Zeami Motokiyo Essay - Critical Essays


Zeami Motokiyo wrote a considerable number of plays. Many, but not all, of the texts survive. Because of Zeami’s importance in the history of the N and of the homage always paid him, a large number of plays have been generously ascribed to his hand. Modern scholarship has lowered the number considerably. Judicious cross-referencing in the various treatises written by Zeami suggests a total of between forty and fifty plays that can safely be attributed to him.

It is also extremely difficult to date the individual texts because accurate performance records do not exist from that time and because his plays were often restaged, given new titles, and partially rewritten by Zeami himself. In his treatises, Zeami always recommended, in performance, a juxtaposition of the old and the new, in order to stimulate but not bewilder an audience, and he often adapted even his best plays to suit new circumstances of performance.

The dramatic form that Zeami perfected, N, differs considerably from any Western form of drama. Perhaps the closest Western analogy might be chamber opera, in which music and text intertwine, yet the parallel is inexact, since N involves masks and elaborate costuming, no scenery, only male actors, a few props, and a crucial use of dance. Even in musical terms, the score of a N play would be considered as partially improvised, with the orchestra and chorus following the lead of the chief performer. Thus, reading the text of a play by Zeami is a process similar to reading an opera libretto, which suggests, but does not re-create, the whole. Unlike many librettos, however, the Zeami texts reveal poetry of striking, synthetic beauty. For such modern Western writers as Yeats and Claudel, Zeami had achieved a form of poetic drama that seemed fully complete in itself.

Reading the text of a Zeami play, like looking over a libretto, may take only a few moments, but because the poetic concentration of the language is high, the full performance of one of his plays may take almost two hours. It has been conjectured that in Zeami’s time, however, the pace was considerably quicker. At that time, a program of performances lasted all day, beginning with the performance of a slow and dignified play and concluding with a play of rapid tempo to end on a note of high excitement. After Zeami’s time, the series was codified into a series of five groups; a normal program would include one of each, plus some comic interludes called kygen. It is by no means clear from Zeami’s treatises, however, that he himself restricted his programs to an orderly sequence of god plays, warrior plays, woman plays, plays concerning madness, and demon plays. Even so, he did write plays that fit these later categories. Of the approximately fifty plays that he did compose, a majority have been translated, but a number of N plays by Zeami that were considered important in his time have still not been rendered into any Western language. Many of those plays are in the category of god plays, dealing with Buddhist and, more particularly, Shinto deities. Zeami’s plays in the other categories are more familiar.

The form of a N play, as developed by Zeami and discussed at length in his treatises, uses a particular structure that is repeated (as are various musical and dramatic aspects found in traditional operatic form) in most of the plays. A N drama might best be described as a vision. The skill of the playwright lies in his ability to lead his audience into that vision. The figures presented and the poetic worlds conveyed may change, but the means by which the vision becomes possible on the stage must remain the same. Usually a particular play begins with the arrival of a priest or other traveler, who comes to a spot that has a history: a place where a famous person has lived or died, a crucial battle was fought, or a noted poet has found inspiration. Opened to the experience of the place by his own knowledge and sympathy, the traveler next meets a person, often a rather mysterious one, who, through conversation, ascertains that the traveler is indeed one who has the ability and the sympathy to grasp the real meaning of what has happened there. Often this section of a Zeami play is couched in elegant and poetic language, so the first encounter is followed by an interlude in which a rustic or some other similar character repeats the nature of the incident; in this way, everyone in the audience can grasp the significance of the encounter. Then, in the final section of the play, the mysterious person whom the traveler first met reveals his or her true nature and describes in grand poetic language the event that happened on the spot, re-creating the moment also in dance, song, and mime. The play, which has begun slowly, reaches its highest pitch, then concludes as the vision fades and the newly enlightened priest or traveler, along with the audience, once again finds himself in the real world.

Although Zeami’s plays vary in tonality and subject matter, they all have certain strong philosophical and emotional resemblances. The pain and chagrin of passion remembered, the growth of an understanding that salvation lies beyond and not in this world, and the saving power of a sincere emotion all link the dramas of Zeami to the sort of Buddhist philosophy prevalent in Japan during the difficult political period in which he lived. The confusions and disappointments of secular society at this time were such that a withdrawal in search of some transcendental understanding of reality became an important possibility for many people before, during, and after Zeami’s generation. Such attitudes thus provided a logical point of departure for the characters that the playwright created for his audiences. Yet the kind of emotional self-consciousness that Zeami posited in those characters seems to make them accessible as well (though initially in radically different ways) to modern readers and audiences who may, for quite different social, political, and personal reasons, feel themselves alienated from society. It may be links such as these that make the work of Zeami seem strikingly contemporary. Even modern readers and spectators find that Zeami’s work touches and justifies their most private feelings, showing by remote example something about the human condition that is wholly recognizable. In the end, Zeami’s powerful belief in the efficacy of poetry, as Yeats was the first Westerner to observe, comes through as clearly today as when these dramas were first composed and performed.

The Wind in the Pines

Zeami did not invent the form of the N play; indeed, he credited his father with the first high accomplishments in the genre. Nevertheless, it was in Zeami’s hands that the potential of the form was fully realized, and in all five categories of N drama, Zeami’s...

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