The 47 Rônin are Introduced
to the World
by Justin Hulog
John Masefield, The Faithful,
(London: William Heinemann, 1915).
[Insert scanned image
Written in 1915, John Masefield's
The Faithful is a British interpretation of the Japanese Chushingura
legend. It had a run of forty-nine performances in New York at the Garrick
Theater which began on October 13, 1919 and was performed in Tokyo on
May 21, 1921 as a kind of reverse import. Masefield was known to have
been a great friend of the poet William Butler Yeats, and it is hypothesized
that Yeats's interest in the Far East may have led Masefield to choose
the Chushingura legend as the basis for his play. Other theories point
to Masefield's friendship with certain British Orientalist scholars
and his avid interest in Buddhism.
Regardless of the origins of the play, Masefield's rendering of the
Chushingura legend stays more or less true to the original story. There
are some minor adjustments to the plot and the exact society, presumably
to make it more accessible to a European audience. For one thing, the
conflict between Asano and Kira arises out of a territorial dispute
as opposed to Kira's womanizing of Asano's wife in the Chikamatsu version.
The society depicted in Masefield's The Faithful is more akin
to a Medieval English feudal society as opposed to the traditional samurai
society of the original legend.
The main theme of The Faithful, as the title implies, is duty;
the ronin in the book feel a sense of obligation to their dead lord
that makes them unwaveringly continue their quest for revenge. Unfortunately,
Masefield does not succeed in going beyond this theme. His Japan is
unconvincing, more of a kind of stylized backdrop as opposed to a vibrant,
unique environment. Furthermore, his characters seem two-dimensional,
lacking the depth and complexity to truly convey the conflicting emotions
and interests in the novel. Masefield's interpretation of the Chushingura
legend is black and white, an opposition of the bad (Kira) and the good
(Asano and his followers). There is no real development of the idea
of revenge and what the cost of revenge is. We only get a hint of what
the retainers lose in Act III, Scene II, where each retainer has a small
monologue describing references to family members who have conveniently
killed themselves so as not to hamper the quest. Other interesting leitmotifs
are introduced throughout the play but not really developed. The Envoy
and the Prescence, for example, have an element of Christ and God, something
that Masefield seems to be aware of in Act I, Scene I, but quickly drops
by Act I, Scene II. Certain characters such as the Herald and the Youth
seem to have greater meanings implicit in their existence, but these
meanings are never really exploited or defined. The loyalty of the ronin
to their dead lord is mechanical, almost inhuman, and because of this,
the characters never really penetrate the audience. Masefield's characters
do not show, they tell; his attempt at exploring the complexities of
honor and revenge is simply that: an attempt.
Nevertheless, Masefield's play remains an interesting example of the
West's interpretation of the Chushingura legend. Masefield's play, adapted
for a European audience, does a sufficient job of bringing the gist
of the story to an English-speaking audience.
John Masefield was born on June 1, 1878
in Ledbury, Herefordshire. In his early years, he dabbled in various
careers throughout England and the United States. A chance meeting with
the poet William Butler Yeats led him to forgo his bank job and pursue
writing, a profession that led him to the celebrated position of British
Poet Laureate in 1930. Masefield wrote poetry, plays and novels.
Of all the plays that Masefield wrote, four are considered his most
influential works: The Tragedy of Nan (1909), Pompey the
Great (1910), Phillip the King (1914) and The Faithful
(1915). He is best known, however, for his poetry, especially the poems
"August, 1914," "The Wanderer," and "The River," all published in
Sonnets and Poems (1916). Of the twenty two novels he wrote,
The Bird of Dawning (1933) and Victorious Troy (1935) are
considered his best. Masefield was a prolific writer and wrote many
other works, but most Masefield scholars agree that he had certain literary
weaknesses that rendered most of his work stagnant and uninspiring.
His style is best described as post-Romantic; lyrical and melodic at
its best, clichéd and repetitive at its worst.
Masefield died June 20, 1967. His ashes were memorialized in the Poets'
Corner of Westminster Abbey.
Lamont, Corliss. Remembering John Masefield. Cranbury: Associated
University Presses, Inc., 1971.
Sternlicht, Sanford. John Masefield. Boston: Twayne Publishers,
The noble lord of the ronin. Asano embodies good: the ideal lord who
loves his men more than anything. Kira provokes him into a rage, however,
leading him to forsake his men and attempt to kill his enemy. He fails,
however, and is forced to commit seppuku. Asano's men idealize
him so much that after his death, they start a suicide-revenge pact
to avenge their wrongfully condemned master.
Asano's chief retainer and the leader of the revenge pact against Kira.
He is shown to be a very human character, wavering at times in his role
as leader of the ronin. He goes through bouts of indecision and disillusion.
Ultimately, however, he succeeds in leading his men against Kira.
The antagonist of the play. Kira is an ambitious landlord who schemes
to take over as much land as possible, especially Asano's. This is the
source of the original conflict between the two. Kira invites Kamei
and Asano to his palace to greet the Envoy and teach them a ceremony,
but his pompous attitude drives both of them into a rage, leading both
of them to attempt to murder him. He is also a womanizer and completely
selfish, although he does display some pity in Act III, Scene III, when
he expresses concern over Kurano's well-being.
Kira's servant. He investigates the activities of the ronin after Asano's
death, suspecting Kurano of making a revenge pact against Kira.
A retainer of Asano.
A servant of Kira.
Another Japanese lord, lower in rank than Kira and peer of Asano. Asano
and Kamei both are insulted by Kira. Kamei tries to kill Kira but is
thwarted by Fate and saved by his retainer, Honzo.
Kamei's chief retainer. He saves Kamei from death by placating Kira
Youth of Kira's Palace
A young boy who talks to the Envoy and makes a case for Asano. He says
that Asano did not deserve death because Kira provoked him. The Envoy
sentences Asano to death despite the Youth's opinion.
Woman of Kira's Palace
A concubine seduced by Kira in Act III, Scene III. As Kira attempts
to seduce her, the ronin break into Kira's palace and kill him.
A mysterious overlord and a representative of the Prescence. The Envoy
sentences Asano to death.
A Poor Girl
A girl whose lover was killed by Kira. She and Kurano find solace in
each other's sorrow after Asano's death.
Kurano's wife who calls him home to save him from death. She kills herself
after Kurano and the ronin leave on their quest.
A Captain of Kira's Guard
This man accompanies Sagisaka in his investigation of the ronin. He
is more relaxed and convinces Sagisaka to leave Kurano and the men alone.
First Ronin, Second Ronin, Third Ronin, Fourth Ronin, Fifth Ronin
Members of the suicide pact.
A minor character that appears in the second act. Presumably he accompanies
the ronin, singing of their deeds.
Guards, Nobles, Attendants, Ronin
Various minor characters in the play.
Scene 1: The Outer Scene
Characters: Asano, Kurano, Voices, Hazama
This scene functions to establish the conflict between Asano and Kira.
Kira is portrayed as an overly ambitious landlord, whose thirst for
territory has led to the appropriation of lands that Asano's fiefdom
had had access to in the past. Kira's acquisition of these lands heralds
his impending campaign against Asano's fiefdom. Asano, the ever-noble
lord, attempts to save his men by proposing a scheme to take them to
the outer islands, a suggestion strongly opposed by Kurano, Asano's
chief retainer. Hazama, another of Asano's retainers, brings hope by
announcing the coming of the Envoy of the Prescence (presumably a melding
of the Japanese-Shogun/Crown-Duke relationships) who has the power to
thwart Kira's schemes. The Envoy of the Prescence promises hope for
the oppressed, which seems to be a light metaphor for Christ and his
role as the Savior, but is not really developed later on in the play.
Asano is invited by Kira to greet the Envoy of the Prescence at his
mansion and suspects a trick on Kira's part.
Scene 2: The Inner Scene
Kira, Sagisaka, Kamei, Honzo, Asano, Shoda, Voices, The Envoy, The Youth
Kira and his servant, Sagisaka, talk about a ritual that must be done
to show honor to the Envoy of the Prescence. Asano and Lord Kamei are
brought into the room and are taught the ritual, but not before being
warned that the room they are in is sacred; violence within the room
demands immediate death and confiscation of all the offender's goods.
Kira insults both Kamei and Asano, trying to spur each to action. Kamei
tries to kill Kira but is thwarted by a chance encounter with Shoda.
Honzo takes this distraction as an opportunity to placate Kira with
rare jewels, which has the effect of making Kira fawn over Kamei, stilling
Kamei's anger and saving Kamei from death. Kamei meets the Envoy and
performs his ritual correctly. Asano meets the Envoy and does not perform
the correct ritual, causing him to be humiliated in front of the court
and drives Asano into a rage, leading him to attack Kira. The Envoy
is made aware that Kira did not teach Asano the ritual purposely, but
chooses to condemn him to death anyway. Asano commits seppuku.
Scene 1: The Outer Scene
Voices, First Ronin, Second Ronin, Hazama, Kurano, Third Ronin, Fourth
Ronin, Girl, Lady Kurano, Captain, Sagisaka
Kurano announces Asano's death to the household, spreading despair among
the members of Asano's house. Asano's retainers rally for revenge after
hearing that they are to be thrown out of their homes by order of the
Envoy. A Girl appears who hates Kira because he killed her lover. Lady
Kurano reveals that she was the one who called Kurano home to save him
from death. The Captain and Sagisaka come and become inebriated with
Kurano and the Girl, after which Sagisaka displays his suspicion of
Scene 1: Outer Scene
Herald, Kurano, Chikara
In this scene, Kurano and Chikara, Kurano's son, talk about their quest
for revenge. Lady Kurano committed suicide nearly a year earlier. Kurano
expresses his disillusion with the quest and is quickly motivated by
Chikara's resolve to continue the quest. Father and son resolve to continue
their quest at all costs.
Scene 2: The Ronin grouped in the dark in the snow, moaning to themselves.
First Ronin, Second Ronin, Third Ronin, Fourth Ronin, Fifth Ronin, Voices,
The ronin express their disillusion with the league. They talk about
the deaths of their loved ones and how this has crushed their spirit.
They disband, but Kurano comes and gives a rousing speech which rekindles
their fire for revenge. He reveals that Kira is vulnerable at the moment
and the group rebands and rushes to assault Kira's mansion.
Scene 3: The Inner Scene, Kira's Palace
Sagisaka, Kira, Ono, Woman, Voices, Hazama, Kurano, First Ronin, Second
Sagisaka reveals to Kira that the ronin of Asano have been disbanded.
Kira asks Sagisaka to retrieve Kurano and give him some security within
the Kira's palace. An insistent tapping is heard at the window. Kira
finds a note and calls his serving woman, Ono. Kira's house god falls
and breaks; Ono says this is a sign of Kira's impending downfall. Kira
brings in a concubine from the town and attempts to seduce her, but
Kurano and his men break in. They search for Kira and find him, killing
Scene 4: The Outer Scene
Kurano, The Ronin, the Herald
The retainers commit suicide by Asano's grave and are saluted as "the
faithful ones" by the Herald.