The Weeping Mothers in Sumidagawa, Curlew River, and Medieval European Religious Plays


Mikiko Ishii


In November 1955, Benjamin Britten (1913—76) left England for the world concert tour with his friend, Peter Pears, a tenor. In February 1956, they flew from Hong Kong to Japan where Britten attended two performances of a Japanese Noh Play, Sumidagawa (the Sumida River) during a short stay there. The play is about a grief-stricken mother who embarks upon a journey of many months to search for her only child, a boy kidnapped by a slave trader. While crossing the Sumida River in a boat one day, she learns that her abducted son had died the year before and was buried on the other side. As she succumbs to overwhelming sorrow at the boy’s burial mound, his spirit appears as a phantom; when she frantically reaches for its hand, nothing is there.

Britten was so deeply moved by Sumidagawa that he decided to compose an English version. After spending some time to find a way to bridge the cultural and temporal gap separating medieval Japan from his own modern-day England, the composer finally discovered a parallel in English and European medieval dramatic tradition. Dramatic action is transplanted from medieval Japan to a fenland in East Anglia, where a curlew, a long-billed wading bird with a wailing musical cry, was often reported in the Middle Ages. At the same time, the composer retains the essential stylistic features of the Noh play, altering only the last scene where the mother, encouraged by the spirit of the dead boy, imagines that their reunion will take place in heaven.

Sumidagawa is rich with Buddhist teaching on the transitory nature of life, yet Britten transforms the Noh play into a music drama based on the Christian concept of salvation. Renamed Curlew River,Britten’s play conflates the images of the three mothers grieving over their dead children as represented in the Old Testament (Jeremiah 31:15), the Passover Tale, and the musical dramatization of Massacre of the Innocents known as Ordo Rachelis. A grief-crazed woman, lamenting the death of her child, is represented most strongly in the figure of the Virgin Mary, yet all Rachels in medieval dramatic tradition can be understood both as foils and prefigurations of the Virgin. The “madwoman” of Curlew River stands as a universal figure of the “weeping mother” not only associated with the Virgin but representative of the Mater Dolorosa, a multicultural archetype for the sorrowing mother.

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