Noh Drama Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Noh Drama

Japanese musical dance drama.

Noh, which developed in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and saw its high point in the 1400s, is a highly stylized, abstract, and philosophical Japanese dramatic form that emphasizes the spiritual aspects of human action and emotion. Noh plays are austere performances that combine elements of dance, drama, music, poetry, and wooden masks into a highly aesthetic and ritualized stage performance. The plays are marked too by emotional intensity and crisis, with the trials of human emotional and metaphysical experience developed in slow, mystical rhythms. The word “Noh” literally means “accomplishment,” “talent” or “skill.”

While the fourteenth-century playwright-performer Kannami (1333-1385) is regarded as the founder of Noh, his son Motokiyo Zeami (1363-1443) is acknowledged to be its greatest practitioner, and his plays are considered to be the finest models of the genre. Around 1374, Kannami and his young son, who were well-known actors, appeared before the Shogun Yoshimitsu at a ceremonial performance of a Saragaku, an acrobatic musical drama. Their performance was so well received by the shogun that the actors won royal favor, began an association with the aristocracy, and the pair was able to refine the art of Saragaku to become an independent art form known as Noh. Kannami wrote a number of plays, but none have survived. After Kannami's death, Zeami, working on principles passed down by his father, created a theater that used the upper-class language of the fourteenth century, but looked back to the Golden Age of the Heian Period (794-1185). Most of the hundred plays attributed to him are based on people, events, and poetry of that era. In addition to composing over a hundred plays, Zeami wrote a number of important treatises which aimed to prepare his successors to create and stage Noh dramas. After Zeami's death in 1441, Noh became more formalized and stylized, adopting in particular some of the aesthetic principles of Zen Buddhism. During the civil war of the sixteenth century (1572-1603), Noh, which never had a large popular following, began to lose its public audience completely and become solely an entertainment of the aristocracy and warrior classes. By the beginning of the Edo period (1603-1868) it was the official ceremonial entertainment of the military government. Feudal military lords often supported their own troupes, and many studied and performed the art themselves. During this time Noh became even more stylized and formalized and there were virtually no creative developments within the art form. During the Meiji Restoration (1868-1912), a period of major societal reforms, Noh lost its governmental patronage. Without sponsorship from the aristocracy it almost died out, but troupes eventually found private sponsors and began teaching the art to amateurs, and Noh began to flourish again.

As is the case with other Japanese dramatic forms, the emphasis in Noh is less on particular plays and playwrights than on the immediacy of the theatrical experience. Thus, aside from Zeami, there are few names popularly associated with the art form; the core of the classical repertory of 250 Noh plays comprises works by Zeami. Classical Noh plays are not “dramatic” in the way Western audiences might expect: the text of the Noh play is full of poetical allusions, the music is otherworldly, and the dances are elegant. The play in general is slow-paced and repetitive, and the tone of the performance is grave, in keeping with the tragic character of the situations often depicted. There is little emphasis on dialog, and there is an established thematic emphasis and form.

One of the central principles of Noh is yügen (“mystery,” “darkness,” or “quiet elegance”), which is the suggestion of a concealed truth. The other main concept is monomane, or imitation. There is a tension throughout the drama between revelation and concealment, the known and the unknown. Immaculate costumes, masks, poetry, dialogue, and music are used for visual effect, and there is pervasive use of symbols and allegories to emphasize spiritual themes. The external story and characterization are less important than the internal emotions, metaphysical questions, and spiritual elements conveyed by the drama—thus a great deal depends on the audience's imagination to appreciate the essence or soul of the play and its ideas. The main character of a Noh play is called the shite. Often the shite appears in the first half as an ordinary person and reappears in the second half in his “true” form as the ghost of a famous person. Plays also feature a travelling priest who questions the main character, as well as companions of the hero. There is little scenery and few props, but often a pine tree is painted on the backdrop, a reference to when Noh plays were performed at outdoor shrines. There are five types of Noh plays: the “god” play, the “warrior” play, the “woman” play, the “present-day” play (that often emphasizes the theme of madness of a woman), and the “demon” play. An eight- or twelve-person masked chorus, or jiutai, sits at the side of the stage, narrates the background and story, and sometimes describes the characters' thoughts and emotions. A full Noh program consists of each of the five types of plays performed alternately with a Kyogen (comic drama).

Even at its peak, Noh did not reach a popular audience. Although it developed out of street performances, its emphasis on arcane Buddhist themes, inner conflicts, and the mysteries of human existence meant that Noh quickly became an art form enjoyed by only a small segment of Japanese society. There was little innovation in Noh between the mid-sixteenth and the early twentieth centuries, so while there have been other practitioners of Noh, it is essentially a classical form that showcases many of the ideas and concerns of fifteenth-century Japan. On the other hand, Noh includes a number of elements that scholars have noted as extremely “modern” in nature. The stylized performances, lack of dialog, emphasis on abstract ideas, and depiction of inner conflicts are all elements found in modern avant-garde theater. These aspects of Noh have attracted a number of modernist writers, including the poets Ezra Pound and W. B. Yeats, to the art—Yeats wrote a number of dance dramas modeled on Noh. Critical commentary on Noh drama in English has not been extensive, but several scholars have written extensively on Noh and translated plays into English. Criticism has tended to focus not on individual plays and playwrights but on the singularity of the art form, the difference between Noh and European theatrical conventions, the stage elements of Noh performance, the use of masks, Noh's Buddhist underpinnings, and the different categories of plays in the Noh program. Some critics have also pointed out the similarities between Noh and Greek drama, as both use masks, a chorus, and combine dance, music, and poetry. However, others have noted that these are superficial similarities and that because of Noh's singular style and approach it cannot properly be compared to any Western art form.