Monday, March 22, 2010

Between the Lands of East and West

One of the things I seem to do particularly well as a teacher (in part because not many others even try) is to let students experience the give and take of the history of ideas. Instead of reading a summary of thinkers A and B and C, we read a text by A, then one by B explicitly responding to the first text, and then a third responding to the first two. To me this seems the natural way to teach - and to get students to understand the importance of reading primary texts, how the history of thought happens, and even to imagine themselves a part of this history.
Had a chance to do this for the Religion & Theater crew today. We read three Noh plays (Utô, Sotoba Komachi and Sumidagawa), the third chosen as you know because it was the one Benjamin Britten heard in Tokyo in 1956 which inspired him to write his "parable for church performance" Curlew River. There's no way to experience what Britten experienced - even films of Noh performances are hard to find, though I did find three minutes from a recent (2005) production in Tokyo. And Southwestern University in Texas recreated the 1964 production. But we were also able to share the experience of his librettist William Plomer as he wrote the adaptation, who worked not from the memory of live performance but from the UNESCO-sponsored English translation of Sumidagawa, which appeared in 1955. The UNESCO translation has the further advantage that it includes drawings of actors' movements, which likely inspired the director of the first production of Curlew River, Colin Graham, to accompany his notes with little drawings too (by a Mark Livingston). (The notes are appended to the score, published by Faber Music in 1964). What fun to be able to explore all these together, along with all the issues in cross-cultural and cross-religious adaptation.

Curlew River, smoothly flowing
Between the Lands of East and West,
Dividing person from person!
Ah, ferryman,
Row your ferry-boat,
Bring nearer, nearer,
Person to person,
By chance or misfortune,
Time, death, or misfortune
Divided asunder!

William Plomer and Benjamin Britten, Curlew River: A Parable for Church Performance (London: Faber & Faber, 1964), 24, 27. The illustrated translation: Kanze Motomasa, Sumidagawa in The Noh Drama: Ten Plays from the Japanese, trans. Special Noh Committee, Japanese Classics Translation Committee (Rutland, VT & Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle, 1955), 147-59.

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