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Donald Keene On … Yukio Mishima & Madame de Sade

Donald Keene is one of the world’s foremost Japanologists and interpreters of Japanese literature, the author of over 25 books in English and 50 in Japanese. His honours include the Bunka Kunsho, the highest cultural decoration given by the Japanese government. He has translated Madame de Sade by Japan’s most famous playwright and novelist, Yukio Mishima. The 1967 play received its West End premiere this week, in a production starring Judi Dench and Rosamund Pike and directed by Michael Grandage as part of the year-long Donmar West End season at Wyndham’s Theatre. Roger Foss reports.

When Donald Keene recently gave a lecture about the plays of Yukio Mishima (pictured) at Columbia University in New York (where he has taught for more than 50 years), he mentioned that Mishima’s Madame de Sade, written five years before the author’s ritual suicide in 1970, would be soon be performed in London for the first time. Suddenly, a ripple of excitement spread across the hall.

In response, Keene added that Dame Judi Dench would play Madame de Montreuil, mother-in-law to the notorious Marquis de Sade, which turned the ripple into an audible gasp of excitement. “I thought, well, it takes Dame Judi to give Mishima a certain theatrical caché,” Professor Keene laughs when I speak to him on the phone at his New York home.

Madame de Sade is set in 18th-century revolutionary France, where the Marquis remains off-stage and is seen entirely through the eyes of the aristocratic women affected by his excessive debauchery (including his wife, played by Rosamund Pike). For Keene, who completed the English version in 1967, having also translated Mishima’s novel After the Banquet and five of his contemporary Noh dramas, it’s a play that sits happily in the Donmar West End season in between a Chekhov and two Shakespeares.

“Mishima’s in very good company here. It’s a modern classic. It’s hard to think of any 20th-century dramatist who equals Shakespeare or Chekhov, but among them Mishima holds a very important place, both as a dramatist and as a novelist. For many years, I hoped there would be such a production in the West End.”

Keene first read the play when it was serialised, act by act, in a Japanese literary magazine and, like the post-war generation of Japanese readers, became hooked Mishima’s uniquely Japanese take on an 18th-century European world of deceit, deception and immorality. “Having read the first act, I got in touch with Mishima straight away and asked if I could translate the entire play when it was finished. It was a gamble for me because I had no idea how it would end, but when it was finally completed it was not only considered an important theatre piece, but as a major literary work.

Keene’s biggest challenge was to get Mishima’s courtly dialogue laced with perverse sexual imagery and witty philosophical debates sounding natural. “Mishima was fascinated by the theatre of Racine and wanted to explore the idea of the long speech, where the off-stage action is hinted at or described by another person. To make this sound lively in English and not just a series of recitations, I had to work hard to get the words sounding just right.”

But, Keene goes on, Mishima was always more than just a dramatist playing with words on stage, or reworking the techniques of Japanese Noh plays into modern plots. “It wasn’t just his plays – at that time, Mishima himself was a public figure and people were interested in knowing about whatever he did.” As an actor, Mishima starred in numerous movies, including Yasuzo Masumura’s 1960 film, Afraid to Die. As a writer, he was a Nobel Prize for Literature nominee no less than three times.

Although married with children, he would also turn up in Tokyo’s gay bars, and he famously took up body building and Kendu, forming the Tatenokai (Shield Society), his own private army of students devoted to the medieval codes of the Samurai. He has also gone down in history as the only playwright ever to end his life by harakiri – the ritual disembowelment used by samurai to die with honour – which he committed in 1970 in front of an audience after a failed coup attempting to restore the power of the emperor.

“It was so unbelievable that Japan’s most popular writer should commit suicide publicly in that grisly way, leaving behind a manifesto that was obviously not sincere,” says Keene, who got to know Mishima and observe the contradictions he forced upon himself. “He couldn’t have hoped that what he did would awaken Japan to its loss of traditions. He looked back to the Samurai tradition with nostalgia – something which was truly Japanese as opposed to what he saw as the falsely Japanese ways of the post-war generation craving for commercial goods. He disliked that life, but at the same time he lived it. He had a Spanish colonial-style house full of small objects of art – some of them in pretty bad taste – and he delighted in wearing the latest fashions.

“He was a living contradiction, but his plays did appeal to the post-war generation that rejected what they regarded as the feudalist mentality of their parents and were intrigued by new ideas and new plays that would capture a different world beyond their shores. The Japanese kabuki plays contain shocking violence, but they don’t go against traditional morality in the same way that Mishima’s plays did.”

As for Mishima’s own breathtakingly brutal final curtain, Keene concludes, “I think that he just felt that he had had enough and didn’t want to die in an ordinary way but wanted to do something that people remembered – and it worked.”

Madame de Sade, the third of four productions in the Donmar West End season, opened on 18 March 2009 (previews from 13 March) at Wyndham’s Theatre, where it continues until 23 May 2009. An abridged version of this article appears in the March issue of What’s On Stage magazine, which is out now in participating theatres. NOTE: After the April issue, the magazine will be available on subscription only as one of the many benefits of our Theatre Club. To guarantee you receive all future editions, click here to subscribe now!!