THE drama is the branch of Japanese literature which has attracted the widest attention in the West, meriting the praise it has won by its beauty and by a diversity scarcely to be matched in any other country. At least four major types of theatrical entertainment exist today: the Nō, with a repertory chiefly of fourteenth- and fifteenth-century plays; the puppet theatre, for which Japan's most celebrated dramatists wrote in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; the kabuki, or lyrical drama, which was the popular theatre from the seventeenth century to recent times; and, finally, the modern drama, written at first largely under Western influence, but now independent, and possessing considerable merit.
Of these four types of theatre, the Nō has most interested Western readers, largely as a result of the translations of Ezra Pound and Arthur Waley. It was to the Nō that the poet Yeats turned about 1915 for a form of drama "distinguished, indirect and symbolic", as he put it, and the continued interest in the Nō is reflected by performances during recent years in Paris and Berlin. But before discussing those qualities in the Nō which have most appealed to Western readers and audiences, some word must be said about the history of this dramatic form.
The name Nō itself means" talent ", and by a derived association, the exhibition of talent, or a performance. It was not by this name, however, that the theatre was generally called until recent times. Previously, this most aristocratic of theatrical mediums was known as sarugaku, or "monkey-music", a name perhaps indicative of its origins. The earliest mentions of this "monkey-music" show that it was a lively mixture of song and