Impressions of Kabuki

“Successful acting […] is the creation of an artistic form of a conventionalized type of behavior which is capable of evoking in the audience the reactions appropriate to the situation depicted on stage.”

(from a talk by Sarachchandra, broadcasted in the English Service of Radio Ceylon, 1956)

My reaction to Kabuki might best be understood in the background of the situation regarding theater in our own country and in the light of whatever work has been done so far in this field. The present problem in our country as it seems to me is that of discovering a theater form to which the people will respond more naturally than to the Western type of drama that exists today. Both in India as well as in Ceylon, the traditional type of theater practically does not exist today except in a decadent form in the remote villages. Since British times, a new type of drama arose, based upon Western models and the native forms almost died out for want of patronage. What survived in the cities and claimed to be a traditional dramatic form, was merely a popular type of music play, a hybrid mixture of various elements taken from the native drama as well as from Western operetta and merely providing cheap entertainment. Hence, the contemporary theater has no roots in the cultural habits of the people and as soon as the movies came, people abandoned the theater in favor of the new form of entertainment. Since then the theater has been leading a precarious existence patronized by a literary-minded few and particularly by those having some sort of English education.

The necessity for having a type of drama which is more in tune with the cultural environment and which will strike a spontaneous note of response in the hearts of the people has been felt both in India as well as in Ceylon, particularly as our countries become free from foreign domination. But the difficulty is that the native tradition does not survive any more, except in theoretical descriptions in the ancient treaties and in a rather corrupt form in the folk plays. Further, since several generations have been brought up without knowledge of this tradition, audiences of today may not respond so easily to it, if it is merely revived in its original shape. What is needed, therefore, is to create something new out of the old tradition: something which, while it incorporates the essential elements of the tradition, is still intelligible to people whose tastes have been molded largely by the style of the Western theater.

When I started out to study the theater in various countries of the Orient and the experimental theater in the United States, I was hoping that somewhere I shall be able to find a hint as to how the creation of a national form of theater may be achieved. In some of my own work, I attempted to incorporate some of the conventions of Sinhalese folk drama into plays that were essentially naturalistic in dialogue and acting style. Although from the response I received, I seemed to be on the correct track, I was not quite happy about the blend and not clear how the task of creation on the basis of the old could be accomplished on a large scale.

When I saw Kabuki for the first time after seeing the theater in several countries, it seemed to me that here, I was suddenly brought face to face with the kind of drama that seemed to be typically oriental, insofar as it differed radically from the conception of drama in the West and insofar as it seemed to contain the essential elements of oriental drama with which we are familiar from our reading of the Indian classical treaties on dramaturgy and from our own knowledge of the folk plays of our country. For this reason, Kabuki did not strike me as being strange or exotic as it might strike most people who are familiar with the naturalistic theater. Although the conventions of Kabuki are peculiar to it, I was able to understand them perfectly well, for here I saw in concrete form what I imagined our own theater would have been, had it existed up till today.

Our ancient treaties describe drama as poetry in visual form. We consider, therefore, that poetry, music and dance are the essential elements of drama. Unlike in the West, drama for us is primarily dance or more exactly, mime. Even today, we use the same word to mean drama as well as dance. We say that an actor dances a part, in the sense that he portrays a character. While dialogue plays an important part in the naturalistic drama of the West, in our drama, mime and music are more important and dialogue plays only a subsidiary role.

In fact, seeing Kabuki made me realize something very important, something that had been in my mind for many years but about which I did not have sufficient confidence, namely, that the orient has a definition and a conception of drama which is widely different from the conception of drama held in the West. It is important for countries like ours, which are on the road to rediscovering themselves, to realize this fact because much of what we do towards reviving or recreating our own drama will naturally be influenced by whatever conception of drama we hold.

Apart from such considerations, what impressed me most in Kabuki is its style of acting. Kabuki acting is of interest not only for the Orient. It has lessons which are applicable universally. Watching Kabuki brings forcibly to our minds an important fact regarding the theory of all acting, whether it be of the naturalistic style or otherwise: namely that all acting must make use of exaggeration and that a certain amount of stylization is unavoidable on the stage. The problem that an actor has, is not merely that of evoking in himself the feeling that would be natural to a situation but of communicating such feelings to the audience. Hence, even overt behavior that would be natural to the situation is insufficient for the purpose. The manner in which a person acts in a certain situation in ordinary life may not have the power to convey to another his state of mind. Ultimately we fall back on the view that naturalism or realism or idealism only means the degree to which an artistic creation is removed from ordinary life. Successful acting therefore is the creation of an artistic form of a conventionalized type of behavior which is capable of evoking in the audience the reactions appropriate to the situation depicted on stage. What is needed is not even the overt behavior that would be natural to the situation in ordinary life, but a symbol which the audience can recognize and which can evoke in them the correct response. This symbol may, of course, be created on the basis of the natural overt behavior of the individual in this situation, but it need not necessarily be the case. This explains the power of Kabuki acting over audiences who have been trained to respond to its stylized manner through the centuries. It exemplifies, too, a basic principle of all acting, and, in fact, of all art.

Kabuki gives one an overall experience such as the theater in any country is rarely able to provide. It combines the elements of dance, music, pageantry and dialogue into a unity that is aesthetically satisfying, and in this sense, it is the most unique form of theater in the world. Kabuki seems to mirror within it, the entire culture of the Japanese in all its varied aspects: the charm of Ukiyo-e or woodblock prints, the love of color and the sense of visual form and composition, the leisurely pace of life, the classical music of the Samisen and an attitude to life which places loyalty and the solidarity of the social group above consideration of individual happiness or prosperity. It is for this reason that the appeal of Kabuki is so great, both among the older generation and also among the younger, and it is this type of theater which is a part of the lives of the people and not a mere evening’s entertainment that we must dream of creating in our own country.