Written and Edited by Lindsay Price September, 2011
The world is all a dream and he who wakes,
The world is all a dream and he who wakes,
Casting it from him, may yet know the real
Noh play Atsumori by Zeami, translated by Royall Tyler
This month we continue our look at eras in Theatre History with the traditional Japanese form of Noh. I’m including Noh (and inserting it before Medieval theatre) because it bears some interesting similarities to Ancient Greek theatre through the use of mask, the simple staging, the use of a chorus, and the story origins.
If you study the Greeks, take this little side trip through Noh.
Noh: accomplishment, perfected art, talent, ability
Sometimes spelled No.
Noh began with rituals and celebrations of song and dance that were imported from China. The varying forms focused on different elements such as pantomime, acrobatics, music and dance. They were traditionally performed outside, on the grounds of Buddhist shrines and temples. These different aspects began to merge and in the 14th century, during the Muromachi period, became the form as it stands today.
The credit for the merging of the forms is usually given to Kan’ami and Zeami, a father and son team. Kan’ami was a playwright/performer, and he took Noh in a new direction by adding dance. His troupe, Kanze (performers were divided into different troupes, like the different performing troupes in Shakespeare’s time) had the opportunity to perform for the ruler of Japan at the time, Shogun Ashikaga Yosimitsu. Yosimitsu became the patron for Kan’ami’s troupe. His son Zeami further refined the Noh style and went on to write many plays. He also wrote essays on how to perform Noh, which are still followed to this day.
“The invocation signalling the entrance of the Shite is again given by the flautist. When he appears, he pauses close to the third pine to establish his character and his state, before finally settling close to his pillar and beginning the drama.” – The Training of Noh Actors by David Griffiths.
The roles in a Noh play are strictly defined.
The types of roles in a Noh play vary little from piece to piece. The roles follow such defined guidelines, that actors go to a specific school to learn a specific part.
Shite(she-tay) The main character, who may be human (male or female), a ghost, a god, or a demon. They always perform in mask and mostly speak in verse. In a two-act play, the Shite is called the maeShite (before) in the first act and as the nochijite (after) in the second. The Shite may play the same character in both acts, or may change characters. If the character changes, it’s still played by the same actor. The Shite is typically searching for salvation.
Tsure The companion of the Shite. May be masked.
Waki The supporting actor, always plays a human character. They watch the action on the side and interact with the Shite. They are often the first person on stage who presents the story and the main character to the audience. They speak both in verse and in prose. Waki performers never play the Shite role. They are also never masked. If there is more than one, Waki companions are called Wakizure.
Jiutai The chorus. Made up of 8-10 Shite actors. They describe the action, and sing the thoughts and feelings of the Shite while the Shite dances. They are not characters in the play.
Kyogen (also called Ai) They perform the Kyogen, the comedies that are presented in-between acts in the Noh plays. This gives the Shite time to change costume if need be. These actors are considered lesser than Noh performers. In Noh plays, they often play the part of villagers.
Hayashi The musicians. There are four instruments used in Noh: a flute and three different types of drums – hip drum, shoulder-drum, and stick-drum.
Koken Stage assistant. There is no suspension of disbelief in a Noh play so Koken sit on stage during the performance, delivering and receiving props, helping the Shite as needed. They are also Shite actors.
Kokata Child character. Not masked. These are young Shite actors.
“Concentration, compression, stillness with an inward-focused energy—all these are different expressions for Noh’s ‘spirit of integration.’ If Kabuki is a theatrical form that expresses everything outward, then Noh is one that is forever moving inward.” – NISHINO Haruo, Director Noh Theatre Research Institute Hosei University
Acting in the Noh theatre is unlike anything we have in the modern theatre. There is no director. There is no rehearsal period, none that we would recognize. And yet, a Noh play comes together without any issues or confusion. This is because Noh performers practice their parts for years, often beginning in childhood.
There are specific schools for the Shite, Waki, Kyogen, and for the musicians. Actors learn specific movements and follow specific rules to create the different roles. There isn’t any room for interpretation in a Noh play. Every Shite actor follows the same pattern of movements for a particular role. Every musician plays his instrument the exact same way every time. The ritual and the experience of the play takes precedence. Noh can be very much a spiritual experience.
Even though there is a “main character” there are no stars.
Think about this in terms of Shakespeare. What if there were schools you went to to learn specific Shakespeare roles done in a specific way? Every Romeo makes the same gestures at the same time. Every Hamlet does the To be or not to be speech in the same way. If that were so, then actors could easily come together to put on a play in a short period of time because everyone knew exactly what to do.
Zeami described the ultimate aesthetic ideal that Noh actors should strive for as yûgen: grace, beauty, soft, elegant, subtle. “When all forms that are seen, all forms that are heard, are beautiful, then that is yûgen.” Yûgen incorporates a sad quality to the experience. Elegant sadness. Zeami also advocated balance: if a demon character made a bold gesture it had to be followed by a gentle gesture.
The aural aspect of Noh text involves three aspects: chant (Kataru), singing (Utai) and instrumental music (Hayashi). There is little-to-no “dialogue” that we would recognize in a play. The goal is to create art and beauty more so than communicating a story.
Everything is highly stylized. The sound of Noh is not a genre of music that we would recognize, or perhaps even find enjoyable, in a Western culture. It’s a specific and unique sound. A New York Times review described Noh singing as sound that “…often sounded like whining, or moaning. Sustained tones were performed with a slowly wavering vibrato that took getting used to.” (Antony Tommasini, New York Times, October 27,1997)
Born out of Buddhist chants the music is not based on hummable melodies. The sound is monotonic (a vocal that does not change in pitch or tone) repetitive and rhythmic. As with the acting, the singing and music follow a specific pattern, a specific meter. There is no individual musical interpretation.
The role of the chorus is to at times narrate what is happening and at other times sing while the Shite dances, speaking for the Shite. The chorus sings in unison. There is no harmony.
The instrumental ensemble is made up of a flute (nokan) and three different types of drums (kotsuzumi, otsuzumi, and taiko). Just as there is no director for the play, there is no conductor for the musicians. The actors, the chorus and the musicians all must listen intensely to each other. The flute (rather than the drums) is used to introduce sections of the play, and to set the tempo and pitch for the chorus.
The Kyogen plays do not have any singing or music.
Both of these also show examples of Shite dance.
It is said that Noh is sometimes hard to follow because of its symbolic and stylized nature. At times the movement is quite abstract as the Shite expresses an emotion. Stories don’t always follow a straight line. And yet, it has also been said that it is easy to follow, even if you don’t speak Japanese, because of the visual nature. Watch enough plays and the movements and gestures become familiar. The way a character walks will reveal gender, mood and status. The combination of grandeur (the sweeping gesture of an arm) and simplicity (the subtle tilt of the head) creates impact.
An Example: To show that the character is crying, the actor tilts the mask down and brings one hand up in front of the face. To show weeping the actor would bring up both hands. There is not attempt to sound like they are crying, to move the shoulders, or even to actually cry.
There are three types of movement in Noh: realistic, symbolic and abstract. The the actor rarely moves quickly with emotion. Movement is slow and grandiose. Gestures are held for many beats. Zeami is often quoted as saying, “move seven if the heart feels ten.” Actors strive to glide across the stage instead of walk:
“Hakobi is the name for walking and is designed to avoid up and down movements. Smooth walking, seeming to glide, is the mark of a master actor. The heels are kept in contact with the floor at all times.” – Cavaye/Griffith/Senda, A Guide to the Japanese Stage: From Traditional to Cutting Edge
Further to being instructed how to walk across the stage, Noh actors are instructed how to stand. Kamae is a basic posture with a straight back that tilts slightly forward. Arms hang down with a slight curve in front of the body and the knees are flexed.
There are exceptions to the slow movement rule, particularly in mad or demonic characters. Rhythmic stamping is another movement used in Noh. Each Noh stage has hollow earthen pots underneath it, so the sound of the stamping loudly reverberates throughout the space.
Dance is integral to the Noh experience. The majority of Noh plays culminate in a dance. Noh is, after all, a “dance” drama. Noh dance is not something we would recognize. It would look quite stiff to the Western eye. Indeed, in one particular dance, the aim is to not move at all. Movement in Noh is often described as “inner movement.” The actor internalizes the emotion of the situation and presents that internalization to the audience through heightened dialogue, music, song and dance. Sounds weird? This is why Noh actors study for years and years to learn their craft.
An actor demonstrates the gesture for crying. Watch how slowly his hands move. He also demonstrates the gesture for “making a request.”
In this next video, the first person who enters is the Waki. Watch how slowly he moves. It’s a great example of the balance Zeami talks about – a fast movement followed by a slow, a harsh gestured followed by a gentle. There’s another good example of sound here as well.
Take a good look at the Shite’s mask and think about what it would be to wear the mask and move at the same time.
“It is not essentially storytelling; rather, it seeks through retrospection about some past event to evoke an emotional state or mood.” – Oscar Brockett, History of the Theatre
Over two hundred Noh plays exist today. As in Ancient Greek plays, the stories in Noh come from distant history, literature, myths, religion and the supernatural. The main character in a Noh play is often on a journey, but becomes hampered by something worldly. For example: a ghost focused on a human emotion (such as love, jealousy or honour) and thus cannot move on.
There is no suspension of disbelief in a Noh play. There is no attempt to create reality on stage.
There are no sets. The scenery is changed through the dialogue.
There are very few props. Any props used are symbolic in nature. A fan represents a sword, or a broom. Wrapped bamboo represents a mountain. Stagehands, who sit on stage, deliver or remove props when needed.
The objective of a Noh play is the creation of art, the creation of beauty through the visual effect of the mask, the costume and the expression of the movements. Individual characterization and story, so important in Western theatre, take a backseat in Noh.
Noh focuses mainly on Buddhist themes: worldly emotions (love, jealousy, revenge) holding one back from the spiritual world.
There are two classes of Noh plays: Mugen and Genzai.
Mugen deals with fantasy and dream: the supernatural, ghosts, spirits. A traveller encounters a disguised ghost who eventually reveals their true self. The story does not follow in a realistic manner and often includes dream sequences.
Genzai deals more in realism – the plays take place in real time and feature humans in the real world.
Noh plays fall into different categories and refer to the type of character the Shite portrays. There are a variety of different spellings and slight variations of what the categories are called, but the type of play they represent is standard.
Performances begin with a ceremonial dance known as Okina. The Okina is folled by one play from each category. In the interest of time, modern performances shorten the number of plays from five to three. Between each play there will be a comedy or farce piece called a Kyogen (mad words). In contrast to the Noh, the Kyogen are not symbolic at all. Their aim (much like the satyr play in Greek theatre) is to make the audience laugh.
Atsumori by Zeami
Please cast me not aside.
Though a single cry would suffice,
each day, each night, you pray.
How fortunate I am, my name
unspoken, yet clear, at dawn and at dusk too
you hold services for the soul of one
whose name is mine, he says
as his figure fades from sight,
as his figure fades from sight.
Patsukaze – Pining Wind originally by Kan’ami and reworked by Zeami
Long dead as we are,
And so steeped in longing,
For the world of Suma Bay
That pain has taught us nothing
Ah, the sting of regret!
“Perhaps the most striking thing about the No stage is the kagamiita, the permanent wall painted with a large twisted pine tree. This and the painted bamboo to the sides are said to be a reminder of the days when No was performed outside. Both grandeur and simplicity, such important features of No are symbolized by this unchanging set.” – Cavaye/Griffith/Senda, A Guide to the Japanese Stage: From Traditional to Cutting Edge
Every Noh stage has been constructed the same way since the 1500’s.
As there are little-to-no props and no scenery in a Noh play, the costume and mask play an important role in the visualization of the story. They tell the audience who the character is, their gender, their age, and their social status. The two are a perfect combination of grandeur and simplicity that represent Noh.
Costumes – Noh shozoku
“Noh costuming includes symbolic elements. A female character who appears with the right sleeve of her robe slipped off, revealing the underkimono, is probably deranged.” – Brazell & Araki , Traditional Japanese Theatre: An Anthology of Plays
The costumes in Noh are beautiful and elaborate, the visualization of art and beauty in a Noh play. The combination of colours and patterns are carefully chosen. The costuming choices are not about the realism of a costume and whether or not a character (such as a lower class farmer) would really wear something so elaborate, it’s about the symbolism.
Costumes are made from silk, woven fabric, linen, brocade, and twill. The clothes are divided into categories depending on how the particular pieces are made, and what use they have in the play. The osode are outer garments with wide open sleeves (appropriate for sweeping gestures). The kosode are kimonos worn underneath the outer garments, with narrow sleeves. The hakama are pleated pants and skirts. Actors complete the costume with sashes, wigs, and headbands. The way the various pieces are draped about the actor shows the audience the mood and standing of the character. A warrior character, for example would have his costume draped to simulate armour. There is a specific type of hakama that creates a bench effect out behind – the bigger the bench, the greater the character’s status.
The pattern on a piece of clothing can change from actor to actor so long as it is appropriate to the theme of the play. Costumes for male and female characters have different patterns. Female characters mostly wear nature patterns of flowers and plants.
The colours of the costumes are also chosen to reflect mood and character.
Every performer in Noh carries a fan, despite their status. Even each member of the chorus carries one. It is the fan that becomes most used as a prop in Noh becoming any needed object. The fan also becomes part of the costume as the fan’s decoration will reflect the nature of the character.
“The fixed expression of the mask requires that it provide the quintessence of the emotional atmosphere of the play. Shite and mask must become one.” – William Scott Wilson, The Flowering Spirit: Classic Teachings on the Art of No
Nothing demonstrates the absence of interpretation in Noh more than the use of mask. Nothing demonstrates the simplicity of Noh more than the use of mask.
Noh masks are usually wooden and formed from a single block. They are covered in many coats of lacquer. The mask covers the entire face with only small holes for the eyes and mouth. Think about what it would be like to perform behind a wall; it takes a very talented actor to convey anything behind a frozen face. The Shite (and occasionally the tsure) is the only actor who wears a mask in Noh. Those without masks strive to wear a “mask-like” expression on their face. There is no reaction to the story or emotion.
There are six main categories of masks but within those categories there are many many divisions. Every single mask has a name. For example, in the Woman category (Onna) of mask there are also: Youngest Woman (Ko-Omote), Young Woman (Waka-onna) Young Mad Woman (Masugami), Beautiful Woman (Zo-onna), Middle Aged Woman (Fukai), Middle Aged Woman separated from a loved one (Shakumi), Old Woman (Ubu), and Gaunt Woman (Yase-Onna). The list goes on.
Masks are generally set with a neutral expression but there are masks that show variation in emotion. In total there are over 200 different masks. As there are so many different division within a category, the Shite has some flexibility in choosing which specific mask he will use. It’s all about the theme of the play, as opposed to the character.
The Shite holds the mask in a place of honour. The donning of the mask is a ritual. The Shite climbs inside the character when he puts on the mask.
The masks are usually passed down from generation to generation.
Smiling old man. This type of mask is used when actors play gods. This is the oldest type of mask.
Old man. Always with a beard.
Man. This mask is formed in a symbolic manner. It’s not meant to look realistic.
Woman. Same as the man, this mask is not meant to look realistic.
Demons. There are two types of kishin: open mouthed and closed.
Ghosts. There are both male and female masks in the category. This is a picture of a Hannya mask, a female jealous revengeful ghost.
Although the mask is a frozen face, the experienced Noh actor will be able to give expression to the mask through small and subtle movements. For example, actors will tilt the mask up to suggest that the mask is laughing and tilt the mask down to suggest that the mask is crying.
The mask is carved out of a single block of wood, which is a long laborious process. Here are some video clips showing mask makers in action.
Click here for a crossword that incorporates names (both English and Japanese) and elements of Noh from the newsletter.
Click here for an identification exercise. Students will identify the different parts of the Noh stage.
Make a Noh mask out of a paper plate (focusing on the facial features and colours) or papier-mâché. Start out by researching on a specific category (such as demon, or Old man) and then pick a specific mask out of that category. Click on the links below for several different instruction sets to make the mask.
Create a Noh play with a modern story, but with traditional characteristics. Make the setting of the play your school. The Shite is a ghost. The ghost cannot pass on to the spiritual world because they are:
In part one, the Shite is hiding in human form. What is that form?
Traditionally the Waki is a monk or priest who listens to the Shite’s sad story. If the play is going to take place in your school who could portray the Waki? (e.g. Guidance counsellor)