Noh Drama Essay - Critical Essays

Noh Drama


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.

Representative Works

Kenawa 14th/15th century?
Makigiru 14th/15th century?
Ataka 15th/16th century
Funa Benkei [Benkei in the Boat] 15th/16th century
Kane Maki 15th/16th century
Momijigara 15th/16th century
Rashomon 15th/16th century
Tamanoi 15th/16th century
Akechi Uchi 16th/17th century
Osaka Rakkyo 16th/17th century
Yoshino Hanami 16th/17th century

Motokiyo Motomasa
Sumidagawa 15th century
Utaura 15th century
Yoroboshi 15th century

Gekan Shoshin
No no Tomecho [The Noh Notebook] (treatise) 16th/17th century
Dobu Sho (treatise) 16th/17th century

Kanze Motokiyo Zeami
Fūshikaden, [7 volumes; Kadensho; The Book of the Flower] (treatises) 1400-1406
Kiyotsune before 1423
Sanemori before 1423
Takasago before 1423
Nō Sakusho [Treatise on Writing Noh Plays] (treatise) 1423
Ai no Ue [The Lady Aoi] before 1430
Hanjo [The Lady Han] before 1430
Nishikigi [The Brocade Tree] before 1430
Semimaru before 1430
Izutsu [Well Curb] c. 1430
Sarugaku Danki [Conversations About Sarugaku] (treatise) c. 1430
Shūdosho [Learning the Way] (treatise) c. 1430

Arashiyama 15th/16th century
Hogo Ura no Sho [Notes on the Back of Scrap Paper] (treatise) 15th/16th century
Ikkaku Sennin 15th/16th century
Motan Shichinsho [Personal Principles of No More Significance Than Hair] (treatise) 15th/16th century
Tobosaku 15th/16th century
Zempo Zodan [Talks with Zempo] (treatise) 15th/16th century

Criticism: Overviews

SOURCE: Fenellosa, Ernest, and Ezra Pound. Introduction to “Noh” or Accomplishment: A Study of the Classical Stage of Japan, pp. 3-19. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1917.

[In the following excerpt, Fenellosa and Pound offer a general introduction of Noh to the Western reader, noting the differences between the Japanese and European conceptions of theater. The authors also point out the confusion that has been added to its understanding by scholars, and assert that there is a strong spiritual element to the art form.]

The Noh is unquestionably one of the great arts of the world, and it is quite possibly one of the most recondite.

In the eighth century of our era the dilettante of the Japanese court established the tea cult and the play of “listening to incense.”1

In the fourteenth century the priests and the court and the players all together produced a drama scarcely less subtle.

For “listening to incense” the company was divided into two parties, and some arbiter burnt many kinds and many blended sorts of perfume, and the game was not merely to know which was which, but to give to each one of them a beautiful and allusive name, to recall by the title some strange event of history or some passage of romance or legend. It was a refinement in barbarous times, comparable to the art of polyphonic rhyme, developed in feudal Provence four centuries later, and now almost wholly forgotten.

The art of allusion, or this love of allusion in art, is at the root of the Noh. These plays, or eclogues, were made only for the few; for the nobles; for those trained to catch the allusion. In the Noh we find an art built upon the god-dance, or upon some local legend of spiritual apparition, or, later, on gestes of war and feats of history; an art of splendid posture, of dancing and chanting, and of acting that is not mimetic. It is, of course, impossible to give much idea of the whole of this art on paper. One can only trace out the words of the text and say that they are spoken, or half-sung and chanted, to a fitting and traditional accompaniment of movement and colour, and that they are themselves but half shadows. Yet, despite the difficulties of presentation, I find these words very wonderful, and they become intelligible if, as a friend says, “you read them all the time as though you were listening to music.”

If one has the habit of reading plays and imagining their setting, it will not be difficult to imagine the Noh stage—different as it is from our own or even from Western mediaeval stages—and to feel how the incomplete speech is filled out by the music or movement. It is a symbolic stage, a drama of masks—at least they have masks for spirits and gods and young women. It is a theatre of which both Mr. Yeats and Mr. Craig may approve. It is not, like our theatre, a place where every fineness and subtlety must give way; where every fineness of word or of word-cadence is sacrificed to the “broad effect”; where the paint must be put on with a broom. It is a stage where every subsidiary art is bent precisely upon holding the faintest shade of a difference; where the poet may even be silent while the gestures consecrated by four centuries of usage show meaning.

“We work in pure spirit,” said Umewaka Minoru, through whose efforts the Noh survived the revolution of 1868, and the fall of the Tokugawa.

Minoru was acting in the Shogun's garden when the news of Perry's arrival stopped the play. Without him the art would have perished. He restored it through poverty and struggle, “living in a poor house, in a poor street, in a kitchen, selling his clothes to buy masks and costumes from the sales of bankrupt companies, and using ‘kaiyu’ for rice.”

The following prospectus from a programme of one of his later performances (March 1900) will perhaps serve to show the player's attitude toward the play.


Our ancestor was called Umegu Hiogu no Kami Tomotoki. He was the descendant in the ninth generation of Tachibana no Moroye Sadaijin, and lived in Umedzu Yamashiro, hence his family name. After that he lived in Oshima, in the province of Tamba, and died in the fourth year of Ninwa Moroye's descendant, the twenty-second after Tomotoki, was called Hiogu no Kami Tomosato. He was a samurai in Tamba, as his fathers before him. The twenty-eighth descendant was Hiogu no Kami Kagehisa. His mother dreamed that a Noh mask was given from heaven; she conceived, and Kagehisa was born. From his childhood Kagehisa liked music and dancing, and he was by nature very excellent in both of these arts. The Emperor Gotsuchi Mikado heard his name, and in January in the 13th year of Bunmei he called him to his palace and made him perform the play Ashikari. Kagehisa was then sixteen years old. The Emperor admired him greatly and gave him the decoration (Monsuki) and a curtain which was purple above and white below, and he gave him the honorific ideograph “waka” and thus made him change his name to Umewaka. By the Emperor's order, Ushoben Fugiwara no Shunmei sent the news of this and the gifts to Kagehisa. The letter of the Emperor, given at that time, is still in our house. The curtain was, unfortunately, burned in the great fire of Yedo on the 4th of March in the third year of Bunka. Kagehisa died in the second year of Kioroku and after him the family of Umewaka became professional actors of Noh. Hironaga, the thirtieth descendant of Umewaka Taiyu Rokuro, served Ota Nobunaga.2 And he was given a territory of 700 koku in Tamba. And he died in Nobunaga's battle, Akechi. His son, Taiyu Rokuro Ujimori, was called to the palace of Tokugawa Iyeyasu in the fourth year of Keicho, and given a territory of 100 koku near his home in Tamba. He died in the third year of Kambun. After that the family of Umewaka served the Tokugawa shoguns with Noh for generation after generation down to the revolution of Meiji (1868). These are the outlines of the genealogy of my house.

This is the 450th anniversary of Tomosato, and so to celebrate him and Kagehisa and Ujimori, we have these performances for three days. We hope that all will come to see them.

The head of the performance is the forty-fifth of his line, the Umewaka Rokoro, and is aided by Umewaka Manzaburo.

(Dated.) In the 33rd year of Meiji, 2nd month.

You see how far this is from the conditions of the Occidental stage. Pride of descent, pride in having served dynasties now extinct, fragments of ceremony and religious ritual, all serve at first to confuse the modern person, and to draw his mind from the sheer dramatic value of Noh.

Some scholars seem to have added another confusion. They have not understood the function of the individual plays in the performance, and have thought them fragmentary, or have complained of imperfect structure. The Noh plays are often quite complete in themselves; certain plays are detachable units, comprehensible as single performances, and without annotation or comment. Yet even these can be used as part of the Ban-gumi, the full Noh programme. Certain other plays are only “formed” and intelligible when considered as part of such a series of plays. Again, the texts or libretti of certain other plays, really complete in themselves, seem to us unfinished, because their final scene depends more upon the dance than on the words. The following section of Professor Fenollosa's notes throws a good deal of light on these questions. It is Notebook J, Section I., based on the authority of Mr. Taketi Owada, and runs as follows:

In the time of Tokugawa (a.d. 1602 to 1868), Noh became the music of the Shogun's court and it was called O-no, the programme O-no-gumi, the actor O-no-yakusha, and the stage O-no-butai, with honorific additions. The first ceremony of the year, Utai-zome, was considered very important at the court. In the palaces of the daimyos, also, they had their proper ceremonies. This ceremony of Utai-zome began with the Ashikaga shoguns (in the fourteenth century). At that time on the fourth day of the first month, Kanze (the head of one of the five chartered and hereditary companies of court actors) sang...

(The entire section is 3463 words.)

Criticism: Origins And Development

Masaru Sekine (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: Sekine, Masaru. “The History of Noh.” In Ze-ami and His Theories of Noh Drama, pp. 19-44. Gerrards Cross, England: Colin Smythe, 1985.

[In the following essay, Sekine traces the development of Noh drama, paying special attention to Zeami's interpretations of some of the aspects of the art form.]

The Noh theatre, now six hundred years old, can be studied today not only in its own right but as an introduction to and explanation of Japanese culture in a wider sense. The Noh, with all its emphasis on tradition, repetition, and the temporary, translucent beauty of hana, the supreme aesthetic achievement of this form of drama, can tell us a...

(The entire section is 9542 words.)

Mikiko Ishii (essay date spring 1994)

SOURCE: Ishii, Mikiko. “The Noh Theater: Mirror, Mask, and Madness.” Comparative Drama 28, no. 1 (spring 1994): 43-66.

[In the following essay, Ishii discusses the development of Noh over 600 years, discussing its origins, use of mirror imagery, stagecraft, portrayal of characters, use of masks, and recurrent theme of madness.]

Noh is often misunderstood as a frozen theatrical tradition only, a relic of antiquity, or a suitable subject for a scholarly study of medieval culture in Japan. However, ever since it was first developed and refined as an independent dramatic form it has never ceased to be performed. Unlike the English mystery plays that have been revived...

(The entire section is 9882 words.)

Criticism: Structure

Donald Richie (essay date spring 1965)

SOURCE: Richie, Donald. “Notes on the Noh.” The Hudson Review 18, no. 1 (spring 1965): 70-80.

[In the following essay, Richie describes the Noh's use of images, its structure, pacing, music, masks, rituals, and actors, emphasizing the singularity of Noh as an art form that in many ways defies comparison with any Western dramatic form.]


It is not impossible to read the Noh as literature, but it is difficult. It requires the kind of imagination essential to anyone who sits in complete silence and reads a score. It also requires a like amount of skill—whether the text is translated or not. Going to the Noh in Japan is very like...

(The entire section is 4600 words.)

Roy E. Teele (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: Teele, Roy E. “The Structure of the Japanese Noh Play.” In Chinese and Japanese Music-Dramas, edited by J. I. Crump and William P. Mann, pp. 189-212. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Center for Chinese Studies, University of Michigan, 1975.

[In the following essay, Teele discusses the structure of the Noh play, presenting an abstract construct of an ideal play and holding his model up against several popular works of different types, including ceremonial or congratulatory plays, warrior plays, woman plays, and various “problem” plays.]

Any attempt to study the structure of the Japanese Noh play must perforce start with Zeami Motokiyo, its greatest practitioner and...

(The entire section is 8432 words.)

Criticism: Types Of Plays

Roy E. Teele (essay date December 1967)

SOURCE: Teele, Roy E. “Comic Noh Essential in the Noh Theater.” Literature East and West 11, no. 4 (December 1967): 350-60.

[In the following essay, Teele argues against critics who have claimed that comic Noh plays have no literary or dramatic value. By examining an ideal program, studying Zeami's remarks, and comparing them to comedies of other traditions, he shows how they have great value and are an essential part of the “one world” of Noh theatre.]

Even a foreigner attending noh plays for the first time can easily feel the change in atmosphere in the theater as the lyric noh ends and the comic noh is about to begin. At last the libretto, which virtually...

(The entire section is 4375 words.)

Sik Yun Chang (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: Chang Sik Yun. “The Tragic Metaphor of the Noh Drama.” Theater Annual 24 (1968): 1-5.

[In the following essay, Chang argues that Noh ghost plays communicate a Buddhist worldview by using a tragic metaphor that points to man's attachment to the world and his simultaneous realization that it is an illusion.]

There is a group of noh plays classified as mugen noh, which, for lack of a better translation, may be called phantasy or ghost plays. To this group belong the so-called warrior plays and woman plays which I think communicate a vision of human condition that may be characterized as tragic. As a way of presenting a model of warrior play, I might...

(The entire section is 1799 words.)

Masaru Sekine (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: Sekine, Masaru. “Five Groups of Noh Plays.” In Ze-ami and His Theories of Noh Drama, pp. 45-70. Gerrards Cross, England: Colin Smythe, 1985.

[In the following essay, Sekine describes the five categories of Noh plays defined in the Edo period (1600-1867), comparing them to the classifications used by Zeami.]

Noh was less tightly categorised in Ze-Ami's time, and classified much more simply—for example, into pieces about women generally rather than women included in a love-sick or mad framework. Eventually, however, the plays were formally defined, in a way that drew on Ze-Ami's ideas, in the Edo period (1600-1867), as belonging to the categories...

(The entire section is 9976 words.)

Criticism: Masks In Noh Drama

Solrun Hoaas (essay date winter 1982)

SOURCE: Hoaas, Solrun. “Noh Masks: The Legacy of Possession.” The Drama Review 26, no. 4 (winter 1982): 82-86.

[In the following essay, originally published in Les Masques et leurs Fonctions, Hoaas explores the history of Noh masks, considering how they have evolved from being used as religious objects to being objects of artistic beauty that nevertheless have retained an intrinsic sense of sacredness.]

The history of the Noh mask is one of transition from religious object to artistic object. In the early exorcism and rice-planting rites that preceded Noh, when an actor put on a demon mask, he became a demon. When he put on the mask of a god, he became a...

(The entire section is 1643 words.)

Peter Lamarque (essay date spring 1989)

SOURCE: Lamarque, Peter. “Expression and the Mask: The Dissolution of Personality in Noh.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 47, no. 2 (spring 1989): 157-68.

[In the following essay, Lamarque claims that the portrayal of characters in the stylized and austere theatrical form of Noh is possible because of the character's ability to identify himself totally with the character he is representing by, paradoxically, dissolving his personality; Lamarque claims that the Noh thus uses a presentation of character that is radically different from that found in Western art.]


From the point of view of literary aesthetics, there are many...

(The entire section is 8260 words.)

Criticism: Noh Drama And The Audience

SOURCE: Goff, Janet. “The Role of the Audience in Noh.” Acta Asiatica 73 (1997): 16-38.

[In the following essay, Goff examines the role of spectators in Noh drama, tracing the contributions of early Noh audiences (from the late fourteenth century to the sixteenth century) to the dramatic repertoire, discussing the development of the Noh stage, and exploring the relationship between actors and the audience. Ideographic characters in the following essay have been silently removed.]

Theater is a collaborative activity that comes into being through the combined efforts of playwrights, actors, and audiences. These spheres are not mutually exclusive, for playwrights may...

(The entire section is 10428 words.)

Further Reading


Bethe, Monica, and Karen Brazell. “The Practice of Noh Theatre.” In By Means of Performance: Intercultural Studies of Theatre and Ritual, edited by Richard Schechner and Willa Appel, pp. 167-93. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Discusses the training of the performer in Noh, examining ideas used from the time of Zeami and his father to the present day.

Brazell, Karen. Traditional Japanese Theater: An Anthology of Plays, New York: Columbia University Press, 1998, 561 p.

Study of Noh, Kyogen, Puppet, and Kabuki theater that includes a general overview of Noh, a discussion of the...

(The entire section is 392 words.)