Before Eastern Theatre was established there was a beginning. The Origin of theatre, to our knowledge, began in Africa. To be specific, “The first known dramatic presentations occurred in northern Africa, alongside the Nile River in ancient Egypt, as much as five thousand years ago, possibly as early as 3300 B.C” (Cohen, 188). This is such an important calculation because it solidifies that our civilization has yearned for understanding even in Ancient times. That leads to the two main premises of known Theatre which are Ritual and Storytelling.
First, “… Ritual is a collective ceremony, performed by members of a society, normally for religious or cultural reasons” (Cohen, 189). Meaning that in Ancient times people gathered and acted out many important events in their physical world such as transitions into death from life, seasonal changes, and most importantly communication between higher beings. When it comes to rituals everything being expressed through the art form is profound and relevant. All of which is highly integrated into Eastern theatre traditions and Theatre in general today. Most commonly known are the elements of, “… staging, costuming, masks, makeup, music, dance, formalized speech, chanting, singing, and specific physical props, such as staffs, spears, and skulls…” (Cohen, 189).
This is where the second premise comes in: Storytelling. We as beings have always wanted to understand anything that we are observing. We also naturally want to share those personal understandings and that is the main key to the development of Storytelling. With the birth of storytelling came the development of speech, characters, and “elements of structured action in drama,” known today as a plot (Cohen, 190). Ritual and Storytelling focus on two different aspects but when combined they created early forms of theatre known as dance-drama.
Dance-drama is a performance that involves dance and dialogue. Early forms include Shamanism rituals. In Shamanism, “the shaman (almost always male in the ancient world) can cure the sick, aid the hunter, conjure the rain, and help the crops grow” (Cohen, 190). The Shaman also can, “appear as mediums, taking the forms of unearthly spirits, often animal or demonic” similar to the characters in Eastern Theatre Noh performances. (Cohen, 190).
Eastern theatre also includes those of India, China, and Japan but I was most interested in Asian Theatre of Japan. There is no single Asian country that solely defines Eastern theatre traditions. In the Asian theatre, they really focus on dialogue including imagery and sensual elements. This highly differentiates from the focus of the theatre in the west. The most important distinction is that the Eastern Asian theatre plots have, “… rarely escalating incidents, reversals, climaxes, or elaborate plot closures”, while Western traditions premises are founded on a solid plot structure. (Cohen, 205)
In Japan, inspiration derives from their religion: Shintoism. This has contributed a dance-drama called, “Kagura or God music a dance performed by priestesses” (Mike, Crash Course). With the introduction of Buddhism, this sacred dance evolved even then there are additional forms of Asian sacred dance: Dengaku and Sarugaku.
Many sacred dances play a part in the forming of Noh proper theatre. “Nō is Japan’s most revered and cerebral theatre. It is also the oldest continuously performed style of theatre in the world” (Cohen, 209). If you were to go and visit Japan next month you will receive a very similar experience. Traditional, “Noh plays are short only 10 or so pages long,…take anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours to perform,… include five types… consist of two scenes and most involve a ghost, a demon, or a tormented human that can’t rest,” (Mike, Crash Course). All the actors are males and throughout history have held high ranks in the Military. All five types of Noh plays consist of a minimum of three characters which are, Shite, Tsure, Waki, or in other words the main character, companion and antagonist.
In between these plays, the tradition is to include a quick comedy skit or Kyogen. “There are two kinds of Kyogen: Parodies of Noh… and scenes of everyday life…” (Mike, Crash Course). In each type, they are still very precisely executed and are far from crude.
The Asian theatre actors take on their roles as a practice they commit to for their entire lives, That attention to detail is also extended in the structure of their stage. The structure of the noh stage consists of, “ … a square of highly polished Japanese cypress flooring, about eighteen feet across, supported from below by large earthenware jars that resonate with the actors’ foot-stompings… bridgelike runway… allows for… entrances and exits: an ornate, curved roof sits atop four wooden pillars, each with its own name and historic dramatic function… wooden “mirror wall” at the rear of the stage bounces back the sounds of music and singing to the audience” (Cohen, 210).
All of these elements represent the culture and art that is in the Noh Theatre. It is a visual and mystical experience that can be enjoyed today. I really enjoyed learning about the Asian culture and never knew that they had their own theatre traditions and am grateful to have learned how the Asian culture mingled their Buddhist beliefs because I have recently been introduced to some of their beliefs on death and dying.