Sydney Morning Herald Column

Theatre of Dreams, Theatre of Play

Published July 12, 2014
Details of Ko-omote mask, Edo period, 17th century

We’ve become accustomed to the idea that various species of animal are in danger of extinction and need to be preserved, but cultural forms are subject to analogous pressures. Commercial logic dictates that a species of theatre or performance will exist only when there is a paying audience. Many traditional forms owe their longevity to the efforts of small groups of enthusiasts.
Even the opera is a minority taste that has to be heavily subsidised. We persist with opera not because it is profitable, but because we believe it to be an essential part of our cultural heritage. We tacitly accept that composers such as Verdi, Puccini, Mozart and Wagner are part of a canon whose value is beyond dispute.
Countries such as China and Japan have acquired a taste for opera but also recognise the need to preserve their own traditional art forms. One of the first buildings to be completed in Hong Kong’s ambitious East Kowloon project will be a theatre for the Chinese opera. In Beijing this rigidly stylised entertainment is usually performed as an exotic highlights package for tourists, but the Hong Kong development will allow for more elaborate productions.
Is there a constituency for such performances? The Asian mania for progress is often allied with westernisation, as if anything from the United States must be inherently fashionable. The contemporary musical cultural form, par excellence, is probably the video clip – at the other end of the spectrum from a four-hour costume drama. Yet earlier this year in Hong Kong I was assured there is a large, eager audience for the Chinese Opera.
Japan has been through the same crises with its traditional forms of theatre – the Nō, and its more popular counterpart, the Kabuki. Theatre of Dreams, Theatre of Play at the Art Gallery of NSW explores the history and aesthetics of the Nō theatre, along with the Kyōgen – the short, comic sketches that are used as interludes at Nō performances.

Installation view of Theatre of dreams, theatre of play: nō and kyōgen in Japan exhibition, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney. Photographer: Mim Stirling
Installation view of Theatre of dreams, theatre of play: nō and kyōgen in Japan exhibition, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney. Photographer: Mim Stirling

Although there is a busy public program associated with this event, and screenings of actual performances included within the display, the show put together by the AGNSW’s Curator of Japanese and Korean Art, Khanh Trinh is essentially a collection of artefacts. Like the recent exhibition of artefacts from Afghanistan, it is the kind of show that might be as much at home in a museum as in an art gallery. This is not a criticism per se, but a simple disclaimer that any review is circumscribed by the nature of the subject.
I have no wish to retell the history of the Nō theatre, engage in technical explanations, or describe the masks and costumes in elaborate detail. For this, one must see the exhibition and consult the excellent, scholarly catalogue. The details that engage specialists can be tedious for a general audience.
While everyone can agree that the masks and the robes are truly marvellous, to understand and appreciate the Nō theatre is a more complex process. I feel constrained by the fact that, although I’ve been to Kabuki performances, I’ve never sat through a Nō drama. Filmed excerpts, or texts reproduced in a Penguin paperback, are really no substitute.
The essential difference between the two forms is that Kabuki was conceived as a popular theatre in which actors did not wear masks, but with the Nō the mask is intrinsic to the form. As Eric C. Rath writes in the catalogue: “Nō masks are a means of representation rather than a disguise.” The means of expression is symbolic, even ritualistic. There are only five types of mask, although up to 450 recorded variations. The first type of mask is the Okina – used exclusively in a ceremony called the three rituals, which is not considered a play; the other categories are the demon, the old man, the young man, and the woman (both young and old).
Within this limited range of characters a Nō drama presents a stripped-down version of a story derived from a classic work of literature, such as the Tale of Genji (c.1008 AD). The stage is virtually bare, the musicians clearly visible in a corner. Much of the spectacle is provided by the sumptuous costumes worn by the actors. For a performer the greatest challenge is to convey emotion by means of gesture – tilting a mask upwards or downwards to suggest happiness, anger or sadness.
No mask Kasshiki (kokasshiki), Muromachi, period, 16th century, Agency for Cultural Affairs of Japan, No mask Aka (red) hannya, Edo period, 18th–19th century and Kyogen mask Oto, Edo period, 18th century, National Noh Theatre.
Nō mask Kasshiki (kokasshiki), Muromachi, period, 16th century, Agency for Cultural Affairs of Japan, Nō mask Aka (red) hannya, Edo period, 18th–19th century and Kyōgen mask Oto, Edo period, 18th century, National Noh Theatre.

The range of gestures available to an actor is circumscribed by tradition. The Nō has little room for self-expression or innovation, although it is not static or monotone. Although some plays are slow and solemn, there are others that include scenes of violent action. Plays generally begin slowly and conclude in more dramatic fashion.
J.Thomas Rimer quotes Zeami Motokiyo (c.1363-c.1443), a renowned early playwright and theorist, who writes: “as our art is based on the desires of our audiences, successful performances depend on the changing tastes of each generation.” This suggests that Nō allows for a range of interpretations and individual techniques. It also acts as a reminder that Nō began as a popular artform, with plays staged by travelling companies at Buddhist and Shinto festivals.
Matters began to change towards the end of the 14th century, when the Shogun arranged for the young Zeami to have a classical education, and became the patron of his troupe. Despite the more elevated tone this would give to the plays, they remained popular until the 1600s, when the aristocracy became the major patrons. From this point, elements of the stories began to migrate into the Kabuki theatre, and the Nō was transformed into a more rarefied and élite activity.
This is not very different from the west. The early forms of opera seria and opera buffa were popular attractions, while Verdi’s new tunes were disseminated like pop songs in the late 19th century. Today we find the opera trying to expand its audience by staging more ‘populist’ productions of classics – such as Julie Taymor’s dumbing down of The Magic Flute; or by throwing the occasional musical into the program.
Nevertheless, if opera remains an élite artform, Nō is even less amenable to popularisation. It may be that no artform can survive in a completely frozen state, but there are limits to innovation beyond which a particular genre sacrifices its identity. This is partly because of the “desires” of the audience that Zeami singles out. The core audience for a production of Das Rheingold or a Nō drama is a knowledgeable one with a particular set of expectations. Deviate too far from convention and you risk alienating your most dedicated supporters.
With its multiple emphases on speech, gesture, music and costume, Nō was one of the earliest incarnations of the Gesamtkunstwerke – the “total work of art” – to which Wagner would aspire. Theatre of Dreams underlines the genre’s heavy reliance on tradition, including masks that date as far back as the 15th century, and illustrations of Nō performances from the 16th and 17th centuries. One could observe that not a lot has changed, but it’s impossible to make definitive judgements about a theatre performance from still images.
For the majority of viewers the highlight of this exhibition will probably be the costumes, most of them preserved in immaculate condition. The brilliance of the colours, the skill of the embroidery and dyeing, are breathtaking. Whether we are looking at a silken kimono, a Ukiyo-e print, or a delicate lacquerwork design on a musical instrument, all Japanese arts and crafts are distinguished by their precision and sense of formal beauty.

The Nō takes that ideal of beauty and adds another quality called “Yugen” – defined in the catalogue as “profound mystery”. It is nothing less than the mystery of human existence, tinged with sadness by the inevitability of death. It implies that all beauty is ephemeral and should be savoured to the full.
The rigid attitudes of the Nō play, and the generic character of the masks worn by the actors, call attention to the universal nature of this “mystery”. The plays tell us stories imbued with a deep sense of the fragility of beauty and of human destiny. It’s a characteristic that endures in Japanese art, from the traditional forms of the Nō to the popular anime of Hayao Miyazaki. The forms may change but the philosophy remains intact.
Theatre of Dreams, Theatre of Play:
Nō & Kyōgen in Japan
Art Gallery of NSW, until 14 September
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 12 July, 2014