Strange Intimacy: Yeats's Adaptation of the Noh Drama in Four Plays for Dancers


In 1913, when Ezra Pound introduced him to the Noh drama of Japan, Yeats was already an established dramatist with many years of experience writing and directing for the Abbey Theatre (which he had set up in Dublin with Lady Gregory). Yeats recognized in the form and content of the Noh many similarities to his own concept of what drama should be, as developed in his essays on theater. Yeats was able to use the Noh as a model for creating a new kind of drama more suited to his contemporary dramatic sensibility than his earlier, more naturalistic plays.

Some critics complain that Yeats misunderstood the Noh because he did not replicate it. However, this is misguided. Yeats, having never seen a Noh play performed, neither aspired, nor attempted to recreate replicas of Noh plays in his Four Plays for Dancers (Four Plays). In "Certain Noble Plays of Japan," (CNPJ) he wrote: "With the help of Japanese plays 'translated by Ernest Fenollosa and edited by Ezra Pound,' I have invented a new form of drama, distinguished, indirect, and symbolic... (221)." [Italics added.]

Yeats adapted the raw material presented by the Noh for his own artistic purposes, in much the same way that he altered the details of the Irish myths, the symbols of the Kabbalah, the Tarot and other 'image banks' from which he borrowed. It is unreasonable to assume that someone with such a compulsion to continuously revise his own work would want to leave anyone else's work or system intact. Yeats was an artist, not a copier.

Having asserted that Yeats perceived an affinity between his own ideas of drama and those inherent in the Noh, the value of investigating what attracted Yeats to the Noh and how he adapted it becomes apparent. The aim of this paper is to answer the following questions: What attracted Yeats to the Noh? How did Yeats follow/adapt the Noh? What was Yeats's purpose behind his new invention?

I define Yeats's broad goal for his Four Plays as establishment during performance of an atmosphere of 'strange intimacy.' This phrase is adapted from McFarlane who interprets Yeats's ideas as expressed in CNPJ as follows:

The over-riding concern was to achieve a distanced intimacy: to counterbalance this new intimacy of setting with a new and organic separating strangeness. This strangeness was entirely different from the 'bodily distance' which the mechanicalness and noise of the contemporary theatre created; it was to be achieved by 'human means,' by ritual, stylizations, the formalizations of the dance, by abstractive transpositions into music, by the depersonalizations of the mask ...(565). [Italics added.]

In this discussion, the concept of 'strange intimacy'[1] will be used as a framework for addressing the three questions stated earlier. First, background and context will be provided for Yeats's concept of strange intimacy. Following this, two sections (one focusing on 'strange,' the other on 'intimacy') will detail what elements of the Noh Yeats was attracted to and how Yeats used/adapted these elements to build strange intimacy into the structure of his Four Plays. The fourth section will discuss Yeats's purpose behind strange intimacy: that of achieving a unified "trance-like reverie" in the audience, enabling it to tap into the Great Memory.

It will be concluded that there are contradictions inherent in trying to unite people's responses to symbols and that Yeats's success is difficult to measure. However, such judgment is not appropriate in the case of Four Plays as they were experimental and Yeats was aware of their limitations. He used the plays as a testing ground for various new techniques which he utilized in later plays. Yeats's experiment also left a legacy for later dramatists.


McFarlane describes Yeats as being part of the Neo-Modernist movement in twentieth century European drama. Yeats had a "desire to liberate contemporary theatre from its continuing naturalistic constraints - physical (the 'missing fourth wall') as well as ideological (the 'slice of life')... (561)."

Yeats sought to establish a 'strange intimacy' in his plays as opposed to the 'familiar distance' evoked by contemporary naturalistic productions popular both in England and at the Abbey Theatre. Drama such as that of Ibsen, Shaw and Galsworthy was familiar because of its social subject matter and physically distanced by mechanization and its trappings (e.g. large auditoria, elaborate sets, orchestras). This familiar and distant drama was a product of the materialistic, mechanized, prose dominated age which Yeats sought to transcend with dramatic poetry.

Strange (Ideology and Form)

'Strange' in this section is used in the senses of unfamiliar and otherworldly. Yeats's Four Plays are strange in two main areas: ideology and form. As previously mentioned, the dominant ideology behind contemporary popular plays was that they should show a slice of life. Anyone attending a performance of Calvary expecting to see a social drama would have a shock. Both Calvary and The Dreaming of the Bones (Bones) show "a slice of death" rather than life, the former being concerned with Christ in purgatory and the latter the wandering spirits of Diarmuid and Dervorgilla.

Like the Noh, Yeats's Four Plays are concerned not with slices of life, but rather the whole pie. Yeats's themes are not the particular worries of a single character but rather what he saw as universal issues, such as the conflict between the spiritual and material facets of human nature. Examples are Cuchulain's and the Old Man's searches for immortality in At The Hawk's Well (Hawk's Well) and Cuchulain's choice between the real world and the world of the Sidhe in The Only Jealousy of Emer (Emer). Instead of the conflict between characters (which drives the action in naturalistic plays) Yeats focused on what he perceived to be the internal conflict within all people.

The form of the Noh provided Yeats with an ideal vehicle to present his mythical, supernatural and symbolic subject matter. In his notes to Hawk's Well he wrote, "I have found the only way the subtler forms of literature can find dramatic expression" (Alspach, 417). The obstacle Yeats faced in presenting his Irish supernatural/mythical stories on the stage (i.e. suspension of disbelief) was surmounted by the strange, stylized representation of the Noh.

Noh developed from a combination of Shinto rituals and dances, dances of nobles at court and lyric poetry, in the context of Buddhist philosophy. Noh plays often deal with spirits and ghosts.[2] Noh actors are exclusively male. The wearing of masks and use of stylized voice tones (extremely high pitched for a young woman, very low and guttural for an old man) makes it possible for men to act as women and spirits with no disbelief on the part of the audience. Noh actors do not mimic but suggest from the heart (CNPJ, 232). They do not attempt to appear realistic.

This stylization enabled Yeats to present ghosts and characters such as Cuchulain. For instance, in Emer, the ghost of Cuchulain and Cuchulain himself are on stage simultaneously. This scene would be difficult to stage within naturalistic conventions without a large special effects budget, and even then would seem artificial and might distract the audience from focusing on the symbolism. As Yeats wrote in CNPJ, the stylization provided distance from real life "to make credible strange events" (221).

Yeats was disadvantaged in not having access to any actors for his Four Plays who had undergone disciplined training since age five (as in the Noh) in dance, singing, working with masks and showing emotions with words and stylized movements as opposed to facial expressions (CNPJ, 226).[3] However, lack of a six hundred year tradition behind his plays also meant that they were strange, as in new or different. Yeats exploited this newness to full effect. Together with mythical stories played out by dancing actors in masks, Yeats had three musicians on stage who also acted as a chorus.[4] Perhaps Yeats's most interesting and unique innovation inspired by the Noh was the large cloth unfolded and folded by the musicians at the beginning and end of each play.

The advantage to having a fresh presentation style was that it must have forced audiences to participate by trying to make sense of it. To facilitate the 'making sense' process, Yeats's Four Plays (like the Noh) are short with simple plots and focus on repeated images (Qamber, 60). Hagoromo [5] is a Noh play with the following plot: Man finds a feathered cloak belonging to a spirit woman. Spirit woman asks for cloak back. Man promises to give cloak back if she dances for him. She does so and ascends to the otherworld. Imagery to do with feathers is repeated throughout. The plot of Hawk's Well is equally simple: Old Man and Cuchulain wait by well to get water giving eternal life. Both are tricked by the Guardian of the Well into missing the water. Cuchulain goes out to fight (and live life to the full) while the Old Man continues to waste his life waiting. Bird imagery is repeated throughout. Presenting plot and imagery in a concentrated form gave the audience less material to focus on and interpret.

As previously mentioned, it is inner conflict and not character which drives the action in the Noh. Noh plays neglect character just as Japanese art neglects relief/depth, being two dimensional with repeated patterns (CNPJ, 235). Yeats appreciated this focus and sought to make his characters less individual and more universal in his Four Plays. He was not, however, completely successful. Cuchulain and the Old Man in Hawk's Well have very distinct characters. Cuchulain is the young, brave man who likes to fight and chase women. The Old Man is bitter, lonely and selfish. Bones is closer to the Noh in that on reading it, it is difficult to distinguish 'voices.'

In summary, Yeats's Four Plays were strange both in ideology and form. They did not show a slice of contemporary society and their mythological and supernatural themes were presented in a strange format involving dance, music and stylized acting.

(Physical) Intimacy -- Removal of the Fourth Wall

Yeats achieved physical intimacy in his Four Plays in two ways: first by limiting the size and make up of the audience, and secondly by shrinking the size of the stage itself and reducing the mechanical barriers between actors and audience.

One of the major attractions of the Noh for Yeats was its noble nature. The performance of Noh plays was traditionally not intended for popular entertainment or profit but to turn the minds of noble warriors towards the Buddha. Yeats described it as "...having no need of mob or Press to pay its way--an aristocratic form" (CNPJ, 221).

Yeats continually expressed his disdain for, and abhorrence of the middle class and commercialism in his essays and poetry.[6] He admired the nobility and peasants and probably would have been happier in feudal times than the age of industrialization. In "The Theatre" he claimed that cities destroy the emotions to which drama appeals and that audiences from crowded cities live upon the surfaces of life (166-169). In Yeats's quest for an unpopular theater, having a small, select audience of friends and people interested in poetry was an important factor in securing the intimate atmosphere necessary for the evocation of a unified experience in the audience.

Presumably, Yeats did not expect his Four Plays to be powerful enough to evoke strange intimacy without willing effort and some homogeneity on the part of the audience. To create the right conditions for his dramatic experiment, Yeats wanted to eliminate anyone who might lose focus on the performance by thinking about his or her greasy till. Yeats's desire was fulfilled in the first performance of Hawk's Well in April 1916, which took place in the drawing room of a member of the British aristocracy and was attended by a small group of friends interested in poetry.[7] Yeats lamented the fact that the second, less successful performance was in too large a drawing room and attended by too many (three hundred) people (Alspach, 416).

In addition to the intimacy within his audience, Yeats sought physical intimacy between actors and audience. Noh achieves this by having the audience on three sides. Yeats's went even further as can be seen from his stage directions for Hawk's Well :

The stage is any bare space before a wall...the most effective lighting is the lighting we are accustomed to in our rooms. These masked players seem stranger when there is no mechanical means of separating them from us. (207).

Yeats had been tied to a proscenium stage at the Abbey -- Four Plays gave him a chance to escape this restriction. The 'missing fourth wall' is like a barrier between the actors and the audience which neither can cross. In his Four Plays, Yeats blurred the distinction between actors and audience by breaking down this fourth wall. His stage was not a formal one but "any bare space." To blur the lines further, in Hawk's Well, Yeats had the Old Man enter through the audience so the audience would identify with him.

The Noh has no special effects. Scenery is minimal and representational rather than realistic. For instance, a bamboo frame with a cloth over it is a palace; without the cloth it is a peasant's hut. Yeats followed this reduction of scenery with e.g. the square blue cloth representing the well in Hawk's Well. Characters in Four Plays perform mimes to reduce the need for scenery. For instance, in Hawk's Well, the Old Man mimes picking up sticks while the musicians describe him making a fire. In Emer, Emer describes herself throwing logs on a fire while only having imaginary logs to throw. Presumably, Yeats believed the audience would be less distracted this way (e.g. it could concentrate on the words as opposed to thinking, "Wow, the props people did a good job of making that fire realistic. I wonder how they did it.")

Part of Yeats's motivation in reducing mechanization was to place emphasis on voice (as in the Noh). To increase physical intimacy in Four Plays, and force the audience to use imagination, Yeats wanted the acting to appear natural versus produced (CNPJ, 224). He made his intimate audience close to the action by taking away the "mechanical means" of separating it from the actors.

What is Yeats's Purpose for Strange Intimacy?

The question of why Yeats wanted to establish an atmosphere of strange intimacy remains. Consideration of some biographical details which affected Yeats at this time helps answer this question.

Yeats's experience at the Abbey Theatre was often turbulent. He was involved in serious conflicts with Lady Gregory and Miss Horniman (a sponsor who withdrew her support through a quarrel). He endured stressful rehearsals in which actors wanted more control over their performances than Yeats was willing to concede. Yeats also made compromises in writing plays. He felt morally obligated to create the foundations for an Irish literature.[8] Although he was committed to this task, it sometimes led to tensions regarding the issue of propaganda in art. For instance, his Cathleen Ni Houlihan, much more propagandistic than his artistic sensibility would normally allow, was written to please Maud Gonne.

Seen in this context (which affected him before, after and during his writing of the Four Plays) of continuous external demands made on him, his experiments with the techniques of the Noh, or quest for an "unpopular theatre" as he called it, appear to have provided a breathing space for Yeats. His Four Plays were written free from any commercial constraints, pressures from other people and the physical limitations of the Abbey itself. For once, Yeats had the opportunity to concentrate wholly on art for art's sake. He had the space to be creative and experiment to his heart's content.

For Yeats, replication of modern educated speech achieved by contemporary dramatists was clever but it killed style and music (McFarlane, 563). He believed art should go deeper than superficial mimesis of life to reveal universal truths of human nature. Yeats expanded this idea in his essay "The Tragic Theatre" (which placed tragedy above comedy) where he stated that comedy distances by exploiting the differences between people, whereas tragedy exposes universal human situations to the point where "it is always ourselves that we see upon the stage" (241).

This is the collective audience participation which Yeats sought to achieve in the Four Plays -- so intimate that each person would recognize himself or herself and be unified with the rest of the audience. Naturalism for Yeats was unimaginative itself and did not require the audience to use its imagination. In rebellion against this, "Yeats wanted to reinstate the imagination in some dazzling and glorious way" (Qamber, 19).

Yeats saw collective interactive imaginative potential in theater which he sought to maximize by engaging the imagination of the entire audience. His innovations in technique were not used merely for their novelty factor. In his notes on Hawk's Well , Yeats wrote, "I seem to myself most alive when a room full of people share the one lofty emotion" (Alspach, 415). This one emotion is what he wished to evoke through strange intimacy at each performance of his Four Plays.

Yeats's words from "The Symbolism of Poetry" explain what this one emotion involves:

All sounds, all colours, all forms ... evoke indefinable and yet precise emotions, or, as I prefer to think, call down among us certain disembodied powers...and when sound, and colour, and form are in a musical relation, a beautiful relation to one another, they become, as it were, one sound, one colour, one form, and evoke an emotion that is made out of their distinct evocations and yet is one emotion. ...the more various and numerous the elements that have flowed into its perfection, the more powerful will be the emotion, the power, the god it calls among us. (157).

In the light of this statement, it is possible to see the Four Plays as dramatic experiments into which Yeats poured as many different "sounds, colours and forms" as he could muster in order to create a drama with musical unity[9] capable of putting his audience into a "trance like reverie" through which it could tap into the Great Memory. In Mythologies, he wrote that he wished to "immerse [my mind] in the general mind where that mind is scarce separable from what we have begun to call the subconscious" (343).

The way to the Great Memory is through symbols. Qamber notes that every culture and religion uses symbols to know the world and that symbols embody the relationship between the spiritual and the material (19). In this way, Cuchulain is the ultimate symbol -- a symbol of a symbol. Yeats had found a medium through which to communicate such symbols in his adaptation of the Noh.


Noh means "accomplishment." What did Yeats accomplish in his Four Plays? He certainly did not accomplish wide critical acclaim. It could be said that some of his symbols are too obscure for even a select audience to experience one emotion from them (although this "one emotion" is impossible to measure). His tragic heroes could be compared with Shakespeare's and argued to have much less universal appeal.

Yeats was somewhat of a paradox. He admitted that he was very subjective and filled his Four Plays with obscure symbols reaped from his wide studies in religion, the occult and philosophy. For instance, in the notes to Emer he said he used symbolism "which Robartes found in the Speculum of Gyraldus and in Arabia Deserta among the Judwalis" (Alspach, 566). These are not symbols which are likely to be picked up by just anyone (which explains why Yeats wanted an audience of friends alone).

However, Yeats was not a poet who wrote for himself alone. He would have liked to recreate the days of Homer, when poetry was sung to an audience. He did not wish to exclude his audience but to enjoy a shared experience with it. It is unfortunate that the typical middle class audience of his day was not capable of fitting into this scenario.

Yeats was fully aware of the shortcomings of his experiment:

I knew I was creating something which could only succeed in a civilization very unlike ours. I think they [Four Plays] should be written for some country where all classes share in a half-mythological, half-philosophical folk belief... (Alspach, 566).

However, Yeats's experiment was not devoid of accomplishment. Although his individual symbols could be interpreted in various ways (such as the cloth unfolded and folded), he took various measures to control his experiments to achieve "one emotion." For instance he limited plot and the number of images presented, and controlled the make up of the audience and methods of acting. Techniques which he tried out in Four Plays enriched his later plays such as The Death of Cuchulain. He also inspired later Irish playwrights such as Beckett whose Waiting for Godot and play set in barrels show Yeats's influence.[10]

Four Plays also accomplished a drama of strange intimacy in contrast to the familiar distance of contemporary popular theater. The mechanized stage creates an artificial world within which a scene of reality is placed (CNPJ, 224). In contrast, in his Four Plays, Yeats created a natural setting in which to present art. Yeats transcended the familiar and distant drama, a product of the materialistic, mechanized, prose dominated age with dramatic poetry and thus reinstated the age of Homer, if but for a brief time.

Works Consulted

Primary Sources

Alspach, Russell K., ed. The Variorum Edition of the Plays of W.B. Yeats. New York: Macmillan, 1966.

Finneran, Richard J., ed. The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats. New York: Macmillan, 1989.

Yeats, W.B.. "A General Introduction for my Work." Essays and Introductions. New York: Macmillan, 1961.

Yeats, W.B.. "An Introduction for my Plays." Essays and Introductions. New York: Macmillan, 1961.

Yeats, W.B.. "At The Hawk's Well." The Collected Plays. London: Macmillan, 1969.

Yeats, W.B.. "Calvary." The Collected Plays. London: Macmillan, 1969.

Yeats, W.B.. "Certain Noble Plays of Japan." Essays and Introductions. New York: Macmillan, 1961.

Yeats, W.B. Essays and Introductions. New York: Macmillan, 1961.

Yeats, W.B. Mythologies. New York: Macmillan, 1969.

Yeats, W.B.. The Collected Plays. London: Macmillan, 1969.

Yeats, W.B. "The Dreaming of The Bones." The Collected Plays. London: Macmillan, 1969.

Yeats, W.B.. "The Only Jealousy of Emer." The Collected Plays. London: Macmillan, 1969.

Yeats, W.B.. "The Symbolism of Poetry." Essays and Introductions. New York: Macmillan, 1961

Yeats, W.B.. "The Theatre." Essays and Introductions. New York: Macmillan, 1961.

Yeats, W.B.. "The Tragic Theatre." Essays and Introductions. New York: Macmillan, 1961.

Secondary Sources

Jeffares, A. Norman. W.B. Yeats: A New Biography. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1988.

Jeffares, A. Norman and A.S. Knowland. A Commentary on the Plays of W.B. Yeats. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1975.

McFarlane, James. "Neo-Modernist Drama: Yeats and Pirandello." Modernism: A Guide to European Literature 1890 - 1930. Ed. Bradbury, Malcolm and James McFarlane. London: Penguin, 1991.

Martin, Augustine. "Yeats's Noh: The Dancer and the Dance." Yeats and the Noh: a Comparative Study. Savage: Barnes and Noble, 1990.

Moore, John Rees. Masks of Love and Death: Yeats as Dramatist. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1971.

Qamber, Akhtar. Yeats and the Noh (with two plays for dancers by Yeats and two Noh plays). New York: Weatherhill, 1974.

Sekine, Masaru and Christopher Murray. Yeats and the Noh: a Comparative Study. Savage: Barnes and Noble, 1990.

Waley, Arthur. The No Plays of Japan. London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd., 1954.

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September 1, 1998