The genre of Noh theater and dance exists in our time thanks to important contributions by two nineteenth-century Americans. The first you’ll know. The story goes that when President and Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant toured the world after Grant had left office, they visited Japan, where, as the former American head of state and a famous military man, Grant was treated to a performance of a Noh play. Some treasured plays in that genre feature tragic laments for a lord felled in battle by warriors whose essential message is, as the Wanderers and Seafarers of Old English poetry—so similar to Noh in several ways—might have put it, “I alone have escaped to tell Thee,” a thought with which any veteran of the horrendous battles of the U.S. Civil War would have intuitively bonded. At that time, the Japanese government did not esteem the Noh tradition and was about to withdraw support from its major schools and troupes; period photos exist of props and costumes dumped into piles, ready for destruction. The Grants were being given a rare valedictory glimpse of a past about to be abandoned.
From left to right: Kamei Yosuke, Tomoeda Takehito, Narita Tatsushi, Makura Jido (Chrysanthemum Boy) at Japan Society Photo credit: © Ayumi Sakamoto