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Use of Masks and Similarity to Greek Theater

Donald Keene :: One of the features that everyone who has been to a Noh play will notice is the similarity to Greek theater. That is to say, there are masks, there's a chorus, and there are dancers. All that we know about the Greek theater makes us think that the Noh and the Greek theater and very similar. In fact, there have been studies to show the similarities.

Perhaps the most striking feature of the Noh plays is the masks. The masks may originally have been intended to provide realism, to make the actor — all parts are taken by men — to make the actor look like a beautiful woman, or an old man look like a young man, or a young man look like an old man. And in this sense they are more realistic. But, I think, with time the masks became more schematized, more abstract, and stopped looking like particular people, or even looking like people you might see normally, but they became embodiments of certain qualities — beauty or ugliness or whatever.

And in the case of the really beautiful masks — the kind of masks that would be used for the young women in the plays about young women, or for example, about Atsumori, a young man, in the play about him — these masks are magnificent examples of the carver's art. Some of them are Japanese national treasures. They are superb examples of artistic product. They're not simply coverings for the face. And in this sense, perhaps, they are more advanced artistically than what we know about the Greek masks.