The first performance of The Man Who Turned into a Stick was staged at Kinokuniya Hall in Tokyo in 1967. However, it was not until Kobo Abe directed the play in his own Kobo Abe Studio in 1976 that the play reached, in Abe’s mind, a level of completion. Whenever Abe presented The Man Who Turned into a Stick, a short, one-act play, he joined it to two other short plays; but in the 1976 version, a new and more specific sequence came to Abe’s mind, one he believed made the three-play set more comprehensive. The individual plays in the revised series were then given subtitles. The first play of the set, The Suitcase, was subtitled Birth; the second play, The Cliff of Time, was subtitled Process; and the third, The Man Who Turned into a Stick was given the subtitle Death.
Even with the subtitle suggesting a theme, The Man Who Turned into a Stick is not a play that is easily understood, and many people believe that that is exactly how Abe wanted it. Abe did not like to write plays for passive audiences. He wanted his audiences to work. He liked that his plays made people feel uncomfortable because he believed that it was through this discomfort that people would begin to question their own lives rather than perfunctorily accept their fate. In The Man Who Turned into a Stick, he not only presents obscure characters and dialogue that demand attention, he deliberately ends his play with one of the characters pointing directly at the audience and telling the people sitting there that they all resemble sticks. The audience must therefore participate in the play and consider its meaning on a more personal level.
Abe enjoyed complexities and ambiguities because he believed that it was through confronting uncertainty that people would break out of their rigid (or stick-like), preprogrammed thoughts. His plays are built upon dreamlike images, uneasy to grasp. As Abe told Nancy Shields in her book Fake Fish, ‘‘The more we become free from the framework of reality the more clearly we get the real experience which corresponds to the fake experience in a dream.’’ That this statement is not easy to comprehend is also typical of Abe. In essence, however, these sentiments are the backbone upon which The Man Who Turned into a Stick was built. In Abe’s metaphor, the rigidity of staunchly held beliefs that contradict one’s existence causes people to turn into sticks. A stick is dead and inflexible. By taking the ordinary object of a stick and personifying it, Abe hoped to shake his audiences out of their ‘‘fake dreams.’’
The Man Who Turned into a Stick is a short, one act play. It is set on a busy city street in front of a department store in the middle of summer. Two characters are on stage, Hippie Boy and Hippie Girl. Abe’s script directions suggest that the hippie couple may be shown sniffing glue. Suddenly, a stick falls from above. The stick is an actual stick as well as an actor who plays the man who turned into a stick. Abe indicates that the actor playing the stick should manipulate the actual stick upon its falling. Man from Hell enters stage-left and Woman from Hell enters stage-right.
Hippie Boy is startled when he realizes how close he came to being hit by the falling stick and declares that even standing on the sidewalk can be dangerous. Man from Hell and Woman from Hell recite poetic lines referring to fate and the fact that another man has turned into a stick while Hippie Girl reflects on the incident philosophically, almost as if reading a Buddhist text. ‘‘Which do you suppose is the accident—when something hits you or when it misses?’’ she asks. Then Man from Hell and Woman from Hell continue reciting their poetic verses.
Hippie Boy picks up the stick and begins to tap out a rhythm. Hippie Girl tries to guess the song that goes along with that rhythm, then she looks up and notices a child on top of the department store (where, in Japan, there often is a type of playground). Both Hippie Girl and Hippie Boy guess that it was the boy who threw the stick down, with Hippie Girl believing it was an accident and Hippie Boy thinking the child threw it on purpose, trying to see if he could hit someone with the stick. At this point, Stick speaks his first lines. It is through these lines that the audience realizes that the stick is the father of the boy and that the boy is calling to him.
Man from Hell and Woman from Hell continue to talk in poetic stanzas until they meet at center stage. They both begin to question Hippie Boy and Hippie Girl about the stick. They want to know where the hippies found the stick. The hippies in turn want to know if the man and woman are police. The man and woman assure them that they are not with the police and ask the hippies to give them the stick.
It is clear that Hippie Boy does not trust the man and woman. He calls them liars and accuses them of being the ones who threw the stick at him and now want to suppress the evidence. Hippie Girl intervenes, reminding Hippie Boy of the child on top of the roof. Woman from Hell confirms that there was a child on the roof and that the child was calling for his father. When Man from Hell attempts to explain why they need the stick and asks for the hippies’ understanding, Hippie Boy replies: ‘‘I don’t understand nothing.’’ To which Hippie Girl makes it clear that Hippie Boy is commenting on the gap between the two generations, then adds: ‘‘We’re alienated.’’
While The Man Who Turned into a Stick bemoans his fate, the hippies and Man and Woman from Hell have a brief philosophical discussion on the topic of aims (or goals) in life. Man from Hell asks what Hippie Boy intends to do with the stick, to which the boy responds that he is ‘‘not interested in aims.’’ Hippie Girls adds: ‘‘Aims are out of date.’’ Man from Hell counters that since aims are out of date there is no reason for Hippie Boy to keep...
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