The main character in a traditional Noh play appears twice: once as himself, then again as his own ghost. Between reality and apparition, body and spirit, the drama unfolds. Driven by memory, emotional intensity, and crisis, and developed in music, poetry,... [more]
The main character in a traditional Noh play appears twice: once as himself, then again as his own ghost. Between reality and apparition, body and spirit, the drama unfolds. Driven by memory, emotional intensity, and crisis, and developed in music, poetry, drama, and dance, Noh theater elaborates in slow, mystical rhythms the vicissitudes of emotional and metaphysical experience.
Kam'ami and his son Zeami pioneered Noh theater in fourteenth-century Japan by reconfiguring the traditional form of Sarugaku. Although Kam'ami was undoubtedly the progenitor of Noh, the plays of Zeami are usually considered the genre's exemplars, and Zeami himself has often been called the Japanese equivalent to Shakespeare. Besides writing numerous plays, Zeami also defined the principle aesthetic features of Noh theater in a series of essays that still form the basis of the theater as it's known today.
The traditional Noh play revolves around two essential aspects: monomane, the imitation of things, and yugen, the suggestion of mystery and depth. While the beauty of things is represented by immaculate costumes and masks, poetry, dialogue, and music develop spiritual themes, the meanings of which are often obscured by recondite symbols and allegories. The two syllables of the word "yugen" evoke the enigmatic aspect essential to all Noh plays: "yu" means dark, deep, hazy, and quiet, while "gen" is associated with subtlety and profundity. The beauty and lure of the theater hinges on the play of revelation and concealment, the economy of the known and the unknown, the distribution of visible and invisible elements that unfold as the narrative proceeds.
Although at present Noh theater draws only a small but devoted following, it enjoyed the status of the official performance art of the military government for over two hundred years, during the Eno period of Japanese history from 1603 to 1868. Nobles and aristocrats often supported their own troupes, or even practiced the art themselves. The fast pace of the modern world, however, seems to have diminished the attraction of Noh's relentlessly slow and often repetitive plays; this is not a form of art for viewers accustomed to Hollywood movies. But for its aficionados, the attraction of Noh theater lies in what it withholds or conceals; it is the intensity of silences and the enigma of illusions that draws its audience in. [show less]