World Theatre Traditions – Kabuki

Extracts from Notes on the Form of Kabuki

Part 1 and Part 2 (1954) by Earle Ernst

An important historical fact in the development of the Kabuki is that it was a theatre of commoners in a feudal society. The Kabuki began, according to tradition, with performances by an ex-priestess, Okuni, in the city of Kyoto in 1596.

The Kabuki is primarily a theatre of the actor, and his influence is nowhere more apparent than in the historical development of the physical theatre. The earliest permanent stage used was an adaptation of the No stage, which consisted of two acting areas: the stage proper, approximately eighteen feet square, and the “bridge,” a long plat- form, six feet wide, which led from the dressing room to the stage proper. Both acting areas were roofed. In part, the history of the development of the physical theatre is that of gradual modification of the No theatre, so that eventually the Kabuki created an entirely new form. This gradual process was greatly aided by the fires which periodically and frequently destroyed not only theatre buildings but also large sections of Japanese cities. The Kabuki, consequently, was never encumbered with a permanent form of theatre build- ing. The vigilant government made regulations concerning the auditorium, but it made none about the acting areas.

The hanamichi is something more than a long, relatively narrow, raised platform through the auditorium by means of which an important character moves to and from the stage. It is a kind of special, intimate stage used almost invariably by the actor alone, and the theatrical use to which it is put makes it unique in theatre history. The hanamichi is transmutable into three psychological areas. It is used as an area spatially continuous with the stage; it can be related to the stage but defined as a spatially differentiated area; or it is used as a completely independent stage.

The development of the physical theatre of the Kabuki offers a startling contrast to that of the Western theatre since the Renaissance. In the Western theatre, generally, the movement has been distinguished by increasing with- drawal of the actor from the audience, both spatially and psychologically, and the creation of a line of division, phy- sically reinforced by the proscenium, between stage and auditorium. Behind this line, the actor came to move in an illusory world in which he related him- self to the mise en scene. In the Kabuki, on the contrary, the movement since the early seventeenth century has been to- ward and through the audience. The use of increasingly elaborate settings did not result in the establishment of an illusory world, for the settings constituted a generally flat, decorative back- ground against which the actor played. Despite the introduction of the proscenium arch and modern lighting instruments, the Kabuki remains essentially what it always was: a non-representational form of theatre.

Ernst, E. (1954). Notes on the Form of Kabuki, I. Educational Theatre Journal, 6(3), 201-209

A basic characteristic of the Japanese Kabuki theatre is its emphasis upon the pure theatricality of the performance and its consequent avoidance of illusion. Kabuki settings are elaborate, large, and colourful, but their purpose is that of stage decoration, not of disguising the stage so that it will pass for a “real” place. Scene changes taking place before the eyes of the audience.

The personal servant, as it were, of the actor onstage is the kurombo or the koken. The kurombo (“black fellow”) is dressed entirely in black (a fact which in Oriental artistic convention makes him invisible), and a black hood covers his face; while the koken wears the formal dress of the Tokugawa period (1603-1868), and his face is uncovered. The costuming used in a given piece de- pends upon its visual suitability to the stage picture.

Kabuki movement, though fluid and graceful, tends finally toward a posture; its most significant moments are thus not realized in movement but in the achievement of a static attitude. In this respect, the movement exhibits a characteristic pattern of the Kabuki performance at large, which is realized, not in a cumulative, symphonic form, but in a single line of progression which at certain intervals solidifies into a significant tableau. The most expressive moment of the Kabuki actor is in the mie (rhymes with we say), a static attitude preceded by increasingly rhythmic movement which reaches an equilibrium in this pose. The mie is, of course, not a realistic attitude; its essential quality is that of balanced, sculptural tension.

Ernst, E. (1954). Notes on the Form of Kabuki, II. Educational Theatre Journal, 6(4), 303-310


Kabuki (歌舞伎) is a classical Japanese dance-drama. Kabuki theatre is known for the stylization of its drama and for the elaborate make-up worn by some of its performers.

The individual kanji, from left to right, mean sing (歌), dance (舞), and skill (伎). Kabuki is therefore sometimes translated as “the art of singing and dancing”. These are, however, ateji characters which do not reflect actual etymology. The kanji of ‘skill’ generally refers to a performer in kabuki theatre. Since the word kabuki is believed to derive from the verb kabuku, meaning “to lean” or “to be out of the ordinary”, kabuki can be interpreted as “avant-garde” or “bizarre” theatre. The expression kabukimono (歌舞伎者) referred originally to those who were bizarrely dressed and swaggered on a street.

This 35-minute documentary film is about Ennosuke Ichikawa, aka Ennosuke III, the third in a line of great Kabuki actors in Japan.


THEATRE -Japan KABUKI from James Matheny on Vimeo.

Full Productions

A Kabuki production in Japanese can be watched here. You can find a summary here.

A kabuki production in English directed by Grant Shen at Asian Theatre Laboratory, 1998 can be watched here. His article to accompany this production can be found here.


World Theatre Traditions – Yuan Drama (AKA Zaju)

“By turns lyrical and earthy, sentimental and ironic, Yuan drama spans a broad emotional, linguistic, and stylistic range. Combining sung arias with declaimed verses and doggerels, dialogues and mime, and jokes and acrobatic feats, Yuan drama formed a vital part of China’s culture of performance and entertainment in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.”

Hsia, C., Wai. & Kao, G. (2014). The Columbia Anthology of Yuan Drama. New York: Columbia University Press.

In order to understand Yuan drama we must understand the society in which it developed. Yuan society was unique in Chinese history : the entire nation was ruled by a foreign and militant tribe and its people officially divided into four ethnic groups with the Chinese at the bottom. The Mongols were the ruling class ; next were the se-mu, Moslems, Central Asians, Europeans, and other ethnic groups of the western regions ; third the han tribes of the north such as Tatars and Koreans, and those Chinese who lived in the territory of the former Chin dynasty; and lowest of all the Southerners i.e. the Chinese of the now defunct Southern Sung dynasty. These groups formed the basis for discriminatory policies and the practice of a spoils system.

Yang, R. (1958). THE SOCIAL BACKGROUND OF THE YÜAN DRAMA. Monumenta Serica, 17, 333.

The rise of the drama during the Yuan period, has been attributed to various causes. Some scholars believe it was a direct result of the examinations which required skill in composing songs. This theory has been challenged by modern scholars, among whom Wang Kuo-wei:

“The abolition of the examination was the real reason for the development of the drama. Since T’ang and Sung competitive scholars had been accustomed to the examinations. When the examinations were suddenly abolished the scholars no longer had an outlet for their talents; hence they turned their energies whole-heartedly to (the composition of) dramatical arias. Moreover, the requirement for the examinations on subjects during the Chin period had been most simple and shallow. These scholars once they lost what they were used to do, were unable to contribute much to other works of scholarship. For serious essays and documentary writings were not what they were familiar with. At this moment, the new style of drama appeared, and many turned their attention to it. When one or two gifted scholars devoted their entire talents to this new style, the writings of Yuan drama became a unique achievement.”

A third theory is advanced by Shionoya On:

“The Chinese people had always held the teachings of Con- fucius in high esteem, and Confucianism had been regarded as the foundation of both government and religion. But neither the Chin (Tatars) nor the Yuan (Mongols), conquerors who arose from the north, were capable of understand- ing and appreciating Confucian teachings and they allowed considerable freedom of thought in all religions, Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity alike. The Chinese people, humiliated by the rule of foreign tribes, sought com- fort and consolation in poetry and wine. They took great delight in the newly developed form through which they could express their indignation against their own oppressors by poking fun at characters of the past. They criticised their world with passion and through satire admonished the people. Those who heard generally developed a sense of sympathy and satisfaction.”

Yang, R. (1958). THE SOCIAL BACKGROUND OF THE YÜAN DRAMA. Monumenta Serica, 17, 332 – 333

In 1995, Grant Shen directed Freed by a Flirt, the world’s first zaju opera in English. In translating the Chinese libretto into English, he preserved as many stylistic features of zaju as possible.

Read more articles by Grant Shen here.

Two English versions of The West Wing. Introduction taken from The Octant.

For a Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) opera, The West Wing (西厢记), written by Wang Shifu, is surprisingly racy, making it the most-performed, as well as the most-banned play in the history of Chinese opera. Now, a group of Yale-NUS College students are staging several scenes from this classic, marking the first time since the mid-Ming dynasty that parts of the original Yuan text are being performed. A separate cast will be performing the English translation of the play.

The West Wing tells the story between two lovers, Oriole and Zhang Sheng, who consummate their love despite parental disapproval. It was deemed immoral, pornographic even, by Confucian scholars and hence was banned for a long period of time in China.

Chinese version of The West Wing