Kobo Abe’s The Man Who Turned into a Stick is a play that, despite its idiosyncratic features, its nameless characters, and practically nonexistent plot, has the power to not only capture its audience but to touch upon issues that merit attention even forty years after it was written. There is something very personal about Abe’s writing that makes members of his audience pay attention to every line and sometimes even squirm in their seats as they recognize themselves in his play. Abe is a master of knowing how to grab his audience’s attention and then exposing some of their more intimate thoughts and emotions. He accomplishes this without their knowing what he has done or how he has done it.
Anyone who has read Abe or attended one of his plays does not have to be told that they are difficult to understand. However, in spite of the challenge of his disjointed plots and obscure meanings, his audiences tend to leave the theatre excited about what they have just seen. As Shields writes, ‘‘Abe’s fervor infected everyone with a sense of contagious excitement. It did not matter if the actors, audience, or even Abe himself did not completely comprehend his creation.’’ Abe’s drive to create plays that are completely new, so new that even he might not understand their meaning, is an act of courage. That might be part of the reason why his plays attract attentive audiences, but there is more going on in his plays than new angles and perspectives, innovative tricks, and far-fetched characters. Although the overall ambiance of an Abe play makes the audience feel like they have entered a dream, Abe has put a lot of rational thought into the creation of his fantasies. He knows how to keep his audience tuned in to the action on stage. He is more than a writer. He is a combination of orchestral conductor, dramatist, and psychologist: wooing his audience with his charm, he pretends to entertain them while he divulges some of their deepest secrets.
Abe begins his play The Man Who Turned into a Stick with stage directions that suggest that the young hippie couple (Hippie Boy and Hippie Girl) could be shown sniffing glue. So the curtain opens with an image of rebellion, risk-taking, and somewhat disorienting recklessness. Granted, a gluesniffing scene in the twenty-first century might seem a bit tame, but modernize the element to a more radical, modern drug, or cheap high, and the impact is there. With this first image, before any dialogue has been spoken, Abe broadcasts more than could be explained in several minutes of conversation. Of course, Abe did not know how his audience might interpret this opening scene, but he knew it would grab their attention and set them on edge, ready for a night of theatre unlike any they had experienced before.
From this opening scene, Abe then has a fourfoot- long stick ‘‘hurtling down from the sky,’’ and crashing to the stage, nearly hitting Hippie Boy. Not only does the stick startle the young hippie couple, it assuredly startled the audience. As the audience ponders what the stick might represent, Man from Hell enters from stage-left and, in a poetic, chantlike voice, recites lines about the moon being a knife that is ‘‘peeling the skin of fate.’’ Abe wastes no time garnering the audience’s attention. Before easing his audience into a slightly more comfortable mode, however, Woman from Hell announces, almost like a town crier, the somewhat startling news that yet another man has turned into a stick. There is, in fact, a man (referred to as Stick) on stage who matches his movements, as best he can, to those of the real stick that is now in Hippie Boy’s hands. With this introduction, Abe has arrested his audience’s curiosity. They are now wide awake with anticipation. They are primed and ready for the drama to unfold.
Next, Abe eases back into his chair, allowing his audience to catch its breath, as the hippie couple exchange lines about the rhythm the boy is tapping on the sidewalk with the stick. Then the girl looks up and exclaims, ‘‘Look!’’ and points to a young (unseen) boy, on the roof of a tall building. She surmises that the boy threw the stick. Hippie Boy responds derogatively, stating that he hates all little boys, while Hippie Girl is concerned that the young boy might fall over the edge. Abe has caught the audience’s attention again. He had lightened up for a couple of lines, but now he introduces more tension: first, the Hippie Boy’s straightforward announcement that he hates little boys, an unpopular sentiment; second, there is the idea that the little boy might fall, arousing concern in the audience. At this point, with everyone looking up, hoping for the young boy’s safety, Stick speaks. As his monologue progresses, the audience begins to relate to him. He is sensitive, concerned, confused, and loving. He is, in other words, like most members in the audience. He is the quintessential Everyman....
(The entire section is 2020 words.)