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KABUKI, SHAKESPEARE AND MOZART

AUBION BOWERS, known in Japan as the man who saved Kabuki theater, followed this up by writing a fascinating book on the topic of Japanese theater in general.

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Japanese Theatre, by Faubion Bowers, Hermitage House, 1952.

Faubion Bowers, 1917–1999, was an American-born Asian Studies scholar who also served as General Douglas MacArthur’s aide-de-camp and personal interpreter in the immediate post-World War II occupation of Japan. MacArthur and others thought kabuki should be banned, but Bowers persuaded them that its world cultural aspects far outweighed its association with Japanese feudal values.

I’m (re)reading Bower’s book and encountering tidbits that got me thinking about kabuki, Shakespeare and Mozart. Like other of the world’s theater, kabuki arose from mankind’s love of telling a story, even when occasionally deterred from doing so.

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This and the following image from Japanese Theater.

An ever so brief history: Modern kabuki arose from Men’s Kabuki, its first complete play in 1664, which evolved from Young Men’s Kabuki (sort of an on-stage procurement service banned in 1652), which in turn evolved from Pleasure Women’s Kabuki (ditto, banned in 1629). Ironically, all these proto-theatrics began in 1586, when O-Kuni, a Kyoto dancing girl, performed a G-rated version of a Return-of-the-Light legend concerning Uzume and the Sun Goddess. By the way, kabuki literally translates into “song-dance-skill.”

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Somegoro as Umeomaru in Kurumabiki.

As with other theater around the world, kabuki’s success benefited from the rise of the merchant class, monied folks who had some leisure time, unlike their farming counterparts toiling on the lord’s estate. Hitherto, European theatrical masques and the earliest operas were court entertainments. Even its miracle and morality plays were staged for the religious edification of hoi polloi, not especially for entertainment.

Kabuki, Shakepeare’s and Mozart’s were theaters of their times, and accounted for this separation of classes. Shakespeare played to his “groundlings” standing out in front as well as to the nobility seated in encircling boxes. Bowers notes of kabuki theater, “In the side-boxes which lined the sides of the main floor and balcony, the rich paid the maximum price for a minimum view of the stage and a modicum of comfort…. The sole advantage seems to be that one could be seen by all the rest of the audience.” Similarly, Mozart’s audiences included everyone from Emperor Joseph II seated in the royal box to ordinary people who had the necessary ducats.

A recurrent theme with Mozart, Shakespeare and kabuki was a mocking of the ruling class, albeit a necessarily gentle one. Bowers says of kyogen, Japanese comic interludes, “The lord is invariably made ridiculous, but usually turns out to be right in the end. In the 15th century, this was a theatrical necessity. Noble spectators could laugh at themselves while knowing full well that all would end without embarrassment. Meanwhile the commoners could laugh at the nobles without fear of consequence.”

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The lecherous Count Almaviva romances Susanna, Figaro’s intended, in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, 1786. Illustration by Johann Heinrich Ramberg.

The same was true in Mozart’s 1786 opera buffa, The Marriage of Figaro: Count Almaviva, weary of Countess Rosina, is hot to exercise his droite du seigneur with Susanna, Figaro’s bride-to-be. But all ends happily; Susanna’s virtue is preserved, the Count and Countess reunited.

Bowers quotes 18th-century Edo scholar Shundai Dadai: “Amusements are a symbol of peace, and depression a symbol of decline. People who otherwise would commit crimes have a means of livelihood. Gold and silver coins circulate through the places of amusement; otherwise they would stagnate in the hand of the rich.”

I suspect Shakespeare and Mozart would not disagree. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2016

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