Monday, 18 July 2011

Japanising the Late Romances

Having bought a curious ‘William Morris Puppet’ kit for £10-00 in the V & A shop the other day, I then made my way into the museum’s Japanese gallery. After admiring the samurai sword collection (which could easily lead into a meditation on the artistry and nomenclature of swords in Morris’s romances), I turned to the spectacular netsuke cabinets. These tiny, intricate carvings of gods, demons, animals and insects on ivory are miracles of delicate craftsmanship, and since we know how much Morris admired the carved ivories at the Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition of 1857, we can assume that he would have enjoyed these too. And it was while contemplating the netsuke that a great epiphany, a Matthew-Arnoldian ‘spark from heaven’, suddenly came to me: why not use the traditional Japanese form of bunraku or puppet theatre to present Morris’s late romances?

Film versions would be ideal, but are no doubt inordinately expensive, so the simplified form of bunraku, in which colourfully decorated, three foot tall puppets are made to act on stage by operators in black costumes, might do very nicely instead. Morris’s late romances have no real depth of character psychology, so bunraku, which is an art of exquisite surfaces (Roland Barthes valued it for exactly that reason), would serve very aptly to represent them. Having already tried the experiment of reading News from Nowhere as a traditional Japanese Noh play (in the Tokyo journal The Rising Generation, March 2009, pp.6-10), I should now like to see The Wood Beyond the World and its successors actually performed as bunraku. I would be willing to produce the scripts.

‘Japan was talked of, but all seemed uncertain’, wrote Jane Morris on 12 October 1892. Yes, we couldn’t be absolutely sure that bunraku would work for her husband’s late works, but I think it’s well worth a try.


Tony Pinkney said...

My wife, who is Japanese, insists that I immediately add a note congratulating the Japanese women's football team on its World Cup victory last night. Can't really think of a Morris link to justify this, though the Football League was founded during his lifetime, in 1888, but what the hell! Many congratulations to the Japanese women on such a spirited victory against those American giantesses. Morris's own most spirited women, such as Ellen and Birdalone, would surely be playing football if they were around today.

David Leopold said...

I have often marvelled at your creativity in making links to Morris, and I am relieved to find you finally (almost) defeated. also struggled, before putting the following on their Morris shirt:

'If politics are to be anything other than an empty game, it is towards the goal of the happiness of labour that they must make.'

Tony Pinkney said...

Great quote there, David. Doesn't sound as though anybody will be doing a PhD on 'Morris and Football' for quite some time to come.

casterton chris said...

Here's a Morris quote from 1893 - 'the Japanese have no architectural, and therefore no decorative instinct.' Sounds as tho' we might add all things Japanese to the long, long list of things that Morris loved to hate. The mediaeval time warp that had been Japan would have suited Morris perfectly - had he been Shogan.There's an image to conjure, altho' Morris the Sumo wrestler is easier to manage.

casterton chris said...

Sorry, that should read Shogun.
Morris must have been aware of Japanese design because Morris Marshall Faulkner & Co exhibited at the London 1862 Exhibition, which also included the collection of Japanese objects recently brought back by Sir Rutherford Alcock, envoy to Japan. This was the first such exhibit in the West, well ahead of France, and drew much comment-yet nothing from Morris, unless you know different?

Paul said...

Your reference to the 'curious "William Morris Puppet" kit that you bought in the V & A shop intrigued me, so I looked it up. The assembled puppet shown on the website is indeed curious, especially so because it has been assembled with the hands on the wrong arms: see

Tony Pinkney said...

Thanks for later comments. Rutherford Alcock sent a copy of his book on Japanese art to Morris, who acknowledged it, though we don't know if he actually read it or not. I'm intrigued that the V&A Morris puppet may not work properly. Haven't opened mine because I intend to use it as a birthday present at some point.

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