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 – Topeng Balinese Dance Drama

Balinese performances are difficult to categorize because of its dynamic and heterogeneous nature. The varying forms run the gamut from holy ritual to secular buffoonery, with no strict definitions delineating one from another. But there is an underlying unity. Running through them all is the implicit acknowledgement of a profound affinity between the spiritual and mundane worlds. Even the most outrageous popular melodramas contain elements of the divine temple dramas from which they were derived. And even the most sacred rituals possess elements of crowd-pleasing theatricality. This thread that links the ridiculous to the sublime is at the core of Balinese theatre.

The dance/drama which best reflects this special relationship be- tween Balinese clowns and gods is the masked spectacle called Topeng. Performed regularly as part of village temple festivals, Topeng is a vortex of intersecting artistic energies. Music, dance, mime, and song are used to provide a dramatic forum for the mingling of history, religion, and topical events. Topeng achieves this complex synthesis by blending solemn ritual and carnival merriment into accessible popular entertainment.

Jenkins, R. (1978). Topeng: Balinese Dance Drama. Performing Arts Journal, 3(2), p40.

Topeng dancers are expected to study voice, dance, acting, song, and mime. Because Topeng involves sensitive interplay between performers and musicians, most dancers learn how to play all the instruments in the gamelan orchestra which accompanies Topeng. These skills are usually handed down from generation to generation on a one-to-one basis. Older performers select pupils as young as six years old as apprentices.

Once a high level of technical proficiency has been achieved in these various art forms, the Topeng dancer turns his attention to his other responsibilities as a temple performer. He is expected to study ancient religious and historic texts inscribed on palm leaf manuscripts called “lontars.” Familiarity with these writings allows him to weave relevant quotes and moral teachings into his improvised dialogues. Combining his knowledge of religious and historical tradition with a consciously cultivated awareness of topical village problems, a good Topeng performer improvises dramatic situations that speak directly to the audience in terms of their historic and spiritual past.

Jenkins, R. (1978). Topeng: Balinese Dance Drama. Performing Arts Journal, 3(2), p47.

Filmed in 1969 for the BBC, Richard Attenborough narrates a mask maker introducing the different characters of Balinese Topeng.

The master of Topeng I Made Djimat presents more than 10 characters (start – 2:20)

A look behind the scenes at a Topeng performance.

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

World Theatre Traditions – Rakugo

Extracts from Rakugo: Popular Narrative Art of The Grotesque by Sasaki Miyoko and Morioka Heinz

“Although many stories have been adapted from written sources. rakugo can be considered a genuine form of oral art because its principal route of transmission down to us has been through the lips of the performers. To this day there are no written manuals or librettos containing the full text of a performance or of the way a story has to be presented. There is mainly oral transmission from master to pupil. Written notes to help in memorization or tape recordings are frowned upon. Through long years of personal association with his teacher, listening to his performance from backstage, and living as an apprentice in his home, the student devotes his attention to mastering the stories.”

“The sense of reality is maintained throughout the story, and shared by performer and audience alike. Drawing freely on his personal experience, the performer styles his own individual pre- amble or “pillow” (makura t) for his story, selecting among con- temporary events, the weather, or work, whatever topics he feels his audience might be interested in. When he enters into the story itself, then his hero, in a curious and sudden shift of time dimen- sion, leaps out of the setting of an old tale right into the present moment and confronts the audience. Here, if the storyteller clumsily tries to evoke laughter in an obvious way, the effect will amount to nothing more than crowd-pleasing titillation, and his story may fall flat. But the expert performer can bridge the time gap smoothly and without a hitch, drawing the audience along with him into the world of classical rakugo.”

“The rakugo performer must organize his story in a new way each time, but if he is to remain within the confines of classical tradition, he is forced to observe certain definite rules. Throughout several centuries of rakugo the main plots of the stories and the heroes’ names have not changed. In the organization and minute descriptive details of episodes, with each performance, each year, and each generation, a great variety of different nuances and changes have appeared. No story can ever be performed twice in exactly the same way.”

“Changes in scene of a story are described by onomatopoetic words and sounds; for example, the ringing of a temple-bell, bon-bon; the clatter of wooden clogs, karan-koron; the sound of the wind, pyiu u u u; rolling of stones, gara-gara; or noise in the background, di-di, go-go. Onomatopoetic insertions can extend over a period of more than one minute, when they describe such movements as slow walking, tata tata…, tsun tsun …; running, sai-sai koro-sai, e-sa-sa, sowa- sowa, chowa-chowa; walking with heavy baggage on one’s shoulders, wasshoi-wasshoi…, or the sounds of work and play, kachi-kachi, pachi-pachi, pochi-pochi, poka-poka, potsu-potsu, sara-sara; or heavy exertion, hora-yo, sora-yo,yosshoi.”

“The rakugo performer is not supposed to change his position once he takes a seat on the stage. But merely by the movement of the upper half of his body he represents all kinds of actions. Walking from one place to another is expressed by one of the most amusing gesture formulas of rakugo: the performer withdraws his hands into the wide sleeves of his kimono, his knees, hips, and shoulders sway rhythmically, and he talks to himself in a murmuring voice, as if lost in thought. The audience knows that a person is on his way to an- other place; they also know that he will suddenly be startled out of his thoughts by an unexpected event, and they anxiously wait for that moment.”

“The focal point of the rakugo story is the world of everyday. Many of its cast of characters strut about dressed in sundry garb and historical costumes, but they are part of the storyteller’s world and the world of his audience. From there the rakugo performer takes the models which he fits into various stereotypes according to class and profession: the feudal lord, the military man, the priest, the scholar, the retired head of the house, the working-class man, the farmer. At times the principal characters are complete outsiders that do not fit into ordinary societal roles: the cheapskate, the thief, the liar, or the prostitute. Sometimes it is just the simpleton, the lazy- bones, the miser, the boozer, and the conniver that pass across the imaginary rakugo stage. There are, of course, no detailed portrayals of people as individuals. This is the major difference between rakugo and pure literature. While there are instances where a character is provided with a definite personality, there are practically no examples of that personality changing as the story develops.”

Miyoko, S., & Heinz, M. (1981). Rakugo: Popular Narrative Art of The Grotesque. Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, 41(2), 417-459. doi:10.2307/2719050

World Theatre Traditions – Kathakali

Eugenio Barba introducing Kathakali

On the southern coast of India, the three-hundred-year-old Kathakali ritual theatre still flourishes, a mixture of dance and pantomime, religious inspiration and mythological tradition.

The plays describe extraordinary events involving gods, demons, and legendary characters. They all have one common characteristic: good and the gods always triumph over evil and the demons. The actor acts out the struggle between good and evil exclusively through the motions of his body, and the subjects of the plays are as well known to the audience as the myths of the Greek trilogies were to the Athenians.

Through his gestures and his mimicry, the Kathakali actor recreates the atmosphere and the action of the drama while describing to the audience the action’s locale. His technique is much closer to the Chinese opera than to the European mime or ballet, which tells a story through a direct or “exoteric” technique. In the Oriental ballet, on the contrary, a cipher is used. Each gesture, each little motion is an ideogram which writes out the story and can be understood only if its conventional meaning is known. The spectator must learn the language, or rather the alphabet of the language, to understand-what the actor is saying. This alphabet of signs is complex. There are nine motions of the head, eleven ways of casting a glance, six motions of the eyebrows, four positions of the neck. The sixty-four motions of the limbs cover the movements of the feet, toes, heels, ankles, waist, hips-in short, all the flexible parts of the body. The gestures of the hands and fingers have a narrative function and they are organized in a system of fixed figures called mudras (“signs” in Sanskrit). Those mudras are the alphabet of the acting “language.”

The face expresses the emotions of the actor. If he is terror-struck, he raises one eyebrow, then the other, opens his eyes wide, moves his eyeballs lathis nostrils flare out, his cheeks tremble and his head revolves in jerky motions. To express paroxysmal rage, his eyebrows quiver, his lower eyelids rise on his eyes, his gaze becomes fixed and penetrating, his nostrils and lips tremble, his jaws are clamped tight, and he stops breathing to bring about a change in his physiognomy. There are sets of facial motions to express not only feelings and emotions, but traits of character of a more permanent nature, such as generosity, pride, curiosity, anxiety in the face of death, etc. However, the actor does not rely exclusively on prearranged mechanical gestures to express emotions. He cannot reach his audience unless his own imagination and motions come into play. The old masters of the Kathakali have a rule which says:

“Where the hands go to represent an action, there must go the eyes; where the eyes go, there must go the mind, and the action pictured by the hands must beget a specific feeling which must be reflected on the actor’s face.”

From this rule we can see that the face is the emotional counterpart of the story told, not by somebody else, but by the actor’s own hands. In short, there is a double structure: the actor must resort simultaneously to two different sets of technique to express the two complementary aspects of a story, the narrative and the emotional. His hands “tell” the former, while his face expresses the latter.

Barba, E., & Sanzenbach, S. (1967). The Kathakali Theatre. The Tulane Drama Review, 11(4), 37-50. doi:10.2307/1125137

Tadg O’Keefe introducing Kathakali

Katahkali Training

Kathakali Facial Expressions

The future of Kathakali?

The BBC’s Megha Mohan went to a now-closed traditional Kathakali school, one that gave birth to its own style, the Kalluvazhi Chitta: