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 (, 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:

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.

This entry was posted in Countdown to Cordelia, Theatre Nohgaku. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Noh and the Singularity of the Moment

  1. Thanks for this, Edith. Yes, how much richer our lives would be.

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