An Introduction to Noh
Every culture in the world has its own theater. In Japan one of the
most ancient forms of theater is Noh. The Noh theater found its form
in the fourteenth century and continues in much the same form, with many
of the same plays, in present day Japan. A Noh play portrays one all-encompassing
emotion dominating the main character, the shite (she-tay). Whether
jealousy, rage, or sorrow, all music, gesture, dance, and recitation
are used to build the emotion to its final climax at the close of the
play. Often the plays depict the return of a historical personage, in
spirit— or "ghostly"— form, to the site of a significant event in his or her life. A warrior
might return to the battle field, or young woman to the scene of a love
affair. According to Buddhism of the fourteenth century, a person could
not find spiritual release even after death if he still possessed a strong
emotion or desire. To exorcise this emotion, the warrior might appear
in his armor and recreate the battle in a dance. The dance would reveal
his humiliation at suffering defeat.
Noh plays are extremely intense. In order to express something so abstract
as an emotion, words are often inadequate. As the play progresses, then,
dance and poetry are used to express the tortured heart. Other elements
which contribute to an intensification of the mood are the bare simplicity
of the stage which allows no distraction from the main character, and
the gorgeous costumes of the main character himself. The stylized movements
also help to focus the energy on the emotion rather than on the individual
personalities. In Noh as in classical ballet, every movement is choreographed
and often symbolic. There is no individual interpretation.
Aside from the main character there are one or sometimes two secondary
parts, the waki. Usually they are priests attired in long dark robes.
Like the audience, the secondary character is really there only to observe
the tragedy enacted by the main character. Usually a play opens with
the priest or other secondary character's entrance. He describes the
scene which he wants the audience to imagine. The scenes are all actual
spots in Japan. The main character may then enter disguised as a local
person. The local person reveals to the secondary character the significance
of the site. He then exits. He returns dressed as his true self with
a mask and embroidered robes. From the time of his return to the stage,
the secondary character generally remains seated to one side.
Masks are very important in the Noh and are worn only by the main character.
The mask helps to raise the action out of the ordinary, to freeze it
in time. For the Noh actor the mask of a particular character has almost
a magic power. Before putting it on he will look at it until he feels
the emotion absorbed within himself. When he puts on the mask, his individuality
recedes and he is nothing but the emotion to be depicted.
A chorus sits to the side of the stage. The chorus often echoes the
words of the characters, but it may also speak for them. Thus in a dialogue
between the main character and secondary characters, the chorus may say
the lines of either of them. This is of course according to the script
and not improvised. Nothing on the Noh stage is improvised. The use of
the chorus to recite the actors' lines make it seem as though the lines
belong to no one: The actors are there but the emotion is not under anyone's
control. It floats between actors and chorus and is further picked up
by a sudden drum beat or drawn out by the flute.
There are usually four musicians who sit to the rear of the stage. Three
play Japanese drums and one plays a flute made from bamboo. The drums
give a very hollow thud while the flute has an eerie whistling sound.
This eerie whisper is what draws the first actor out onto the stage and
creates the other-worldly feeling necessary to Noh.