No/Kyogen Masks and Performance:
Essays and Interviews Compiled by Rebecca Teele, Mime Journal 1984,
Published by the Pomona College Theater Department,
Paper: 236 pp $12.00 ISSN 0145-787X
Reviewed by Sallie Goetsch,
School of Theatre Studies,
University of Warwick,
Coventry CV4 7AL,
The 1984 issue of Mime Journal is 'the beginning of an inquiry into the worlds of No and Kyogen as a rich and living ground for the discovery of an artistic vision,' 16. Through the multiple perspectives of its authors and interviewees it provides an impressively clear and comprehensive overview of these two Japanese theatrical forms. The different, and sometimes conflicting, viewpoints of the contributors are a better introduction to No and Kyogen than a single-author work would be, because they reveal the complexities of the two genres and avoid the simplistic generalizations of most introductory works.
For the practitioner of ancient theater, however, the real importance of this volume is in the questions it provokes and the possibilities which it opens up. The first hint of the utility of No and Kyogen for understanding and embodying Greek dramatic performance comes in Rebecca Teele's introduction:
'No, the discipline of accomplishement, plumbed the depths of the psyche and exalted heroic truths, while Kyogen, the theatre of outrageous words, brought the realities of the human condition into sharp focus with stock characters in absurd situations,' 5.
This contrast between No and Kyogen is strongly reminiscent of that between fifth-century Athenian tragedy and comedy, as is the fact that No plays were performed sequentially with Kyogen interludes and afterludes. The importance of the actor's communion with his mask which Donald Richie stresses in 'No Masks'(17) recalls any number of vase-paintings, wall-paintings, and friezes (some admittedly quite late) showing Greek actors staring into the eyes of their masks. And the connection of Medieval No drama with Buddhist and Shinto temples at whose festivals the plays were performed (Mark J. Nearman, 'Behind the Mask of No,' 25) brings up associations of the Dionysia quickly enough.
But these parallels between the Greek and Japanese traditions are not the most interesting revelations of Teele's volume, because they tell us about aspects of theatrical practice about which we already have information. The truly thought-provoking articles are those which reveal the experiences and feelings of the actors and mask- carvers, those who make No and Kyogen living theater. It is the words of their Greek counterparts that we lack, and the presence of these performers and craftsmen in this work on Japanese theater makes us aware of the enormous gap in the Greek record.
Drama had not itself become the jealously-guarded domain of professionals in fifth-century Athens, and an aspiring tragic actor could not enter a school as one does for No or Kyogen. But the performing arts which were so large a part of Athenian culture were not less in need of supporting industries for that. Athenian choregoi may not have been paying their actors Equity wages, but there were plenty of other expenses involved. The time, care, and artistry which go into the hand-carving of No masks from blocks of Japanese cypress 'matured in waters where the river and the sea meet,' (Jeanne Chizuko Nishimura, 'A Life-Giving Art: Traditional Art of No Mask Carving, 144) are by now a matter of tradition and pride. Despite the fact that exact dimensions for each mask have been set down in writing, mass-production of masks by machine would be unthinkable. For Athenian mask-makers, whatever medium they worked in (it might as easily have been cloth or leather as wood), mass-production was simply not an option. A single Dionysia required a sufficient quantity of masks to guarantee employment for several maskmakers.
We have no evidence of who these maskmakers were, but that lack should not be taken as an indication of unimportance. It is equally difficult to trace individual architects, and we know the names of only a handful of vase-painters and sculptors. With theatrical costume as with building projects and chariot-races, credit went to the person who paid for it. Choregoi of drama and dithyramb paid high for the services of all the professionals who were involved with the performing arts. There were, of course, the auletai and other musicians, but masks and costumes were also part of the competition, and expenditure in this area was something a man could boast of when courting public support in the Assembly.
No/Kyogen Masks and Performance reminds us that the theatrical world of Athens reached beyond the leisured classes from which poets and choruses came. Whether or not there were fifth- century equivalents of modern costume designers, the production of a tragedy, comedy, or satyr-play required quantities of highly- specialized products. Neither the comic actor's padding and phallus nor the satyr's furry shorts nor the tragic actor's long-sleeved, fitted garment was a product of routine manufacture. The undeniable existence of the products necessitates the existence of producers, artisans and tradesmen and merchants whose business was theater. The voices of the Japanese maskmakers help remind us that Athenian drama was much more than a matter of words.
Sallie Goetsch is a Visiting Fellow in the School of Theatre Studies at the University of Warwick.