The Man Who Turned Into a Stick

by Kobo Abe

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Dramatic and Psychological Techniques

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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...

(This entire section contains 2020 words.)

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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.

When Man and Woman from Hell meet at center stage (they have been slowly walking in from opposite sides of the stage) they begin a dialogue with the hippies. Through their exchanges, Abe hints at his themes of alienation, death, passivity, and aimlessness. He creates short conversations that focus on these themes, but he intersperses slightly off-balanced dialogues that don’t make a lot of sense. For instance, immediately following a somewhat lengthy description of Man from Hell’s sentiments about the benefit of uncertainty and anguish in one’s life, Hippie Girl turns to Hippie Boy and asks: ‘‘How about a kiss, huh?’’ It is as if Abe wants to catch the audience off-guard. He has turned and caught them catnapping, something he cannot allow them to do. So he throws out a line that will again wake them up. After all, who can resist the mention of a kiss?

Apparently, Hippie Boy can—and does. Hippie Girl is put off, but offers a compromise. Why doesn’t Hippie Boy scratch her back with the stick? By now, the audience has associated the male actor with the stick. The man has been talking for the stick and has matched the stick’s motions as best he can. The audience has identified the stick with the man and must wonder how the boy will scratch the girl’s back with Stick? Will he use the stick or the male actor? The audience must figure this out. Again, Abe lures the audience into the act, forcing them to think through the motivations of the characters and anticipate what the author has planned next.

The girl bends over in Hippie Boy’s direction, implying that she is ready for him to scratch her back. Hippie Boy inserts the stick (the real stick) down the back of her dress. In likewise fashion, Hippie Girl then scratches Hippie Boy’s back with the stick. Hippie Boy enjoys the scratching so much he emits strange, ecstatic noises and announces that he hasn’t had a bath in a long time. Here Abe inserts humor. It is used as a respite, an opportunity for the audience to relax and laugh at nonsense. However, it does not last long. As soon as the audience begins to laugh, Abe turns their emotions around and makes them confront anger. Hippie Girl throws the stick down in disgust and exclaims: ‘‘You egoist!’’ Just when the audience thought that Abe was letting up the pressure, he catches them again. This time he catches them in a puzzle. What is wrong with Hippie Girl? What does she mean by calling Hippie Boy an ‘‘egoist’’? What is going on? In throwing out questions at his audience, Abe keeps them connected to his play. Nothing is answered or explained, of course, leaving the audience to work through the confusion, creating their own answers.

The play progresses, with Abe clenching and squeezing the nerves of his audience, then releasing them for short periods of time, only to grab them again with new, unsettling elements. Stick speaks. He is very emotional. His son is crying out for him. Stick knows that this is the last he will see of his son. Interspersed between the monologues of the dying stick are Abe’s reflections on modern life, as expressed by the other characters in the play. The audience, now completely rapt with anticipation, wonders why the Man from Hell has asked for their attention. Their minds are open, and Abe is about to leave them with a message that will remain with them for quite some time.

Toward the end, the play takes a turn toward the serious. Hippie Boy, while holding the stick, senses his own resemblance to it. He feels the life flowing out of it, and it startles him. The reflection on the boy’s part is flitting, at first, for the conversation quickly changes direction, returning briefly to comedy, with Abe orchestrating a discordant rhythm that keeps the audience perturbed as the characters switch from jokes to irrational actions to moments of reflection. Hippie Boy’s identification with the stick continues to weave its way through the play until, in astonishment and confusion, Hippie Boy gladly hands over the stick to Man from Hell. Hippie Boy, Abe demonstrates, does not like what he feels. He does not want to see himself as a stick.

It is during the last section that the play delivers most of Abe’s message. The dialogue is fairly straightforward, with no comedic interruptions. Abe partially explains the metaphor of the stick and the reasons why the man has turned into one. Then he has everyone but Stick leave the stage, with the Man and Woman from Hell seen in silhouette as they stand behind a curtain. They begin reciting poetic stanzas again as Stick contemplates the reasons for his present condition. Without stepping out from behind the curtain, Woman and Man engage in a brief dialogue, wondering how a stick would scratch himself if he had an itch. The audience is lulled into believing that the play has reached its conclusion. However, Abe has a few more tricks up his sleeve. The audience is in for another surprise. Abe is not quite finished with them.

Man from Hell suddenly reappears on stage and walks over to the audience. He stands, pointing his finger at individuals in their seats. Then he says: ‘‘Look—there’s a whole forest of sticks around you.’’ With this, Abe has done it again. The play, in essence, has finished, but the final message has yet to be delivered. Abe is not going to let the audience go home, believing they can sneak out of the theatre unnoticed. Abe is like a teacher, and Man from Hell is handing out Abe’s take-home exam. The play has delivered Abe’s message, only now he wants to make sure that the audience understands that he was talking directly to them. There was only one man in this play who turned into a stick, but in the audience there are many more potential victims. Man from Hell then delivers his last lines: ‘‘I wouldn’t want you to think I’m saying these things just to annoy you . . . . It’s just the simple truth.’’

Just in case the audience didn’t get Abe’s message, he has Woman from Hell console Stick by telling him, just before the curtain falls, that he is not alone. ‘‘You’ve lots of friends,’’ she says. With these words, Abe leaves his audience alone. At least he leaves them in the physical sense. His play, his thoughts, his quirky images, and his disturbing questions go home with every member of the audience. If there are questions in their minds, and most assuredly there will be questions, Abe leaves the members of the audience to answer them on their own.

Source: Joyce Hart, Critical Essay on The Man Who Turned into a Stick, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.

Elements of Existentialism and Theatre of the Absurd

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In a darkly playful and bizarre manner, The Man Who Turned into a Stick forces its audience to think about the purpose of life in a crowded, technologysaturated society. Subtle conflicts between characters inspire one to explore the meaning of life and death as an essential aspect of the human condition. As the play opens, the title character jumps off the roof of a department store located above a busy subway or train station in Tokyo. His suicide creates the play’s situation and plot. However, one cannot determine whether the ensuing action and dialogue are ‘‘real.’’ As the Man from Hell suggests, it is possible that he and his partner-in-training ‘‘constitute no more than the dreams that people have when they are on the point of death.’’ Such ambiguity gives the play disturbing and unsettling force. Conceptually, the bleak themes of existential despair and death in Kobo Abe’s The Man Who Turned into a Stick can be placed within a historical context.

The philosophy of modern existentialism and the closely related Theatre of the Absurd came into their own in the wake of the destruction and trauma caused by World War II. This horrendous conflict, raging from 1939 to 1945 in Europe and the Pacific, killed millions of men, women, and children. It left the survivors, particularly those who lived in areas where the fighting was most intense, disoriented and devastated, in a state of shock. For many, religious leaders seemed incapable of explaining why or how God or a Supreme Being could allow such an atrocity to occur. Many intellectuals and artists lost faith in either God or the idea of rational human progress. Existentialism flourished in the wake of such twentieth century horrors as the European Holocaust and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan, events that provided ample evidence of mankind’s capacity for inflicting— and enduring—tremendous suffering. Emerging in Paris, which had been occupied by Nazi forces from 1940 to 1944, existentialist writers such as Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980) and Albert Camus (1913–1960) stated that modern life is pointless and absurd, without real meaning. In their view, God or a Supreme Being has apparently abandoned humans to their own devices. The best one can do is bravely face the absurdity of life and act accordingly.

Following World War II, the Theatre of the Absurd developed and explored the theme of existentialism. Sartre and Camus wrote plays as well as novels and essays and books of philosophy, but Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (1954) is probably the best-known example of Theatre of the Absurd. In this genre, characters frequently experience alienation, a feeling of separation from society and place. They often come to realize that their lives are pointless. Once they reach this conclusion, they either continue on without much hope or try some desperate and often irrational act such as suicide. To keep audiences from fleeing to the exits in despair or denial, Theatre of the Absurd playwrights often use humor—usually bizarre and often nonsensical— to provoke laughter, even if the laughter is nervous or anxious. The Theatre of the Absurd made its maximum cultural impact in the 1950s and 1960s, a period of recovery from World War II. Tellingly, Samuel Beckett (1906–1989) won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969. Kobo Abe’s The Man Who Turned into a Stick, first staged in 1967, fully resonates with elements of both modern existential philosophy and the Theatre of the Absurd.

Modern Japan, the setting of Abe’s play, has undergone radical and startlingly rapid change in less than thirty years. Once the principal Asian military power, Japan suffered firebombings of its major cities, atomic attack, and military occupation by the United States and its allies. It then became transformed into a technologically advanced and rapidly developing economic power. Throughout this time, Japan was served by a disciplined workforce that accepted personal sacrifice as a rule. The Man Who Turned into a Stick represents this workforce, the necessary ingredient that made modern post-war Japan possible. He, like most Japanese workers, pays a heavy price for Japan’s ‘‘success.’’ The Man from Hell explains that the Stick ‘‘has put up with every kind of abuse, until its whole body is covered with scars, never running away and never being discarded’’ and therefore ‘‘should be called a capable and faithful stick.’’ Similar characteristics could also describe those who led and served under the Japanese war machine of the 1930s and 1940s. From Abe’s point of view, as expressed by the Man from Hell, capability and faithfulness are not particularly enlightened attributes for humans. Indeed, when placed entirely at the disposal of others without question, they eventually contribute to one’s sense of alienation from the world. In the Stick Man’s case, it leads him to such despair and desperation that he flees his son and leaps off a roof. Life has become so unbearable that an act of suicide seems heroic and liberating by comparison. For once he does something for himself. This seems irrational, perhaps, but taking responsibility for one’s actions despite the absurdity of life is a heroic gesture, an act that constitutes one of the hallmarks of existentialism and Theatre of the Absurd. In life, one makes self-defining choices, even if they lead to one’s own death.

Free will is an essential aspect of existentialist thought. The very act of transforming a man into a stick seems absurd on a rational level, but this transformation makes more sense on a subconscious and symbolic level. The quality of workers’ lives is so poor that they are worth no more than sticks to be used as tools. The outlook is bleak. The Man from Hell points out to his partner that ‘‘the percentage of sticks has steadily gone up.’’ Workers’ lives have become so dehumanized that they require no judgment or punishment when they die. Without hope while they live, they have no faith in Heaven or a redemptive afterlife. Yet Hell exists, at least in a dying man’s consciousness. If there is a God or Supreme Being, he has abandoned humankind to its own devices. According to Hell’s textbook: ‘‘The Master has departed and the earth has become a grave of rotten sticks. That’s why the shortage of help in hell has never become especially acute.’’ Here and throughout the play are echoes of Sartre, Camus, and Beckett.

Two other characters provide an alternative to the Stick Man’s way of life. Hippie Boy and Hippie Girl represent the counterculture that developed throughout the 1960s in reaction to the established values of the time. The counterculture movement made a lasting impression on the United States during the Vietnam War and soon became a worldwide phenomenon. Hippies defied the accepted social norms, yet they defined themselves simply by being against these norms rather than offering an alternative. Hippie Girl says blithely, ‘‘This is the age of the generation gap. We’re alienated.’’ With this pronouncement, the playwright indicates that hippies are just as alienated as people who live by the more accepted social rules and expectations. The hippies live aimlessly, which bothers Hippie Girl somewhat. Her sister has died recently and she feels unsettled. She suggests that some aims in life would be a good thing. The Man from Hell replies in typical existentialist fashion. ‘‘The uncertainty you feel at the thought you have lost track of whatever aims you once had—they’re a lot better proof that you are there . . . than any aim I can think of,’’ he tells her. In existentialism, mental anguish is a necessary part of understanding the absurd nature of human life no matter how it is lived. Hippie Boy acts disagreeably, trying to assert his uniqueness. But he feels anxious after Hippie Girl tells him that he resembles The Man Who Turned into a Stick. Hippie Boy cannot help but feel more disturbed when the Man from Hell follows up her observation: ‘‘Let’s suppose for the moment you do look like the stick—the meaning is not what you think it is.’’ Hippie Boy thinks he’s been clever by selling the stick for five dollars, but immediately after he makes the deal the Man from Hell says rather menacingly, ‘‘It wasn’t just a stick you sold, but yourself.’’ In folklore, making a bargain with the Devil or his minions frequently leads to the surrender of one’s soul. Later, when the Woman from Hell asks her partner what will become of the hippies, he says: ‘‘If they don’t turn into sticks maybe they’ll become rubber hoses.’’ He seems to be saying that, in the end, it makes no difference.

Much of the subtle conflict in The Man Who Turned into a Stick results from the interaction between Hippie Girl and Hippie Boy and between the Man and Woman from Hell. The girl and woman show more compassion and hope, which their male counterparts try to dash through quips and commentary. Hippie Boy calls Hippie Girl ‘‘just plain stupid,’’ while the Man from Hell chides his partner for being too compassionate, too sentimental. Hippie Girl thinks that some aims in life would be worthwhile. The Woman from Hell thinks that The Man Who Turned into a Stick should be given to his son. ‘‘Don’t you think that’s the least we can do?’’ she asks. ‘‘At least it ought to serve as a kind of mirror. He can examine himself and make sure he won’t become a stick like his father.’’ But her partner refuses to do so. Still, their own fate is no better. After all, they reside in Hell—or in a figment of the dying Stick Man’s imagination. The Man from Hell even has problems back at Headquarters. He’s forgotten his keys and his wife might be mad at him. The Voice from Hell tells him over the walkietalkie that he’s ‘‘hopeless.’’ Elements of existentialism and Theatre of the Absurd are found throughout The Man Who Turned into a Stick. Kobo Abe bluntly and repeatedly announces that no one can escape the human predicament. Like a stick prodding the audience to examine its beliefs and values, the play forces different generations to become aware of how they live their lives. As if this is still not clear enough, in the final moments before the curtain falls, the Man From Hell advances toward the audience and says ‘‘Look—there’s a whole forest of sticks around you . . . All those sticks. You may never be judged, but at least you don’t have to worry about being punished.’’ This pronouncement is merely ‘‘the simple truth, the truth as I see it.’’

Source: Erik France, Critical Essay on The Man Who Turned into a Stick, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.


Critical Overview