A Set of Kyogen Adaptations: Henry Livings's Pongo Plays

By Graham-White, Anthony | Asian Theatre Journal, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

A Set of Kyogen Adaptations: Henry Livings's Pongo Plays


Graham-White, Anthony, Asian Theatre Journal


I should like to draw attention to a set of adaptations of kyogen that has not been referred to by scholars of Japanese theatre. Their interest is that the adapter, Henry Livings (1929-1998), ingeniously and amusingly draws on the conventions of British music hall to provide a theatrical stylization equivalent to that of the originals. It is not surprising that Livings's work with kyogen has gone unnoticed. He is a writer of farcical comedies with titles such as Stop It Whoever You Are (1961), Honour and Offer (1969), and, his best-known play, Eh? (1969). The kyogen adaptations appear in a series of play scripts for young people, Pongo Plays 1-6 (1971) and Six More Pongo Plays (1974). Nothing indicates a connection with kyogen in the titles of the two slim books, though the 1971 publisher's blurb does state, rather vaguely, "Henry Livings re-tells a number of traditional tales from Japan and elsewhere."

The eponymous Pongo is Sam Pongo, often a servant like his prototypes Taro Kaja and Jiro Kaja. As in the kyogen, there is a recurring trio: the Master, Sam Pongo, and, in place of a male fellow servant, the lovely Lorris. Some of the Pongo plays are close adaptations of kyogen, others variations on the originals, and others wholly invented yet in the kyogen spirit. Of the twelve plays in the two collections, six are clearly adaptations of kyogen, although not specified as such in the texts.

Pongo Plays 1-6 includes:

   Rattel (Busu [also called The Delicious Poison]), first
     performed in Manchester, 1969
   Beewine (Boshibari [also called Tied to a Stick]), first
     performed in Birmingham, 1970
   The Boggart (Kubi hiki [also called Tug of War]), first
     performed in Birmingham, 1970
   Conciliation (Kamabara [also called The "Sickley" Stomach]),
     first performed in Lincoln, 1970

Six More Pongo Plays includes:

   The Ink-Smeared Lady (Suminuri)
   Mushrooms and Toadstools (Kusabira [also called Mushrooms]),
     first performed in London, 1970

If Livings had envisioned a whole evening of Pongo plays, that did not happen. They appear to have premiered in mixed bills of short plays by various authors.

These six plays are easily identifiable with the Japanese originals. Other Pongo plays could possibly be adaptations of kyogen, but none seem to match with summaries in Don Kenny's A Kyogen Companion (1999). There were a limited number of English translations of kyogen that would have been available to Livings in 1970. (1) All but one of the adapted plays are in Selected Plays of Kyogen (McKinnon 1968); the exception is The Ink Smeared Lady, which Livings probably found in Japanese Folk-Plays: The Ink Smeared Lady and Other Kyogen (Sakanishi 1960; a reissue of Kyogen, Comic Interludes of Japan, 1938). These two collections most likely served as Livings's sources.

The plots of the Pongo plays diverge to varying degrees from those of the original kyogen. Some are adapted to a Western setting with little change; others start with the kyogen plot but develop it differently (as in his version of The Ink-Smeared Lady to be discussed later); while still others invent an original play in the kyogen spirit. An example with no changes in the development of the plot and minimal Anglicization is Rattel. The high-quality sugar in The Delicious Poison that the lord tells Taro Kaja and Jiro Kaja is poison, to prevent them eating it in his absence, in Rattel becomes a sherry trifle (a very British dessert based on stale sponge cake and custard), which he instructs his servant, Lorris, to be sure to tell her boyfriend, Sam Pongo, is rat poison. The sugar and the trifle are both devoured. To cover their crime, the pair of servants destroys a scroll and a bowl in the kyogen, and a vase and a drape in the Pongo play.

An example of a kyogen-like invention, with no definite Japanese source, is The Gamecock (Pongo Plays 1-6). (2) Sam Pongo, a "wily traveler" in this play, enters an empty pub and boasts to the barmaid that he can turn common ale into best bitter. …

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