The Teahouse of the August Moon

by John Patrick

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The Play

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1089

Sakini, a middle-aged Okinawan man wearing oversized army boots and socks, sets the tone for The Teahouse of the August Moon when he greets the audience with typical Oriental formality. After examining the audience curiously, and chewing gum furiously, he stores the gum, resumes his dignified stance, and introduces himself, concluding with a bit of folk wisdom: “Pain makes man think. Thought makes man wise. Wisdom makes life endurable.”

Act 1 introduces Colonel Purdy, a U.S. Army officer assigned to democratize Okinawa after World War II, and Sergeant Gregovich, Purdy’s assistant. Sakini alternately serves as commentator and actor to establish Purdy’s character as a single-minded individual who only knows how to follow orders without question. Captain Fisby, a new aide assigned to Purdy, also arrives. He is in his late twenties, earnest and eager to make a good impression. Fisby has been transferred out of virtually every outfit in the army. Purdy is disappointed over the assignment of this “misfit,” but he points out that one must adjust to succeed as a soldier: When he was told to “teach these natives the meaning of Democracy,” he accepted the order without question. Fisby, formerly an associate professor of humanities, is handed Plan B for establishing an industry in Tobiki, a plan which anticipates all questions and requires no thinking to implement. He is to build a pentagon-shaped schoolhouse and organize a Women’s League for Democratic Action in Tobiki.

Sakini becomes Fisby’s interpreter, and they prepare to leave. Fisby salutes smartly and departs; Purdy searches for his adventure magazine. A jeep arrives, piled high with bundles and with an old woman sitting on top. Fisby tells Sakini to get rid of the woman, but Sakini succeeds in convincing Fisby that not only the old woman must stay, but also her daughter, her grandchildren, some goats, and finally an ancient man.

The journey—only four days on foot—takes ten days because the group is repeatedly sidetracked. Fisby cannot say no; he always succumbs to Sakini’s intervention on the Okinawans’ behalf. Arriving in Tobiki, Fisby holds a formal public meeting and receives various gifts. One gift, a lacquered cup, gives Fisby the idea of a souvenir industry for Tobiki. Then the plan for a school is explained, and, while the people like the idea of education, they want to know more about democracy. Fisby gives an unclear definition, but Sakini cleverly manages to explain things away, and the people applaud Fisby. Fisby initiates elections for public officials, but the people chosen have absolutely no experience in the areas for which they are elected. When he carries out the assignment of organizing the women’s league, Miss Higa Jiga is chosen to be the leader. At this point, a geisha girl, Lotus Blossom, is brought to Fisby. At first he vehemently tries to refuse her, but ultimately, as usual, he gives in to the wishes of the Okinawans. Soon, a group of women burst in to complain that Lotus Blossom has been given preferential treatment. A hilarious episode follows in which Fisby is pressured to obtain all kinds of cosmetics and other luxury items like Lotus Blossom has, and the women are appeased.

Lotus Blossom tries to perform as a geisha, but Fisby does not understand her true role and refuses. Finally, Sakini convinces Fisby that a geisha is not the same thing as a prostitute in the United States, and Fisby apologizes to her. A group of people come to ask that a teahouse be built. Being told that there are no provisions for one, Fisby yields to pressure to use the schoolhouse materials for building...

(This entire section contains 1089 words.)

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the teahouse.

A few weeks later, when Colonel Purdy calls Captain Fisby, the audience understands by the end of the conversation that Fisby has not simply adapted to the wants of the Tobiki villagers but has himself become so acculturated that virtually nothing that he set out to do has been carried out according to army regulations. As act 1 ends, Colonel Purdy is sending a psychiatrist to Tobiki to examine Captain Fisby. The psychiatrist, Captain McLean, calls on Fisby, who is dressed Okinawan style and who offers the medical corpsman all the native courtesies. McLean questions Fisby under the guise of doing an ethnological study, and gradually, McLean himself is won over to Fisby’s ways, to the utter frustration of Colonel Purdy.

Meanwhile, the plan to develop a souvenir industry fails completely. The American soldiers cannot appreciate that each cup has been handcrafted; they complain that mass-produced cups would take much less time and cost less. It develops, however, that a feasible industry is that of making sweet-potato brandy.

The setting for act 3 is the teahouse, now completed. A celebration is being held, and, lost in concentration, Fisby fails to see Colonel Purdy and Sergeant Gregovich enter. Tobiki is now a thriving, model village, but nothing has been done according to U.S. Army orders. Purdy orders an investigation by Washington bureaucracy and puts Fisby under technical arrest pending court-martial proceedings. Gregovich, however, returns from inspecting the village and congratulates Fisby on his accomplishments. Purdy persists in ordering that the teahouse be torn down and the brandy stills be destroyed. Since Lotus Blossom must leave, she and Fisby go through the imaginary ritual of drinking tea as they take their farewells. Lotus Blossom wants to go to the United States, where, she believes, “Everybody love everybody. Everybody help everybody—that’s democracy.” Fisby explains that democracy is a system, nothing more, and that the ideal and the reality are not always the same. Sakini, reassigned to Major McEvoy, begs to be allowed to remain with Fisby.

As Fisby is reflecting on what he has learned during his experience at Tobiki, Colonel Purdy appears and asks for Fisby’s help in restoring Tobiki—teahouse, brandy stills, and all. Amazed, Fisby learns that after his activities were reported to Washington, some senator decided to use Tobiki as an example of American “get-up-and-go” abroad; he is sending photographers and reporters for magazine coverage. There is mass confusion. Sakini saves the day: He has cleverly managed to keep the barrels intact, and the panels of the teahouse have been hidden away, so that rebuilding takes a matter of minutes. Even Purdy can register approval as he orders a sign naming a main street for his wife and goes with Fisby to the teahouse to have “Twenty Star” strength brandy. As the curtain falls, Sakini concludes with the saying with which he opened the play.

Dramatic Devices

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From the outset of The Teahouse of the August Moon, several devices are used to make the audience transfer their thinking to Okinawa after World War II. As the curtain opens, bamboo panels suggest the Asian setting, and, although Sakini has an American face, his costume is sufficiently native for him to be accepted as Okinawan. Moreover, the fact that he is wearing ridiculously oversized army-issue shoes and socks suggests the immediate postwar setting while identifying the play as comic rather than tragic.

Sakini introduces each act by commenting to the audience on Okinawa’s record of defeat in the past and on other matters that establish the need for cross-cultural understanding. His use of folk wisdom and pseudophilosophical comments in fragmented English further make clear the bicultural nature of the play, as does the use of stereotypic motions such as bowing and hand clapping. Thus, his commentary functions as the soliloquy does in some plays.

Using something of a reversal of dramatic irony, Sakini more often than not speaks in the guise of sincerity and fact, but because he uses a fallacious line of reasoning, the audience is aware that Sakini is not naïve—quite the contrary—he employs the facade of politeness in order to state what is almost the opposite of his intended meaning. In addition to introductory comments, Sakini makes numerous asides, interpretive and amusing, that allow the audience, throughout the play, to know what he, as a defeated Okinawan, thinks of his conquerors’ customs and ways of thinking, especially those having to do with democracy, government bureaucracy, and the American military forces.

In like manner, the American occupation personnel are made to perform and to react in typical, even stereotypical, American ways. Properties such as Purdy’s magazine conform to the stereotype of the mindless enlisted man who does not really have to think as long as he obeys orders from above. The gradual acculturation that is taking place is evidenced from such things as having Captain Fisby put his cricket cage on top of official paperwork, and replacing his uniform with native Okinawan geta (wooden sandals) and kimono.

The intervals of time between scenes or acts are logical with reference to what is going on. Several days elapse to allow time for the trip to Tobiki; several weeks pass before Colonel Purdy calls Captain Fisby to receive a progress report; suitable spans of time pass before the villagers return unsuccessfully from trying to sell crafts, and time is allowed for the completion of the teahouse. Sometimes subtle devices are used to convey perceptions of the foreigner about the American. The very fact that Colonel Purdy and Captain McLean (despite his name) are quite fat suggest both the wealth and perhaps the lack of self-discipline often associated with Americans by foreigners. Likewise, the poverty of the Okinawans, by contrast, is easily perceived by the “background of sagging huts” and the fact that the Okinawans are very small.

Historical Context

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World War II World War II was waged from August 31, 1939, until August 14, 1945, between the Axis powers (including Germany, Italy, and Japan), and the Allied powers (including Great Britain, the USSR, and the United States). The War was carried out on many fronts, primarily in Europe and the South Pacific. Japanese and United States Relations before Pearl Harbor.

Relations between the United States and Japan had grown increasingly tense over the decade preceding United States entry into World War H. Japan had developed a strongly militaristic foreign policy, with an aggressive stance toward many of its neighbors in Asia and the South Pacific. In 1937, Japan invaded China, initiating the Sino-Japanese War, which continued until the end of World War II. In 1940, Japan formed an alliance with the Axis powers of Germany and Italy by signing the Tripartite Pact between the three nations. In 1941, Japan occupied Indochina. Not yet directly involved in World War II, the United States retaliated for the Japanese invasion of Indochina by freezing all Japanese assets and establishing an embargo on shipments of petroleum and other war materials to Japan.

Pearl Harbor The United States had maintained a staunch policy of neutrality during the first two years of World War II, although American sympathies leaned increasingly toward Great Britain and against Germany and Japan. Anti-war sentiments immediately changed, however, upon the Japanese bombing of a United States naval base in Pearl Harbor, on the Hawaiian Island of Oahu, on December 7, 1941. The attack, utilizing some 360 Japanese warplanes, came as a complete surprise, and permanently destroyed five of the eight United States battleships in the harbor within the first thirty minutes. In addition, some 180 U.S. military aircraft were destroyed. The United States suffered 2,300 deaths and over 1,000 injured in the attack, while the Japanese suffered less than 100 deaths. The United States declared war on Japan on December 8.

Japanese-American Internment Camps On the home front, the United States government responded to Japanese aggression by treating nearly all people of Japanese descent living in the United States (many of them American citizens) as enemies of war. In March, 1942, the War Relocation Authority was passed under the notorious Executive Order 9066. As a result, some 110,000 Japanese Americans and Japanese residents in the United States were taken from their homes and placed in "relocation centers"—essentially, concentration camps—for the duration of the war. There were a total of ten internment camps, located throughout the United States, the largest being Manzanar, in California.

Although the war with Japan ended on August 14,1945, citizens were not released from the internment camps until that November. Upon release, many found that all of their assets and properties had been confiscated by the United States government, under the pretense of tax debt and storage fees. The ostensible reason for these internments had been to contain the threat of treason by Japanese Americans on behalf of Japan during World War II, however, it is now generally agreed that this was an unnecessary act on the part of the government, motivated more by racial prejudice against people of Asian descent than by any real security risk. However, the United States did not issue an official apology, or offer any reparations, until 1988, over forty years later.

The War in the Pacific At first, Japan met with military success in its engagement with the United States m the Pacific. In early 1942, Japan successfully took Manila, in the Philippines, as well as Singapore, the Dutch East Indies, and Rangoon (Burma). However, the decisive Battle of Midway, in June, 1942, was a turning point in the war. The Japanese attacked Midway Island, but were defeated by United States naval forces. In the Battle of Guadalcanal, which lasted from August, 1942, until February, 1943, Japanese forces in the South Pacific were again defeated by the Allies. In 1944, Saipan fell to Allied forces, and in 1945, the Allies launched firebombing raids against most major cities of Japan. The decisive battle on Okinawa in February, 1945, in which United States forces roundly defeated Japanese defenders of the island, was one of the last and bloodiest land battles in the Pacific.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki Germany had surrendered to the Allies on May 8, 1945, soon after Hitler, tacitly acknowledging defeat, committed suicide. The war in the Pacific, however, continued. At the Potsdam conference, held in July, the Allied powers sent the Potsdam Declaration, a request to Japan for unconditional surrender, which was not met. On August 6, the United States dropped the first ever offensive atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima; three days later, another atomic bomb was dropped on the city of Nagasaki. The death toll as a result of these atomic bombings reached over 200,000.

Japan surrendered to the Allies on August 14, 1945, and a peace treaty was signed on September 2, aboard the United States battleship Missouri. On September 9, Japan negotiated a separate peace treaty with China, thus formally ending World War n. During the post-War era, Japan was forced to submit to occupation by Allied forces—primarily, the United States—until 1952.

Literary Style

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Setting The play is set during the American Occupation of Japan in the aftermath of World War U It takes place on the island of Okinawa, the largest of the Okinawa Islands, in the South China Sea. The setting is central to the play, which explores an attempt at democratization of the native Okmawan culture. The main characters are either U S military personnel or inhabitants of the tiny village of Tobiki, a fictional location.

Dialogue The dialogue in this play represents two common elements of stereotypical depictions of Asian societies. The Okinawans—Sakini, for instance— speak a broken English that is a stereotypical representation throughout Western culture of the accents of Asian people from any national and linguistic background. This stereotypically broken English may be generally recognizable to many Western readers. For instance, Sakini, the interpreter for the Americans, after removing a piece of chewing gum from his mouth, explains to the audience: ' 'Most generous gift of American sergeant." In explaining to the audience the occupation by American troops, he says1 ' 'History of Okinawa reveal distinguished record of conquerors." This common stereotype is generally considered offensive by many Asians and Asian Americans.

The language of the Okinawans, as represented in the play, is another example of stereotypical representations of non-Western cultures A footnote explains that' 'the Luchuan dialect used throughout the play is merely a phonetic approximation." The inaccurate representation of a native language through essentially made-up nonsense words, as in this case, is often considered offensive to the culture being represented. Hence, the dialogue of Okinawans in this play represents two different ways of stereotyping the language and speech of Asian people.

Costumes The costuming is important as an indication of the ways m which the two cultures, Japanese and American, confront and influence one another. Sakim's outfit is a strong examples of this. As an interpreter for the American troops, Sakini, more than any other character in the play, moves easily between the two cultures While Okinawan, he has adopted a number of habits from the American military personnel, and his outfit shows the result of this hybridizing of the two cultures. He wears "a native shirt'' combined with a makeshift outfit of American civilian and military attire. He wears a pair of shorts, derived from American civilian style, along with ill-fitting military garb. "His shoes, the gift of a G.I., are several sizes too large. His socks are also too large and hang in wrinkles over his ankles." This outfit represents the extent to which the military's efforts at Americanization are not well suited to the needs of the Okinawan population. Later in the play, Fisby's degree of adaptation to the local Okinawan culture is likewise indicated by his costuming. He wears his blue bathrobe as a makeshift kimono, a "geta," and "a native straw hat" Later, Captain MacLean also wears his bathrobe as a kimono, a sign that he, too, has adapted to the local culture.

Compare and Contrast

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1939-1945: World War II is waged between the Axis and the Allied powers from 1939 to 1945. The war ends soon after the United States drops an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, on August 6, 1945, and another on the city of Nagasaki three days later. Japan surrenders on August 14.

1945-1952: Upon defeat in World War II, Japan is subject to economic, political, and educational restructuring by Allied Occupation Forces. In 1952, Japan is released from occupation, and all but the Okinawa and Sakishima island chains are returned to Japanese sovereignty

1990s: Relations between the United States and Japan revolve around issues of ongoing tension in regard to fair trade practices and an ongoing agreement to bilateral security in military matters affecting international relations.

1945: Japanese defeat in the battle on Okinawa results in United States occupation of Okinawa.

1945-1952: During the Post-War era, occupation of Japan includes a continued military presence on Okinawa. In 1952, all but the Okinawa and Sakishima island chains are returned to Japanese sovereignty.

1972: The remaining Ryukyu Island chains of Okinawa and Sakishima are finally returned to Japanese sovereignty, and the entire Ryukyu Island archipelago is renamed the prefecture of Okinawa, Japan. However, the United States maintains 88 military bases on the island of Okinawa.

1990s: The continuing United States military presence on Okinawa—with a total of almost 30,000 military personnel—remains a sore point among Okinawans. The protests of Okinawan residents mount when, in 1995, three United States servicemen are indicted for the abduction and rape of a twelve-year old Okinawan schoolgirl. Nonetheless, in 1997 Japan grants to the United States a renewal of the leases for land on Okinawa on which its military bases are located.

1942-1945: Soon after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the United States government establishes the War Relocation Authority (in March 1942), under Executive Order 9066; this office forces some 110,000 people of Japanese descent living in the United States from their homes, and imprisons them in internment camps located throughout the country.

1988: The United States government for the first time apologizes to the 60,000 surviving Japanese Americans who had been interned during World War II for the loss and suffering caused by their imprisonment. Congress votes to offer grants of $20,000 each to all Japanese Americans who had suffered internment

1920s: There are approximately 80,000 professional geisha working in Japan.

1990s: The number of professional geisha in Japan is only a few thousand, serving primarily politicians and very wealthy businessmen.

Media Adaptations

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The Teahouse of the August Moon was adapted to the screen by John Patrick in a 1956 film, directed by Daniel Mann and starring Marlon Brando.

The Teahouse of the August Moon was adapted to television by John Patrick in a 1962 Broadcast of' 'Hallmark Hall of Fame,'' by NBC.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources Atkinson, Brooks, Review in New York Times, October 16, 1953, p 32.

--------- Review in New York Times, October 25, 1953, p. 1.

---------Review in New York Times, September 12, 1954.

---------Review in New York Times, November 9, 1956, p. 33.

Barnes, Clive, Review in New York Times, December 29, 1970, p. 38.

Marion, John, "John Patrick," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 7. Twentieth Century American Dramatists, edited by John MacNicholas, Gale Research, 1981, pp. 166-71.

Middleton, Drew, Review in New York Times, May 2, 1954, p. 3.

Review in New York Times, April 23,1954, p 23.

Further Reading Black, Wallace B, and Jean F Blashfleld, Iwo Jima and Okinawa, Maxwell Macrmllan International, 1993. This is a recounting of the World War II battles between the United States and Japan on the islands of Iwo Jima and Okinawa It is written at the youth level.

Frank, Richard B, Downfall- The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire, Random House, 1999. This is a history of Japan from 1926 to the end of World War II in 1945.

Golden, Arthur, Memoirs of a Geisha- A Novel, Alfred A. Knopf, 1997. This widely popular contemporary fiction received much praise from critics and the general public Golden's novel is a memoir-like tale of the life of a Japanese geisha.

Molasky, Michael S, The American Occupation of Japan and Okinawa Literature and Memory, Routledge, 1999. Molasky's book is a history of the Allied Occupation of Okinawa from 1945-1952.


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Sources for Further Study

Clurman, Harold. Review in The Nation 178 (May 15, 1954): 429-430.

Haily, Foster. Review in New York Times, August 14, 1955, sec. 2, p. 1.

Matlaw, Myron. “The Teahouse of the August Moon.” In Modern World Drama: An Encyclopedia. New York: Dutton, 1972.

Moe, Christian H. “John Patrick.” In Contemporary Dramatists. 4th ed. Chicago: St. James, 1988.

Shipley, Joseph J. Guide to Great Plays. Washington, D.C.: Public Affairs Press, 1956.

Sneider, Vern. Review in New York Times, October 11, 1953, sec. 2, p. 1.

The Teahouse of the August Moon.” Theater Arts 37 (December, 1953): 22-24.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide