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Noh Theatre: Japanese Influence in American Theatre

The Japanese although is not a common ethnicity in the United States have their piece of influence in the entire American people. Their delicacies and arts have proliferated in our society as represented in major restaurants and business establishments promoting them. One way of looking at the degree of impact that they have on our community is through the appreciation of American thetare of the Japanese Noh theatre.

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The admiration to the latter may have led to the adoption of its certain techniques and props by the former.

Noh or N?gaku is a major form of classic Japanese musical drama. Noh has been slow and modified for several centuries beginning the  Tang Dynasty. It is interesting to learn that it influenced other dramatic forms such as Kabuki and Butoh. During the Meijing era, it was recognized as one of the three national forms of drama. The unique characteristic of Noh is that Noh actors and musicians never rehearse for performances together. Each actor, musician, and choral chanter practices his or her fundamental movements, songs, and dances independent of each other.

A senior director may guide them but again, separately. This gives the interactions of all the performers together greater importance. Noh exemplifies the traditional Japanese aesthetic of transience, called “ichi-go ichi-e”. The popular costume in Noh includes masks to be worn by the main actor called shite and his companions yet only when they belong to the following categories; old man, woman, youth, and supernatural being. The masks portray sculptural art in Japan and are made of wood.

A certain Ernest Fenoilosa, in 1916 had claimed that he was one of the two foreigners

who had ever been taught and practiced the techniques of the Japanese Noh theatre. The progression of its popularity might be slow but soon enough, Western scholars and artists have been swayed toward it due to its great grace, precision and discipline, and by its power to evoke the most poignant and the most sublime emotions.

A Noh performance seems truly to portray poetry in motion, as well as poetry in repose.[1] Books about Noh and translations of its plays have contributed to its entry into Western theatres. It is probably the ancient art forms that the audience has managed to look forward to in Noh performances. Now there is a group of American professional actors that can say it has also been initiated into the Noh:

…With the initiative of The Institute for Advanced Studies in the Theatre Arts in New York, in association with the Japan Society, two Noh actors came from Tokyo to the United States. Here, forthe first time in history, they directed non-Japanese actors

in a production of Ikkaku Sennin, a classical Noh play. The directors were Sadayo Kita, a sixteenth generation Noh performer from the Kita troupe of the Noh, Tokyo,

and his assistant, Akiyo Tomoeda, also of the Kita troupe… (Packard,____)

The actors have found it difficult to imitate the movements of the hands and feet of Japanese Noh performers. They found it challenging to preserve the tradition and ritual embedded behind every gesture and act. As Noh is considered the “immeasurable scripture”; it is a combination of song, dance, poetry, drama and religion, each performance is an act of ultimate control. It represents stoic patience of waiting for long periods of time on stage.

As soon as the American actors had completed their basic training in Noh movement, they were given authentic Noh costumes, colorful robes and wigs and masks. A stage was constructed out of white pine, built to the requirements of the Noh theatre but with consideration of the relatively larger built of the Americans. In relation to American theatre arts, Noh is relatively confined to strict movements while the other is free But the American actors claimed they have learned new interpretations and adopted the use of masks. While Noh is selfless, American theatre is egotistic.

To use the comment of Packard, one could truly say that this introduction of Noh in American theatre has produced a momentum and historic event, when he said, “The American theatre, with such a deep need for style and tradition, could acquire a great deal from the discipline and technique of the Japanese Noh theatre”.

Works Cited

Packard, William. “An Experiment in Noh.”

Sorgenfrei, Carol Fisher. “The State of Asian Theatre Studies in the American Academy.”

Theatre Survey. Vol. 47 No. 2 (2006).




[1] Packard, William. “An Experiment in Noh.” P. 60.