26 November 2010


On Wednesday, 17 November, my friend Diana and I saw a performance of Arthur Kopit’s Wings at Second Stage on West 43rd Street. The story of a former aviatrix recovering from a stroke was first produced on Broadway in 1979 (after a run at Yale Rep and then the Kennedy Center in Washington); it was nominated for a best-play Tony and won a best-actress Tony for its star, Constance Cummings. Originally written for Earplay, the radio drama branch of NPR, in 1976, this is the first revival of Wings in New York City (if you don’t count a 1993 musical adaptation at the Public). Shortly before Kopit wrote the play, his father had suffered a stroke and lost his speech. In one of the father’s speech-therapy sessions, Kopit met a woman with aphasia, the inability to express aloud what you think. She’d been a wing-walker in aerial shows in the 1920s, and the playwright turned her into Emily Stilson, the woman in Wings who expresses Kopit’s thoughts about his father’s stroke.

Now, I should make a confession here. Jan Maxwell, the actress who plays Emily at 2ST, is married to an actor I’ve known since my days attempting to be an actor and director in New York. I don’t know Maxwell really, though we met years ago, but I acted with Rob Lunney (he was Rob Emmet back then) twice (Much Ado About Nothing and Macbeth) and I directed him twice (two new plays, Comes the Happy Hour! by Ken Greenberg and Neal Thompson’s The Gift). I haven’t had much contact with Rob now for several years, aside from exchanging holiday cards, but I used to go to his showcases and readings when he told me about them, and I thought he was one of the best undiscovered actors I ever knew; I still do. Not that Maxwell needs my championship—she does quite well on her own, having been tapped twice this year for Tonys (Royal Family and Lend Me a Tenor), as well as several other Broadway and Off-Broadway awards in recent years.

Wings is a short play, running only 65 minutes, but Kopit sees it as an adventure story. In the early days of flying, people like Emily—Saint-Exupéry, Lindbergh, Earhart—were discovering a new life, a new world. It was risky, Kopit saw; they were “leaving land and might never see it again.” The pilots were figuring out how to do this thing while they were doing it—no one had ever done before what they were doing; there were no rules, no instruction manuals. They were all on their own:

The experiences in the early days when you lost radio contact and you didn't know where you were flying. It's about flying blind and loving it. It's the thrill of something terrifying, but doing it anyway.

I think Kopit saw Emily’s (and his father’s) learning how to speak again, to name the things they knew, to express in speech what they thought, as the same kind of discovery. Aphasics know things: their thoughts, though jumbled, work. They just can’t say what they think. (Aphasics can read and write, but they can’t say the words they can think. The speech center of the brain and the thought center have been disconnected.) They have to learn all over again how to talk—to make new pathways between the parts of the brain, a new map. To Kopit, that was like learning to fly, learning to be free of the earth.

As far as the production itself goes, there are two things to talk about as far as I’m concerned. One is Kopit’s script and the other is Jan Maxwell’s performance. Little else is of note, including the design (there’s no set to speak of—what there is was designed by Scott Pask—though there are projections, designed by Peter Nigrini; costumes, designed by Ann Hould-Ward; lighting, by Jane Cox; and sound, by Bray Poor, who also composed the original music—all effective and apt) and even the direction (by John Doyle, who‘s done more interesting and challenging work elsewhere). I’m not sure which element it’s best to start with, or if it makes a difference which I write about first, so I’ll just take a shot in the dark and go with Kopit’s play.

There are two things I spotted right off. First, the play’s roots as a radio drama are clear and unavoidable. Second, it’s also understandable why no theater here has revived the play in 31 years. As for the latter, I raise the three questions dramaturgs are supposed to ask when advising an artistic director on selections for a season: Why this play? Why here? Why now? I don’t have the answers to any of those. There’s nothing in Wings that creates a driving need to restage the play: it says nothing particular about this time or this society as far as I can see. (Though I haven’t seen the current revival of Angels in America yet—I’ll see it next month—I did see the original production and I can see several prominent reasons to bring that play back just now. I’ll save that discussion for my report on Angels, but some points have already been raised in the press when the revival opened at the Signature Theatre earlier this season.) When Diana asked me how I’d justify producing Wings now, I told her that I wouldn’t be able to. My only guess is that someone connected to the production just wanted to do it—maybe Maxwell really wanted to do the role, coming off several very successful comedies, and someone at 2ST indulged her, or the director had wanted to stage it, or someone in the theater’s administration likes it and wanted to produce it; I have no idea, of course, but I can’t come up with any objective reason to do Wings at this time in New York. Even as an allegory for facing unknown challenges—Kopit’s adventure story, as I understand him—it doesn’t really tell us anything about life in these United States (or these five boroughs) that isn’t awfully obvious.

As a play derived from a radio drama, there’s almost no action in Wings. To fill the gap, Doyle uses a lot of projections which often flash frenetically across the set, sometimes leaving a general impression—confusion being the principal one, the most salient emotion Emily Stilson feels, especially at the beginning—often leaving only the sense of incoherently flickering light and blaring sounds in the semidarkness. In the play’s 65 minutes, Emily progresses from almost abject incomprehension as she awakens from her stroke to the ability to remember and imagine a particularly significant, and frightening, incident in her early piloting days. But the progress is played out in such a short span that the struggle we know must have occurred is only sketched in and the small triumph I think she’s supposed to experience at the end is only asserted, not experienced. The two conditions aren’t alike, I know, but I was put in mind of the 2007 film The Diving Bell and the Butterfly in which Jean-Dominique Bauby suffers from locked-in syndrome (also as the result of a stroke) and we experience along with him the fight to gain some ability to express himself to those outside his interior world. Wings works like Julian Schnabel’s movie if you remove all the middle scenes and went from the first few days of discovering the situation to the final moments.

Whatever its merits as a play, the script offers what Variety called “a juicy role for an actress,” and Maxwell does a fine job with the technically challenging part. (There’s a special acknowledgment in the program for the National Aphasia Association, which I presume provided guidance on the symptoms of the condition.) Ben Brantley in his New York Times review and Frank Scheck in the New York Post both objected that Maxwell is—“dare I presume?—too young” to play Emily who, according to the script, is in her late 70s (as she’d have to be in a play written in 1976 to have been a wing-walker in the early days of aviation), but in the end it’s not terribly important. (Neither the program nor the script specify when the play is set, though the nurses’ uniforms put it sometime before the 1990s, I’d estimate—whenever they stopped wearing those little white butterfly caps.) First of all, Maxwell takes control of both the play and the character right away, so there’s little time to find fault with the actress’s age. Further, there’s nothing in the play or the production that would contradict the assumption that it’s set in the ‘50s or early ‘60s—in which case, Emily could be as young as 45 or 50 (which is about where I presume Maxwell is since Rob’s a little younger than I am), so it was of little concern to me.

What did concern me is that, as strong an actress as Maxwell is (and all the reviewers praised her body of work in lavish terms), there’s little she could do apparently to bring more to this part than technical virtuosity. Maybe Doyle held her back or steered her wrong, but I couldn’t find much reason to root for Emily, to empathize with her, to feel her sense of being adrift up in the sky somewhere, flying blind and out of radio contact, as Kopit said. She speaks gibberish (which Marilyn Stasio in Daily Variety said comes close to poetry and which sounded Dickensian to Scott Brown in New York, but which is more like Lewis Carroll to me) and flounders when she can’t connect a thought to a word, and it all seemed quite correct, as the Brits say—but without life, without the emotional extremes that I gather made Constance Cummings’s rendition (which I didn’t see on stage, but only in the 1983 American Playhouse adaptation on PBS) worth the Tony. We’re supposed to be witnessing Emily’s plight through her own eyes, but instead of feeling as if I were there with her as I might be with a loved one, I was in an observation room, watching through a two-way mirror. It’s not that Maxwell doesn’t do a good job—she does; it’s just that, for me anyway, the part doesn’t really connect much on its own, and a “good job” just doesn’t cut it. TV is a cooler medium than the stage, so I can only imagine how hot Cummings’s live performance was—and maybe her age (late 60s) did lend an additional level of credibility and vulnerability to the performance as well—but I just couldn’t get into this play or this production.

I have one final observation to make; I saved it till the end because I’m not sure how relevant it is. Or how universal. It’s something I’ve often felt at plays like Wings, plays drawn from an experience very close to the playwright’s life. Kopit wrote Wings in response to his father’s stroke, which I assume was a devastating occurrence in their lives. Arthur Miller wrote After the Fall in response to the break-up of his marriage to Marilyn Monroe. Carol Burnett’s Hollywood Arms was about the support she got from her beloved grandmother. I always get the feeling that the playwrights had to write those kinds of works to come to terms with whatever it is from their lives with which they needed to contend so they could move on. The problem is, I don’t necessarily need to see that effort. Wings seems to be an example of that situation—Kopit needed to write it, but I’d rather he hadn’t inflicted it on me. I have the same reaction when a news show sticks cameras and mics into the faces of a bereaved family and makes me privy to their intimate grief. I don’t want to be there: it’s none of my business and it should be private. But maybe that’s just me.

[I recommend reading Marilyn Stasio’s Daily Variety review (26 October) for anyone interested in a well-crafted analysis of the play’s structure, which I didn’t attempt here. (Several of the published reviews leaned a little heavy on the aviator diction and the flying puns: “Fliers grounded by reality” from Joe Dziemianowicz in the Daily News was one, and Brown’s “Wings Soars With Jan Maxwell” was especially overwrought.)

[It’s entirely irrelevant to this report, but a fun fact anyway: I have a photo of my mother as a little girl of 11 or 12, standing next to Amelia Earhart. It’s dated 1935, about two years before the famous aviator disappeared, and according to Mom, the picture was taken at some kind of fair in New Jersey, where my mother then lived, and there was an air show—or maybe Earhart just made a celebrity appearance.]

21 November 2010

'Throne of Blood' (BAM)

On Saturday evening, 13 November, my friend Diana and I drove over to Brooklyn to see Ping Chong’s staging of Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood. This is the great filmmaker’s 1957 adaptation of Macbeth, starring Toshiro Mifune in a masterful performance as Taketoki Washizu, the ambitious samurai who is the Macbeth character in the film as well as Chong’s stage adaptation. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen the Kurosawa flick—college, I think—so I don’t remember many of the details, except that it was black and white and a driving, thrilling movie, a classic in its own right, even without Shakespeare’s poetry. Chong’s version, of course, is in English, but he doesn’t return to the Shakespearean text.

Chong’s stage version, presented at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Howard Gilman Opera House over an hour and 40 minutes without intermission, was commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and the cast is drawn from the resident Ashland troupe. (The play ran at OSF’s Angus Bowmer Theatre from 21 July to 31 October this year.) The cast is heterogeneous so, aside from the English dialogue, Chong’s adaptation is already a step or two away from Kurosawa’s vision. Furthermore, the stage obviously can’t accommodate the sweep and visual force of Kurosawa’s film, which was almost wordless.

Chong’s Throne of Blood is a curious, but fascinating, effort. First of all, it’s not Shakespeare and it’s not Kurosawa; Chong, known for his multi-media experimental and avant-garde performances for the past 30 years, isn’t up to that level of artistry in my opinion. The only review I saw before Saturday was Charles Isherwood’s notice in the Times the day before, and he took Chong to task essentially for not doing the movie or the Elizabethan original. But if you look at Chong’s Throne of Blood as an artwork on its own, rather than an attempt to capture the essence of either of its predecessors, that doesn’t matter as much (even though Isherwood’s right in the short run). My companion was unimpressed (to put it mildly): “What do you get out of it?” she asked, after I disagreed with her negative response. A profound theatrical experience, it’s not. This isn’t West Side Story or My Fair Lady set beside Romeo and Juliet or Pygmalion. It’s also not Terrence McNally and Kander and Ebb’s Kiss of the Spider Woman compared to the Hector Babenco film. What’s on show here are the staging techniques and the visual effects Chong devises to accomplish what Kurosawa did with his camera. And while even these aren’t fully satisfying in their execution, there are some ideas it’s intriguing to imagine in their ultimate perfection (as they probably can only be achieved on the mind’s stage).

The outlines of Shakespeare’s story are still here, as they were in Kurosawa’s film, transposed from medieval Scotland to feudal Japan. Chong, I think wisely, doesn’t revert to the playwright’s words (except for a few allusions to phrases from several plays), which would only make the play seem pretentious and more derivative than it already is. The language of Chong’s version, based on the subtitles from the film, is neither poetry nor contemporary prose. What it resembles more than anything else is the English translation of classical Japanese theater, principally Kabuki. Since Chong draws considerably on Kabuki and Noh staging traditions for his presentation, this seems appropriate to me, rather than a draw-back. It comes off as being foreign—sort of like a well-dubbed film—but neither lofty nor pretentious. It also let me remember that I was watching a performance, not a slice of reality or fictionalized history like, say, Lion in Winter or Man for All Seasons. Since there are other elements in the production that are presentational, this fits with the style I believe Chong is after.

Isherwood seemed to complain about the film sequences Chong used (designed by Maya Ciarrocchi) and the suggested scenery (by Christopher Acebo) because the one suggests Kurosawa’s cinematography without realizing its “mood and atmosphere,” and the other doesn’t evoke the “sweep and intensity” of Kurosawa’s outdoor imagery. Again, if you don’t insist on comparing this play with the film, that becomes an academic point, I think, and both work for what Chong is doing. The films, which are projected in a strip above the set, are mostly segments of nature scenery—trees in a forest, cherry blossoms, rain. These serve as fragments of projected scenery, to set the image of the terrain and the landscape the way fragmentary sets do for interiors on a stage. Some of the projections are story-related, like the moving of Spider Web Forest (the stand-in for Birnam Wood). One repeated image is the abstract ink drawing, in a style reminiscent of Japanese painting, of bare branches with two leaves that become a pair of staring eyes in a suggested face at the end of the two Forest Spirit scenes. The fact that the projections resemble film means they unavoidably call cinema to mind, and Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood in particular, but I don’t believe that Chong means for this technique to substitute for Kurosawa’s film work; Chong, after all, is a multi-media artist in his own right. Aside from directing, writing, and choreographing, Chong, whose parents were performers in Chinese opera (a precursor of Kabuki), is also a video installation artist. He got his start as a performer with Meredith Monk, and has worked in such diverse fields as puppetry and oral history.

As for the stage sets, it’s incontrovertible that they can’t compete with the outdoor vistas that made Kurosawa’s film so visually powerful, but since this is a stage play and not a film, no setting could, so why try to compete? The play is episodic, one of its weaknesses, so there are a lot of scene changes. The set fragments, which silently move in electronically on slides or drop down from the flies, accomplish this with alacrity and elegance, giving the impression of a place without depicting it literally. While Kabuki plays use elaborate and often quite realistic sets (Noh uses almost no scenery), this looks more like Japanese interior design—simple, unobtrusive, spare.

The acting, though, is what was interesting to me. Chong obviously wants to incorporate the stylized performance of Noh and Kabuki in his staging of Kurosawa’s semi-realistic screenplay (written by the director with four collaborators). First of all, the whole play is framed as a flashback, with a prologue and an epilogue (in Japanese with English supertitles projected on a photograph of the ruins of Spider Web Castle) that outline the backstory—and, in Brechtian manner, remind us that this is an ancient tale, not a contemporary one. This makes the play an enactment of the history of the place, a very typical Noh structure. (In true Noh, the narrator of the tale, who’s only a voice-over in Throne, transforms into the spirit of the place, often a demon or the ghost of someone connected to the story. This isn’t part of either version of Throne of Blood.) Then the music, composed by Todd Barton (who also did the sound design, which includes such effects as the sounds of weather conditions—very integral to Kurosawa’s film—nature, and horses’ hoofbeats), is recognizably evocative of Kabuki and Noh music (that is, for anyone who has a familiarity with those forms of theater, of course). There are also koken, the black-clad stage assistants of Kabuki and Noh theater, on stage several times.

The Forest Spirit, Throne’s stand-in for the witch (there’s only one instead of three as in Shakespeare), is a Noh demon, all in white with a very long, full white wig. Sitting on a small platform, the spirit turns the wheel of a loom, weaving . . . . what? A spider web? He’s in Spider Web Forest—and a familiar character in Noh and Noh-derived Kabuki is the Demon Spider (who looks a lot like this Forest Spirit). Is this spirit out to ensnare Washizu in his magical web of enticing prophesies? As portrayed by Cristofer Jean, he speaks in a rasping, unreal, stylized (and electronically manipulated) voice that is an approximation of the slow, rhythmic delivery of many Noh characters.

Lady Asaji (the Lady Macbeth character), the most Noh-infused role in the film, wears pasty makeup with stylized facial features so that her face resembles a living Noh mask. The actress (Ako, who is from Japan originally and performed there with an all-female troupe, the Takarazuka Theatre) moves with the deliberate gait of a Noh actor. These and other aspects of the performance demonstrate that Chong wants to evoke traditional Japanese theater in his staging. This is where his experiment fails for me.

Chong can’t improve on Shakespeare and he can’t duplicate Kurosawa’s masterpiece, so what would have worked for me was to see the script interpreted in a hybrid of Western and Japanese staging styles. As I said, I think that’s what Chong is attempting, but while he can get the production artists—the designers and technicians—to approximate Japanese staging techniques, he can’t make Western actors do after a few weeks of rehearsals what Japanese actors do. So, though I can see what Chong probably wants on stage (because, as some of you know, I’ve studied Asian theater, especially Kabuki, for some time), I can also tell that the performers don’t execute it precisely. It’s the difference, I’d say, between learning a language from childhood, with years of study and living among native speakers, and learning some speeches phonetically after a few months of practice and coaching. (Ako, who trained in Kabuki dance, lent her knowledge and expertise in Japanese traditional performance to the task of training the company, along with a movement coach.) I’ll give you one example. There’s limited action in the play; many scenes involve groups of characters sitting, as in the great councils the emperor holds several times. In a Kabuki play, when an actor isn’t the focus of attention on the stage, he’s absolutely still. Having struck the pose he’ll hold during that scene, often kneeling and sitting on his heels, he doesn’t move a muscle until he has lines or business. (This is a very important element of Kabuki performance, and total stillness is a skill all novice Kabuki actors must learn very early.) This stillness makes the slightest movement momentously dramatic and theatrical; but it also makes the merest twitch from an actor not in focus destructively distracting. In Throne, the actors come on stage for those councils, say, and take their positions in semi-darkness, and we can see them strike their poses, usually a wide-legged seated stance, because they do it with a sharp, deliberate movement, all executed at the same instant. But Western actor aren’t expected to be totally still under just about any ordinary stage circumstances—and no actor who’s not been trained in this technique can manage it. So while they’re sitting without moving about or turning their heads, they aren’t really still. What I believe is supposed to be a Kabuki moment just isn’t, which mars what I think Chong is aiming for theatrically.

Stillness is only the most salient of this kind of problem, the easiest to spot and to describe. There are similar issues with walking—both Noh and Kabuki have very distinctive walking styles and it looked like the cast was trying to approximate them here—and the choreographed fight sequences, which seem to be modeled on Kabuki tachimawari battle techniques. Only Ako, trained and experienced in this performance style, executes it well—and her presence on stage makes the slips and lapses of the Western actors that much more obvious. (In my studies of Asian theater, one of my teachers has been James Brandon of the University of Hawaii at Manoa. His department there has a program of presenting Asian theater forms in English with American actors, and I’ve seen taped performances of Kabuki in English. Those actors, who are coached by professionals from the theater they’re emulating, have similar problems because the discipline is different.)

I think I’ve made this all sound much more disastrous than it was. I said that in my mind, I could see the perfect version of what I believe Chong wants, but for an ordinary Western viewer, I suspect none of that is noticeable. Perhaps I’m hypersensitive, or at least hypercritical. Without the execution of the Japanese traditional techniques in Throne, however, we do come back to Diana’s question: “What do you get out of it?” For whatever reason, the Japanese seem taken with Macbeth: aside from Kurosawa’s 1957 treatment, popular Kabuki actor Tamasaburo Bando V became the first onnagata (specialist in female roles in the all-male Kabuki theater) to portray a Western female character when he played Lady Macbeth at Tokyo’s Nissei Theatre in 1976; in the ‘70s and ’80s, director Shozo Sato created a Kabuki Macbeth (and a Kabuki Lady Macbeth); in 1986, New York’s Pan Asian Rep staged Shogun Macbeth; and in 1990, BAM imported the image-dominated, experimental Macbeth by Yukio Ninagawa. The various staging styles aside, what these adaptations all show is the universality of Shakespeare’s play about ambition and treachery, which I believe was Kurosawa’s motivation to make Throne of Blood 53 years ago. (Kurosawa’s been said to have been responding to World War II, which ended just a dozen years before he made the film. Chong has said that he sees the world today as very similarly self-destructive.) But having already demonstrated that (assuming, of course, that the very longevity of Shakespeare’s tragedy hadn’t already made that clear), why translate to the stage what Kurosawa already showed on film? Well, besides making the screenplay accessible in a different medium (not to say, a different language), I contend that it’s the staging style, the theatricality Chong envisioned, that prompts yet another go at the Scottish play à la japonaise. (At the risk of making an unnecessary, and perhaps irrelevant, joke, it begins to sound as if we’re encroaching on the territory of that silly series of ads for Starburst candy where a character calls his son a “contradiction” because he’s “Scotch-Korean.”) If that vision is badly executed, the experiment fails, I’d say. The idea’s not uninteresting, theatrically speaking, but without a much longer training time, and maybe some resident Kabuki or Noh actors in the company, I don’t think it’s viable. Still, the attempt was interesting—even a failed experiment can be worthwhile—and I don’t join my friend Diana in saying it was a painful experience. (I should probably equivocate some here: without my admittedly somewhat rare perspective, other spectators might find far less of interest in the production.)

One thing about which Isherwood was correct is that “most of the actors make little impression.” Except for Ako, as he noted, no one stands out. (Cristofer Jean gets spotlighted as the Forest Spirit, but that’s the role, not so much the performance, that’s prominent. Jean does a fine job of it, however.) Kevin Kenerly as Washizu, much like the other soldiers, has little to do but bluster and strut, He has a couple of choreographed fights with the samurai sword, and he’s convincing enough given the caveat I’ve already issued about the tachimawari, but it even took me a few scenes to be sure which actor was Kenerly as Washizu and which was Danforth Comins as Yoshiako Miki (Banquo) because there’s so little to distinguish one character from another aside from the costumes. (The costumes, which approximate 17th-century Japanese armor and other dress, are beautifully designed by Stefani Mar. They’re modeled more from museum exhibits, I’d say, than from Kabuki or Noh costumes, but they have an air of authenticity. I must add that the battle helmets are wonderfully exotic, with horns, wings, and crescents looming atop the actors’ heads.) Eventually, the plot made the distinction for me, but there’s nothing in the staging that might have approximated, say, a bombastic aragoto (“rough style”) performance from Washizu, as I might have expected in a Kabuki rendition. In fact, in several scenes of great tension with Lady Asaji, while she’s kneeling in stillness, a figure all in white (including her face makeup) except for the blood-red splotches on her kimono, Washizu paces all around her in what looked to me like aimless agitation. That weakens the character (in Kabuki terms, it almost makes him a wagoto, or “soft style,” character), which may align with psychologically realistic Western behavior, but in a traditional Japanese performance, it makes him less than the ruthless protagonist of a Shakespearean tragedy as reflected in a Kabuki mirror. Washizu’s fall is more anticlimactic here than tragic. I can’t entirely blame Kenerly for this; it looked like a directorial choice, not an actor’s; but if Chong had been true to the Kabuki or Noh style in such moments, Washizu would have stood stock still, looking like a giant in an oversized costume, or stridden across the stage in slow, heavy steps.

If Chong doesn’t entirely succeed in translating Kurosawa’s film masterpiece to the stage, he has done some intriguing work in the attempt. Isherwood called the effort “an ill-conceived theatrical enterprise,” and Diana agreed with that. The Backstage reviewer, however, asserted that the production “succeeds and then some” in its ambitious aims. I don’t agree with either estimation, but I ended feeling it was a worthwhile theater experience—although I may have had an inside track.

[For some explanation of the Kabuki terms and techniques I mentioned in this report, see my recent article, “Kabuki: A Trip to a Land of Dreams” (1 November).]

16 November 2010

"How I Got My Equity Card: George Spelvin"

[Equity News, the newsletter of Actors Equity Association, includes a regular column called “How I Got My Equity Card,” which is ordinarily a short autobiography of a prominent actor writing about how she or he started on a professional acting career. In the October/November 2007 issue, however, the union ran a light-hearted column by “George Spelvin.” Theater people will recognize this as the name actors use in programs when they don’t want to appear under their true professional names. 15 November has been designated as George Spelvin Day (I don’t know on whose authority), so I reprint the Equity News column for your edification—and amusement. ~Rick]

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The 15th of November is “George Spelvin Day.” In honor of this “unusual holiday,” this issue of Equity News is proud to pay tribute to one of the most versatile names of Broadway.

By George Spelvin
(as told to Equity member Don Stitt)

My first professional job was in 1886, in a little-remembered play called Karl the Peddler. It closed out of town. (Is it any wonder I am, therefore, associated with a pseudonym?) It was a non-Equity production, but I should point out that this was a full 27 years before Equity was founded, so please forgive a youth his theatrical indiscretions.)

I have had a few Broadway shows though (89, according to ibdb.com), and most of them were under the jurisdiction of AEA. A short list follows:

In 1906, a year that made San Francisco shake, rattle and roll, I appeared in the Broadway cast of Brewster's Millions, from the popular book by George Carr McCutcheon (which would subsequently be reinterpreted onscreen by Fatty Arbuckle and, much later, John Candy and Richard Pryor).

In 1909, I supplied “The Voice” for the Broadway cast of a play, A Fool There Was, (which was later recorded for posterity by Theda Bara, but without a voice).

In 1927, I was The Poor Debtor in the Broadway cast of a play based on Mr. Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers. (Oddly enough, at the same time there was a character named George Spelvin appearing in the Gershwins’ Strike Up the Band, just down the street. How strange!)

I assisted the great Bobby Clark and Gypsy Rose Lee with the famous “Gazooka” sketch in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1936.

In 1949, I played A Betting Man in the original cast of High Button Shoes, where my director was George Abbott and my choreographer was Jerome Robbins. (Boy, what a couple of nit-pickers those two were.)

In 1958, I appeared in the Broadway cast of Jane Eyre. I played Colonel Dent. (But the critics left a Major Dent in our box office.)

I played Theophraste Renaudot in the 1973 musical, Cyrano, directed and choreographed by Michael Kidd (but none of us was doing any gymnastics after the reviews came out).

In ‘74, I played the role of John in Sherlock Holmes. Of course you know the books were by Arthur Conan Doyle, but did you remember the script was by Equity member William Gillette? (Elementary, my dear Watson!)

In 1976, I was in a position to aid and abet the great George C. Scott in Larry Gelbart’s Sly Fox, a reworking of Ben Jonson’s Volpone. (Richard Dreyfus didn’t require my assistance in the more recent revival. Pity. His loss.)

And I appeared in It Had to Be You in 1981. This was a two-hander (although, counting me, there were three in the cast) with Renee Taylor and Joseph Bologna. Ms. Taylor’s character, Theda Blau, was named for the aforementioned Theda Bara, thus bringing my career full circle.

In recent years, I have been flattered that columnist Westbrook Pegler wrote under my name, and Christopher Durang named the title character of The Actor’s Nightmare after me. (But I was somewhat less charmed to note that the star of the, ahem, adult film, The Devil in Miss Jones, called herself Georgina Spelvin. If I knew her real name, I’d probably sue her.)

I haven’t appeared on the Broadway stage recently, but I am optimistic that someone on The Great White Way will have use of my services again sometime soon. After all, my resume is quite impressive. Until then, I’m happy to relax and enjoy the life of an older character actor. It’s one of the best things a person who’s 121 years old can do, isn’t it?

(Editor’s Note: George Spelvin is the traditional pseudonym used in theatre programs by actors who don’t want to be credited or whose names would otherwise appear twice because they are playing more than one role in a production. In some plays, this name has appeared in cast lists as the name of an actor portraying a character who is mentioned in the dialogue but never turns up onstage. By crediting the role to “George Spelvin,” the audience is not forewarned that the character never makes an entrance.)

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[George Spelvin’s last Broadway appearance was in 1981, as stated above, but Off-Broadway, he continued to appear: Dick Datchery in The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1985), Amphitryon in Olympus on My Mind (1986), the voice of Time Coach in Runt of the Litter (2002).

[George Spelvin (occasionally in variations) is common in the United States, where women use either Georgette Spelvin or Georgina Spelvin for the same purpose. (Georgina Spelvin, as the article indicates, has fallen out of popularity among actresses since porn actress Michelle Graham (The Devil and Miss Jones, 1973) adopted it as a screen name.) The names have occasionally appeared in popular culture, such as the name of a character in Christopher Durang’s The Actor’s Nightmare, as we’ve heard. Similar fictitious names used in credits by performing artists include Alan (sometimes Allan or Allen) Smithee, the name used by film directors who don’t want to be associated after the fact with a film they made; Walter Plinge, the name used by actors in London theaters; and David Agnew, the name used by BBC writers who wished to remain anonymous.]

11 November 2010

A Lawyer and a Life

By Kirk Woodward

[Some years ago, Kirk sent me a copy of his grandfather’s memoir, Obiter Dicta, which turned out to be a fascinating tale of the start of his law career in what was still frontier America. Ernest Woodward became a lawyer in Kentucky at the turn of the 20th century and practiced until the 1960s; his career spanned the first two-thirds of the last century and is not only an example of what a life in the law was like before law schools and 100-lawyer firms became the norm, but of a life on the edge of a still-untamed part of America. When Kirk suggested writing an article based on Obiter Dicta combined with his own recollections of his grandfather, I jumped at the idea. I think readers of ROT will agree, it’s a wonderful peek into a little-known corner of our national history. ~Rick]

It’s hard for us, accustomed as we are to the technological marvels all around us, to realize how recently life in the United States was vastly more primitive and basic. I doubt that human nature itself has ever been any different, but human tools definitely have changed. When I was very young, I used to visit my great-grandmother, who was very old at the time, and she remembered having seen Union troops on the streets of Louisville during the Civil War. Two generations between ourselves and the War Between the States – and one more long lifetime would reach all the way back to the Revolutionary War! And both those events seem buried in the mists of history.

As another example, I offer my grandfather Ernest Woodward (1877-1968), known to our family as Papaw. He was the paterfamilias of our family when I was growing up. He, my grandmother Mamaw (properly Allie or Alice), her sister Auntie, and their daughters Libby (Elizabeth) and Alice (Alice), lived, when I was growing up, in a distinguished old house in Louisville, Kentucky. Late in life Papaw wrote a memoir called Obiter Dicta (a legal term meaning, roughly, an incidental remark or a passing comment), and I’ve drawn much of the material in this article from that work.

Papaw started the law firm that became Woodward, Hobson, and Fulton, one of the largest and most successful firms in Kentucky (it has now merged with another firm), and he trained literally hundreds of lawyers, including his sons Fielden and Ernest, my father. Although I heard people call him “Judge Woodward” (people of distinction in Kentucky used to be called Judge, even if they weren’t one, and one parent was supposed to have given his child the first name of Judge in anticipation), he told me he refused a judgeship because he knew he would get too emotionally involved with one side or the other.

When I read about Samuel Johnson, my grandfather was my mental model, except that Dr. Johnson appears to have been a first-class neurotic, and “neurotic” is the last word I’d apply to Papaw. To me he was, on the contrary, placid, thoughtful, and even-tempered. He talked to us children as though we were adults, telling me once that he didn’t think God was interested in human affairs, and that he thought nuclear war would destroy the world – which I’m sure gave us sweet dreams. He simply didn’t patronize.

With this background in mind, here are some illustrations, drawn from my grandfather’s life, of how different the life in the United States used to be.

Today we know the “Old West” to a great extent through the filter of television and movies. My grandfather experienced it directly. He and his new bride spent their honeymoon on a covered wagon. (I thought this tale was a myth until I saw a photograph.) There is even a connection to a legendary character of the Old West: Papaw’s brother Clayton. I met him only once, when he was very old. He had left home at the earliest possible moment and gone to Texas, where he claimed to have worked with Billy the Kid. I figured out the dates once, and it’s possible. Clayton said Billy was misunderstood.

For years Clayton had a dog that most people referred to, whether accurately or not I don’t know, as a wolf. Dogs, they say, resemble their owners, and I see a resemblance between the dog, if that’s what it was, and Clayton. Basically Clayton was just a son of a bitch. When he was in his nineties he went to a wrestling match and got in a fight after the match with a wrestler, who tried to have Clayton arrested for using brass knuckles. The last I heard of him, he had pulled off the road and fallen asleep in his car; when a Texas Ranger knocked on the window, Clayton, somewhat disoriented, held the trooper at gunpoint for an uncomfortably long time.

Most of the illustrations my grandfather relates about the difference between “then” and “now” have to do with the law. It’s inconceivable these days that a person could be admitted to the bar, not only without a law degree, but without a high school diploma. By my grandfather’s account he went to school for less than fifty months, or about four years, in total, following which – what else? – he taught school, while he prepared to be a lawyer by reading Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England. He memorized the details of the judicial structure that Blackstone describes, only to learn when he began studying with a real lawyer that the court structure he memorized had been repealed centuries before.

All his life he maintained that if a student enjoyed reading Blackstone he would do well at law, and if not, then probably not, and he may have been correct, considering the hundreds of successful lawyers he mentored. He wrote, “Most of them had greater natural ability than I, and all were better educated. The only aid I gave them was the opportunity to demonstrate their ability and worth, and the advice to leave me when they were experienced enough to establish their own law practice.”

Papaw himself “sat” with a lawyer for a few months, passed the exam, and was admitted to the bar with a typed certification from the clerk of the Kentucky State Court of Appeals, which I have seen. Out in Kentucky, where he lived, many of the cases he tried involved the railroad. He was such a thorn in the railroad’s side that eventually it hired him. Today, of course, the railroad is just one of many transportation modes, and not the most important, but around 1900 it played a huge part in people’s lives.

My grandfather liked to tell the story – he may have even said it happened to him, but I’d guess it’s apocryphal – of the railroad lawyer who had to deliver a condolence check to the widow of a man killed in a railroad accident. It was a check for perhaps $1000 – a large amount for the times. A few years later, the lawyer had to deliver another such check, and found himself delivering it to the same woman. He was struck by the nature of the double tragedy and asked the woman what she was going to do now. “I don’t know,” she said, “but if I do marry again, you can be sure it’ll be a railroad man!”

Papaw was representing the railroad on December 20, 1917, when a train belonging to the Louisville and Nashville Railroad crashed through a local wooden train in front of it, killing forty-three people and injuring fifty more. Papaw should have been on the L&N train; he was in a town out in the state to try a case and had no place to stay, and the railroad agent invited him to come home with him. Papaw declined because he thought it would inconvenience the man’s family, who were on the train. The agent was killed in the crash, and his wife was found, injured but alive, on top of the engine. Papaw immediately advised the L&N Railroad that it ought to admit responsibility and pay complete restitution, and it took his advice.

There are certainly shoot-from-the-hip lawyers today, but not many, and I’m pretty sure you find them more on television than in law offices. In my grandfather’s time, shooting from the hip was a literal possibility. Ohio County, Kentucky, where he was from, was pretty rural, and guns weren’t exactly unknown there – Wyatt Earp’s two brothers, Virgil and James, were born there, as a matter of fact.

I know of two stories about Papaw involving guns. The first is simple, and involves a man who was being seriously bullied by the town tough. My grandfather advised him to buy a gun and, if accosted again by the thug, to shoot him dead. It appears that the bully may have gotten the word, because Papaw’s client never had to shoot him.

The second story is more elaborate, and involves a group with the ominous name of the Night Riders. When I first read about them, I assumed that they were somehow connected with the Ku Klux Klan, and perhaps there was some overlap. Basically, though, the Night Riders were the result of actions of the extremely powerful tobacco industry, which wanted to keep prices high by limiting how much tobacco a farmer could grow. Resentment at this policy led to armed groups opposed to the crop limits, and those groups degenerated into crowds of extortionists, devoted, my grandfather said, to “murder, arson and lawlessness.” Papaw was an officer of the state National Guard dispatched to bring some order to Eddyville, Kentucky, where the County Judge (the chief county administrative officer) and his family had been badly beaten by the thugs.

The Guard made the courthouse its headquarters, and the Night Riders announced that they would be holding a rally there. The County Judge, named Crumbacker, stated that if they did, there would be more deaths than there had been at the battle of Eddyville in the Civil War, and that he might have been beaten up once, but there was no way he’d let it happen again. My grandfather stationed soldiers throughout the meeting that took place that night, and told them to expect to have to try to arrest the main rabble-rouser when he started to speak. Preceding that man, however, was a former Confederate soldier who was supposed to introduce him. This gentleman began to speak and didn’t stop. He talked about his childhood and his youth and his service in the Civil War and his family, and eventually the crowd got bored, gave up, and went home. My grandfather always felt that this man had saved his life.

However, the Night Riders later moved into Ohio County, in a “reign of terror . . . during which property was destroyed and innocent men and women were cruelly beaten.” My grandfather was County Attorney at the time, and after about two years, at the end of his term, the Night Riders were largely defeated. About a hundred of them were arrested, and they went to my grandfather, of all people, to defend them. He told them he would – if they were innocent – and the room slowly emptied until they had all left.

Surprisingly, though, as a private attorney he did represent them later, and what’s more he persuaded them to plead guilty, in a neat bit of legal maneuvering. He followed their guilty pleas with motions for new trials for all the men, and the judge agreed not to rule on the motions as long as the presumably reformed men stayed out of trouble, so the effect was that the judge suspended their convictions. None of the hundred or so ever violated the court’s order, and so the Night Riders effectively dissolved.

Speaking of violent people in court, Papaw once had to cross-examine a man named Long John Wright whose record, my grandfather calculated, was that Wright had murdered somebody on an average of once every two years. “Needless to say,” Papaw wrote, “my cross-examination of him was both short and respectful!” (There’s no record whether Mr. Wright was ever convicted of anything.) The practice of law no doubt sharpened Papaw’s perception of people’s characters. He wrote that although it might be true that “all lawyers are liars,” he had also learned that “all liars are not lawyers!”

In his memoir Papaw expanded on his impressions of the differences between the way the law used to be practiced in his early years, and the way it was when he wrote down his recollections in the early 1960s. I could paraphrase his observations, but it’s better to let him speak. Some of the changes he reports are matters of the way things are done: “In the old days we wrote our briefs in long hand, and folded them tight to fit into the pigeon holes of roll top desks then in universal use, not only as desks but as filing cabinets. . . .“

Many changes, on the other hand, are changes of substance, like “the gradual disappearance of the one man law office, and the vast enlargement of the lawyer’s library. Sixty years ago, the average Kentucky lawyer neither possessed nor needed more than a Statute, Code and about 125 volumes of Kentucky Reports. He was a complete stranger in the Federal Courts. Today federal law questions require constant attention in every Kentucky law office, and a broadened field of local practice has resulted in ever growing law libraries in rural offices, until all important texts and cases can usually be found in any County seat in Kentucky.” He wrote those words, of course, before computers again revolutionized legal documentation.

He also noted that “In 1900, outside of Louisville and Lexington [the two largest cities in Kentucky], practically every lawyer was a trial lawyer, whose practice consisted in large part of boundary or land title disputes, criminal cases and divorce cases. The Court House was not only a temple of justice, but it was an amphitheatre in which the citizens flocked for instruction or amusement. . . . Now, many lawyers rarely go into the Court Room, and probably a third of them do not accept criminal cases, and many will not accept jury cases.”

My own father, Papaw’s son, is an example of this point. Dad did a fair amount of trial work in his early years as a lawyer, just before and after World War II, but by the time I was aware of what he did for a living, in the 1950s, his entire practice was tax and insurance law, and I never heard about his participating in a trial, except when he was recruited as part of the team defending the then Cassius Clay on draft evasion charges, and Dad didn’t speak at that trial.

“The entry of women into law offices,” Papaw writes, “has revolutionized the size, appearance and work product of law offices, and such changes have all resulted in vast improvement of law office appearance and product.” The perfect gentleman! “Some lawyers have betrayed their clients or proven unfaithful to the trust imposed, but never in my long experience as a lawyer has any woman associate betrayed the trust imposed in her.” High praise indeed, considering how many lawyers he knew over the years. I imagine he would be delighted to see a Supreme Court with three women on it. I know I am.

Speaking of my father’s specialty, tax law, my grandfather wrote, “I refused to read tax cases, because the amount involved in that field was so small, but I concentrated on studying the law applicable to railroads, because employment as railroad counsel was the best paid and most highly regarded. Now, the attorneys’ fees paid by Kentucky taxpayers is tenfold the amount paid by railroads.” That ratio, needless to say, has widened enormously since he wrote those words.

I have sampled my grandfather’s writing and experiences here to suggest that the distance between, say, 1900 and today is much greater than simply the distance between two sets of years. I will give just two more examples of that great distance, the first from Papaw’s writings and the second from my own experience. Here is the written example:

“At common law and in most jurisdictions before 1900, the family relationship was a matter for private decision by the head of the family, or by litigation, but now the juvenile courts, the domestic relations courts, and the child welfare movement have made most family controversies a problem for the psychiatrists and trained social service experts whose numbers exceed the number of Judges, and who are dealing with such problems, not as personal disputes or problems to be determined by a court in private litigation, but as matters of public welfare to be corrected at public expense and in the public interest.”

And here is the personal example: my grandfather smoked a pipe. He smoked it continually, and he enjoyed the rich aromas derived from various brands of tobacco. (As children, we did too.) His clothes, his house, everything were suffused by the smell of pipe smoke. Today a number of men smoke cigars because they like the smell, or the way they look when they hold them, or both, and cigar bars and cigar magazines are popular, but to my knowledge I don’t know a single person today who smokes a pipe. Times have changed.

I can still recall the smell of Papaw’s pipe.

06 November 2010

Grand Kabuki (July 1985)

[Twenty-five years ago, the Grand Kabuki of Japan launched a tour of the United States, which also included stops in Washington and Los Angeles, with performances at the Metropolitan Opera House, 8-20 July 1985. The company included two Living National Treasures: Onoe Shoroku II, a principal actor and the Grand Kabuki’s artistic director, and musician Kiyomoto Shizutayu (1898-1999). The performances were divided into two nights and I went to both evenings as a reviewer for Stages, a New York theater monthly. As a companion article to “Kabuki: A Trip to a Land of Dreams,” ROT, 1 November, I’m publishing here my original review (which was longer than the version that appeared in the September 1985 issue of Stages).]

During the Kojo, or “name-taking” ceremony, for Danjuro XII, one of the participants admonishes the audience, “You call us ‘Kabuki dancers’; we are Kabuki actors.” Make no mistake: they are. And Kabuki is an actors’ theatre, music and effects notwithstanding. The latest visit by Japan’s Grand Kabuki leaves no doubt of this.

In two programs combining selections from the Tokyo-based company’s varied repertoire, and, for the first time outside Japan, the celebration of a great actor’s rise to a new name, the troupe demonstrates not only the actors’ virtuosity, but also their primacy in the world of Kabuki.

Note, for instance, that the program lists no credit for director, lighting, sets, or costumes. These, of course, are traditional for each play, so there are few changes from production to production. But someone must be responsible for attending to the faithful execution of the traditions. Doubtless, someone is; but he is anonymous. Not so the actors. Every member of the company is listed by name in the front of the program, no matter how small his role.

Consider, also, who was chosen to make the current tour. Onoe Shoroku II is a Living National Treasure; Bando Tamasaburo V and Kataoka Takao are the most popular young actors in Kabuki and Danjuro is the most honored actor of the year, akin to having been awarded the best-acting Oscar, Emmy, and Tony, and being knighted all in the same season. This is not only an acting company, but a star company. [Shoroku died in 1989 at 76; Takao became Nizaemon XV in 1998.]

The current center of attention is Ichikawa Danjuro XII. Having been elevated to his family’s most illustrious name, vacant since his father’s death in 1962, Danjuro has been celebrated in a daily Kojo since April. Undoubtedly an actor’s ceremony, the Kojo has but one purpose: to spotlight the honored performer while his colleagues praise and congratulate him. The culmination of the ceremony is Danjuro’s demonstration of a fierce mie, a glaring pose, that is an exclusive specialty of Danjuros. The fact that this ceremony has never before been performed outside Japan further emphasizes the specialness of the actor in this tour.

Because of Danjuro’s special status, the Grand Kabuki is devoting its season to traditional plays of Danjuro actors. Scores of leading actors appear in plays mounted in his honor, such as the heroic comedy Shibaraku, which was first presented by Danjuro I in 1697. It is a prime example of aragoto, or “rough style,” acting—the province of the Ichikawa family, invented by Danjuro I.

The play tells of an evil courtier, Takehira (Shoroku), who usurped the prime ministership by disgracing his rival. As Takehira is about to have his rival’s sons beheaded, the fierce Kagemasa shouts from offstage, “Shibaraku!” which literally means ”Wait a moment!” Kagemasa (Danjuro) lumbers into view on the hanamichi, the runway through the auditorium, still shouting “Shibaraku!” terrifying Takehira and his warriors. Indeed, he is a terrifying sight: immensely tall, dressed in an oversized costume, brandishing a six-foot sword, and wearing bold, red-and-black (kumadori) make-up that signifies his ferocity and rage.

After a speech praising his and other company members’ past performances, Kagemasa takes on all comers, including a dozen of Takehira’s soldiers whom he beheads with one swing of his giant sword. All this is performed with the bombast and bravura that is the essence of aragoto acting.

Showcasing another actor, and another acting style, Kasane is a two-character shosagoto play, or dance piece, starring the Kabuki “matinee idols” Bando Tamasaburo V and Kataoka Takao. Kasane, a beautiful court lady, is played by Tamasaburo, an onnagata, or specialist in female roles in the all-male Kabuki. One of the most popular actors on the Kabuki stage, he has a following to make a Western rock star jealous.

In a lyrical pas-de-deux, Tamasaburo and Takao dance the story of the love of Kasane and the dashing Yoemon, a disgraced samurai. Years ago, Yoemon had an affair with Kasane’s mother and killed her father. Now Kasane becomes possessed by her father’s spirit, which disfigures her face with a hideous scar. As Tamasaburo changes from lovely, gentle Kasane into a fierce, vengeful demon, it is hard to remember that both are played by a man. Yoemon kills Kasane and tries to flee, but cannot escape her spirit’s grasp. The choreographed struggles between Tamasaburo and Takao make clear why they are such popular stagemates.

Sakura-hime Azuma Bunsho (The Scarlet Princess of Edo) provides another opportunity to see Tamasaburo and Takao together, this time in dual roles. (In its complete version, which is no longer performed, Sakura-hime is an all-day Kabuki play. We saw the Prologue, two scenes of Act I, and Act V of the six-act melodrama which has been described as “The Duchess of Malfi as rewritten by Eugene O’Neill or Tennessee Williams.”) In this nineteenth-century play, Tamasaburo appears first as a young acolyte, one of his rare male roles, then as beautiful Princess Sakura, who sinks from an exalted position to degradation as a prostitute. Takao, in a series of quick changes, plays both the priest Seigen, who loves the acolyte and then struggles to save the princess’s soul, and the murderous thief Gonsuke, who seduces her and to whom she is drawn.

The play is powerful and action-packed, covering everything from love and mystery, through rape, murder, and suicide, to satire and high comedy. The Prologue is the most visually striking scene of the tour. In a beautifully lighted, fantastically atmospheric set resembling a Japanese painted woodblock, Seigen and the boy climb a cliff overlooking the sea. Planning a double suicide, the boy jumps—but Seigen is unable to follow. An eerie blue-green flame—the boy’s spirit—rises from the sea and hovers over the weeping Seigen. It is, however, the combination of Tamasaburo and Takao, and their double impersonations, that is the attraction. The princess’s fall from grace is heart-wrenchingly believable, and Takao’s instantaneous shifts from haunted Seigen to villainous Gonsuke are absolute marvels.

The other two plays, drawn from the Noh repertoire, both require virtuosic acting. Another shosagoto, Tsuchigumo (The Earth Spider), adapted from a Noh classic, stars Shoroku as both an evil magician and a goblin spider. The play is about a young nobleman (Onoe Tatsunosuke, Shoroku’s son) overcome by a strange sickness while under the malevolent magician’s power. Attempting to escape in the guise of a great spider by ensnaring his would-be captors in his web, Shoroku shoots streamers of white ribbon from his fingertips as if he were, indeed, magical. [Tatsunosuke died suddenly at 40 in 1987 and was posthumously elevated to his father’s name as Shoroku III in 2002.]

The spider is pursued to his lair, where a superbly choreographed battle is danced, pitting the enchanted webs of Shoroku against the sword of Danjuro, as the nobleman’s loyal retainer. Throughout the battle, several koken, ubiquitous but “invisible” stage assistants, run about raveling up discarded webs with quick twirls of their hands, like human forks twirling spaghetti.

In Tachi Nusu-Bito (The Sword Thief), the Kabuki version of a Noh Kyogen, or comic interlude, a sly thief (Tatsunosuke) steals a drunken country samurai’s sword. When he is caught, the thief tries to convince the magistrate that the sword is his by mimicking everything the samurai says and does. It is a complex and hilarious mirror exercise, performed in stylized high comedy and dance requiring extraordinary comic timing.

Kabuki is unquestionably an actors’ theater and Kabuki performers are unquestionably actors; they just happen to be actors who sing and dance as well. It is a nearly impossible to separate the performing arts into categories in Asia the way we do in the West. Singing, ballet, acting, storytelling, music, poetry—even worship—are integral parts of most Eastern performances. Kabuki is an example, as the current tour of the Grand Kabuki demonstrates to incomparable pleasure.

[At the time I reviewed these performance, I had studied Asian theater some and had become especially taken with Kabuki. Three years after this tour, The Grand Kabuki visited western North America and made a special stop in Honolulu where it was in residence at the University of Hawaii-Manoa for three weeks. The university offered a course in conjunction with the stay that included backstage access and lectures and demonstrations by the master artists of costume, make-up, music, and acting. I attended the course but unhappily, I never documented the experience in writing. This review, too short by half to provide an inkling of the truly magnificent event it was, is the only record I have of the extraordinary performance form that Kabuki is.]

01 November 2010

Kabuki: A Trip to a Land of Dreams

Westerners seeing a Kabuki play for the first time frequently call it “wonderful.” That’s perhaps more appropriate than they imagine, for the world of Kabuki is a world of wonder—a world of poetry, color, spectacle, grace, energy, and artistry. It is, to be sure, a world more of dreams than of reality, if by reality we mean everyday life. That quotidian reality so cherished by Western theater has little place in the Kabuki theater. The word kabuki, for example, is made up of three Chinese characters: ka = song; bu = dance; ki = skill or technique (sometimes rendered as “acting skill”). The whole word, however, is derived from the verb ‘to tilt’ or ‘to lean to one side’ and means ‘something abnormal or askew’ in the sense of deviating from the ordinary. Kabuki, therefore, actually means ‘off-beat performance,’ something deliberately outrageous.

Kabuki actors have often admonished their fellows to imitate life. “A Kabuki actor,” remarked Sakata Tojuro I (1646-1709), “should singlemindedly try to copy real life in performing whatever role he is cast in.” This wasn’t the reality of everyday life, however, but the reality of imagination. In The Actors’ Analects, a collection of commentaries on Kabuki by 17th-century actors, Sugi Kuhe (dates unknown, fl. 1670-80) says, “The realism of a play springs from fiction . . . ,” and Yoshizawa Ayame I (1673-1729) advises, “It is probably good, after all, to make a mixture of half realism and half imagination.” The Kabuki world has its own “reality” and like Alice passing through her looking glass, the Kabuki audience passes into the Kabuki wonderland.

The non-representational nature of Kabuki is unsurprising considering its roots. There’s no room here for a detailed history of this 17th-century Japanese theater, but it should be noted that its father was the older, highly stylized Noh drama, its mother popular dance, and its sibling the Bunraku puppet theater. Given this lineage, a nonrealistic performance style was only natural. Nonetheless, within its strict techniques and traditions, Kabuki seems to generate a good deal of emotion both in its actors and its audience. At first glance, this might seem unlikely, especially to a Western observer who understands neither the language nor the traditions of Kabuki theater. On closer examination, however, this seems not only less incon­gruous, but downright inescapable.

How, in fact, are Kabuki actors trained to express the feelings of their roles? Are there means other than acting that are used in Kabuki to express feelings?

Though they are not impenetrable, the performance traditions of the Kabuki stage aren’t loose or flimsy. The Kabuki actor has learned his techniques from his predecessors by years of observation and imitation. Each gesture, movement, pose, and inflection has been carefully worked out and perfected over three hundred years of use. These techniques, including movement and vocal practices, costume, make-up, properties, music, sound effects, stage assistants, and so on, are called kata; they’re passed on from generation to generation, inherited along with the names of the actors themselves within an acting family. (I’ll address some of these non-acting kata later.) A young Kabuki actor must be born or adopted into a perform­ing family to gain access to its kata, and he learns them by rote from his father or other senior male relative. The restrictive iemoto system under which the Kabuki world operates dictates that the head of the family, the iemoto, determines who’ll be allowed into the family and what happens within it. The training of Kabuki actors, all of whom are male, is unlike Western training in many respects. Though some formal classes have been instituted in recent years, the traditional training system for Kabuki actors is by master and disciple. The new system speeds the process up a little, but it’s still a long, rigorous, and highly disciplined one. The Kabuki actor’s theat­rical education is based “upon exact and unquestioning imita­tion,” not explanations of theories or principles. It is largely unwritten, passed on in secrecy by word of mouth from master to student.

The formal training I’m referring to here is artistic or theatrical training. Today, many Kabuki children attend regular schools for a general education. Samuel Leiter, one of the most respected Western scholars of Japanese theater, points out, “The number of college-educated Kabuki actors is growing though there are those who complain that the time spent in college is a waste for the Kabuki actor who aspires to greatness.” Because of the hereditary nature of the kata and the privacy of the teaching, the actor-training process remains largely secret and inaccessible to most outsiders. Very little has been published regarding the specific training of Kabuki actors within the family. Since the advent of the National Theater’s training program, though, some description of the work is available, and Kabuki actor Nakamura Matazo II (b. 1933), an adoptee who’s devoted himself to demystifying the Kabuki world by lecturing and teaching abroad and to foreigners in Japan, has published Kabuki Backstage, Onstage: An Actor’s Life which details aspects of the life of a Kabuki actor off stage.

In 1969, the National Theater launched its Kabuki Actor Training Center which trains young men (and, lately, some women, though they won’t be members of the Kabuki troupes) who aren’t members of any of the traditional families. The training center is subsidized by the Japanese government and the program is free for those accepted. The training, which lasts two years, includes voice production and vocal expression, make-up, dance and movement, singing, and music (particularly, playing the samisen), but the kata still remain private preserves of the families that own them. A graduate who wishes to perform with the great Kabuki companies must still become an apprentice (deshi) to an actor in one of the families (though there are independent and experimental companies, as well as filmmakers, who adapt traditional Kabuki techniques for modern performances). Nakamura Matazo, who (along with most other sources) puts the start of the training center in 1970, has taught there and reports:

We have found that the biggest problem is in placing the students once the two-year training program is completed. In March 1972 our first group of students demonstrated the skills that they had learned in a graduation recital at the conclusion of two years of hard work. But even though they had completed the program, they were by no means ready to play starring roles on major kabuki stages, and those of us responsible for the program had no idea what to do with these young kabuki actors of the future.

In the iemoto system, training in classical dance, which begins almost as soon as the little boy can walk, takes up most of his formal training. This, as we’ll see, is an important factor in shaping the Kabuki world. In addition to dancing, the Kabuki actor must be capable of some very demanding physical performances, including animal roles, such as tigers, rats, or parts of horses, and elab­orate somersaults and flips for battle scenes. Part of his training, therefore, includes strenuous acrobatics and martial arts. Though he will have a master for dance and acrobatics, his knowledge of the theater and the family’s traditional roles and kata will come from his father or adoptive father. His first lessons come not from classes, but from watching his father and the other senior actors in the company. Later, still at the very young age of three or four, he’ll play small parts in actual performances, often appearing with his father in early roles. In the 1985 U.S. tour of the Grand Kabuki, there were several such multi-generational performances. In The Scarlet Princess of Edo (Sakura-hime Azuma Bunsho), Kataoka Takao (b. 1944) starred in a dual role while his teenaged son Takataro (b. 1968) played a small part. In the dance-play The Earth Spider (Tsuchigumo), Onoe Shoroku II (1913-89) appeared with both his son, Tatsunosuke (1946-87), and his then-ten-year-old grandson, Sakon (b. 1975). (Kataoka Takao took the prestigious name of Nizaemon XV in 1998. Onoe Tatsunosuke I died unexpectedly at 40 and was posthumously elevated to his father’s name as Shoroku III in 2002. Onoe Sakon II became Tatsunosuke II in 1991 and Shoroku IV in 2002. Kabuki actors are traditionally called by their given names. In Japanese tradition, the family name is given first, though many publishers of European-language texts, and some Japanese born since World War II, follow Western custom.)

As the young actor watches and copies his elders, learning the kata he hopes to be called upon to perform himself in later years, he’s expected to act each new role exactly as he learned it. The roles a master teaches his student are carefully chosen according to the young actor’s physical and temperamental qualities. Though younger actors are permitted to make minor variations if their teachers feel there’s a physical or temperamental need, any changes must be requested by the student and agreed to by the teacher. As he rises from one level to the next, each step granting him more interpretive freedom—within very narrow limits—he’s constantly being tested and judged by his family, the Kabuki community in general, and the audiences. Even after long years of training, the process of study and discipline doesn’t stop, and a Kabuki actor isn’t deemed to have reached the level of mastery, if he ever does, until well into middle age. With each step of the actor’s development, he faces the knowledge that, although he has achieved one level of artistic skill, he must still face another, higher level. Many actors, such as Bando Tamasaburo V (b. 1950), the popular onnagata, or female-role specialist, continue to study the techniques of earlier actors whose physical appearance resembled their own.

It’s interesting to note, incidentally, that Tamasaburo, one of the best onnagata actors of his day, is an adopted member of the Morita acting family. At 60, he’s still performing as a young girl. The first Kabuki onnagata to appear in a western female role when he played Lady Macbeth in 1976, he remains extremely popular in Japan, appearing in films as well as modern stage performances. Other onnagata also continue to play girls and young women well into their 80’s: Sakata Tojuro IV (b. 1931), a Living National Treasure and the first since 1774 to hold that name, still convinces audiences he’s a young girl on stage. Nakamura Utaemon VI (1917-2001), like Tojuro a Living National Treasure, last performed one of his signature roles in 1988 at the age of 71. In 1988, as Nakamura Senjaku II, Tojuro toured western North America and Honolulu—where I saw him—with the Grand Kabuki company. He appeared then as Chubei, a wagoto male principal, in A Messenger of Love in Yamato (Koi Bikyaku Yamato Orai) opposite his own son, then Tomotaro (b. 1959), as Umegawa, a courtesan—a role Senjaku II, his father, had played opposite Kanjaku IV, his grandfather. (Tomotaro took the name Kanjaku V in 1995.)

The Kabuki actor faces this never-ending process because he’s entered onto the “way of art,” or geido, which is the “known path to knowledge and the initiate is guided in his steps along the path by a master already proficient in its secrets.” Although this path includes specific kata, the Kabuki actor “looks beyond them to a total approach to kabuki acting.” The “way of art” and the total approach to Kabuki are important in the examination of how this stylized theater creates its emo­tional effect. We’ll see that the effect itself is somewhat different than its counterpart in the Western theater.

If Kabuki is not concerned with factual truth but imagina­tive truth, it’s because drama refines truth and an actor should be able to perform so that the audience is impressed with the refined beauty (yugen) of his performance. In Japanese esthetics, yugen is the epitome of truth. Unlike the Western representa­tional theater, in which an actor must convince his audience that he is someone he’s not, in Kabuki drama, because it has its roots in dance, the actor needn’t do this. His audience easily accepts him as an artist; they know they’re watching a play whose performers are as much dancers as they are actors. The spectators aren’t there to be fooled, or to be moved by a vision of daily existence. They’re there to be moved “by images clearly distin­guished from reality by the precision of their design.” Readily accepting, even demanding this, the Kabuki audience is moved by the technical skill and virtuosity of the actor as he executes kata they have seen before, and which they know almost as well as the actor does. (Even Westerners at a ballet don’t demand realism or the realistic portrayal of emotions. Yet the Western audience, just like the Japanese Kabuki audience, might weep or cheer, too, if etiquette permitted it. They, too, may have been moved by the grace of a Gelsey Kirkland pirouette, the power of a Mikhail Baryshnikov leap, or the beauty of a grande promenade.)

This isn’t to say that Kabuki actors don’t feel any of the emotions of their characters. The strength and importance of the technique notwithstanding, they do experience the feelings, too. Nakamura Utaemon VI, one of the best onnagata of the 20th century, explained, “My father, Utaemon V [1865-1940], used to teach me and other apprentices to learn the interiorization of characters before anything else. . . . What was important was that [the actor] had the internal conception correctly. The first thing is internal characterization. After it comes the external.” Not all Kabuki stars agreed. Bando Mitsugoro VIII (1906-75), an expert in aragoto male roles and one of the founders of the National Theater training program, insisted, “I don’t believe that an interiorization is absolutely essential to kabuki acting. The external is enough.” However, “If you are just presenting a form—with no feeling, no heart—you are just a doll,” said Onoe Baiko VII (1915-95), another famous onnagata (and Living National Treasure). “There is no impact.” A talented actor may learn the kata perfectly, Baiko added, but unless he also has kimochi, the feeling true to the character and the situation, he will give empty performances. An example of how this comes out can be seen in the following moment from a performance of Nakamura Kichiemon I (1886-1954), admired for his line delivery, as Jirozaemon in Kagotsurube Sato no Eizame (The Courtesan or The Bewitched Sword):

After the scene of “the first encounter” is over, Jirozaemon, a hick, a pock-marked merchant, realizes that in all his life he has never seen such a wonderful woman and, umbrella in hand, stands there, watching her walk away on the hanamichi. His servant is behind him, but, he, his mouth agape, keeps watching the end of the hanamichi, as if he’d been robbed of his soul. His haori coat [jacket worn over a kimono] starts sliding down, so his servant calls out, “Master, sir.” Jirozaemon says, “Yado e kaeruwaa.” As you know, the complete line is, “Yado e kaeru wa iya ni natta” (I no longer want to go back to my inn). But saying, “Yado e kaeruwaa,” he continues to watch the end of the hanamichi, entranced. He’s holding an umbrella, you see, and he will drop it, but he doesn’t do it for a long, long time. The audience keeps watching. “Yado e kaeruwaa” having been said, the audience is waiting to see what comes next. Then the umbrella drops with a thump. The wooden clappers give the first clap, then comes “iya ni natta,” the clappers continue, and the curtain falls.

This description, by controversial Japanese novelist and poet Yukio Mishima (1925-70), a devotee of Kabuki theater, is fraught with emotional content—at least as Mishima responded to the performance. When they were originally conceived, the kata were methods devised by actors to convey emotions or other meanings. Over the centuries they’ve become codified, and the modern Kabuki actor learns them technically. (They may be compared superficially to the stage gestures and expressions devised by François Delsarte in the early 20th century.) For instance, a female character might show grief by holding her hand in front of her face to conceal her tears. Constant repetitions, however, “lead the actor to an appreciation of the interior truth behind his physical exertions in the role.” In fact, he learns the original reason for the kata’s creation. Though he comes to feel the emotions of the character he’s playing, a Kabuki actor doesn’t ordinarily motivate his actions the way a Western actor does. (Many contemporary Kabuki actors study Stanislavsky and other Western acting theories, but not so much for practical use as to be conversant with other interpretations of their art.) In his preparation for his entrance, for example, a Kabuki actor sits before a large mirror in the small room at the end of the hanamichi entrance ramp. He studies the external appearance of his character so he can absorb its nature. His character isn’t based on something internal but on the outer image.

Kata, though they’re traditional techniques many of which have been used for centuries, aren’t always as rigid as this may seem to make them. There’s considerable variation in the perfor­mance of kata, though it may take a very experienced eye to notice. Specific kata may be performed differently by different actors doing the same role; even if the general shape of the kata, say a mie, is the same, it may be invested with different energy and feeliings by different actors—thus communicating a different psychological or emotional state. “If I can use a traditional form [kata] to portray an emotion, I do so,” explained Baiko. “If the traditional form in a certain scene does not suit my style, I think it over and proceed to perform as I see fit, even if it means a change from the conventional manner.” Novelty for its own sake, of course, isn’t a virtue in Japanese art, but variation has its place.

Some deviations in kata are the result of several versions existing from the past. Earlier Kabuki actors had far more freedom to create kata to suit both their needs at the moment and their physical strengths and limitations, and these kata have each become part of the available tradition for today’s per­formers. An actor may choose one of the variations at his dis­cretion, providing he has the artistic stature to do so. Often, the difference may seem minuscule, but occasionally the choices are quite dissimilar. In one common scene in many Kabuki plays, for example, in which a character must inspect the head of an executed child, the actor may use one of a number of distinct kata. He may lightly touch the sides of the box containing the head and look into it, he may shade his eyes with his hands, or he may draw his sword on another character and look into his face. The kata themselves are traditionally executed, but the actor has a choice of which one to use, and each will convey a different emotion for the character.

Even the traditional kata of past generations can be altered. It’s not easy, and the adjustments may be very subtle, but as an actor achieves higher and higher levels of proficiency, he may personalize the kata he’s inherited. He may, for instance, impatiently tap his hand at a significant moment, or walk in one scene with is toes pointed out instead of in. These refinements and interpretations may be abandoned after one performance, or they may become part of the tradition themselves. Actors change kata for several reasons, not all of them aesthetic. The actor may want to rein­terpret a character or a scene, or he may wish to accomodate some peculiar physical strength or weakness. An ancient actor may, for instance, have changed a bit of business because he grew fat or became injured and modern actors may still use the “new” kata even though they don’t have the same physical limitations. Kataoka Gato V (b. 1935), a tachiyaku, or actor specializing in male roles, plays the same characters his father (Nizaemon XIII, 1903-94) and grandfather (Nizaemon XI, 1857-1934) played; in fact, he learned the kata from them and then his father taught him the roles. But Nizaemon XIII was slimmer than Gato and the son adjusted his performances to accommodate his physicality, subduing his performances somewhat, playing the parts less forcefully than his predecessor.

So far I’ve been discussing kata in general, and since the term covers every aspect of the Kabuki performance, it’s necessary to look at it broadly first. There are dozens of categories of kata, many of them non-acting, and each category has myriad types and each type may have several variations. There’s hardly room here to discuss any of this in detail, so for our purposes I’ll examine briefly, and superficially, a very few of the most striking kata an actor can use to demon­strate emotions and mood, as differentiated from kata that primarily convey plot, pure esthetics, or technical adjustments.

The most unusual device of a Kabuki performance, one that has no like in any other theater form, is the mie. A “frozen moment,” as Samuel Leiter calls it, a mie is a dynamic pose held rigidly for a few minutes by one or more actors; it’s created and selected by the actors as an effective way to show the inner feelings of the character. It’s been compared to a spotlight on a stage actor, a close-up in film, or ital­ics in print. It stops the action of the scene and intensifies the emotions much the way the “significant moment” of a televi­sion soap opera does—except with much more panache. There are dozens of dif­ferent mie, all with different configurations and purposes. One of the most powerful belongs to the Ichikawa family. This mie, which includes a fierce, cross-eyed grimace called nirami, is performed at the Kojo or name-taking cer­emony by the Ichikawa actor assuming the title Danjuro. It was a highpoint of the 1985 Grand Kabuki tour which included the Kojo for Danjuro XII (b. 1946), holder of the most illustrious name in all of Kabuki. This mie is so powerful, Kabuki devotees consider it to have magical powers, tremporarily driving illness, misfortune, and other evil forces out of the theater.

Another famous mie occurs in A Messenger of Love in Yamato, a popular wagoto (“soft style") play of the Nakamura family. The hero, Chubei, a poor, young courier, and his rival, Hachiemon, a wealthy but boorish merchant, are both in love with Umegawa, a beautiful courtesan. Each actor demonstrates his antagonism towards his opponent by striking a mie, held for two clacks from the tsuke wood blocks, combining the effects of the visual image and the sound to emphasize the heat of the moment.

Almost as striking as the mie is a certain kind of exit, usually executed on the hanamichi, called a roppo. Literally meaning “six directions,” the roppo is a swaggering walk which may indicate arrogance, bravado, or machismo. The best known of these exits is the tobi, or “flying,” roppo. The ac­tor almost lit­erally flies down the hana­michi in great jumps, his arms and legs going in “six direc­tions” at once. It’s a spec­tacular sight, and greeted with much de­light by the audience.

Both the nirami mie and the roppo are elements in aragoto acting, one of the five general Kabuki acting styles. Invented in Edo in the 17th century by Ichikawa Danjuro I (1660-1704), it’s the grandest, most exaggerated style, projecting power and masculine bravura of both villains and heroes. Aragoto’s converse, showing tenderness or humor, is wagoto acting, the special province of the Nakamura family of the Kyoto-Osaka Kabuki center, invented by Sakata Tojuro I. Certain plays and roles are written in these styles, so they’re not really options an actor can choose; nonetheless, they’re techniques that convey emotion and inner character. (The other three acting styles are maruhon, or “puppet style,” borrowed from Bunraku; shosagoto, “dance style,” used in Noh-derived dance plays; and danmari, “wordless,” a short pantomime suggesting nighttime action. These styles have less to do with character and emotion than spectacle and technical virtuosity.)

The Kabuki script, which isn’t regarded with the same reverence as a Western play text to start with, includes many points where actors are expressly required to improvise. (James Brandon, a professor of theater at the University of Hawaii at Manoa—I’ve taken two classes from him myself—and one of our most respected experts on Asian, especially Japanese, theater, has written a fairly comprehensive essay on the various kinds of improvisations specified in a Kabuki script: “Performance and Text in Kabuki” in Japanese Theatre and the International Stage.) These prescribed breaks in the performance text, to use Richard Schechner’s phrase, are intended to provide actors an opportunity to “express his character’s feelings and thoughts.” (I believe that what Yukio Mishima was describing above were instances of Kichiemon’s using his freedom to improvise to show how his character felt.) Of course, an actor’s license “to fill the moment” are restricted according to the actor’s artistic standing and the acquiescence of the leading actor, who’s responsible for the overall shape of the production. (Traditional Kabuki troupes don’t have directors in the conventional Western sense, but the lead actor serves as artistic director—much like the principal actor in 19th-century Western troupes.)

Dance and choreography are another skill the Kabuki actor must use to convey emotion. Not only is Kabuki as a whole derived in part from dance (bu, the middle syllable, means dance, you’ll recall), but much of the Kabuki repertoire are dance dramas (shosagoto) and plays derived from Noh. As I mentioned, dance is a fundamental part of the training for novice Kabuki actors because shosagoto plays require them to portray their roles almost exclusively through choreography. In Kasane (Kesakake Matsu Narita no Riken), for example, a two-hander in which a pair of onnagata each play two roles, the characters express their passion and confusion, ranging from lyrical elegance to savage ferocity, in dance.

Along the same lines, physical dexterity and agility are also tactics Kabuki actors can use to convey emotion and psychological state. Along with dance, Kabuki actors are trained extensively in acrobatics and martial arts and tremendous strength and control is a necessity for Kabuki acting. “An actor needs tremendous coordination of body, suppleness, ability to adjust from one position to another, and he must have perfect balance,” asserted Baiko. The greatest actors can manipulate the smallest parts of their bodies and make the smallest gestures and movements so that the subtlest changes carry meaning because the norm on the Kabuki stage is stillness. Nakamura Matagoro II (1914-2009), a renowned onnagata, was known to be able to move his eyebrows alone, without moving any other part of his face, even his eyelids. Matagoro was expert at the technique of separation—moving one part of the body while keeping the other parts immobile. Few other actors had his skill in this area, but the principle holds: Kabuki actors use their superb physical control to enhance the emotional aspects of their performances.

Since Kabuki is rhythmic both in its move­ment and its speech, there are several identifiable vocal kata. Most are written into the script, but, as with any kata, there’s still room for variation by master actors. One in particular is sawari, analogous to our soliloquy but always spoken by a female character. The name means “touch,” and it’s a device for touch­ing the chords of pathos in the audience as the heroine expresses her sorrow. The onnagata shares the dialogue with the chanter, who speaks while the actor mimes the character’s deepest feelings. (Matagoro also had extraordinary skill at manipulating his voice, using varied pitches in his vocal delivery. This is clearly another technique Kabuki actors, highly trained in singing—the first syllable, ka, means “song”—as well as dance, can use to communicate emotions.)

Although Kabuki is an actor-centric theater, there are dozens of other elements essential to the performance. These are also governed by kata, many of which help convey emo­tion, mood, or atmosphere, assisting the actor to develop the scene. Possibly the most impor­tant, given the dance roots of Ka­buki, is the ubiquitous musical and rhythmic ac­companiment. Music, which establishes mood for every scene, is provided by an off-stage geza ensemble. Though care­fully matched to the content of the scene, it’s not coordinated to the actor’s actions in the same sense that Western background music is. Among the several sound kata are wooden clappers, known as tsuke, which usually underscore the already spectacular effect of a mie or augment the martial atmosphere of tachimawari stage combat. The tsuke clacks enhance the emotional content of the mie by filling the sound space of the action. The kata for the tsuke and the other wooden clapper, the ki, are pretty standard, but there are variations possible, and, according to ki- and tsuke-players on tour with the Grand Kabuki in 1988, the actors can request certain types of rhythms, thus selecting the emotional support the beats give their scenes.

Costume and make-up kata, of course, help reveal character in some of the same ways they do in the West. Since dress and appearance are codified, there’s little leeway for variation, but one kind of make-up because of its stylized design enhances the actor’s ability to express emotion. As worn by the aragoto actor, the kumadori make-up is composed of bold lines that follow the musculature of the face. Rather than hiding the expressions the actor uses like a Noh mask or even other Kabuki make-up, kumadori make-up allows “every facial gesture to be seen clearly in the vast reaches of darkened theaters,” making the feelings evoked by the actor’s grimaces and scowls all the more visible to the audience.

There are many other devices that can be used to affect emotional portrayal in Kabuki, including the position on the stage or hanamichi; stage effects manipulated by kurombo, the black-clad stage assistants; narration by a reciter, an effect borrowed from the puppet theater; and even special curtain kata that reveal things about the characters and their feelings. The list is endless, since, in the stylized perform­ance of Kabuki, the symbolic use of any device can transmit a meaning to the knowledgeable audience. Furthermore, since the audience is mostly there for the beauty and spectacle of the presentation, it’s less the message than the medium that moves them. Kabuki theater is meant to be an emotional experience for the audience, not the intellectual or spiritual one that Noh provides. The very nature of the performance, the characters, the dialogue, the kata, the designs, costumes and make-up, and special effects all evolved, and not by accident, to make the audience respond emotionally and viscerally. It is, in the end, the complete harmony of all the ele­ments of the production, each making its own contribution to the overall beauty, that results in the special world of dreams that is Kabuki.

[The art of Kabuki theater is complex and fascinating, especially to us Westerners. I’ve discussed only a small aspect of the acting techniques used to express and convey emotion (with a brief mention of some non-acting practices), but there is a great deal more to this performance form than I’ve hinted at here. Indeed, many Western scholars and theater artists have devoted their lives to studying and trying to understand this art. There are many sources for a history of Kabuki, including the Internet. The interested reader should also consider, among others, Chapter 20 of Yoshinobu Inoura and Toshio Kawatake’s The Traditional Theater of Japan (New York: Weatherhill, 1981). A more detailed analysis of the form is provided in Studies in Kabuki by James R. Brandon, William P. Malm, and Donald H. Shively ([Honolulu]: University Press of Hawaii, 1979).]