Yeats’s noh and world drama: foreign form in tandem with local materials


In an essay on the Japanese noh drama, “Fenollosa on the noh,” Ernest Fenollosa (1853–1908) provides a unique but reverse case of Franco Moretti’s concept of “world literature.” Moretti argues that “the compromise between the foreign and the local is so ubiquitous” that “the encounter of Western forms and local reality did indeed produce everywhere a structural compromise.” I agree with Moretti that the problem is always a structural compromise between foreign form and local materials in the field of world literature. However, I contend that what is at stake in world literature is rather the problem of balancing between close readings of local/global materials and distant readings of discourse at large in structural reconstruction. Even a prominent critic of world literature like T. S. Eliot fails to see the complicated nature of William Butler Yeats’s transcultural interweaving between the foreign form of the Japanese noh drama and the local materials of Irish plays. In this context, I have attempted to provide a case of balancing between the foreign form of the Japanese noh and local materials found in Irish plays, thereby suggesting a new model for the study of world literature. Stimulated by Pound and Fenollosa’s translations of the noh plays, and having envisioned Japanese noh plays as the visionary model for his future theatre, Yeats had a new vision of world drama by investigating the potential theories of “mask” and “ghost,” thereby anticipating the vision of transcultural/transnational world literature and drama.

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  1. 1.

    Moretti (2013, p. 46).

  2. 2.


  3. 3.

    Ibid., p. 50.

  4. 4.

    Ibid., p. 52.

  5. 5.

    Ibid., p. 53.

  6. 6.

    Ibid., p. 54.

  7. 7.

    Ibid., p. 56.

  8. 8.

    Noh is a dance theatre. In Medieval through 19th century Japan, there were dramas such as kyogen (comedies), noh, kabuki, and bunraku. Early dramas were called kyogen and were mostly comic interludes which were traditionally performed between noh performances. Noh drama is a "dance-drama" that was very popular with the rich and powerful elite class of medieval Japan, including the court in the 14th century. It is still performed today. The actors wear the masks of a woman, a demon, or an old man, and they perform with musicians sitting behind the actor and a chorus (jiutai) of eight people on the right side of the stage who narrate the story by chanting. For a discussion of the noh, cf. Sekine and Murray (1990).

  9. 9.

    Pound and Fenollosa (1959, p. 58).

  10. 10.


  11. 11.


  12. 12.


  13. 13.

    Ibid., p. 59.

  14. 14.

    Damrosch (2003, p. 281).

  15. 15.

    Sekine and Murray (1990, p. xiv).

  16. 16.

    For the extensive discussion of the Stone Cottage collaboration of Yeats and Pound, cf. Longenbach (1989).

  17. 17.

    Alldritt (1997, p. 239).

  18. 18.

    Damrosch (2003, p. 286). Cf. Kim (2017, p. 91). Damrosch’s definition of world literature in terms of the double “elliptical refraction of national literatures” is relevant for the discussion of the Yeats-Pound collaboration via the Fenollosa–Pound connection. In the collaborative work, American Pound and American Fenollosa translate the Chinese-Japanese languages into English, and Irish Yeats uses the Japanese form of the noh drama. Without this triangular collaboration, this initiation of modernism in terms of world drama would not have happened.

  19. 19.

    Bradley (1979, pp. 131–132).

  20. 20.

    Yeats (1961, p. 230).

  21. 21.

    Pound and Fenollosa (1959, pp. 69–70).

  22. 22.

    Yeats (1961, pp. 156–157).

  23. 23.

    Yeats (1962, p. 252).

  24. 24.

    Yeats (1965, p. 175).

  25. 25.

    Yeats (1962, p. 254).

  26. 26.

    Sekine and Murray (1990, p. 7).

  27. 27.


  28. 28.

    Yeats (1961, p. 221).

  29. 29.

    Originally Yeats intended to include The cat and the Moon (a kyogen) in the Four plays for dancers between At the Hawk’s Well and The dreaming of the bones. Yeats recognized that in the noh cycle a kyogen or farce was usually included, but he did not include The cat and the Moon because it was inappropriate “in a different mood as a farce”.

  30. 30.

    For the discussion of the theory of the mask in terms of The Other, cf. Kim (1995, pp. 111–131).

  31. 31.

    Yeats (1966, p. 399).

  32. 32.

    Yeats (1961, p. 226).

  33. 33.

    Yeats (1959, p. 321).

  34. 34.

    Ibid., p. 331.

  35. 35.

    Ibid., p. 324.

  36. 36.

    Yeats (1965, p. 128).

  37. 37.

    Yeats (1959, p. 335).

  38. 38.

    Ibid., p. 335.

  39. 39.


  40. 40.

    Ibid. pp. 365–366.

  41. 41.

    Yeats (1961, p. 231).

  42. 42.

    Yeats (1962, p. 61).

  43. 43.

    Yeats (1959, p. 354).

  44. 44.

    Ibid., p. 339.

  45. 45.

    Pound and Fenollosa (1959, p. 85).

  46. 46.

    Yeats (1962, pp. 66–68).

  47. 47.

    Sekine and Murray (1990, pp. 61–62).

  48. 48.

    Brown (1999, p. 242).

  49. 49.

    Yeats (1966, p. 762).

  50. 50.

    Eliot (1957, p. 260).

  51. 51.

    Ibid., p. 262.

  52. 52.

    Damrosch (2003, pp. 281–284).

  53. 53.

    Ibid., pp. 288–289.


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This work was supported by Global Research Network program through the Ministry of Education of the Republic of Korea and the National Reseach Foundation of Korea (NRF-2017S1A2A2050414).

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Kim, Y. Yeats’s noh and world drama: foreign form in tandem with local materials. Neohelicon 46, 81–96 (2019).

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  • Japanese noh drama
  • William Butler Yeats
  • Mask
  • Ghost
  • East West comparative literature
  • World literature and drama