Asian and African Theatre
Ch 10
Theatre in Japan
At about the time religious cycles were
flourishing in Europe, a very different kind
of theatrical experience was being offered
halfway round the world in Japan.
 There, Noh theatre was perfected and
codified so thoroughly that it is still
performed today much as it was five
hundred years ago.
Theatre in Japan
To understand Noh theatre we need to
look at the political and cultural context
out of which it developed.
 During the sixth century A.D. the
Buddhist religion arrived in Japan from
India and China.
 In the seventeenth century an emperor
gained power over Japan and took
ownership of all land.
Theatre in Japan
In 1192 emperor ceded his secular
authority to a shogun (military dictator),
although he retained his status as a neargod in the religious realm.
 The shogunate became hereditary,
although new families won possession of
the title from time to time.
Theatre in Japan
Japan was ruled in this manner until 1867, when American
intervention led to the downfall of the shogunate and the
return of power to the emperor.
Under shogunate Japan had strict social hierarchy:
Artists and craftsmen
Farmers and peasants
Theatre in Japan
In 1338 the Ashikaga family gained control
of the shogunate and retained it for the
next two hundred fifty years.
 One of its goals was to eliminate foreign
cultural influences and develop native art
Noh Theatre
The most significant developments in Noh
theatre began around 1375. At that time it
was taken under the patronage of shogun.
 The major influence on Noh’s view of the
world was Zen Buddhism, which reaches
that ultimate peace comes through union
with all being, the individual desire must
be overcome, and that nothing in earthly
life is permanent.
Noh Theatre
Noh dramas are classified into five types,
according to the principal character: god
plays, warrior plays, women plays, madness
plays, and demon plays.
 Each Noh script is short and doesn’t
emphasize storytelling.
Noh Theatre
The performers can be divided into three
groups: actors, chorus, and musicians.
 The actors are trained from childhood
and expect to devote twenty or more
years to perfecting their craft.
Noh Theatre
The chorus is composed of from six to
ten members. They sit at one side of the
stage throughout and sing or recite many
of the shite’s (main character and his or
her followers) lines or narrate events.
Noh Theatre
Each play requires two or three
drummers and one flute player. No other
instruments are ever used.
 The shite and his companion wear masks
of painted wood, many of them passed
down for generations.
Noh Theatre
The Noh stage, standardized for almost four
hundred years, is raised about three feet.
The stage is divided into three areas, although
none is separated architecturally except for the
The largest area, the main stage, is enclosed by
the four pillars and is about eighteen feet square.
Back of the upstage pillars is the rear stage
(atoza), where the musicians and attendants sit.
To stage left of the main stage is the waki-za,
where the chorus kneels on the floor in two
Noh Theatre
There are two entrances to the stage. The
principal one, the bridge, is a railed
gangway about six feet wide and forty feet
long leading from the mirror room, where
the actors prepare for their entrances.
Noh Theatre
The audience views the performance
from two sides: in front of the main stage
and facing the stage from alongside the
bridge. The theatres used today hold
three hundred to five hundred people.
 Every element of performance is strictly
controlled by conventions that have been
established for centuries. Rather than
encouraging innovation, Noh seeks to
perfect and preserve an art form.
The Shrine in the Fields (Nonomiya)
The Shrine in the Fields is usually attributed
to Zeami. It belongs to the third category
(woman play) and is based on episodes
from one of the most famous of Japanese
novels, The Tale of Genji.
The Shrine in the Fields (Nonomiya)
Each Noh play is set in a specific season
of the year, named early in the drama, and
the mood and imagery of the entire play
must be in keeping with that season.
 In The Shrine in the Fields the time is late
autumn, the seventh day of the ninth
month, the day in which Lord Genji
visited Lady Rokujo at Nonomiya.
The Shrine in the Fields (Nonomiya)
As is typical in Noh drama, the
introductory scene compresses time and
place: An itinerant priest ( the waki or
secondary character) travels – almost
instantaneously – from the capital to
Nonomiya, where his curiosity is aroused
by the seemingly perfect preservation of
the shrine although it has long been
The Shrine in the Fields (Nonomiya)
When the ghost of Miyasudokoro (the
shite) appears in the guise of a village girl,
he questions her about the shrine and
herself, and gradually it becomes apparent
that there is something mysterious about
both her and the place.
The Shrine in the Fields (Nonomiya)
As in all Noh plays, the climactic moment is
expressed in dance.
 In Noh, a number of devices distance the
spectator from the play.
 For The Shrine in the Fields the basic
appearance of the stage is altered only by
the addition of a stylized gate and
brushwood fence, and the only property of
any significance is the sprig of sakaki that
Miyasudokoro places at the shrine gate.
The Shrine in the Fields (Nonomiya)
The Shrine in the Fields does not seek to
tell a story or to develop character so
much as to capture a mood, to distill a
powerful emotion, and to express an
attitude about the physical world and
human existence.
Other Japanese Theatre Forms
Japan developed two other traditional
theatre forms: doll theatre and Kabuki.
 The doll theatre, in which large puppets
represent the characters, came to
prominence in the seventeenth century.
Other Japanese Theatre Forms
Three handlers, who are visible to the
audience operate each puppet. One
handler manipulates the head and right
arm, a second the left arm, and a third the
 A narrator is accompanied by a samisen (
a three-stringed instrument with a skincovered base that can be both struck and
plucked) and other instruments of lesser
Other Japanese Theatre Forms
The major writer of plays for doll theatre
was Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1724),
Japan’s greatest playwright.
Other Japanese Theatre Forms
He wrote many kinds of plays but is best
known for his five-act history plays and
his three-act plays on contemporary life.
 He was admired above all for his plays
about the double suicides of lovers, his
sensitive characterizations, and beautiful
Other Japanese Theatre Forms
Kabuki, long the most popular of the
traditional forms, also first appeared in
the seventeenth century.
 More open to change than the other
forms, it has borrowed many of its plays
and conventions from Noh and Bunraku
but has adapted them to its own needs.
Other Japanese Theatre Forms
Unlike Noh, Kabuki uses a great deal of
scenery, although the settings are not
meant to be fully illusionistic. White floor
mats are used to represent snow, blue
mats to indicate water, and gray mats the
Other Japanese Theatre Forms
Most Kabuki plays are divided into several
acts made up of loosely connected
episodes that emphasize highly emotional
 The climactic moment in many scenes is
reached in a highly stylized pose (the mie)
struck and held by the principal character.
Other Japanese Theatre Forms
Song and narration are important to
 The orchestra often includes flutes,
drums, bells, gongs, cymbals, and strings,
although the most essential instrument is
the samisen.
Other Japanese Theatre Forms
Kabuki acting is a combination of stylized
speaking and dancing.
 Kabuki actors do not wear masks, but
some roles use boldly patterned makeup
to exaggerate the musculature of face or
Other Japanese Theatre Forms
Although Kabuki is highly
conventionalized, it includes many
elements that resemble, though in
exaggerated form, Western usages,
perhaps most notably in scenery and
lighting, melodramatic stories, and
emotional acting.
 Of all Japanese forms, Noh remains the
least understood in the West.
Theatre in Africa
Europeans and Americans remained
largely ignorant of African performance
traditions until the end of the nineteenth
 Nevertheless, African performance
activities had through the centuries been
numerous – religious rituals, festivals,
ceremonies, storytelling, and various kinds
of celebrations – and had been woven
into daily life.
Theatre in Africa
The combination of the colonialist
heritage and indigenous forms created a
wide spectrum of performance in Africa.
 There are more than eight hundred local
languages in use, and many local traditions
do not necessarily travel well from one
part of Africa to another.
Theatre in Africa
During the late nineteenth century,
European countries divided up most of
Africa among themselves and thereafter
sought to impose their languages and
ideas of theatre, including prosceniumarch structures, on the territories they
Theatre in Africa
In indigenous performance, words are
often the least important element. Other
“languages”, especially drumming and
dance, often communicate more to
African audiences than words do.
 Direct audience participation is expected.
 Dancing and music are important in most
Theatre in Africa
It would be impossible to treat theatrical
performance in every country on the
African continent, since there are close to
fifty separate states.
 Whereas Arab languages and customs
dominate the states in North Africa, those
south of the Sahara desert are highly
Theatre in Africa
Most countries have been unable to rid
themselves of their colonial past and,
consequently, their theatrical customs
include both European and African
Performance in Nigeria
Nigeria includes more than two hundred
fifty different ethnic groups, of which the
most populous are the Hausa,Yoruba, Ibo,
and Fulani.
 One of the major Yoruba festivals was the
egungen, in which sacrifices were offered
and petitions for blessing and prosperity
were addressed to the dead.
Performance in Nigeria
The most popular contemporary
theatrical form in Nigeria is Yoruba opera
(now usually called Yoruba Travelling
Theatre). It was developed primarily by
Hubert Ogunde, who in 1946 established
a professional company with which he
toured thereafter.
Performance in Nigeria
English-language plays also became
popular from around 1900, and drama
was intoduced into schools founded by
the English colonial government or by
religious organizations that were seeking
to convert Nigerians to Christianity.
Performance in Nigeria
But the dominant playwright has been Wole
Soyinka (1934-), especially since 1986, when he
won the Noble Prize for Literature, the first
African to be so honored.
That has not kept him from being punished by a
government that has imprisoned him and
threatened him with death for his opposition to
certain government policies.
The Strong Breed
The staging conventions used in The
Strong Breed are much the same as those
found in European and American theatres.
 The difference from European and
American drama lies primarily in the
subject matter and its treatment, which
strongly reflects the egungen traditions,
but placed in a modern context.
The Strong Breed
In The Strong Breed, the dramatic action
focuses on a ritual that can be traced all
the way back to the Greeks – the
selection and expulsion of a scapegoat
who will take all the problems of the
village on himself and carry them away.
The Strong Breed
It is never made clear why Summa, who
seems to be in love with Eman, does not
tell him of the difference in customs here,
not even when a girl dragging an effigy
appears and lures him into the bush,
where he can be captured and prepared
for the ritual.
The Strong Breed
In the action that follows, through a series
of flashbacks, we learn that Eman is a
descendant of a long line of carriers and
that he has left his own village because he
has been devastated when his wife died in
 As in Greek tragedy, Eman finds that he
cannot escape his destiny – to be a carrier.
The Strong Breed
The Strong Breed develops a number of
themes common in Soyinka’s plays: the
conflict between the traditional and the
modern; the ongoing need to save society
from its tendency to follow custom and
mistaken beliefs unquestioningly; the special
individual, who through dedication and vision
awakens the people and leads them toward
better ways, even though he may become a
victim of the society he seeks to benefit.
The Strong Breed
Soyinka may also be suggesting that one
cannot escape tradition and therefore
must come to grips with it.
 Soyinka’s plays form a bridge between
traditional and contemporary
Theatre Elsewhere in Africa
Other African countries with extensively
developed performance traditions include
Ghana, Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, Senegal,
and Ivory Coast.
 But the county whose theatre is vest
known in Europe and America is South
Africa, probably because so many of its
inhabitants are descendants of white
Theatre Elsewhere in Africa
South Africa also attracted much
attention and controversy over apartheid,
under which the black and white
populations were kept apart from each
other as much as possible and under
which blacks were denied most of the
rights granted to whites.
 These conditions continued from the
1950s until about 1990, when the
restrictions were removed.
Theatre Elsewhere in Africa
The best-known South African playwright
is Athol Fugard, whose plays have been
produced throughout the world and have
been especially popular in the US.
 His Master Harold and the Boys (1982) is
grounded in apartheid.
Theatre Elsewhere in Africa
A number of black playwrights have
gained international recognition, among
them Mbogeni Negema and Percy Mtwa.
 Their play Woza Albert enacts what might
happen if Jesus were to come back to
South Africa.
Theatre Elsewhere in Africa
It is clear that African theatre is
handicapped by colonialist heritage.
Rather than comparing it to European and
American practices, it would be best to
admire its broad range of theatrical
activities, most of which, considering the
enormous number of ethnic and linguistic
divisions within Africa, are appropriately
directed to limited and local audiences.
The theatre is always in flux. It seems
likely that the versions with which we are
now familiar will change as conditions
 Changes are not always welcome, but
they are necessary, because theatre can
remain vital only by reflecting the
dynamics of the culture within which it

Ch 10