Early Theatre: Asian Theatre

Wilson and Goldfarb. Theatre: The Lively Art, 7th edition: Chapter 12.

1. What is Asian Theatre?

There is no single Asian theatre. There are a number of theatrical forms in Asia-- Sanskrit drama in India; Beijing Opera in China; Kabuki, Bunraku (traditional Japanese puppet theatre) and Noh drama in Japan. Although they share several common characteristics, each theatrical form is different.

2. What is generally considered the earliest Asian Theatre?

Indian Sanskrit drama dates back to the eighth century BCE, long before the birth of classical Greek tragedy. These works are some of the earliest theatrical texts.

A Modern Performance of Traditional Indian Sanskrit drama

Balivadham (The Killing of Bali), a Sanskrit Drama
Kutiyattam, meaning "combined acting," is Sanskrit drama presented in the traditional style in the temple theatres
of the Indian states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. It is the only surviving specimen of the ancient Sanskrit drama.

3. What are some of common characteristics of Eastern Theatre?

Eastern, or Asian, Theatre is...
  1. Seldom "spoken." Instead it is sung, chanted, danced and mimed.
  2. More visual and sensual than literary or intellectual. A Kabuki script is seen by the Japanese as a production vehicle, not a literary text. The plays are seldom read, even in Japan.
  3. Loosely plotted. There is a strong emphasis on storytelling, but the plotting techniques of Western drama-- escalating incidents, plot reversals, climaxes --are absent.
  4. Highly stylized. The formalized acting techniques are typically passed from father to son.
  5. Deeply traditional. Scripts and concepts which were developed three or four hundred years ago are still presented to a modern audience with minimal changes.

4. What eastern nation is the home of both Kabuki and Noh.


5. When was Kabuki born?

Kabuki was invented by a Kyoto shrine maiden, Izumo Okuni, around 1600 and reached its peak during Japan's shogun-dominated Edo era: 1616 to 1853.

6. What are the three categories of Kabuki plays?

  1. History plays-- jidaimono [period things] --dramatize major political events from the past-- 9th to 15th century.
  2. Domestic plays-- sewamono [trouble things] --deal with the affairs of townspeople from the playwright's era.
  3. Dance-dramas-- shosagoto [pose things] --which are very popular, often deal with the world of spirits and animals.

7. Describe a Kabuki theatre.

17th Centry Kabuki Theatre
A Kabuki theatre is a proscenium house with an extremely large (90 feet wide by 30 feet deep) stage. Because the musicians are a part of the company they perform on the stage instead of being buried in the orchestra pit. The flat, two dimensional, painted scenery is stylized, but not abstract. It is used to give location. From a historical perspective, the Kabuki was the first theatre to use rolling wagons, an elevator stage (1727) and a turntable (1758). See the diagram on pages 268.

A Modern Kabuki Performance in Osaka

Opening of Act Two of Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura,
a Japanese Kabuki drama

8. What is the hanamichi?

The hanamichi, or "flower way," is an entrance ramp which runs from stage right to the rear of the auditorium.

9. What is Japan's most revered and cerebral theatre?

The Noh drama is a mysterious, tragic, usually supernatural, ceremonial music-dance-drama. There are about 240 Noh texts. All were written about 500 years ago by the members of one family. All Noh dramas focus on a single character, the shite who is interrograted, prompted and challanged by the waki. The Noh is not "the drama of mass entertainment." Many, including the Japanese, find these small cast, slow paced, static plays bewildering. Most Western audiences echo George Bernard Shaw's comment: "Noh drama is no drama." See the synopsis of Sotoba Komachi by Kan'ami on page 411.

10. Describe a traditional Noh theatre.

Modern Noh Theatre
The traditonal Noh stage is an eighteen foot square platform. The audience sits in front of, and stage right of the deck. There is a bridge, the hashigakari, which leads from the dressing room to the right rear corner of the platform. A six to ten member chorus of singer-chanters is on the actors left and the four musicians, a flute and three drums, or located at the rear of the stage. A stylized image of a single dignified pine tree is painted on the back wall. See the ground plan on page 262 and the photograph of the National Noh Theatre in Tokyo on page 154.

A Modern Performance of a Noh drama in Kyoto, Japan
Hagoromo, a Noh drama

11. How has Asian theatre influenced Western drama?

Starting in the middle of the twentieth century, non realistic playwrights, directors and designers began using elements of Eastern theatre in their presentations.

E-mail questions and comments to Larry Wild at wildl@northern.edu.
Last updated: November 4, 2011
Copyright © 1995-2011 by Larry Wild, Northern State University