Varieties of Influence, or What Is This Thing Called Noh

From the Ninagawa production of Mishima's Yoroboshi

From the Ninagawa production of Mishima’s Yoroboshi

On an airplane this past weekend, I found myself reading several of the “modern Noh plays” of Yukio Mishima.  Each of these short works is based on a particular classic Noh play, transposed into a modern setting and augmented to explore more characters or emphasize new angles.  For example, in the classic The Damask Drum and in Mishima’s version, an old man in love with a beautiful younger woman is tricked into banging a drum that does not sound, in a vain effort to call forth his beloved, but in Mishima’s play, the drum eventually does sound; the woman, who seeks out the man after his suicide and begs him to try the drum again, seems to want to hear it but cannot.  In the classic Yoroboshi, the blind beggar has a vision of the sun connected with a Buddhist ritual; in Mishima’s version, the blind boy cannot escape the vision of fire bombs at the end of World War II, which he identifies with the end of the world.  Structurally and in terms of literary style, these are not Noh plays at all but were written to be performed by shingeki troupes, using Western performance styles.  One article in Modern Japanese Theatre and Performance, edited by David Jortner et al, reports that when Mishima allowed an experimental director to use Noh actors and music in the performance of one of his plays, “he felt like a father submitting his child to the scalpel of a dubious plastic surgeon.”

Elvis Sighting in Bloomsburg, photo by David Surtasky

Elvis Sighting in Bloomsburg, photo by David Surtasky

Works like Mishima’s, to my mind, occupy one end of a continuum on which contemporary theater artists have appropriated elements of Noh for their own creative purposes.  A Western-style drama that tells a story from a classic Noh play could be compared to the reharmonization of a “standard” by a jazz musician, in that a person who knows the original can pick out the story despite a difference in presentation.  At the other end of the same continuum is the kind of work Theatre Nohgaku so often stages, work in which a modern playwright and ensemble tell an entirely new story while rigorously following the conventions of Noh poetics, dramatic structure, choreography, and music.  To continue the analogy to jazz, this approach might be considered similar to deploying a familiar set of harmonies under a new melody.  Among the playwrights who have worked in this vein in recent years are Greg Giovanni (Pine Barrens), David Crandall (Crazy Jane), and Deborah Brevoort, whose Noh play about Elvis Presley (Blue Moon Over Memphis) was performed in traditional style with music by Richard Emmert in Bloomsburg earlier this month.  Between the two ends of this continuum lies much of the work undertaken by Theatre of Yugen in San Francisco for almost 35 years:  original productions by Theatre of Yugen have incorporated elements of Noh choreography and vocalization but have not adhered strictly to the narrative structures or musical conventions of Noh.

Another Incarnation of This Lingering Life

This Lingering Life by Chiori Miyagawa is much closer to Mishima on the spectrum of adaptation than to the playwrights associated with Theatre Nohgaku, insofar as Miyagawa, like Mishima, refashions traditional stories in a Western mode.  My one conversation with new Theatre of Yugen artistic director Tanroh Ishida suggested that he plans to steer that theater in a similar direction, borrowing stories from Noh but making productions “less Japanese” than in the past.

Norman Munoz and Stephanie Weeks in This Lingering Life, Cake Productions

Norman Munoz and Stephanie Weeks in This Lingering Life, Cake Productions

The world premiere production of This Lingering Life in San Francisco did incorporate some Noh styling, by virtue of the fact that not only director Jubilith Moore but also all members of the cast had had years of training in both Noh and Western performance styles.  The New York premiere by Cake Productions will offer audiences a different experience:  this time the performance will be entirely Western.  According to Chiori Miyagawa, the actors in New York “are responding to the universality of the stories and theatricality of [the play].”  Only one member of the New York cast has training in Noh:  Norman Muñoz, who played multiple roles in the world premiere in San Francisco, will assume other roles in the New York production.

Greg Giovanni in Kyogen garb, photo by David Surtasky

Greg Giovanni in Kyogen garb, photo by David Surtasky

When I wrote to Chiori Miyagawa with the idea for this blog post, she was especially delighted to see her name in close juxtaposition with Mishima’s but pointed out one respect in which her work differs markedly not only from his, but also from that of most other playwrights whose work is influenced by Noh.  In the culture of Noh, drama has always alternated with humor, but in a traditionally performed Noh, the humor is sandwiched between the dramatic parts—in the “kyogen interlude” between acts   and in short kyogen plays performed between the Noh plays in a cycle.  In most modern plays influenced by Noh, the same partition exists, with a comedic sequence between acts (as in Greg Giovanni’s Pine Barrens or Erik Ehn’s Cordelia) or between plays (as in the day-long production of Erik Ehn’s Cycle Plays by Theatre of Yugen, in which Ehn’s plays alternated with short, light-hearted acts by other local theater troupes).  By contrast, This Lingering Life is permeated with humor throughout, reflecting Miyagawa’s belief “that every moment we live will eventually become both comedy and tragedy.”

For More Information

Readers of this blog who will be in or around New York City between mid-September and early October can find out more about the upcoming East Coast premiere of This Lingering Life here: http://thislingeringlife.weebly.com/

Readers interested in learning which classic Noh plays Miyagawa has adapted for her work can refer to my earlier post entitled “Nine Noh Play Synopses in One English-Language Blog Post.”  (See the list of Recent Posts on the upper right side of this page.)

Readers intrigued by the idea of Yukio Mishima’s Noh plays can find several of them in the inexpensive English-language edition entitled Five Modern No Plays, published by Vintage and readily available to your local independent bookseller.

An evocative review of a production of two Mishima plays by the Ninagawa Company of Tokyo at Lincoln Center in 2005 is here:  http://playgoer.blogspot.com/2005/08/playgoer-review-mishima-modern-noh.html

An earlier version of Deborah Brevoort’s Blue Moon Over Memphis was published in The Best American Short Plays 2003-2004 by Applause Books.  The latest version, adapted by Brevoort and Richard Emmert for production in full Noh style, is not available in book form, but there are quite a few posts about the project on the blog of Theatre Nohgaku here:   http://theatrenohgaku.wordpress.com/?s=blue+moon+over+memphis

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Noh and the Singularity of the Moment

Jubilith Moore as Cordelia (2011), photo:  Charline Formenty

Jubilith Moore as Cordelia (2011), photo: Charline Formenty

The telephone rings.  The hospital is calling.

“You had better come now.”

You rush to the bedside of a person you love.  Time is short.  She is still aware, but it is as if she were being pulled away into another world.  The burden of maintaining attention, of focusing on your face, is palpable, but there is something she needs to say.  Her articulation is slow and difficult, and you cannot be sure you understand every word, but you are there, your eyes and your ears and your heart open to the last hour you will share.

You are dreaming.  Suddenly he appears:  your husband who died years ago.  He is recognizable, no older than you remember him—younger than you, now.   Why is he here tonight, in this eerie space?  He begins to say something, to gesture.  His words do not entirely make sense.  Dreams have such an inscrutable grammar.  But the voice is distinctly his, and it seems there is something he needs…and for so many years, you have had no chance to comfort him.

You are at your writing desk, drowsy from lucubration.  You hear a noise outside, look out into the garden, and behold an apparition.   Who it is depends upon who you are.   Mahatma Gandhi?   Anna Karenina?  The apparition is spooky to be sure, but far enough away that you have no reason to fear contact, also far enough that his or her speech seems to come to you over an enormous distance, and those gestures, you cannot be sure what signals they carry.

I have been thinking of this post for quite a while but am putting it into language now, partly as a reflection on David Surtasky’s recent “Top Ten Tips” post on the Theatre Nohgaku blog (http://theatrenohgaku.wordpress.com/), where he talks about how difficult it is for a Noh actor to move his feet in the correct way, how heavy the costumes are, and how hard it is for the actor to see through the nose hole of a mask.  Unable to think of any other performance art in which one would counsel a newcomer to focus on how difficult the performer’s work is, I asked myself why such recommendations make sense in the case of Noh.  More specifically, I asked myself how is it that the challenges faced by the performers contribute, as they do, to the effect of a Noh play and decided provisionally on this:  all the difficulties that David mentions, and that you will notice when you watch your first Noh play, are physical metaphors for the inherent difficulty of reaching from one consciousness into another.

And on this basis, I would add an eleventh tip to those mentioned by David:  think of the encounter with the shite as a unique experience, like a real visitation or the last visit with a loved one who is approaching death.  Consider that this is your one chance to learn what the shite needs to tell you.  In fact, think of the experience of Noh as a reminder that every human encounter is a singular moment.  How much richer our lives would be if, instead of always rushing off to the next thing, we gave everyone—our family, our friends, that awkward neighbor— enough time and focused attention to permit understanding.

Today, for my own reasons, I have cause to think of a post I wrote more than three years ago, just before the Theatre of Yugen production of Erik Ehn’s Noh-like Cordelia, based on Shakespeare’s King Lear:

https://onthebridgeway.wordpress.com/2011/04/15/at-dover/

I had been reflecting on how the shite, in so many a Noh play, has traveled for centuries to meet us in our world, not only to be released from suffering but to give us practice in releasing others:

May each such messenger whom we meet by design make us readier to receive those who take us by surprise.

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Noh Stories, New Stories: At a Noh Writing Workshop

Text of a Noh Play, photo by Brian Higdon

Text of a Noh Play, photo by Brian Higdon

As much as I am affected by the music and visual elements of Noh, I confess that my strongest attraction to the genre is to its poetry and narrative framework.  My favorite plays are those of the type known as mugen —or phantasmal—Noh, in which an encounter is staged between a person of the everyday world (the waki) and a visitant from an otherworldly realm (the shite).  The encounter is, in the majority of cases, transformative for the shite, who is freed from the obsession that caused him to haunt the site of some painful event.  It is also, at least from my own spiritual perspective, transformative for the waki, who liberates the visitant by hearing his story, and for everyone else who bears witness, notably the audience.

Being a writer myself, I have long yearned to try my hand at writing a Noh play, and sure enough, not long after my introduction to Noh, I learned that Theatre Nohgaku (www.theatrenohgaku.org) offered an annual Noh writing workshop!  But alas, those workshops tended to take place in Japan, New York, or other distant locales, and I had no formal affiliation with an academic or arts institution that could fund or facilitate my travel for artistic purposes.

English language script, with shodan labeled, photo by Brian Higdon

English language script, with shodan labeled, photo by Brian Higdon

Why does one need to attend a class to learn how to write a Noh play, as opposed to simply reading plays in translation and studying the (relatively few) performances available on video?  The reason is that although certain large elements of structure are quite apparent—the entry of the waki, the entry of the shite in some unassuming earthly form, a cryptic exchange, the exit of the shite, the reentry of the shite as a ghost, and so on—the internal structure of each of those sections is far from random.  Rather, a Noh play consists of many smaller structural elements called shodan, which need not always appear in the same order, but which must comply with specific conventions of length, tone, prosody, and sometimes content.   The prosody, which permits the proper relation between the text and its associated music, is not at all evident when one reads a play in translation.  I already knew what story I wanted to tell, but if I hoped for my play eventually to be set to music and choreographed as a Noh play—which might be a pipe dream, but artists are supposed to have those, don’t you think?—I would need a teacher.

David Crandall, photo by Brian Higdon

David Crandall, photo by Brian Higdon

After years of waiting, I learned in the Fall of 2013 that the 2014 session of the Theatre Nohgaku writing workshop would be held in San Francisco, where it would be taught by actor, musician, composer, and playwright David Crandall.  My initial response to this news was glee mixed with awe.  I had, in fact, briefly met David Crandall on one occasion—before a lecture demonstration in a town about an hour north of San Francisco—but he mistook me for another person, and I was too shy to identify myself.   (I need not have been so intimidated.  He turns out to be one of the gentlest, most patient and supportive teachers I have ever encountered.)  My first concern was that the workshop might be restricted to people with theatrical credentials I did not have, but having been assured by the workshop coordinator that it was open to the public, I registered well in advance.

Now, how to prepare?  For a few months, I simply read or reread Noh plays I especially liked.  Some I had been studying anyway, in order to write play synopses and other materials for a project of Theatre of Yugen (www.theatreofyugen.org).   Then a few weeks before the workshop, David Crandall sent a mail message to all participants, pointing us to a set of texts that he had posted for our perusal on Dropbox.  There were scripts, in English, for the three classic plays that we would be studying in detail; a modern Noh play by someone who had taken the workshop in the past; a glossary; and a long, daunting, study of the taxonomy of Noh plays, which David assured us we need not attempt to absorb at any level of detail.  I read the materials in advance and, knowing that the class would entail writing exercises, I spent a few days making notes for the play I had in mind.

Taking notes, photo by Brian Higdon

Taking notes, photo by Brian Higdon

The workshop ran from Good Friday through Easter Sunday, which made for a relatively small group of students.  My classmates included two members of the Theatre of Yugen ensemble, one of them also a founding member of Theatre Nohgaku; the artistic director of a Las Vegas theater focused on new play development; the first poet-laureate of San Antonio, Texas, who has been commissioned to write a Kyogen play to be produced next year; a theater artist from Santa Cruz, California; and one other person who, like me, was simply an enthusiast eager for the experience.

Old man mask by Hideta Kitazawa, photo by Brian Higdon

Old man mask by Hideta Kitazawa, photo by Brian Higdon

On the first day, David Crandall introduced some basic elements of Noh:  the categories of plays, the types of roles, the musical instruments, and so on.  He demonstrated the different styles of singing and how to play two of the three types of drums used in Noh.  He also showed us a nohkan, the small transverse flute used in Noh, and explained how its construction creates the eerie sound so different from that of a Western flute.  After lunch we watched and discussed a video of the Noh play Kagetsu, about a young male temple dancer whose father finds him accidentally years after he was abducted.  It is very difficult to obtain videos of Noh plays from the traditional schools, which consider the content proprietary, but David was at one time an actor of the Hosho school and had made arrangements to be able to share materials with us.  The scariest part of day was being invited to try on a mask carved by traditional carver Hideta Kitazawa for David Crandall’s Noh play The Linden Tree.  I knew from reading and from talking to actors who have performed in masks that the eye holes of a Noh mask are so small that the actor cannot easily see.  How true!  In fact, it seemed to me that there was only one eye hole, which was certainly not really the case.  When I had my chance, David asked whether I wanted to take a few steps wearing a mask—the woman from Santa Cruz had been very brave, taking steps and even shifting her weight and moving her arms around—but I was afraid to move.  Finally, on Friday afternoon we began what for me was the most unique and valuable part of the class:  David taught us about several important shodan, their prosody, and how to combine them.  The homework for Saturday was to write a sequence of shodan for the first major part of a Noh play—the entrance of the waki.

By Saturday morning, I was newly obsessed with writing lines each consisting of  7 syllables followed by 5 syllables and scanning as in the following example:

He who enters this valley/can never return.

Not all but a goodly number of shodan require this pattern, which permits the chanted text to be matched to the music in a specific way.  In addition to having the correct number of syllables with the correct stress pattern, some shodan require certain lines to be repeated.   As a person accustomed to writing prose and the occasional page of free verse, I found it a considerable challenge to follow all the rules while still creating a text with the affect I hoped to achieve:

I was going mad trying/but did not succeed.

On the second day, we learned the rules for more shodan, and David introduced several of the rhetorical figures used in Noh and classical Japanese poetry in general.  We also watched a video of the exquisite play Izutsu, which like so many “woman plays” is about a woman pining for a love now lost to her.  The main role was played by an older man with an abundance of chin visible below a graceful mask.   One might expect such a discrepancy between the actor and the role to create distance, but it didn’t at all.  The actor’s evident age and fragility evoked enormous pathos, which only increased as the play proceeded—with the actor barely moving, other than to turn carefully from one side to another—for about an hour and forty-five minutes.

I felt so very sorry/I wanted to cry.          

Feedback Session, photo by Brian Higdon

Feedback Session, photo by Brian Higdon

After the video screening came a memorable moment for all of us:  while we students had eaten lunch and watched the video, David had set our first homework assignments to music . He projected each person’s work on the screen, chanted it in traditional style, and then offered a critique, which focused on errors in prosody that made it difficult to set the lines to music.   Our homework assignment for Sunday was to write the sequence of shodan that form the epicenter of a Noh play:  the “kuse,” in which the main character’s painful memory is revealed.

The number of syllables/and the scansion too
could vary in a kuse/but I had begun
to think in sets of seven/ and five syllables,
so that at last my kuse/was too regular…

The third day of the workshop was structured similarly to the second.  By now there was a lovely sense of camaraderie within our group:   although each of us had a different artistic background and individual project, we were all comfortable asking each other questions, sharing thoughts, and offering encouragement.  David introduced several more shodan, enough so that each of us would, in theory, be able to write a whole Noh play, and we watched a third video, Ataka, in which the great military commander Yoshitsune,  in peril of his life, flees the capital with a group of retainers, all disguised as mountain priests (yamabushi).  Ataka involves no ghosts or spirits, and compared to any other Noh play I have seen live or on video, it calls for a large number of actors, many of whom move in unison in ways that make it believable that they would storm a barrier or assault a recalcitrant border official.  I understand that it is not unknown for an audience member to fall asleep during a Noh play; however, I would guess that no one ever falls asleep during a performance of Ataka.

Sharing ideas, photo by Brian Higdon

Sharing ideas, photo by Brian Higdon

The last hours of the workshop were spent sharing and critiquing our second homework assignment.  It was fascinating to observe how our stories diverged in substance and tone.  I really hope each of us plans to finish his or her play—even those of us who do not necessarily consider themselves writers.

For me, the writing workshop was not only a joyous experience in itself but a great spur to creativity.  Within a few weeks following the workshop, I had produced a first draft of my play and sent it to David, who graciously provided feedback, which I have since incorporated.  As an unaffiliated artist who has not written a play since college, I have no way to know whether mine will ever be performed, but even if not, the experience of learning to recognize the various poetic and musical structures within a Noh play has heightened my enjoyment of plays that I read or watch.  While translations do not duplicate the rhythmic patterns of Noh, they often label the shodan, and from now on I will have a better sense, when I read a play, of how it is likely to sound, and when I watch a play, I can begin to recognize the melodic contours and options for rhythmic organization that we discussed in class. I would recommend the Theatre Nohgaku writing workshop, without qualification, to theater artists and enthusiasts of all stripes, whether your goal is to deepen your understanding of Noh or, more generally, to explore alternatives to naturalistic theater or those styles of physical theater that deny the power of a crafted text .

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Translating Noh into Now:  Mikiko Uesugi’s Set for This Lingering Life

Elevation representing the set, by Mikiko Uesugi

Elevation representing the set, by Mikiko Uesugi

Scenic designer Mikiko Uesugi was familiar with most of the stories in This Lingering Life long before she started working on the project.  In Japan, her maternal grandmother had studied Noh with Umewaka Rokurou-sensei and began taking her to performances when she was three years old.  In addition, her great-grandmother told her the stories as a child.  Still, faced with the task of designing a space for those familiar characters—or their modern avatars—to inhabit, she returned to the original plays and studied them in earnest.  (Nowadays, Mikiko reflects, Japanese children do not necessarily grow up hearing the traditional stories, whether historical, quasi-historical, or mythological.  I suppose that, in a similar way, it would be possible today to find a British child who could not tell the story of “the princes in the Tower” or one in the United States unable to identify who said “Four score and seven years ago” and on what occasion.)

Scenic designer Mikiko Uesugi

Scenic designer Mikiko Uesugi

It was a great privilege for me to be permitted to interview Mikiko in person.  I knew that it was she who had designed the elegant set for Chanticleer’s production of Benjamin Britten’s Curlew River, and I was very excited to meet her.  Luckily, she lives only two blocks away from me, so we were able to meet in a neighborhood café, where she arrived carrying a plastic tub almost as large as herself.  The tub contained a maquette for the set, which required partial assembly.  As Mikiko began to unpack the components, I immediately demonstrated my ignorance by surmising that Japanese Noh performances probably do not need set designers, given that the stage has a time-honored structure to which modern practitioners adhere.  Not always true, Mikiko pointed out, and presented for my perusal two impressive volumes containing photographs of Noh being performed in indoor and outdoor venues, including one instance in which there was a skyscraper, rather than a tree, at the back!

The Traditional Noh Stage

The structure of a traditional Noh stage reflects a minimalist aesthetic.  A long walkway, called the hashigakari, leads from the far left of the stage (when seen from the perspective of the audience) to the main playing area, which is square.  Traditionally, three small pine trees are located at intervals alongside the walkway; a script sometimes indicates that an action occurs at the first pine tree, the second, or the third.

Traditional Noh stage, from Wikipedia

Traditional Noh stage, from Wikipedia

There are no curtains, nor is there a proscenium or backdrop specific to the play.  A Noh stage almost always has a pine tree painted on its back wall, and no attempt is made to conceal the pine tree, even if the action is supposed to be occurring indoors or somewhere else where a pine tree would not grow.  Some people believe that the ubiquitous painting represents a particular pine tree, at the Kasuga Shrine in Nara; other people believe that the image is a reminder of the time when Noh plays were performed outdoors at temples.

The ubiquitous pine

The ubiquitous pine

On the stage are four pillars, each with a definite purpose.  At the front right corner of the stage (from the perspective of the audience) is the waki pillar, so named because it is where the waki character,  who is mainly a witness to the story, sits after he has made his entrance, introduced himself, and arrived at the location where the action of the play is to occur.  Near the right back corner of the stage is the flute pillar, where the flute player sits throughout the play.   At the left rear corner, near the walkway to the stage, is the shite pillar, where the main character stands upon entering the stage, and which can be seen as a sort of home position for that character.   And at the front left corner is the sighting pillar, which is of the utmost importance, because the main character often wears a mask with tiny eye holes that make it hard for him to see very much at all; without that pillar, an actor would be at risk of walking right off the stage!  The four pillars ordinarily support a peaked roof, evoking the roof of a Shinto shrine.  When a Noh stage is built within a large, modern building, it still has a peaked roof, as if there were no ceiling above it.

On the stage there are no solid structures and very few objects.  A frame structure can represent a hut, a well, or a carriage.  In some cases a play features an elegant dais.  But all these items are highly stylized, exquisite in their simplicity.  There is no attempt to portray the scene (or anything else) realistically.

Example of a frame structure, from Purgatory, Theatre of Yugen 1981

Example of a frame structure, from Purgatory, Theatre of Yugen 1981

During a play, the musicians traditionally sit along the back wall of the stage.  The chorus members sit along the right side of the stage.  There is a small door near the right rear corner of the stage for use by the musicians and chorus members.  There is no attempt to hide performers who are not in character, and a person theoretically invisible to the characters on stage might yet be visible to the audience.

All the wood surfaces—the immaculately polished floor, the back wall (called the mirror board), the walkway, and the pillars—are of Japanese cypress of a warm yellow color.  Because there is no real furniture or other distracting decoration, the effect is of a clean, bright box with a mural depicting a pine tree at the back of it.

The Set for This Lingering Life

Mikiko’s set for This Lingering Life offers a modern take on many of the conventions of Noh.  There is a tree, but instead of being painted on a wall, it is three-dimensional, visible behind a black scrim, and treated so that light can play upon it.  This idea, as Mikiko explained it, intrigued me; however, no explanation, no elevation, and no maquette could have prepared me for the effect achieved as, in the dark of the Z Space in San Francisco, the tree was illuminated in a succession of stark or brilliant colors, depending on the scene being enacted.

Set of This Lingering Life, photo by Elliot Kallen

Set of This Lingering Life, photo by Elliot Kallen

As on a traditional Noh stage, the main acting area for This Lingering Life is a square of polished yellow wood, but in this case, the floor has the effect of a luminous tile set within a dark box.  As I entered the theater on Sunday afternoon, that box gave the temporary illusion of being cobalt blue.  On either side of the wooden floor is a strip of darker floor, used often by actors entering or exiting the stage from behind the scrim.   On the right sits the composer, in seiza position, with the laptop from which the music of the production emanates.

Pendulum, photo by Mikiko Uesugi

Pendulum, photo by Mikiko Uesugi

The four corners of the stage are marked not with solid pillars, but with pendulums that can be set into motion.  Like many Noh plays, This Lingering Life stages encounters between characters from different times against a backdrop of eternity.  To my mind, at least, the pendulums evoke the marking of time, while the tree is a reminder of the continuity of life from season to season.

A large rolling dais, modeled on a similar device used in certain Noh plays, makes it possible for stage attendants to move one or more actors, prone or frozen in position, on or off the stage, and some scenes take place on the dais.

Dais, photo by Mikiko Uesugi

Dais, photo by Mikiko Uesugi

The goal, as in Noh, is not to clutter the space with visual elements but to let the audience focus on what is there and—what is of the greatest importance, in theater and in life—on who is there.

Ladies in purple light, photo by Hap Tivey

Ladies in purple light, photo by Hap Tivey

It feels quite insufficient to me to say that I have never seen such an exquisite set.  Kudos are due not only to scenic designer Mikiko Uesugi but also to Joshua McDermott, who built the structures, to lighting designer Allen Willner, who bathed the set and the actors in glorious light, and to the group of ensemble members and friends who gathered to cut out leaves for a tree that will forever make me more attentive to seasonal changes and other evidence of time passing on the plum tree outside my window.

Gangsters under a Tree, photo by Hap Tivey

Gangsters under a Tree, photo by Hap Tivey

I hope that readers who are in or near San Francisco will come to see This Lingering Life (at Z Space through June 14) to experience its visual beauties, the ingenuity of its narrative, the complexity and interest of its sonic design, and the compassionate energy of the performers.

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Nine Noh Play Synopses in One English-Language Blog Post

This Lingering Life is not a difficult play to follow on its own terms, but some audience members will be intrigued to know that this modern play, in which restless spirits and human beings occupy the same space, transforms and intertwines stories from nine classic Noh plays.  In some cases, Chiori Miyagawa has extracted only a small story element from a play and elaborated upon it, but you should be able to recognize traces of each of the following plots.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, there are longer or lovelier synopses of several of these plays elsewhere online.  My goal here is to condense, in one location, all nine stories that an audience member might care to read before attending the production. I expect that at least some of this content will be adapted for use in the program notes, where each synopsis will be accompanied by pictures.  In this post, I have omitted images for the convenience of readers who wish to print the synopses while conserving paper and ink.

The title of this post is derived from the subtitle of the play, which at least on my copy of the script reads Nine Noh Plays in One (or Two) American Act(s).

Kamo Shrine           (Category 1: God Play)

A Shinto priest visits Kyoto and there the Kamo shrine, where he notices on the altar an arrow with white feathers.   Two women appear to draw water from the river for use as a ritual offering, and the priest questions them about the arrow on the altar.   They explain that, long ago, a woman named Hada no Ujinyo used to live in the village, where each day she drew water from the Kamo river.   One day, while she was drawing water, an arrow with white feathers drifted on the current into her pail.  She took it home and stuck it into the eaves of her house; soon she became mysteriously pregnant and had a baby boy.   Years later, when curious villagers asked who the little boy’s father was, he turned toward the arrow, which promptly became thunder and was thus revealed as the “Diety of Wakeikazuchi,” protector of the Imperial palace.  The mother and son became deities also.  In fact, one of the two women telling the story admits that she too is a deity, then disappears.  In the second half of the play, the woman, now identifiable as the deity who in life was Hada no Ujinyo, returns as a celestial maiden and dances.  Near the end of the play, the deity of the arrow also reappears, invoking thunder and rain.  (One wonders whether the arrow with white feathers might, in an older myth, have been an allusion to lightning, which can strike a person’s house without her having to carry it home in a pail.)

Atsumori                  (Category 2: Warrior Play)

Near the end of the Genpei Wars in late 12th-century Japan, the great warrior Kumagai no Jirō Naozane of the Genji clan killed the teenage warrior Atsumori of the Heike clan.  In the aftermath of the battle, he became a monk.  Now he returns to the site of the battle, at Ichinotani, to comfort the spirit of the young warrior.  Before long he hears the sound of a flute and is reminded of the flute that he heard those many years ago, that had turned out to be Atsumori’s; today the musician is one of a group of young grass cutters who appear on the scene.  The monk questions the young men, and eventually all but one of them leave.  The remaining one confesses that he is connected with Atsumori and asks the monk to pray for the dead warrior’s soul.  The two men pray together, and after a cryptic remark the young man leaves, returning soon afterward as the ghost of Atsumori himself.   The two men, once enemies, recognize that the older man’s prayers for the younger have made them friends.  They spend the night recounting the story of their fateful clash.  Thanks to the monk’s dedication and the young man’s gratitude, they will be reborn together in paradise.

Hagoromo               (Category 3:  Woman Play)

A fisherman arrives at the pine woods on the coast at Mio and notices that something extraordinary is afoot:  blossoms are drifting from the sky while music and fragrance fill the air.  Soon he sees, hanging on a pine tree, a feather mantle of unparalleled beauty.  He is just about to take it home when a celestial maiden appears, saying it is hers and that he must return it to her; without it, she can never return to her home in the sky.  He is at first reluctant.  If indeed it is a magical, then perhaps it should be kept as a treasure of the realm!  The maiden is more than despondent at the prospect of being unable to return to her home.  She begins to fade visibly, so that even the fisherman recognizes the signs that without her mantle, she will actually die.  He is moved and agrees to return the mantle, if only she will dance for him, which she agrees to do.  This play has a very famous moment in which, at the last minute, the fisherman expresses suspicion, thinking that if he hands over the mantle before the dance, the maiden will not fulfill her part of the bargain, but she assures him that doubt and deceit are concerns particular to human beings.  “There is no deceit in Heaven,” the implication being that he can trust her to keep her word.  He gives her the mantle, and she dances an exquisite dance.

Sumidagawa           (Category 4: Miscellaneous, Madwoman Play)

A ferryman is about to carry a final load of passengers across the Sumida River when a traveler approaches.  He is on his way to meet a friend and asks to board the ferry, whereupon the ferryman asked him about a woman he sees coming up the road, acting strangely.  The woman appears to be mad, but it soon becomes apparent that she has ample cause for grief.  She is a widow from the capital whose twelve-year-old son was kidnapped from their home to be sold into slavery.  She has taken to the roads—a highly unusual move from a woman of her status at that time—determined to find him or word of him.  She asks to be taken aboard the ferry but is told that she must first give a crazy performance; instead, she demonstrates her refinement in conversation and is allowed passage.  On the crossing, the ferryman explains that on the opposite shore, a ceremony is taking place to commemorate the death, exactly one year before, of a child who had been kidnapped and ultimately left to die on the road.  Local people had attempted, to no avail, to save his life.  Of course, he is exactly the child whom the madwoman has been seeking.   She is led to his grave, where at first she is too grief-stricken even to pray, but finally she is convinced that it her prayer that will have most efficacy.  She begins to pray for her son and suddenly hears his small voice from the grave.  Near the end of the play, she is vouchsafed a vision of him so real that she reaches out to touch him, but he disappears, leaving her in tears.

Semimaru                (Category 4: Miscellaneous, Madwoman Play)

Prince Semimaru has been blind from birth, and now his father, the Emperor, has decreed that he should be abandoned on Osaka Mountain.  The imperial messenger Kiyotsura, who has the task of escorting the young prince into exile, is distraught, but Semimaru comforts him with the thought that his blindness must be retribution for sins in a past life, and that his father’s action, cruel as it might seem, will help him toward salvation.  Kiyotsura shaves off Semimaru’s hair, gives him a cloak, a hat, and staff, and leaves him weeping.  Eventually, someone else (who in a different work of classical Japanese literature visited Semimaru for lute instruction) takes pity on Semimaru and builds him a hut for protection against the weather.   In the second half of the play, Semimaru’s sister, Princess Kagami enters.  She claims that she is mad because of infractions in a former life.  Now she wanders, with hair that reaches upward toward the sky and makes children laugh.  As she treads the mountain path, she suddenly hears the sound of a lute coming from a hut.  This coincidence leads to a loving but brief reunion of brother and sister.  Semimaru grieves when the time comes for his sister to depart, but she says she finds solace in wandering.  As she leaves, she looks back repeatedly toward him, and he strains to hear the sound of her voice as she moves farther from him.

Damask Drum        (Category 4: Miscellaneous Play)

At a provincial palace frequented by the Emperor, an elderly gardener caught sight of an Imperial consort and was smitten with love for her.  An official tells the old man that the consort has taken pity on him and had a drum hung in a laurel tree near the pond where he first saw her; if he strikes the drum, she will let him see her again.  The old man admits that he would rather not be afflicted by such a passion, but he cannot help himself.  He beats upon the drum as instructed, but it is stretched with cloth and makes no sound.  In his despair, he flings himself into the pond and drowns.    In the second half of the play, the official reveals to the consort that the old man has died and advises her that “such a being’s clinging passion is very much to be feared.”  He persuades her to go to the pond, where she is aghast to hear a drum sounding.  Just as she fears she has lost her wits, the old gardener emerges from the pond as a demon, confronts her with her cruelty, drags her toward the laurel tree, and challenges her to beat the drum herself.   She wails as he reminds her of her misdeeds and describes in lurid detail the punishments that await her in hell.  Finally, he sinks back into the pond under the weight of his own hatred.

Yoroboshi                (Category 4:  Miscellaneous Play)

A man of means, named Takayusa no Michitoshi, banished his only son Shuntoku-Maru after having heard and believed (unspecified) false accusations against him.  Now Michitoshi regrets his action and is trying to make amends by distributing alms, every day for seven days, at Tennō-ji  temple.  A young, blind beggar appears.  He reflects upon his blindness and the pain of being separated from those he loves, but he assumes that his parents’ anger and the slander that occasioned it are retribution for sins he committed in a past life.  Michitoshi scans the group assembled to receive the alms he is distributing.  He sees the young man and realizes that this must be the stumbling, blind beggar people have mentioned to him.  The young man admits to this identification but, despite his pitiable state, engages in conversation that demonstrates an aesthetic sensibility and joy in his faith.  There ensues a narration during which the young man describes the coming of Buddhism to Japan.  The older man now recognizes the younger as his son, but rather than make this declaration before a crowd, he waits until sunset.  It is the hour for a prayerful sun salutation, which although or perhaps because he cannot actually see the setting sun, evokes in the young man’s mind a vision he had, before he lost his sight, of the moon setting on Naniwa bay.  That and the views in all directions around Naniwa remain clear in his mind, but now he is reduced to bumping into people and walking with a faltering step.  Michitoshi reveals to the young man that he is his father, and at first Shuntoku-Maru is ashamed, but his father reassures him and takes him home.

Funabashi                (Category 4:  Miscellaneous Play)

A mountain priest on a journey to see unfamiliar sites finds himself at Sano.  Very soon, a man and a woman appear, and before long they ask the priest to contribute to their bridge-building fund.  Quoting part of an ancient poem, they hint at a personal connection with the story of two lovers whose parents tried to part them by sabotaging the bridge they used to cross to visit one another.  The priest agrees to contribute to the fund, but then they suggest that as a mountain priest (one with magical powers), he should build the bridge for them!   The priest asks a question, and the man begins to narrate the story of the lovers, how their parents set a trap for them by loosening planks on the bridge.  The next time the young man tried to cross to see his beloved, he fell into the river, drowned, and wracked by anger, became a fiend.  At the end of this narration, the man confesses to being the lover whose story he just told.  He begs the priest to comfort him.  Then he leaves as the sun is setting.  A local man adds to the story, relating how the girl, wondering why her lover hadn’t come, went to the bridge and also drowned.  Soon the lover returns as a demon, wielding a mallet and reliving his torment.  The woman joins the priest in exhorting her lover to free himself by lamenting the past.  Passionately, he retells their story one more time, ending with the declaration “I’ll see my love no more.”  He performs a climactic dance, and the chorus sings:  while clinging made the lovers “lustful demons,” the priest has saved them by building them a bridge to eternity.

Funa Benkei            (Category 4: Miscellaneous /  Category 5: Demon Play)

Minamoto no Yoshitsune was the brother of the first Shogun, Minamoto Yoritomo.  In fact, as a Commander in the Genpei Wars, Yoshitsune was instrumental in helping his brother accede to that exalted spot, but alas Yoritomo has listened to slanderous rumors and no longer trusts Yoshitsune.  In peril for his life, Yoshitsune flees, accompanied by his loyal friend, the warrior monk Benkei.  As Benkei attempts to make arrangements for lodgings and a passage by boat to the Western Provinces, he is forced to confront Yoshitsune about the presence in their party of Shizuka, Yoshitsune’s mistress.  Yoshitsune is quick to agree to Benkei’s suggestion that for Shizuka to accompany Yoshitsune would be unsuitable, but Shizuka herself will not accept the message from Benkei: she must hear it from Yoshitsune’s lips.  Then she acquiesces but not without great sorrow.  Her farewell dance is so fraught with pathos that Yoshitsune weakens and tries to delay the journey, but Benkei prevails.  The men set out in calm seas; however, soon a great gale arises, and before long it becomes apparent that the waves are seething with the angry spirits of defeated Heike warriors, most notably the redoubtable Taira no Tomomori, who emerges fully armed and determined to drown Yoshitsune and his crew in recompense for his defeat of the Heike.  Yoshitsune draws his sword, but Benkei tells him that no sword has power against a spirit.   Rubbing his rosary beads together, he begins to pray feverishly, but Tomomori is only partially subdued and continues to pursue the boat for some time before finally falling back.

 

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Gender Crossings: Women in Noh

The Noh repertoire includes two groups of plays centered on women:

Illumined by grace

Illumined by grace

Woman plays constitute the third category of Noh plays and are often cited as the finest examples of the aesthetic of yugen.  In almost all cases, these plays portray women as delicate and either quietly resigned or quietly plaintive, with a tendency to be submerged in memories of love.  It is no surprise that some feminists find these plays problematic, and indeed the only woman play represented in Chiori Miyagawa’s This Lingering Life is Hagoromo, in which the main character is not haunted by old romantic attachments.

Mad with rage

Mad with rage

Madwoman plays most often portray women as broken by grief or transfigured by rage.  Alternatively, madness can result from spirit possession or acute sensibility.  In his book entitled The Noh Theater, Kunio Komparu even cites one play in which madness is caused by being “overcome by excessive elegance”!

This Lingering Life includes characters from two madwoman plays:

 

  • A mother traveling in search of her lost son is based on the crazed mother in the Noh play Sumidagawa.   In the Noh play, the widowed single mother searches for her son, who has been kidnapped for sale into slavery.  She learns during the play that he has died, and near the end she encounters his spirit.  Other versions of Sumidagawa include a classic kabuki play of the same title and a transposition into Western opera, Benjamin Britten’s Curlew River.
  • The Woman with Tragic Hair is based on the Princess Kagami in the Noh play Semimaru.  In that play, a nobleman has ostracized two of his children:  his blind son, a gifted musician who sees his exile as a spiritual opportunity, and his daughter, who is subject to sporadic derangement and wanders obsessively.  In the play, the sister accidentally comes upon the hut where her brother now lives; they have a tender reunion, which the brother yearns to prolong, but his sister insists on continuing her own separate journey.

SemimaruTsukiokaKogyoNotice that in both these cases, the madwoman is wandering.  During the period portrayed in the plays, women of the upper classes did not travel by themselves.  During a workshop I attended this past weekend, lecturer David Crandall of Theatre Nohgaku suggested that madwomen who wander in Noh might, in some cases, be feigning madness in order to be allowed mobility.

Other female characters in This Lingering Life are not precisely mad but nonetheless in peril due to rage, which they might not even fully recognize.  Miyagawa captures, in a thought-provoking way, the resentment of an adult responsible for long-term care of a demented parent.  She also provides more than one example of parents who are ostensibly concerned for a child’s good but really motivated by selfish concerns.

The Gaze from Without

That both categories of Noh plays centered on women represent images of women under a male gaze is reinforced by the fact that male actors have played female roles from the inception of Noh until the present day.  A female character is possessed narratively by her memories, as imagined by a male playwright, and physically by the male actor who embodies her on stage.

Early theorists of Noh made no attempt to hide this relationship.  Here is Zeami’s advice on how a Noh actor, presumed to be male, should approach the role of a woman:

A female shite, from the website of the Yokohama Noh Theater

A female shite, from the website of the Yokohama Noh Theater

In general, a young shite is the most suitable actor to play the part of a woman.  Nevertheless, playing such a part represents a considerable undertaking.  If the actor’s style of dress is unseemly, there will be nothing worth watching in the performance.  When it comes to impersonating high-ranking women of the court…since the actor cannot easily view their actual deportment, he must make serious detailed inquiries concerning such matters…When it comes to impersonating an ordinary woman, however, the actor will be familiar with the appropriate details, and so the task will not be difficult…When performing kusemai, shirabyoshi, or mad women’s roles, the actor should hold a fan or a sprig of flowers, for example, loosely in his hand in order to represent female gentleness…his hips and knees should be straight, and his bodily posture pliable.  As for his head posture, if he bends backward, his face will appear coarse…Then too, if he holds his neck too stiffly, he will not look feminine…In the case of a woman’s role, proper dressing is essential.  

(On the Art of the Noh Drama:  The Major Treatises of Zeami, Rimer and Yamazaki, 10-11)

Women’s Words

From the Tale of Genji

From the Tale of Genji

This is not to say that a Noh actor or playwright of Zeami’s time would have been limited, in his understanding of women’s experience, to having made “serious detailed inquiries” as to women’s behavior and dress.  In contrast with Western literature, in which works by women were slow to gain cultural status, Japanese literature had, for centuries prior to Zeami’s time, provided extensive documentation of women’s lives from their own perspectives.  Noh actors and playwrights, who were encouraged to study their literary forbears, would have been familiar with the work of Heian-period authors such as Murasaki Shikibu (The Tale of Genji), Sei Shonagon (The Pillow Book), and Ono no Komachi (one of the Six Poetry Immortals).  Several classic Noh plays appropriate characters or language from the Tale of Genji, and there are five plays in which Ono no Komachi features prominently.  In one of the Komachi plays, Zeami’s Sekidera Komachi, an abbot brings a group of aspiring young poets to meet Komachi, who is by now a hundred years old and living in penury:

Sekidera Komachi, Kogyo

Sekidera Komachi, Kogyo

“People say that the old woman who has built her hut at the foot of the mountain knows all the secrets of the art of poetry.”  (From Sekidera Komachi, trans. Karen Brazell)

Zeami’s respect for Komachi as a literary model makes me attentive to a line that he assigns to her later in the play.  In the Chinese preface to the classic poetry anthology Kokinshu, Komachi’s work had been appraised as follows:

“Ono no Komachi’s poetry…has elegance but lacks strength; it reminds one of a sick woman wearing cosmetics.” (Quoted in Tales of Ise: Lyrical Episodes from Tenth-Century Japan, Helen Craig McCullough)

Another translation sounds a little less pejorative but remains unsettling, insofar it hints at a glamorization of pain by those not suffering it:

“Her poetry is moving and lacking in strength. It reminds us of a beautiful woman suffering from an illness.  Its weakness is probably due to her sex.” (From Kokin Wakashû: The First Imperial Anthology of Japanese Poetry, Helen Craig McCullough)

The line Zeami gives to Komachi, in undisputed allusion to the Kokinshu preface, omits the pathological overtones:

Komachi as an old woman, Yoshitoshi

Komachi as an old woman, Yoshitoshi

“My poems lacked strength because they were a woman’s.”  (From Sekidera Komachi, trans. Karen Brazell)

A woman’s poetry might, after all, reflect a consciousness of her social station—the threat of isolation should she fail to maintain the interest of a man—rather than a constitutional fragility inherent in her gender.  Three of the five plays featuring Komachi as the main character represent her as abandoned and destitute in her old age, in keeping with a tradition concerning her life.

Because I trusted
someone who grew tired of me,
my life, alas, must be
as empty as a rice ear
blasted by harsh autumn winds

(KKS 822, from Kokin Wakashû: The First Imperial Anthology of Japanese Poetry, Helen Craig McCullough)

The role of the aged Komachi is especially revered in Noh and restricted to the most august practitioners of the art form.

Gender Ambivalence and Performance

While Zeami does not question the ability of a male actor to play a woman’s role, he discusses the difficulty of impersonating a character of one gender who is possessed by a being of the other gender:

…When it comes to playing a madwoman possessed by a warrior or a demon, for example, the circumstances are made quite difficult for the actor.  Thinking to act out the true nature of the being who possesses such a character, the actor will show masculine wrath while playing a woman, and his performance will seem quite inappropriate.  On the other hand, if the actor concentrates on the womanly traits of the character, there will be no logic to the possession.  Similarly, when a male character is possessed by a woman, the same difficulty arises.  In sum, to avoid plays with such characters is an important secret of our art.

That the play Sotoba Komachi, written by Zeami’s father Kan’ami, has the female shite possessed by the spirit of a man she mistreated makes me wonder whether Zeami is referring to the difficulty of performing that play.

The actor's chin is visible

The actor’s chin is visible

It must be noted that when a male actor plays a female role in Noh, there is no attempt to trick the audience into thinking the actor is female.  Around the mask of a winsome young beauty, one might very well observe the jowls of the middle-aged male who has assumed her role.   The idea that gender might be performed rather than inherent, while relatively novel in the West, has been an assumption in Noh for hundreds of years.

For an actor to be conscious of his own character from without, incidentally, applies not just to preparation but to the experience of performance.    In The Noh Theater, Komparu quotes Zeami’s precept that an actor must cultivate a “detached view,” the ability to see his figure on the stage as the audience sees him.  While most Western acting theory prescribes that  the actor inhabit the character while regarding the audience as behind a fourth wall, the theory of Noh performance prescribes “a fusion of the minds of actor and audience…only when this happens is [the actor] truly able to perceive himself as a performer.” (Komparu, 16).

No Easy Bridge to Cross

Fumiko Enchi, Wikipedia

Fumiko Enchi, Wikipedia

In the twentieth century, and especially in the later twentieth century, as it became not only acceptable but incumbent upon the critics of culture to question the exclusion of women from various social domains, authors and scholars in Japan and the West began to give focused attention to representations of the female gender in traditional Japanese art and society.  One of the most important female authors in Japan during the twentieth century was Fumiko Enchi, who reinterpreted the behavior of purported madwomen, such as the vengeful Lady Rokujo in Aoi no Ue, in terms of pre-Buddhist shamanistic practices, and in 1997 American scholar Doris Bargen  wrote the  oft-cited  work A Woman’s Weapon: Spirit Possession in the Tale of Genji, in which she attempted to “locate [spirit possession] within the politics of Heian polygynous society and interpret spirit possession as a predominantly female strategy adopted to counter male strategies of empowerment.”  Bargen argues that although Murasaki Shikibu, author of The Tale of Genji, was to some extent bound to reflect the prevalent values of her male-dominated society, she was also able to convey a contrasting perspective through “indelible traces in the text” (Bargen, xvi).

Chiori Miyagawa

Chiori Miyagawa

Chiori Miyagawa, despite having been born in Japan, does not identify herself as a Japanese author.  Still, insofar as she utilizes stories from her ancestral literary tradition, she participates in the modern project of allowing characters usually embodied by males on the Noh stage to speak in female voices.

Of course, to interrogate gender representations in literature does not automatically result in pervasive cultural change, especially when time-honored artistic traditions are at stake.  Although with the Meiji restoration of late nineteenth century, women began to be permitted on the stage after centuries of prohibition, it was not until 1948 that a woman was first recognized as a professional Noh performer, and today, although there are at least 200 registered female Noh actors in Japan, their performance opportunities tend to be limited and their participation controversial.

A 35-Year Tradition of Engaging with Tradition

On the other side of the Pacific, where at least in the dominant culture no tradition has existed for as long as Noh has in Japan, the rationale for restricting Noh performance to males has been far less compelling than in the home country of the art form.  Theatre of Yugen was not only founded by a  woman, Yuriko Doi, but has consistently given female actors the chance to animate roles that would, on a traditional Noh or Kyogen stage, be played by male actors.

Yuriko Doi in the Kyogen play Kawakami, photo by Yoko Nomura

Yuriko Doi in the Kyogen play Kawakami, photo by Yoko Nomura

Doi and her successors Libby Silber (former joint artistic director) and most recently Jubilith Moore have propagated what is by now a 35-year “tradition of engaging with tradition” while maintaining creative relations with other female Noh performers.  Current artistic director Jubilith Moore has studied with both Yuriko Doi and Kinue Oshima, the only female professional in the Kita school of Noh, and as director of This Lingering Life, she has carried on the practice of casting against gender, allowing women to play male roles and men to play female roles (as well as casting some women as women and men as men).

Jubilith Moore with ensemble member Sheila Berotti

Jubilith Moore with ensemble member Sheila Berotti

A Sobering Thought

While This Lingering Life does not require an understanding of the underlying Noh plays, the experience and pathos of the situations depicted will be considerably enhanced in audience members who are sensitive to resonances between a modern character in Miyagawa’s play and the corresponding Noh.   Recently I had the chance to watch films of both Sumidagawa and Curlew River at the NOHspace, thanks to Mark Frey of the JETAANC Kabuki Club, and was struck by acute sympathy for the mother in each play.  Later I had cause to reflect that those of us who live in large urban areas of the United States see people under the duress of mental illness on such a frequent basis that we do not necessarily stop to consider what grief or other misfortune induced the condition of each one.  (“Just ignore her,” says Backpacker 2 to his companion in This Lingering Life, and we recognize the attitude, perhaps even the utterance.)  That each person has an individual story is important to remember but easy to forget.  It is one of the cardinal virtues of art that, by depicting a fictional character’s tragedy in an unforgettable way, it can help us to be more attentive to those around us who are similarly afflicted but who do not have the benefit of advocates with the gifts and intention of Motomasa or Miyagawa.

Further Reading

The Noh plays mentioned in this post are among the most affecting in the Noh repertoire.  For more information, see the following links:

 

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Four Ways of Looking at an Angel

Stories from Noh in Colloquial English

Pages of Fushikaden, Zeami, from nippon.com

Pages of Fushikaden, Zeami, from nippon.com

The language in which classic Noh plays are performed is an archaic form of Japanese.  In addition, the poetry of Noh is paratactical and allusive, and lines are chanted or delivered in stylized speech, so even modern Japanese audience members cannot readily absorb the words as spoken.  Very early in the history of Noh, the great playwright and theoretician Zeami emphasized the importance of ensuring that audience members could understand each word, but that principle is no longer part of the aesthetic of Noh performance.  A great Noh actor is skilled at communicating intense feeling by nonverbal means; still, a performance lasting an hour or more can present a challenge to the novice spectator.

6niXKp7cBThe problem of interpreting the words does not arise at all in This Lingering Life, nor does the production depend on a vocabulary of gesture that makes some newcomers to Noh feel further estranged.   The play and the production take a distinctly Western approach. Characters from Noh plays are modernized and their conflicts, explicitly enacted or described by the actors, are revealed as belonging not to another culture or time, but to common human experience.

Hey, Old Man, I guess you’re smitten with me.  If you bang the drum hanging from the tree by the pond tonight, I’ll come to the window and signal you.

(From This Lingering Life)

Revisionist Tellings of an Ancient Tale

The plot of Hagoromo is reminiscent of swan-maiden folktales and Celtic selkie stories, possibly familiar to many readers from the film The Secret of Roan Inish.  In some versions of the story, in Japan and elsewhere, the man who finds the maiden’s robe demands that she marry him and bear him children.  In the Noh play, the fisherman relinquishes the robe willingly, demanding only that the angel dance for him before she returns to the celestial realm.  I will not retell the story of Hagoromo in detail here but refer you, instead, to the graceful paraphrase by photographer and theater artist David Surtasky on the Theatre Nohgaku blog:  http://theatrenohgaku.wordpress.com/2012/12/14/hagoromo-%E7%BE%BD%E8%A1%A3/

Vintage photograph of the pine tree where the angel hung her cloak

Vintage photograph of the pine tree where the angel hung her cloak

I confess that I was at first confused, even worried, when I learned that material from Hagoromo would be added to a play in which all the other characters grapple with disquieting thoughts.  By contrast with her cohort in This Lingering Life, the angel in Hagoromo is neither pained by her past nor visibly perturbed by the struggles of others.

Cover of Ceres, Celestial Legend

Cover of Ceres, Celestial Legend

Perhaps I would have been more prepared for a revisionist representation had I already known of the Japanese manga series Ceres, Celestial Maiden (Ayashi no Seresu), in which descendants of the celestial maiden seek revenge on males of the fisherman’s family for the theft of her robe.

I was also unaware that in the “Robe of Feathers” appendix of Osamu Tezuka’s Phoenix, v. 8, Civil War, Part Two, the maiden is a time traveler from the distant future.

Cover of Phoenix, Civil War Part Two

Cover of Phoenix, Civil War Part Two

If Ceres, Celestial Maiden spins the tale into an action-adventure series for young women, and Tezuka recasts the maiden as a time traveler, Miyagawa’s take on Hagoromo is distinctly comic:  in This Lingering Life, the angel seems to represent those among us, or within our ken, who lead pleasantly protected lives, who can afford to be careless because others will take care of them, or who blithely admit that they live in lovelier, safer neighborhoods and have fewer cares than the rest of us.

Woman with Tragic Hair:  What’re you doing?

Angel: Hanging up my cloak on this beautiful pine tree.

Woman with Tragic Hair: …Um.  Why?

Angel: I dunno.  Because there is tintinnabulation in the sky and the fragrance of waffles.

(from This Lingering Life)

Such a novel portrayal challenges an admirer of the original play not to take his or her reaction to its beauties for granted, and in that spirit, I offer you four additional ways of looking at Hagoromo—all consistent, I hope, with the aesthetic principle for which Theatre of Yugen is named.

Yugen (That Word Again)

Yugen is a notoriously difficult term to define but means something like “the suggestion of an unearthly dimension, eliciting a response too deep for words.”  The quality of yugen can be attributed to a natural phenomenon, an art object, or a performance.  It is no wonder that Noh, which so often invites us to receive a visitor from another dimension, is the art form most closely associated with yugen.

Tsurui-mura, Hokkaido, David Lee Photography (used by permission)

Tsurui-mura, Hokkaido, David Lee Photography (used by permission)

Hagoromo and the Experience of Beauty

A common fisherman needs no tutelage to respond to beauty:

Above endless leagues of lovely hills,
suddenly clouds rise.
A bright moon over the pavilion
claims the clearing of the rain.
Yes, this is a time of peace and calm.
Spring has touched the pine woods,
wave on wave washes the shore
as mists rise, and the moon
loiters in the plains of heaven:
even for such as we,
Beauty to transport the heart with keen delight!
Beauty to transport the heart with keen delight!

(From Hagoromo, in Japanese Nō Dramas, trans. Royall Tyler)

He also recognizes the quality of the feather mantle before he knows its provenance:

…I see an exquisite mantle hanging on this pine.  Yes, indeed it is astonishing in both color and scent.  Surely this is no common mantle.

(From Hagoromo, in Japanese Nō Dramas, trans. Royall Tyler)

We, too, can respond to the beauty of Noh even if we do not understand the words.  The angel advances on the bridgeway and strikes us with wonder.  We are captivated by the beauty of her kimono and headdress, the elegance of her gait, the gorgeous feathered mantle that she draped nonchalantly over a branch, and the strangeness of the music that accompanies her hieratic dance.  A video snippet can only hint at the power of a live performance:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=D_GmybFUYSA

Hagoromo as a Parable of Nature

The angel in Hagoromo identifies herself as coming from the Palace of the Moon.  She is “A celestial maiden of the moon laurel tree/now divided in two/and present here briefly.” It is “she whose loveliness is the moon’s own.”  At her coming, “Blossoms fall from the sky.”  “Although not Heaven, the earth is lovely too,” she says, and much of her verbiage exalts the beauties of nature.

Hagoromo Falls, Hokkaido, Dean Goss (used by permission)

Hagoromo Falls, Hokkaido, Dean Goss (used by permission)

This tremendous wealth man is sometimes tempted to abuse.  The fisherman in Hagoromo is tempted to take the feather mantle, first as a family heirloom and then, on second thought, to make it a “treasure of the realm.”  What he fails to understand initially but comes to understand through his encounter with the angel is that without her feather mantle, “like a wingless bird,” the angel cannot fly.

I would not want to suggest that the original author of Hagoromo meant it as a parable exhorting an audience of samurai to responsible husbandry of the earth, the dangers of habitat destruction, or other ecological concerns of our time.  Yet, to the extent that our reception of the play occurs in intertextual space, it seems to me that we can bring such a reading to it.

Hagoromo as a Parable of Art

Hagoromo can also easily be read as a parable about art.  The feather mantle is envisioned not as a part of the angel’s body but as a garment made of feathers, a crafted object, and what the fisherman asks and receives in recompense for his compassion is an artistic performance.  The play represents itself as an account of how “the world learned the East Country’s Suruga dance.”

An association between art and divinity is pervasive in world culture, obviously, and occurs elsewhere in Japanese mythology.  As I explained in at least one article supporting Mystical Abyss, it was a sacred dance that lured the goddess Amaterasu out of her cave; that legend is cited as the origin of both Noh theatre and Taiko drumming.  Ezra Pound, who along with a number of other Modernist authors was inspired by Noh, uses the feather mantle in one of his early cantos as a metaphor for his own artistic endowment:

Detail of an image from the Genji Scroll, from Wikipedia

Detail of an image from the Genji Scroll, from Wikipedia

And we will say:  What’s left for me to do?
Whom shall I conjure up; who’s my Sordello,
My pre-Chaucer, pre-Boccaccio,
as you have done pre-Dante?
Whom shall I hang my shimmering garment on;
Who wear my feathery mantle,
hagoromo;
Whom set to dazzle the serious future ages?   

Hagoromo and the Path to Salvation  

Why did the angel in Hagoromo descend to earth?  Why does a celestial being take human form?  To teach compassion, but not necessarily by example.

When the angel says to the fisherman, “Suspicion is only for humans./ In heaven, falsehood is quite unknown,” she seems, from a modern perspective, to be smacking him on the wrist, like a wealthy woman shaming a poor shopkeeper with the words, “People of my class do not write bad checks.”   In my view, that moment represents a status transaction but is not at all the crux of the play.  Rather, the tension in Hagoromo arises from the challenge that the Tennin poses to the fisherman—the fact that she urgently needs something that he has the power to deny.

The angel is a vehicle through which the fisherman learns compassion not because she exemplifies it, but because she evokes it:

the dewdrop tears fall;
her jeweled crown, the flowers in her hair,
wilt and droop:
the five signs of an angel’s decline
are plain to see, heartbreaking!

Please, I can easily see how much you are suffering.  I cannot bear it.  I will give you your mantle back.

(From Hagoromo, in Japanese Nō Dramas, trans. Royall Tyler)

Pieta, Michelangelo

Pieta, Michelangelo

A celestial being takes human form because man is stirred most by human sorrow.

In an earlier post, entitled “From Life to Life,” I mentioned the Buddhist teaching that the Deva world is not, as one might think, the most auspicious into which to be reborn, because it does not offer the opportunity for enlightenment.  The angel in Hagoromo represents a world in which the unpleasantnesses of human life, and hence the range of transformative challenges available to man, do not exist.

Only a human being can transcend the world of illusion.

Give Noh a Chance  

We do hope, it must be admitted, that seeing This Lingering Life will inspire at least some audience members to give traditional Noh a chance.  There is much to be enjoyed even by a person with no knowledge of the Japanese language.  The mystery of an encounter with a spirit might, in fact, be enhanced by the fact that he or she speaks in an incomprehensible tongue!

The Tennin (called an angel in This Lingering Life), from the Sugiura Noh website

The Tennin (called an angel in This Lingering Life), from the Sugiura Noh website

And for those with a literary bent, the book Japanese Nō Dramas, published by Penguin Classics, is an inexpensive edition that includes six of the nine foundation plays for This Lingering Life, in addition to many other plays.   Electronic texts of a few, including Hagoromo, are also available as part of the Japanese Text Initiative of the University of Virginia Library: http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/japanese/noh/ .

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