Kyogen comedy is arguably even older than Noh drama, but the two forms have been performed together for hundreds of years, with short Kyogen farces providing comic relief from the seriousness of Noh. The two forms have stylistic similarities but also noteworthy differences that even novices will readily recognize:
- Both Noh and Kyogen use stylized speech, but in Kyogen the speech is colloquial, while in Noh it is highly elevated.
- Noh involves both chanting and instrumental music, in addition to speech, whereas neither singing nor instrumental music is necessary to Kyogen.
- The main characters in Noh are ghosts, gods, heroes, and other figures of refinement. In Kyogen, they are merchants or daimyos (lords) of relatively low rank, servants, and other characters having modest social status. Both Noh and Kyogen can also feature gods, demons, and animal characters, but the gods and demons in Kyogen tend to be endearing, even clumsy, and whereas a Noh play might include a butterfly as a character, a Kyogen is more likely to include a monkey, a fox, or even a burgeoning crop of mushrooms!
- Both Noh and Kyogen potentially employ masks, but in Noh it is usually only the main character who wears a mask. In Kyogen the main characters usually do not wear masks. However, masks are used for certain stock characters, human and animal.
- In Noh, even a character who does not wear a mask maintains a mask-like expression, whereas characters in Kyogen use natural facial expressions to convey emotion.
- Both Noh and Kyogen use stylized movement and gestures, but in Kyogen the movements are broader, and the gestures are representational, demanding little guesswork from the audience.
- Both Noh and Kyogen use fans and other props, but whereas in Noh a fan often has an abstract or expressive function, making a gesture of the arm more dramatic or lyrical, in Kyogen a fan is most likely to represent some utilitarian object, for example a sake bowl.
- Largely as a function of these differences, Noh tends to demand an initiated adult audience, whereas Kyogen is readily comprehensible even to children. Thus, the Theatre of Yugen is frequently booked to perform and teach Kyogen classes in schools throughout the San Francisco Bay Area.
Boshibari and the Phenomenon of Master-Servant Farce
Boshibari is a play from the large repertoire of master-servant comedies in Kyogen and features the canonical character Taro-kaja, along with his usual sidekick, Jiro-Kaja. Taro cannot be called industrious, but he is certainly intelligent and is a resourceful and imaginative schemer. Jiro is more serious and fretful but is inevitably dragged into Taro’s pranks. The master is pompous and, following convention, wears trousers so long that he walks on the fabric in ostentatious demonstration of his material prosperity.
Although master-servant comedy exists in many cultures—for example, it is a stock theme in Italian commedia dell’arte, in the plays of Moliere and Shakespeare, and in the operas of Mozart—there is no tradition of master-servant comedy in the United States, possibly because of a culture that in theory embraces social equality. (Jack Benny and Rochester are a master-servant pair but have no memorable ancestors or descendants in American theater.) And certainly, a play depicting servants as essentially lazy, applying their cunning to the project of getting drunk on the job, would not play well in an American historical or contemporary setting.
I have read essays in which the antics of Taro and Jiro are described as subversive but am not entirely convinced, in the same way that it would be difficult for me to understand as subversive characters from American popular culture, such as Alice in The Honeymooners or Marge in The Simpsons, who are represented as far more intelligent than their husbands but who evince no interest in challenging gender roles in any sustained way. Taro and Jiro, similarly, do not covet their master’s responsibilities–they are more like children helping each other to reach the cookie jar–and although they might briefly turn the tables on their master, plays such as Boshibari almost always end with the servants’ being caught and punished. A typical exit will involve Taro and Jiro running off the stage, pursued by their master brandishing a stick.
I suspect that the great daimyos chuckled at the pretention of the masters in Kyogen farce, in the same way that aristocrats of an earlier era in Japan scoffed at the provincial upstarts who eventually became the great daimyos.
For More Information
The following website is (in my own opinion) the best online resource for speakers of English to learn about Noh and Kyogen. The link provided here is to the page introducing Kyogen:
For the academically inclined, the following thought-provoking article, by Svika Serper of Tel Aviv University, argues that Noh and Kyogen explore dichotomies prevalent in Japanese culture during the period when both genres came to cultural prominence. It will probably be of most interest to readers with either some prior background or more than a passing interest in Noh and Kyogen.