Munakata UEDA and His Shakespearean Noh Plays

Written by the Noh Shakespeare Group

The majesty of Shakespearean poetry has found a natural exponent in the mystical intensity of the Noh acting style.The wedding of these two great theatres makes each more meaningful to audiences unfamiliar with them.
Shakespearean Noh is an experiment unprecedented in theatre history. Through it, East and West are brought together in the celebration of life that is art.

Once the initial surprise of this unique combination wears off, the potential is clearly unmasked. Noh Shakespeare? Noh Shakespeare. Noh Shakespeare! Exactly how does the poetry of Shakespeare find a place in the traditional chants of the Japanese Noh Stage? To really comprehend this sophisticated idea, we must understand the nature of the man who created it.

Kuniyoshi MUNAKATA UEDA has devoted his life to poetry. He has an astonishing array of accomplishments beginning with tutelage under masters such as Makio Umewaka of the Kanze Noh School and R.H. Blyth the noted haiku and Zen scholar. From Tokyo University of Education he obtained a B.A.

(1959) and an M.A. (1964). He was a Fullbright Fellow at Harvard University from 1973 - 75.

Named a full professor at the National Shizuoka University in 1979, he has also taught at many other institutions of higher learning:

1974 - 1975: Visiting Lecturer, University of Mass., Boston (Noh and Zen)

1975:Visiting Lecturer, Tuffts University, Mass. (Noh)

1985:Fulbright Professor, University of Nebraska (Theatre)

1994 - 1997: Lecturer, Univ. of the Air - NHK TV (East-West Theatre)

His other positions include:

Director/leader, The Noh Shakespeare Group of Japan

Secretary General, The International Zeami Society

Director, The Thoreau Society of Japan

Advisor, Friendship Exchange Committee (FEC)

Acting President, Shizuoka Circle of World's Poets and Poetry

Thoreau Society, USA, Life Member

Munakata UEDA's list of publications include:
1.Shakespeare for Young Students, ed. Hokuseido Press, 1969,(English and Japanese).

2.With Nagai, Michio tr. Hobbes: Leviathan (Great Books of the World Vol.23), Chuokoronsha, 1971,(Japanese).

3.Keats' Love Letters, ed. Hokuseido Press, 1971,(English).

4.Selected Scenes from Shakespeare: Hamlet and Othello, ed. Hokuseido Press, 1979 (English and Japanese).

5.Kinuta: A Noh Play: Text, Its Reading and English Translation, Privately printed - copies available, 1981. (English).

6.The Hagoromo: A Traditional Noh Play and Modern-day Epilogue tr. Nishigai Press, 1985, (English).

7.Hamlet in Noh Style: Collected Versions 1982-1990, Kenkyusha, 1991, (English and Japanese with colour and monochrome photos. Appendices include essays, reviews, and interviews).

8.With Michael Guest ed. Essentially Oriental: R.H. Blyth Selection, Hokuseido press, 1994 (English).

9.Noh Othello in English and Japanese, Benseisha,1998,(His main work, English and Japanese with many beautiful color and monochrome photos, including Noh texts with music, reviews, and chronicles as a student, actor, director, and writer.)

He has 88 articles to his credit, among them:
1."The Most Remarkable American: R.H. Blyth on Henry David Thoreau", Otsuka Review 9 (1972), (English).

2."R.H. Blyth Bibliography with Quotations",Shizuoka University Faculty of Liberal Arts Bulletin 8 (1973), (English).

3."Henry David Thoreau and Zen", Otsuka Review 13(1977), (Japanese with English Quotations).

4.With Brandt, George, "Some Notes on Noh Dance:"Theatre Research International 1981-2, Oxford U.P., (English).

5."On Noh Hamlet", Shakespeare Translation 9 (1983), (English).

6."Noh Hamlet, the U.S. Premiere 1985: Script and Stage Photos", Shizuoka University Faculty of Liberal Arts Bulletin 23-1 (1987), (English).

7."Noh Othello", Shakespeare Worldwide 13 (1991), (English).

8."Shakespearean Noh in Japanese: Premiere Documents", Shizuoka University Faculty of Liberal Arts 29-1 (1993), (Japanese).

9."Why No Shakespearean Noh Performance by Professional Noh Actors Until Today?", History of Performing Arts 123 (1993), (Japanese).

10."NOH IN ENGLISH: Some Background and Methods",Shizuoka University Faculty of Liberal Arts Bulletin 29-2(1994), (English).

11."Noh: Its History and Characteristics & Kyogen:Its History and Characteristics",Comparison of East-West Theatres, University of the Air-NHK TV, 1994, (Japanese).

12."The First Noh Performance in Modern Japanese: A Report", Studies in Humanities 47-1(1996) Shizuoka University Faculty of Humanities, (Japanese with English Summary).

13."Noh Cleopatra", Studies in Humanities 47-2(1996) Shizuoka University of Humanities, (Japanese with English Summary).

14.An Interview with Munakata by Jeffery Kahan - "Noh Shakespeare: An Interview with Kuniyoshi Munakata", Shakespeare Bulletin 26, (1996),(English).

15."Noh Adaptation of Shakespeare", Chinese Univ. of Hong Kong, 1995+1996

16."Noh Hamlet Solo Performance with Lecture", Brooklyn College of the City Univ. of N.Y., 1997

17."Noh Hamlet Solo Performance", Ho Chi Ming Theatre, Hanoi, 1998

18."Noh Hamlet", Shakespeare, Western Australia Univ. Press, 1998

19."Noh and China",Essays on Chinese and Japanese Cultures, Hangzou Univ. Press, 1999

Munakata UEDA created the world's first English Shakespeare Noh play in the Japanese traditional Noh style, Noh Hamlet in English in 1982. He played the shite (main role) at performances in Tokyo. The interpretations were embraced by the world community:

"Noh Hamlet is so different from anything we can see in England. It is so completely Japanese. That's what makes it so fascinating."
-John Fraser, Director, London Shakespeare Group, 1982

"As the chorus informs us that there is a divinity that shapes our ends and that the rest is silence, the silver-brocaded, transfigured Hamlet slowly glides away along the hashigakari while the chorus calls "flights of angels sing thee to thy rest." These are very moving, these last beautiful moments, partly because Hamlet and Zen prove uncommonly complementary, and partly because Shakespeare and the Noh have so illuminated each other..."
-Donald Richie, The Japan Times, March 30, 1985

[Noh Hamlet] ". . .was one of the most captivating performances I have ever experienced, fully as moving as when performed in the traditional way by the late Sir Lawrence Olivier...I promise you that you have won a fan for the Noh theatre ..."
-Jesper Keller, Member of Denmark Japan Society, 1990

Merely trying to imagine how Noh and Shakespeare successfully merge is no easy task, but it pales in comparison to the linguistic nightmare incurred by the actual writing and singing. It was considered by everyone to be an all out impossibility until Munakata UEDA envisioned the idea and began to formulate it.
Thinking that Shakespearean plays were reserved for Kabuki and Western theatres,Noh teachers recommended that he not attempt such an idea. The traditional Noh singing style, designed for the rigidly rhythmic patterns of the Japanese language, seemed ill-fitting for English. It took six years of arduous study and practice before Munakata UEDA thought that he was competent in chanting English in the Noh style.

The original Noh theatre was founded by Kan'ami and Zeami, father and son, in the late 14th century. Patronized by Shoguns for almost 500 years, it is supposed to be the most refined Japanese traditional theatre art. Noh theatre is thought to be the oldest continuously performed dramatic form in the world. It is a poetic drama with songs and dance that is said to lead to final spiritual enlight enment.

It was joy and success in his ground breaking endeavour that prompted Munakata UEDA to pen and stage more Shakespearean Noh plays:

Noh scripts in English with musical notations to be used for performances:
*Noh Othello (1986)
*Noh Macbeth(1987)
*Noh King Lear(1992)
(All performed by Munakata UEDA with his The Noh Shakespeare Group)

Then he wrote Noh scripts in Japanese with musical notations for professional Noh actors who perform in Japanese:
*Noh Othello(1990)
*Noh Macbeth(1993)
*Noh King Lear(1994)
*Noh Cleopatra (1996)
In addition to producing and directing plays in Japan, Munakata UEDA also took classical Japanese Noh companies to perform in the U.S., Canada, Mexico several times in 1970's. Then in 1983 and 1984, he took a Noh company to Britain, while the U.S. premiere of Noh Hamlet opened in 1985. In 1990 Munakata UEDA toured Britain, Sweden, Denmark and the United States giving performances and lectures. In 1995 he toured Australia performing Noh Shakespeare. Over the last two years he has travelled to Hong Kong and China twice holding lectures on Noh using video tapes.
Munakata UEDA has acted as the shite (main performer) in countless plays, directing all of them as well. He has done many productions around the globe, including:

1. Noh Dance: Hamlet's First Soliloquy (Emerson Hall, Harvard University, 1974)
2. Noh Dance with Lecture (Abbey Theatre, 1975)
3. Noh Hamlet in English (Shizuoka, 1982)
4. Noh Hamlet in English (Tokyo, Yarai Noh Theatre, 1983)
5. Noh Hamlet in English (Tokyo, National Noh Theatre, 1985)
6. Noh Hamlet in English (University of Nebraska, 1985)
7. Noh Othello in English (Shizuoka, 1986)
8. Noh Othello in English (Tokyo, National Noh Theatre, 1987)
9. Noh Macbeth in English (Shizuoka, 1987)
10. Noh Othello in English (Harvard University, East-West Fusion Theatre and 9 other U.S. Universities and Theatres, 1988)
11. Noh Shakespeare with Lecture (International Congress on Medieval Studies, Western Michigan Univ., 1990, 1994 & again in May 1997)
12. Noh Hamlet as a Solo Performance (Sweden, Denmark, UK: Globe Theatre Museum, USA: Folger Shakespeare Institute, etc., 1990)
13. Noh Hamlet as a Solo Performance (Tokyo, National Noh Theatre, Shakespeare World Congress , 1991)
14. Noh Hamlet with a Shakuhachi Flute (Shizuoka, 1992)
15. Noh King Lear in English (Shizuoka, 1993)
16. Noh Hamlet and King Lear (Australia: Sidney Japan Culture Centre, NIDA, and six other places, 1994)


An Unparalleled & Important Performance:

Noh: Thomas Becket

The latest addition to Munakata UEDA's repertoire is Noh: Thomas Becket, a performance written in modern Japanese based on T.S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral. Eliot, like Ezra Pound and W.B. Yeats, was deeply interested in Noh plays. The world premiere was held on Friday, March 14, 1997 at the National Noh Theatre at Sendagaya in Tokyo. Supported by the British Council,it was performed by Reijirou Tsumura and the Kanze School Company.
Munakata UEDA was on hand to give a talk (in both English and Japanese) and a solo chant from the English version of Noh Othello.

For more information