Monday, January 12, 2009

Gary Warner responds to the Basho video

With Gary Warner's permission, I'm publishing an email he sent in regard to the Basho video.

I'm not sure if you are aware of two plays by Edward Bond that focus on this scene from Basho.

The first (1968) was "Narrow Road to the Deep North". Its described as a "satirical play on the British Empire", based on Oku no Hosomichi.

The second (1977) was called "The Bundle" and is basically a new version of the first. (Patrick Stewart actually played this role for the Royal Shakespeare Company, in December of 1977, which may have been its premiere)

Both would be well worth the read to people interested in the moral dilemma presented in the Basho video.

In the first, after Basho chooses not to adopt the baby by the river bank, the baby grows up into the tyrant Shogo. In the second, it is Basho who becomes the overlord, and the baby becomes "Wang", a revolutionary leader seeking to overthrow Basho.

Narrow Road opens with a Noh-style quickie context spoken by Basho:


"My name is Basho. I am, as you know, the great seventeenth-century Japanese poet, who brought the haiku verse form to perfection and gave it greater range and depth. For example:

Silent old pool
Frog jumps

I've just left my home in the village here (points offstage) and I'm going on a journey along the narrow road to the deep north and when I reach there I shall become a hermit and get enlightenment."

(There's some very nice interpretation and commentary on the play in "Dramatic strategies in the plays of Edward Bond" by Jenny S. Spencer. Spencer notes, however, that despite this being an accurate translation, it always invoked laughter from the audience. Spencer goes on to say "The Japanese priests of Narrow Road are portrayed as essentially comic, benign, and totally useless".

While Basho and the abandoned infant, risen to power as Shogo, battle things out in a traditional military way, Kiro, Basho's original traveling companion, turns out to be the sympathetic character of the play. Kiro is the one who takes up Basho's original search for enlightenment, and who is moved to despair by the events of the poem, giving the audience a moral compass with which to interpret the events of the play.

There's quite a bit of useful and insightful interpretation by Spencer in her book, on both plays. Her section on The Bundle comes later in the book (pp.125-135) under the heading "Political Parables", much of which can be found in Google Books here:

"Dramatic Strategies in the Plays of Edward Bond"

Here's a bit about "The Bundle" from "Modern British Drama" by C.D. Innes

"Edward Bond (1934-): rationalism, realism, and radical solutions

"Social themes and realistic modes"

"...The social role of art being his primary concern, Bond focuses on the figure of a poet as early as "Narrow Road to the Deep North" in 1968. Basho is an idealist who, in using the abstract ideals of art as an excuse for non-involvement, becomes responsible for atrocities. When the abandoned baby he leaves to die on his quest for 'Enlightenment' survives to revenge himself on society by seizing power, Basho brings in colonial overlords, ending up as the figurehead of an evil regime. He represents false culture; and as the only outright 'villain' in Bond's early plays, he reflects the strength of Bond's conviction that art must be politically committed. There is even the suggestion that if there were no injustice or oppression, then there would be no reason for art at all: 'In an ideal society...[Basho] would have picked that baby up, gone off the stage and there would have been no necessity for a play.'

"The Bundle" (1978) makes the point even clearer. Instead of an itinerant seeker of 'Enlightenment', Basho has become rich: the active agent of oppression, rather than merely its apologist. This time the abandoned baby turns into a revolutionary leader, radicalized by Basho's lack of principle; and the victory of the common people destroys Basho. He is merely a polemic figure.


So in "The Bundle", the writer's role has been taken over by the revolutionary activist, who spreads political consciousness through actions, not words. The ending, where the revolutionary throws a baby into the river as a conscious political act that the dramatic context supports, graphically reverses the standpoint of his earlier plays.

6 - Bond, interview in "Gambit", 5, no. 17 (1970), p.9


In the latter he grows up to be the revolutionary Wang. In the latter play, Wang, now an adult, himself finds an abandoned baby by the river. He scoops up the bundle and throws it into the river.

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