Manabu Noda*


This paper is an attempt to offer a tentative theoretical framework for the discussion of the fabric of traditional theatre – what it is made of – and a possible approach that it will permit in our times. Part One tries to explain the structure of two-act fantasy noh play with an example of a piece called Izutsu attributed to Motokiyo Zeami. This section is entitled “memories evoked to be revoked.” The model proposed in Part One will be used as a metaphorical springboard to consider the fabric of traditional theatre itself, and on the way the paper will discuss three points in the following order: Part Two: cultural identity as a construct retrospectively formed; Part Three: intercultural transactions and cultural ownership, and finally Part Four: traditional theatre as an “other” within us.

1. Memories evoked to be revoked: two-act fantasy noh plays

Take one representative type of Japanese noh play, the two-act fantasy play. In this type of noh play, a travelling monk visits a place that is known for some historical or literary episode. What usually happens in the first act is that the monk encounters the protagonist, typically a ghost or a mad person who has a story to tell to the living. The protagonist appears to be an ordinary local person – so ordinary that the monk does not find anything special about its presence. After the first act, a local explains to the monk the historical context of the place, which reveals to him that the person he encountered was actually a ghost visiting from the past, or even from a well-known literary fiction. Then in the second act the protagonist reappears, often in a different costume, and relives his/her memory. It is as if an ordinary person is suddenly possessed by a passion – be it unrequited love, resentment, or obsession – which is so intense that it overflows into the collective memory, being no longer containable within the bound of personal anecdote. The second act culminates in a dance, during which the chorus takes over the voice of the protagonist. However, as the chorus does not sing “in character,” the presence of the dancing protagonist stands in a delicate tension with their voice.

Let us see the concluding chorus of the typical two-act fantasy noh play called Izutsu, which is believed to have been written by Zeami in the early 15th century. The play looks back on the 10th century story of a woman and her husband, an aristocratic poet. A traveling monk visits the now dilapidated temple which commemorates the poet. There he encounters the ghost of a woman recounting her happy days with her husband. The monk is seated stage left, close by the pillar, listening to the protagonist, who alone is allowed to wear a mask. Right after the final scene, in which the Ghost says, “I see my husband. How I miss him!” the Ghost’s voice is taken over by the chorus in the middle of the song her husband once sang to her to conclude the play. The transition from the ghost’s voice to that of the chorus goes like this:

I see my husband. How I miss him!

I see my husband in my reflection, and I miss him;
The image of his soul,
Like a withered flower
Now colourless, only its scent
Remaining in this temple that commemorates him.
The bell tolls, and the sun
Breaks on the forsaken temple.
Like frail leaves
The dream is now frayed,
Frayed in the dawning morn.

My translation tries to show that in the original text the source of the voice is made ambiguous in the italicized lines. It is clear that the first line of the chorus is the continuation of the preceding ghost’s line, but the underlined part hovers between two states: the continuation of the ghost’s line on the one part, and a third-person narrative on the other. In the original Japanese the underlined part ignores grammar and runs into the next sentence, seamlessly joined by the use of a pun. In this chant the source of the voice shifts from the protagonist into a detached narrative. Thus theatrical presence of the ghost is retrieved by the collective memory out of which it emerged in the first place.[1]

The story enacted in the two-act fantasy play is based on a historical or literary anecdote that was supposed to be familiar to the audience at the time of its first performance. On the narrative level, therefore, the ghost is the protagonist’s soul which revisits the stage present from past history or literature it is embedded in. It is important to note here that the noh ghost does not intervene in the present on-goings. The ghost appears from the past simply to be commemorated by the present, and disappears without any trace once the goal is achieved.

The spectators watch the actors on stage who are enacting the people in the past. In the play, the characters look back on their own past – which for us belongs to the past perfect in terms of tense. What they look back on is the primal scene of the protagonist ghost. The ghost relives that scene, but that does not mean that it reenacts it; rather, the emphasis is on showing the intensity of the emotional journey of the ghost as the scene is relived. The ghost in a noh play does not reconstruct the past as if the past is now being enacted in the narrative present tense. A fond memory of a happy moment in time, for instance, is evoked with a great sense of sorrow as it is recalled and relived. What matters here is not the content of the memory but how it affects the protagonist in the present tense.

The primal scene is made doubly remote from us audience. The first degree of remoteness is the remoteness of representation, because we watch the reenactment of the monk’s experience. The second degree of remoteness may be termed as that of evocation. The ghost reliving the primal scene does not try to reconstruct it; rather the reliving emphasizes the distance between the ghost and the scene, because the reliving inevitably points to the fact that it had to be relived because it is lost forever. What we watch is the way memories of the past are evoked, commemorated, enacted, and sometimes even fabricated. The ghost, therefore, is a presence that is evoked to be revoked: it is evoked to the present to be recognized by the listening monk, but its presence is revoked eventually to be returned to the past narrative that it belongs to (Figure 1).


2. Cultural identity as a construct retrospectively formed

The stage presence of the ghost serves as a metaphor of theatrical tradition, because tradition is something that is also evoked to be revoked. In English the two words – tradition and treason – have the same etymological origin, both originally referring to the act of handing over something. This is a good reminder that tradition is something that needs to be changed over time for its survival. Any tradition has its mythical point of origin, and I say “mythical” for the simple reason that for the origin to be recognized as such, it must be formed retrospectively. And that retrospective glance over the time during which the tradition is supposed to have been formed will soon reveal the adaptations and changes for its survival.

Going back to the tradition of noh, all the details of acting are handed down from the teacher to the pupil by way of simple imitation. At least at the beginning stage of training, no originality is required. All you are supposed to do is copy your master’s intonation, voice projection, and movements as exactly as possible (Figure 2).


However, at each copying, there will inevitably be divergence. As the training progresses, it will become necessary for you to try and imitate not the outward form of acting but its “spirit” (Figure 3).


In order to approach the spirit in any tradition you will have to start teleological thinking and practice – that is, you have to see your master’s example not as the final object of imitation, but as a mirror that shows the spirit truthfully. In other words, you are encouraged not to see your master but to see through your master why the tradition itself has come to achieve its present state.

This “spirit” of traditional theatre actually refers to the historical gazes it has stored in its form and style. Any traditional theatre is an archive of historical gazes. Traditional styles of acting are formed under various historical gazes from the spectators. An actor in a traditional theatre is a point at which collective consciousness has converged and accumulated over the times. Traditional forms which have been passed on over generations are loaded with the memories of interactions between the audience and the stage. This is exactly the reason why actors not only reflect the gaze of their contemporary audience but also evoke the various gazes of each historical period. In any living traditional theatre, we encounter the layers of gazes that are recorded through and in the body of an actor (Figure 4.)


3. Intercultural transactions and cultural ownership

Seeing traditional theatre as an archive of theatrical memories enables regarding it as a place for collective memories to be evoked and relived. This will naturally tempt us to think of our theatre traditions as an important part of our cultural and even national identity especially in this age of interculturalism – and even transculturalism, by which I mean foreign cultural items are brutally consumed in the globalized cultural market in which everything is up for grabs as long as it offers delight in their very objectness. When cultural elements are juxtaposed at random to such an extent that they no longer refer back to anything in history, the stakes are naturally high for those who feel the need to certify cultural ownership. It is not surprising, therefore, that many look to their theatrical tradition for the seal of cultural authenticity and originality.

However, we should not forget that the idea of cultural ownership itself is a modern cultural construct. National cultural identities are constructed only at the interface of different cultures, when cultural differences not only become undeniable but also pose serious identity crises. For instance, Japanese people today may think that sushi is a wonderful Japanese cuisine that they are proud of, and that the growing number of sushi restaurants all over the world testifies to sushi’s excellence, but would the Japanese in the Edo period would have said the same thing before their contact with European countries were opened in latter half of the 19th century? They would have simply said, “I love sushi!” but not “Japanese sushi is the best!” In other words, sushi for the people of the Edo-period was simply a question of taste, and not of cultural identity.

The issue can bring about more heated discussion in this age of globalization. It was in 1990 that Rustom Bharucha’s Theatre and the World criticized Peter Brook’s so-called “cosmopolitan” theatre as ethically questionable, his Mahabharata being a specimen of intercultural insensitivity, making unwarranted use of the Indian saga of national importance for cultural consumption in the global economy.[2] Bearing that in mind, Erika Fischer-Lichte explains the difference in intercultural sensibility between the East and the West as follows:

While members of the Western culture are generally indifferent as to what is made out of their own traditions (music and text) in the theatres of other cultures, the intellectual elite of the so-called Third World, on the contrary, resist such cultural exploitation and even the interpretation of their own culture in Western theatre (as was most notable in the case of Peter Brook’s The Mahabharata). Thus, theatrical interculturalism has a political aspect concerning the actual power relationships between cultures […].[3]

This difference in sensibility concerning intercultural transactions may be explained, for one thing, by the historical fact that the members of the Western cultures did not have to question their hegemony in the global cultural market, while many Eastern cultures had to construct their own cultural identities against the politically dominant West.

In the early 20th century, traditional theatres of the East had a great influence on the Western theatre. The influence of Japanese noh and kabuki, Chinese opera, Indian kathakali, and Balinese barong can be seen in Meyerhold, Artaud, Copeau, and Brecht to name but a few. The theatres of the East offered great inspiration to many Western theatre makers in their move away from their logocentric, representational style towards retheatricalization which was determinedly anti-illusionist. This avant-garde movement in the West showed a clear contrast against, say, Japan, where the call for a more representational theatre became frequent in the country’s attempt to modernize itself after the Western fashion at the heel of the Meiji Restoration in 1868. As Fischer-Lichte explains, “The Japanese and Chinese innovators, on the contrary, wanted to popularize the representation of the individual in society, as well as to introduce rationalism and to demand further modernization.”[4] After all, the East and the West imported from each other what they thought they lacked, but I think there is something more to it. In the West, there is an undeniable ring of Orientalism, which consigns mind to the West and body to the East. The East imposed the same discourse upon itself. In a way, what the West did was cherry picking, whereas in the East – or at least in Japan – it was mimicry.

4. Traditional theatre as an “other” within us

Here I must hasten to add that I am not advocating the nationalist call of going back to the basic and reinstating our traditional culture to its former glory. That would be simply impossible. In fact, the largest share in the theatre market of Japan goes to musicals – about a half of the whole live entertainment market in Japan 2008.[5] This is perhaps another sign of cultural globalization. Many elements in traditional theatres in Asia, on the other hand, seem foreign even to the indigenous population, even if they are supposed to be “our own.” The strict formal codification of traditional theatre appears quite removed not only from our current mode of behavior but also from the more widely circulated mode of their media representation. And of course many of the subject matters that are dominant in the limited traditional repertoire, and moreover the classical literary/historical contexts they are embedded in, have lost relevance to our society in the 21st century. Many Japanese – especially those who are in the business – are delighted by the fact that noh theatre is now registered by UNESCO as an intangible cultural heritage. However, to many Japanese, noh theatre today is like an internationally lauded museum piece or object of art. They are proud of its ownership, not really knowing how to appreciate it. I am not saying that noh theatre itself is in the danger of perishing. There are still a sizable number of amateur noh learners, whose tuition fees are the largest source of income for ordinary professional noh actors who numbers about 1,400. There is a national theatre dedicated to the tradition. And many noh actors and companies are giving performances with an introductory talk to open their art to the theatregoers who are unfamiliar with the tradition. Still, noh theatre today remains a niche market for cultural elites.

If cultural identity can only be formed retrospectively at the interface with otherness, the same should apply to the traditional theatre of one’s own culture, because we are already remote from it. The body of an actor in traditional theatre is like a palimpsest on which the needs and demands of the past historical periods have been written and written over. The realization that layers of historical consciousness have been stored in the body of the traditional actor will invalidate the illusion that the form and style of the art represents some primal, normative physicality for the cultural group the art belongs to should go back to. Rather, the body in traditional theatre is a medium in which past memories, however remote, are evoked and lived through. The actor’s task, therefore, is to make the layers of memories somehow acceptable to the contemporary audience within the strictly codified style, and without abating the otherness that is involved. John Berger explains how past works of art work upon us in his discussion of two portraits by Frans Hals:

They work upon us because we accept the way Hals saw his sitters. We do not accept this innocently. We accept it in so far as it corresponds to our own observation of people, gestures, faces, institutions. This is possible because we still live in a society of comparable social relations’ and moral values. And it is precisely this which gives the paintings their psychological and social urgency. It is this […] which convinces us that we can know the people portrayed.[6]

The same should apply to our traditional theatres. Like the ghost in a two-act fantasy noh play, the memories are evoked to be commemorated however remote or even alien. Then the memories are revoked at the end so that they can be returned to the historical period that they belong to. All we are left with is an afterimage. No one can claim the ownership of the memory that belongs to someone else.[7]


[1] For the script and images of Izutsu, is a helpful site. See especially (for the script in English translation) and (for photo story) – as of 5 November 2012.
[2] Rustom Bharucha, Theatre and the World: Performance and the Politics of Culture. London: Routledge, 1990.
[3] Erika Fischer-Lichte, The Show and the Gaze of Theatre: A European Perspective. Iowa City, University of Iowa Press, 1997, p. 150.
[4] Fischer-Lichte, op. cit., p. 138.
[5] Pia Live Entertainment Report 2008, (as of 17/09/2012). According to the report, in 2008, live entertainment business mobilized 23,250,000 (up 3.4 per cent from the previous year), with the market size of \167.1 billion (up 3.9 per cent from the previous year).
[6] John Berger, Ways of Seeing. London: BBC & Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1972, p. 14.
[7] This paper is a revised and expanded version of the presentation by the author for the third Asian Forum under the theme of “Traditional Theatre: Inheritance and Innovation” (Beijing, 22-23 September 2012) hosted by the IATC China Section with the support of the Department of Dramatic Literature, National Academy of Chinese Theatre Arts.


*Manabu Noda is Professor in the School of Arts and Letters, Meiji University, Tokyo, Japan. As a theatre critic and researcher, he has published books and essays on British and Japanese acting and theatre history. He is currently on the editorial board of Theatre Arts (IATC Japan) and IATC’s web journal Critical Stages. His recent publications in English include “From Articulation to Synthesis: Stage Passions from the Eighteenth to Early Nineteenth Centuries in England” in Aufführungsdiskurse im 18. Jahrhundert: Bühnenästhetik, Theaterkritik und Öffentlichkeit, ed. by Y. Tomishige & S. Itoda (München: IUDICIUM Verlag GmbH, 2011), pp. 116-36; “Voice Made Visible: The Place for Voice on Stage in Noh and Robert Lepage’s Lipsynch,” Bungei Kenkyu, CXI (Bulletin of the Dept. of Literature, School of Arts and Letters, Meiji University, 2010), pp. 194-206; “The Politics of Stage Violence in Japan Today” in Theatre and Humanism in a World of Violence, ed. by I. Herbert and K. Stefanova (Sofia: St. Kliment Ohridski University Press, 2009), pp. 195-203; and “The Body Ill at Ease in Post-War Japanese Theatre” (NTQ, 23:3, August 2007).

Copyright © 2012 Manabu Noda
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

This work is licensed under the
Creative Commons Attribution International License CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
The Fabric of Traditional Theatre: Archived Memories and the Question of Cultural Ownership