integral to the plot of Sumidagawa is the Sumida River (the name is derived from Sumi, "corner," and da, "rice field"), from which this Noh play took its name, which runs through the Kanto Plain and enters the sea in Tokyo Bay.4 On an evening one spring, the Ferryman ofthis river is about to row across. The Traveler approaches him and asks for a place in the boat. Shortly thereafter a distraught woman, a noble lady from Miyako (present-day Kyoto, in the western part of Japan, and in earlier times its capital) arrives. She is wearing a Fukai mask, a wig, and elegant garments and is carrying in her hand a branch ofbamboo,which in this case signifies...


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pp. 287-305
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