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Contexts and Comparisons Chapter 3 - Classical Drama  

PASSAGE FOR STUDY

Seami and the Japanese No Drama

The classical theatre of Japan grew out of entertainments called sarugaku (monkey music) and dengaku (field music). When these popular folk arts began to include recited speech as well as music and dance, perhaps to suggest that professional skills were now required for an adequate performance, the word no (ability, or talent), was added to the generic names. Thus sarugaku-no and dengaku-no, soon shortened to just No, denoted a newly rigorous and elite theatrical form. By attending a performance of No drama in 1374, the ruling Shogun (general) gave this theatre the final seal of approval.

In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, No became a refined and highly allusive amalgamation of poetry, movement, and music. Several families of actors developed personal styles and play repertories, and prospered according to the patronage of the reigning Shoguns. By the sixteenth century, as these styles and repertories became fixed and ultimately rigidifed, the No drama ceased to evolve. Superseded by fresher, less literary theatrical forms that came to prominence in the seventeenth century--notably puppet theatre and the more lyrical Kabuki--No has nevertheless remained the epitome of aristocratic Japanese culture and continues to be performed for select audiences today.

All Japanese drama is highly stylized. In No, for example, small all-male casts play a variety of roles in support of a masked main actor whose virtuosic dance is the highlight of the performance. There is practically no scenery in No; a small chorus of eight sits on one side of the stage, at a right angle from three musicians, a flutist and two drummers. A long bridge-like corridor connects the dressing rooms with the acting platform, and the entrances and exits of the main actor along the runway are generally spectacular events. Each No play traditionally depicts one of five categories of persons, which indicate the range of playing styles required of the star performers: God, Warrior, Woman, Mad person, Devil. Over the course of several hours, plays are performed in this sequence of types, interspersed with comic interludes to lighten the predominant mood of mournful solemnity.

Like a ballet dancer, the No performer begins serious instruction in his art in childhood in order to reach the level of skill demanded by the essentially set choreography of his roles. Unlike most Western dancers, he must also speak and sing and be adept in conveying a wide range of emotions through a vocabulary of symbolic gestures. The main actor in a No play often makes an early stage appearance in which he may speak of his character in the third person, after which he exits. While secondary characters take the stage, sometimes indicating a jump in time and place in their dialogue, the main actor prepares to return in a central dance that may impersonate his character as an animal or a demon. The quality of his movement (and the audience's familiarity with a text that has undergone no fundamental change for four hundred years) is enough to signal that the character has been transformed from one state of being to another.

The most revered among the originators of No are Kwanami Motokiyo and his son Kanze Seami Motokiyo (1363-1443). Favored by the Shogun Ashikaga, their plays form the core of the current No repertory. Although Seami resembles many other master playwrights in having been also an actor and, in effect, a director, he is unique in having written extensive theoretical justifications and practical explanations of his art form as well. Modern critics note that Seami may be compared both to Aeschylus, the first Western dramatist, and to Aristotle, the first Western literary critic. In the passage quoted below, translated by Ryusaku Tsunoda and Donald Keene, Seami meditates on the demands No makes on its performers.

"The One Mind Linking All Powers"

Sometimes spectators of the No say that the moments of "no action" are the most enjoyable. This is one of the actor's secret arts. Dancing and singing, movements on the stage, and the different types of miming are all acts performed by the body. Moments of "no action" occur in between. When we examine why such moments without action are enjoyable, we find that it is due to the underlying spiritual strength of the actor which unremittingly holds the attention. He does not relax the tension when the dancing or singing comes to an end or at intervals between the dialogue and the different types of miming, but maintains an unwavering inner strength. This feeling of inner strength will faintly reveal itself and bring enjoyment. However, it is undesirable for the actor to permit this inner strength to become obvious to the audience. If it is obvious, it becomes an act, and is no longer "no action." The actions before and after an interval of "no action" must be linked by entering the state of mindlessness in which the actor conceals even from himself his own intent. The ability to move audiences depends, thus, on linking all the artistic powers with one mind.

"Life and death, past and present--
Marionettes on a toy stage.
When the strings are broken,
Behold the broken pieces!"

[TRANSLATORS' NOTE: Poem by an unknown Zen master. The last two lines may mean, "When life comes to an end the illusions of this world also break into pieces."]

This is a metaphor describing human life as it transmigrates between life and death. Marionettes on a stage appear to move in various ways, but in fact it is not they who really move--they are manipulated by strings. When these strings are broken, the marionettes fall and are dashed to pieces. In the art of the No too, the different types of miming are artificial things. What holds the parts together is the mind. This mind must not be disclosed to the audience. If it is seen, it is just as if a marionette's strings were visible. The mind must be made the strings which hold together all the powers of the art. If this is done the actor's talent will endure. This effort must not be confined to the times when the actor is appearing on the stage: day or night, wherever he may be, whatever he may be doing, he should not forget it, but should make it his constant guide, uniting all his powers. If he persistently strives to perfect this, his talent will steadily grow. This article is the most secret of the secret teachings.

Questions for Discussion

  1. Aristotle speaks of drama as the "imitation of an action." How would you contrast the Greek and the No drama in terms of the ways they define and value action?
  2. Zen Buddhism holds that spiritual truth may be perceived only by individual insight, in moments of "no action"; Zen monasteries accordingly are bare environments which leave the monks free to meditate without distraction. This religion reached a peak of influence in Japan during the rule of the Shoguns in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. How does Seami's view of theatre reflect this religious background?
  3. In many societies and cultures, drama has its roots in ancient religious observances. How are the differences between Western and Eastern religions reflected in plays you have studied?
  4. What is unusual about the responsibility Seami imposes on the actor, even when he is not on the stage? How might Seami's emphasis on the mind hold true for people in other walks of life as well?
  5. Compare the role and expectation of the audience in classical Japanese, Sanskrit, and/or Greek drama. How do you conceive of your own role when you are the audience for a performance today?