Overview of Noh and Kyogen
One of the three major classical theaters of Japan, with kabuki and bunraku puppet theater, noh is a poetic dance-drama performed in ancient language with highly ritualised movements. Along with kyogen farce, it is the oldest form of professional theater still performed today. Its history goes back to the 14th century.
The noh stage is a wooden structure with a Shinto shrine-style curved roof covered in cypress bark tiles, adjoined by a long passage leading backstage. The stage proper is undecorated except for a stylized pine tree painted on the back wall. There is no stage curtain.
Onto this undecorated stage come the musicians (three or four players of drums and flutes) who seat themselves on stools at the rear of the stage. They are followed by a chorus of six to eight chanters who sit at the right of the stage.
The themes of noh are generally Buddhist, and the main message is that man should not become attached to the world, for it is a world of illusion.
There are generally no more than two or three actors in an entire noh play. First the supporting actor (waki) - often a priest - enters and explains the circumstances that have brought him to this place. Then the curtain at the end of the long passageway is lifted inwards on bamboo poles and the principal actor (shite) enters to the sound of drums and flutes. Robed in a resplendent costume and usually wearing a mask, he enters and tells the priest his tale.
The shite may be a man or woman, human or superhuman, alive or dead, but the most common scenario is for the shite to seek intervention from the priest to be freed of his or her karma. The shite may be a woman who died in the midst of unrequited love, or a warrior who died too young. In most cases the protagonist is tormented by his or her desire to return to the material world. The priest intercedes to free the being, and it returns into the darkness. Rather than seeking to entertain, the significance of a noh play is that it reconciles the audience to the acceptance of life and death.
Stage properties and movements are minimal, relying on a set of stylized forms (kata). A few steps may indicate a journey of a hundred miles; a folding fan may symbolize anything from a dagger to the moon. Noh's artistry is based on Zen notions of restraint and economy and a mysterious expression of beauty called yugen.
A noh performance usually consists of three plays with two 30-minute comic kyogen plays in between. In contrast to noh, kyogen are straightforward plays dealing with ordinary people in the real world (in Muromachi-period [1333-1568] Japan), which usually derive their humor from human weakness. Many of the plays poke good-humored fun at samurai lords, who were the patrons of the art. The dialogue is in ordinary speech, the movement lively, the costumes simple, and the stage properties realistic.
There are about 260 noh plays dating from the 15th century, many written by Zeami, who first transformed noh into a mature theater form under the patronage of Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (1358-1408).
Noh drama today is carried on by schools of players. There are five shite schools, the largest being Kanze. They still derive their art largely from instructions left by Zeami.