If Noh drama is a remarkable aesthetic experience, it is also a ritual for the refinement of empathy. In the context of this ritual, your role as an audience member is one of attention. That is, although it is best to think of Noh as participatory, this is not the sort of theater in which the actors leave the stage to interact with the audience, or in which one is asked for any overt sign of being part of the show. Your role in Noh is to observe a character who is wrapped in memory, blind to your presence, to learn that character’s story, which is told in words and hieratic gesture, and to feel along. Your role, given the aura surrounding the character, is easier than you might expect.
A Noh play is divided into two acts, in which the same character is portrayed in two different ways. For example, in our production, you will notice that Cordelia wears different masks and costumes in Acts 1 and 2. In Act 1, she is a princess, reliving the crucial scene in which her father asks his three daughters to declare the measure of their love for him, and when asked what language she can muster to compete with the effusive answers her sisters have given, she replies “Nothing.” As a result, she is divested of her inheritance and driven into exile.
In Act 2, she has transformed into a warrior, reliving her return from France at the head of an army to rescue her father. This structure is consistent with that of a traditional Noh warrior play, insofar as the main character usually appears as a warrior only in the second act. Cordelia remembers her capture, and because she is a ghost, can also recall her own death and her father’s mourning.
One of the most striking differences between Noh and other forms of theater is that the actors’ movement is often strangely slow. Remember that Cordelia is carrying a heavy psychological burden, and watch how her pace sometimes quickens to reflect emotion that she cannot entirely suppress. Much of the intensity of Noh arises from the unsettling suggestion of hysteria imprisoned.
Between the two acts is what is called the interlude. In traditional Noh, this interlude is performed in the colloquial style of Kyogen. A comic character—not a humorous character, but one of less elevated stature than the main character—appears on stage and retells or comments on the story in plain terms. In Cordelia, this interlude is performed by Lear’s Fool.
The only other actor you will see in Cordelia represents the chorus. The role of the chorus in Noh is largely to say (or rather sing) aloud what the main character is thinking. The chorus always sits on the right side of the stage, facing the center. The musicians sit at the rear of the stage, facing the audience.
As I mentioned in my Welcome post, the first character one ordinarily encounters in a Noh play is the waki. This actor, usually representing a pilgrim or other traveler, serves as a proxy for the audience. We see the apparition in his company and, to some extent, through his eyes. Cordelia departs from this traditional structure in that there will be no waki character on stage. As director Jubilith Moore explained to me, in this play the audience itself is the waki. The plan is for us to meet Cordelia without an intermediary.
For a fascinating detour into classical Noh, see the synopsis of one of the most celebrated warrior plays, Atsumori, on a website that will richly reward the time you spend browsing it: http://www.the-noh.com/en/plays/data/program_008.html. And for a synopsis of possibly the only classical Noh play in which the warrior is a woman, see http://www.the-noh.com/en/plays/data/program_049.html.