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Chûshingura On Stage And In Print

Part 4: John Masefield’s The Faithful(Butler Rare Book Library)

47.John Masefield’s The Faithful:  (1) The Original Play

The Chûshingura story of the revenge of the 47 Loyal Rônin of Japan became widely known in the West from the second half of the nineteenth century, thanks in particular to translations of Kanadehon Chûshingura (of which examples are on exhibit at the entrance to the East Asian Library in Kent Hall). Although well known in Europe and America, however, Chûshingura has rarely provided inspiration for Western writers. The one striking exception is a play by John Masefield (1878-1967) entitled The Faithful, which was first published and performed in England in 1915.  The play enjoyed a brief success on the stage in Birmingham in 1915, and then again in New York in 1919, but perhaps the most interesting aspect of its history was a period of fame in Japan in the 1920s, when it was translated and twice staged by one of Japan’s leading dramatists, Osanai Kaoru, who promoted it as a “reverse import” of Chûshingura.

John Masefield, of whom you will see a fine portrait directly in front of you on the wall of the glass-encased reading room, is best known as the poet laureate of England from 1930 until his death in 1967. At the time he began writing The Faithful in 1913 (two years before its actual publication in 1915), he was already a well-known poet, particularly for poems based on his early experiences as a sailor (of which “Sea-Fever” continues to be widely anthologized: “I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky . . .”).

It is not clear exactly how Masefield came to be interested in the Chûshingura story, but it may well have been through his friend Lawrence Binyon, curator of oriental art at the British Museum and an expert on Japanese woodblock prints. Masefield himself said that he relied on information from some Japanese students in England and on translations of the play Kanadehon Chûshingura, although judging from his use of the actual historical names of the protagonists, he may have relied more on A. B. Mitford’s retelling of the story in Tales of Old Japan (1871). 

Masefield’s adaptation of Chûshingura in The Faithful suggests that he did not study Japanese culture or history all that closely--or perhaps rather that he was simply not interested in the Japaneseness of the story. Kira is turned into a rival warlord of Asano who has amassed a huge territory nearby and threatens to invade. The emperor is mentioned, but the Tokugawa regime is entirely absent. There are numerous small cultural glitches, such as scenes of cows grazing in pastures and people throwing open castle windows, suggesting that Masefield’s image of old Japan to be largely derived from old England.

Judging from the review in The Nation [far left] of the New York edition of The Faithful [immediate left], contemporaries tended to see it less as a play about Japan than for its universal values and dramatic qualities.  A taste of the play is given in the passage to which the copy above is opened, the end of Scene 2, Act III, where the rônin of Asano vow to avenge his death and recite their death poems.

48.John Masefield’s The Faithful:  (2) The New York Production

The Faithful was first staged at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre on December 4, 1915, and another performance was given almost two decades later for two days in December 1934 in London at the Westminster Repertory Theatre. It seems to have enjoyed far greater success in the United States, however, when it was staged for six weeks by the Theatre Guild from October 13, 1919, at the Garrick Theater (64 West Randolph St., destroyed 1961).  A copy of the program [right] is preserved in the Theatre Guild Papers, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

The New York performance attracted considerable attention, and was taken seriously by reviewers at the time. The review by Alexander Woolcott [far right] in The New York Times was on the favorable side, despite panning the performance of the actor who played the lead role of Kurano (Ôishi Kuranosuke). While praising Masefield’s “spirited and imaginative text” for its moments of “genuine poetic beauty,” however, Woodcott raises the revealing issue of whether the exaggerated melodrama of the Chûshingura story itself tends to “verge perilously on the ludicrous” to a Western audience, which ends up giggling at moments of high seriousness. The reference to The Mikado also suggests that appreciation of the play, at least in New York, was constrained by an inability to take it with the utter seriousness that Masefield intended.

A number of stage photographs survive of the New York performance [above]. The exact scenes are difficult to identify, but they give a good sense of the sets and costumes that were used. 

Photo Credits

Upper row: Theatre Guild Papers, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.
Center: Photo by Francis Bruguiere (American, 1879-1945), George Eastman House Still Photograph Archive.  

49. John Masefield’s The Faithful:  (3) The Japanese Translation

At some point, John Masefield’s play The Faithful came to the attention of Osanai Kaoru (1881-1928), a talented novelist and dramatist who had already established himself as a leader of the modern theater movement in Japan in the Free Theater (Jiyū Gekijô) of 1909-19. Osanai translated the play, and directed its production in Tokyo in 1921 [see adjacent case to the right].

Above and to the left are two copies of the Japanese translation of The Faithful, which Osanai rendered simply as Chūgi 忠義, or “Loyalty.” The book was published in Tokyo by Tôadô in late June, 1921, shortly after the first run of the play at the Meijiza theater. In addition to the frontispiece photograph of Masefield seen above, the Japanese edition included three stage photographs from the New York performance, suggesting that this was the major inspiration for Osanai in translating and producing the play.

To the left is a newspaper ad from the summer of 1921 in the Yomiuri newspaper, declaring that “Chûshingura written by a Westerner Has Appeared!!”  The accompanying text claimed that the famous English poet Masefield had spent years of research in order to write the play, and that he showed a deep understanding for Japanese culture--neither of which was particularly true. It further recommended the work for not only lovers of literature, but for historians as well, as evidence of the way that the Japanese were seen through Western eyes.

50. John Masefield’s The Faithful:  (4) The Tokyo Productions

The first production of The Faithful on the Japanese stage as “Chûgi” was described in the Yomiuri newspaper article [above] by Osanai Kaoru, the translator and director, five days before the opening of the play at the Meijiza Theater on May 5, 1921. The title of the article declared it to be a “reverse import (gyaku-yunyû  逆輸入) of Chûshingura,” and the contents reveal Osanai’s acute sensitivity to the problem of staging such a work. He argued that in such cases of of producing a play from another culture about one’s own culture, it was essential to project the essential “spirit” (tamashii 魂) of the author, and not be preoccupied with its faithfulness to the culture about which it was written. Osanai admitted the various inaccuracies of Masefield’s idea of Japan, but argued that to correct them would be to undermine the spirit of the entire play. Hence he opted for as literal a translation as possible. He went on to stress, however, that in matters of sets and costume, the Japanese production made its own necessary adaptations.

The Japanese production of Chûgi in 1921 appears to have been a success, particularly with the famous actor Ichikawa Sadanji playing the role of “Kurano” (Ôishi Kuranosuke), but it did not become a standard part of the repertoire of modern Japanese theater. It was, however, performed once again eight years later, from January 1-20, 1929, in the midst of a great wave of new interest in Chûshingura. Osanai had in the meantime been one of the founders in 1924 of the Tsukiji Little Theater, the venue for the January 1929 production and a critical institution in the evolution of modern theater in Japan. The Yomiuri newspaper article  [top right] announced the coming production again as a “reverse import,” while the advertisement [center right] on New Year’s day described it as “Chûshingura as seen by an English poet.”

Sadly, Osanai himself did not live to see this revival of Chûgi, however, dying on December 25, 1928, at the age of forty-eight, one week before it opened at the Tsukiji Little Theater. There survives a photograph of the production [right] from a Japanese magazine that remains to be identified, providing revealing evidence of the way in which the play was staged in this return of Masefield’s The Faithful to the land in which it was set. 

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