Introducing students to noh theater

Many instructors find it challenging to incorporate a lesson on noh into a course on theater history or the tiny segment allotted to “Asian drama” in a global theaters syllabus. Below is a brief introduction to elements of the noh theater that I distribute to students.

I recommend that instructors find the courage to admit to students if this is, in fact, a form of theater that falls outside their expertise. Turn the class into a collective exploration using some readily available online resources. I would encourage students to read one warrior play (my favorite is Atsumori) and either Hagoromo (The Feather Mantle) or Sumidagawa from Royall Tyler’s excellent book of translations, Japanese Nō Dramas (Penguin, 1993). Translations of other plays are available on the web (I recommend the warrior play Takasago and woman play Matsukaze).

The Noh.Com provides a fantastic general introduction to the history, masks and costumes, performance techniques, and music of noh. Ask students to read the general introductions, “What is Noh?” and “Origins and history.”

Divide students into groups and have each member of the group investigate one component of the noh theater using and other resources they might find: costumes, masks, roles, dance, composition, etc. Ask each student to chose one of the plays in the Noh Play Database, read the synopsis, and follow the “Story Paper” provided. Have students report back to their groups and then give a brief presentation, sharing their two most interesting discoveries with the entire class.


A Brief Introduction to Noh Theater

Noh is a lyric dance drama from Japan that features an elaborately costumed, masked central character, chorus, onstage ensemble of musicians, and stylized gestures and chanting.

In the late 14th century (Muromachi period), the actor-playwright Kannami and his son, Zeami, developed noh’s distinctive form and performance technique. As a young actor, Zeami gained the admiration and patronage of Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, who provided a classical education and support for noh in exchange for artistic and sexual submission. Zeami wrote many plays, some of which are still performed today in the traditional repertory of about 250 plays. He also wrote secret treatises to explain noh’s performance technique and aesthetic principles, documents which were discovered and published in the early twentieth century.

During the Edo period (1603-1868), noh became the official theater of the military government. Performance troupes flourished, and the formerly popular art became increasingly codified and elite. The modernization and social reforms of the Meiji period (1868-1912) left noh without government sponsorship, and it was even considered a dangerous throwback to feudal times. Some actors, perhaps most famously Umewaka Minoru, advocated for the art form, found private sponsors, and began teaching lessons to amateurs. The interest of Western scholars, artists, and students, including Ernest Fenollosa, Ezra Pound, and W. B. Yeats, helped noh survive this transitional period.

Today, approximately 1,500 professional performers make their living largely through performing and teaching noh. While noh is not a popular art, it is considered an important classical form, often celebrated as the oldest continuously performed theater in the world.

Categories of Noh Plays:
Noh plays are often categorized into five general groups based on whether they feature gods, warriors, beautiful women, living characters or mad-women (often just called 4th category plays), and demons or other supernatural beings. A full day’s performance or cycle during the Edo period typically consisted of the ritual piece Okina-Sanbaso followed by one play from each category with a comedic kyōgen play between each noh.

Performers and Roles:
Noh actors are trained to perform one kind of character or role within a particular school or guild. The central character of a noh play, the shite, appears in the first half of many plays as an ordinary person (a fisherman, diver, old man, etc.), sometimes accompanied by one or more companion characters or tsure. The shite typically tells a story about a famous person or place to the waki, a secondary character who is often a traveling priest. The shite then mysteriously disappears to return in the second part of the play in the form of a ghost from the story recounted in the first half. While the shite is offstage and being dressed as the ghost, an interlude actor called ai-kyogen often appears as an average local person who retells and clarifies the story for the waki (and audience).

The chorus or jiutai usually includes eight performers who kneel at the side of the stage. They narrate the play, chant songs while the shite dances, describe the character’s thoughts and actions, and sometimes even sing lines that seem to belong to the character.

The musicians in the orchestra, or hayashi, kneel or sit at the back of the stage. Noh instruments include the transverse flute (nohkan), the shoulder drum (kotsuzumi), the larger drum placed on the lap (okawa or otsuzumi), and a barrel-shaped stick drum played on a low floor stand (taiko). The three drummers perform distinctive kakegoe or drum calls that are part of the rhythmic character of the play and also serve as signals to guide the musicians, chorus, and actors.

Movement and Dance:
Noh movement is highly stylized and codified rather than “realistic” as in much Western theater. All performers walk with a distinctive sliding foot-step called suriashi and maintain a posture (kamae) with bent knees, pelvis tipped forward, and arms held curved away from the body. Some gestures, like the arm movement for crying (shiori), have a specific meaning, while others are abstract stomps, circling or zigzag floor patters, and gestures with the fan. Dances range from instrumental pieces performed in many different plays to vigorous battle dances. Noh movement tends to feature intensity, weightedness, and constraint.

The shite main character typically wears a beautiful, delicate mask; each is hand-carved in wood by a mask-maker. The mask becomes a powerful means of expression as the actor tilts it up or down, into or away from light. There are masks for women, old men, and supernatural beings like ghosts, deities, and demons. The waki or secondary character does not wear a mask but maintains a neutral mask-like expression called hitamen (literally “direct mask”).

All characters, women or men, elite warriors or humble divers, suffering ghosts or evil demons, wear gorgeous costumes of dyed silk and elaborate embroidery. Many of these priceless costumes have been owned by the noh troupes for centuries. Several assistants must dress an actor in the costume, sometimes literally sowing the costume onto the actor.

Noh is performed on a square thrust stage of polished wood with a bridgeway (hashigakari) extending from stage right. There is no curtain over the main stage, and the only scenery is a pine tree painted on the back wall, which serves as a symbol of longevity and of the link between the human world and the realm of the gods.