Sunday, January 30, 2011


I will be forever grateful to my in-laws, not just for allowing me to marry their daughter, but also for allowing me into their home and sharing with me what is most beautiful about Japanese culture, including Japanese food, Japanese baths, music, art, architecture, and (especially) noh, the traditional masked dance drama of Japan. Noh began to take over my life. I married into a family of licensed noh performers, wrote a monthly column about traditional performing arts for the Japan Times newspaper, edited two theatre journals, and worked at the National Noh Theatre. I took lessons in noh music, movement and chant, and began reading all the noh scripts I could lay my hands on.

Rest assured I am not under the delusion that I am Mifune Toshiro. But when reading the play scripts of I find it easy to relate to the characters. Because most of these plays were written in the 14th and 15th centuries, it is surprising I should sympathize so completely with the resentments, regrets, and frustrations of samurai warriors or their disturbed spirits. The play ‘Atsumori’, for example, features a monk who is a conscientious objector (though after the fact) to the horrors of war. The play is simultaneously reassuring and haunting in its focus on the interconnectedness of all things.

Royall Tyler’s translation of the play ‘Atsumori’, included in the Penguin Classics edition ‘Japanese No Dramas,’ is excellent. ‘Atsumori’ is also number five in the ‘Noh Performance Guide.’ Monica Bethe and Richard Emmert provide an annotated translation, with the original Japanese text, an informative essay about the play in context, descriptions of the costumes, music and choreography, etc. A compact but in-depth guide.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

“The Chronicle of the Czechs”

Cosmas of Prague’s “The Chronicle of the Czechs” is a fascinating read. Like many medieval historical writings, this Czech foundational narrative, written in the twelfth century, fades seamlessly from myth to legend to history (Gregory of Tours’s “History of the Franks” is another excellent example, as is Ferdawsi’s “Shahnameh”).

Cosmas’s chronicle begins just after the flood and the fall of the Tower of Babel, when there were only seventy-two people on the planet (Noah’s sons’ descendants), each speaking a different language. There follow tales of Sibyls, the Eumenides, Amazons, and a new age of laws. Cosmas adapts and incorporates Horace, Statius, Juvenal, Ovid, Lucan’s “Pharsalia”, Terence, Livy, Sallust, and the fables of Phaedrus. He is particularly fond of Virgil’s “Aeneid” and the Bible. Translator Lisa Wolverton has done an excellent job in pointing out these references in her footnotes.
Those well-read in (or at least familiar with) the classics will especially enjoy “The Chronicles of the Czechs.” The journey from the flood to the (what was then) present day is filled with little-known legendary and historical stories from Moravia and Bohemia. Great stuff!

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Arthur C. Clarke

Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke is known for writing seminal ‘hard’ science fiction books. Though considered by the majority to be one of the greats, he suffers from two consistent criticisms.
The first: Clarke tends to follow up each masterpiece (‘Rendezvous with Rama’, for example, or ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’) with one-star sequels. The first of the series is usually filled with awe-inspiring wonder and mystery, while the sequels offer explanations that are insipid and mindless. These are not at the level of the ‘Dukes of Hazard in Space with Zombies’ variety, but are bad enough to inspire doubt that Clarke had much to do, if anything, with writing them.

The second of the two recurring criticisms Clarke’s novels is his supposed inability to develop the characters in his stories. Though I agree completely with the first criticism, I don’t agree with this second one. In ‘Rendezvous with Rama,’ for example, the petty squabbles and mindless committee meetings seem particularly pathetic. Rama is a vast, cylindrical self-contained world that has been cruising through space for at least 200,000 years. Humankind’s insignificance is clear. Clarke masterfully offers realistic characters for perspective. All human achievements are dwarfed by Rama, so that even the occasional character that has ‘historical perspective’ (about being the first human in history to come into contact with an alien species, for example), comes across as clueless. The earth is, to quote Douglass Adams, ‘an invisible dot on an invisible dot.’