GA ver

American Surrealism

American Surrealism
Philip Curtis

The Red Priest

The Red Priest
Antonio Vivaldi

Performance Violin

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Ignace Joseph Pleyel
IPleyel continues to be known today as a composer of didactic music: generations of beginning violin and flute students, for example, learn to play the numerous duets he wrote for those instruments.
If you would like to play 6 of his opus 24 violin duets with me, call 602-256-2830. Ask for Jordan--violin play.

Ignace Joseph Pleyel French pronunciation: ​[plɛjɛl],German pronunciation:[ˈplaɪ̯.l̩]; (18 June 1757 – 14 November 1831) was an Austrian-born French composer and piano builder of the Classical period.

Early years

He was born in Ruppersthal in Lower Austria, the son of a schoolmaster named Martin Pleyel. He was the 24th of 38 children in the family.[1] While still young, he probably studied with Johann Baptist Vanhal, and from 1772 he became the pupil of Joseph Haydn in Eisenstadt. As with Beethoven, born 13 years later, Pleyel benefited in his study from the sponsorship of aristocracy, in this case Count Ladislaus Erdődy(1746–1786). Pleyel evidently had a close relationship with Haydn, who considered him to be a superb student.
Among Pleyel's apprentice work from this time was a puppet opera Die Fee Urgele, (1776) performed in the marionette theater at the palace of Eszterháza and in Vienna. Pleyel apparently also wrote at least part of the overture of Haydn's opera Das abgebrannte Haus, from about the same time.
Pleyel's first professional position may have been as Kapellmeister for Count Erdődy, although this is not known for certain. Among his early publications was a set of six string quartets, his Opus 1.
Pleyel Museumand his birthplace, Ruppersthal, Lower Austria
In the early 1780s, Pleyel visited Italy, where he composed an opera (Ifigenia in Aulide) and works commissioned by the King of Naples.

Strasbourg 1783–1795

Attracted to the benefits associated with an organist position, Pleyel moved to Strasbourg, France in 1783 to work alongside Franz Xaver Richter the maître de chapelle at the Strasbourg Cathedral.[2] The Cathedral was extremely appealing to Pleyel as it possessed a full orchestra, a choir, and a large budget devoted to performances.[3] After establishing himself in France, Pleyel voluntarily called himself by the French version of his name, Ignace. While he was the assistant maître de chapelle at Strasbourg Cathedral, he wrote more works than during any other period in his musical career (1783–1793).[4]At the cathedral, he would organize concerts that featured his symphonies concertantes and liturgical music.[5] After Richter's death in 1789, Pleyel assumed the function of full maître de chapelle. In 1788 Pleyel married Françoise-Gabrielle Lefebvre, the daughter of a Strasbourg carpet weaver. The couple had four children, the eldest being their son Camille. Maria Pleyel, née Moke (1811–1875), the wife of Camille, was one of the most accomplished pianists of her time.
In 1791, the French Revolution abolished musical performances in church as well as public concerts. Seeking alternative employment, Pleyel traveled to London, where he led the "Professional Concerts" organized by Wilhelm Cramer. Pleyel inadvertently played the role of his teacher's rival, as Haydn was at the same time leading the concert series organized by Johann Peter Salomon. Although the two composers were rivals professionally, they remained on good terms personally.
Just like Haydn, Pleyel made a fortune from his London visit. On his return to Strasbourg, he bought a large house, the Château d'Ittenwiller in nearby St. Pierre.
With the onset of the Reign of Terror in 1793 and 1794, life in France became dangerous for many, not excluding Pleyel. Pleyel was brought before theCommittee of Public Safety a total of seven times due to the following: his foreign status, his recent purchase of a château, and his ties with the Strasbourg Cathedral.[6] He was subsequently labeled a Royalist collaborator. The outcome of the Committee's attentions could easily have been imprisonment or even execution. With prudent opportunism, Pleyel preserved his future by writing compositions in honor of the new republic. All were written in Strasbourg at times surrounding the Terror. Below are the pieces composed with dates of publication and details:[7]
  1. La Prise de Toulon ("The capture of Toulon") for solo and 3 voice choir with piano accompaniment. (19 February 1794)
  2. Hymne de Pleyel chanté au Temple de la Raison ("Hymn sung in the Temple of Reason") for choir with piano accompaniment. (1793 or 1794; dates disputed)
  3. Hymne à l'Être Suprême ("Hymn to the Supreme Being") two part cantata (performed 8 June 1794)
  4. La Révolution du 10 août ("The Revolution of August 10") for soloists, choir, and orchestra (10 August 1794)[8]
Most of these compositions debuted at the Strasbourg Cathedral. However, during the Terror, churches were outlawed and the Strasbourg Cathedral was known as the Temple de l'Être Suprême (Temple of the Supreme Being). He became a naturalized French citizen and thus came to be known as Citoyen (citizen) Pleyel.[9]With his involvement in artistic propaganda and loyalism to the new regime, Pleyel can be seen as the ultimate musical champion of Strasbourg republicanism.[10]
In addition to composing the above works for the Strasbourg public, Pleyel also contributed to the Parisian music scene during the Revolution. One example is Le Jugement de Pâris, a pantomime-ballet by Citoyen (Citizen) Gardel and performed with Pleyel's music (along with that of Haydn, and Étienne Méhul) on 5 March 1793.[11]

Pleyel as businessman

Pleyel moved to Paris in 1795. In 1797 he set up a business as a music publisher ("Maison Pleyel"), which among other works produced a complete edition of Haydn's string quartets (1801), as well as the first miniature scores for study (the Bibliothèque Musicale, "musical library"). The publishing business lasted for 39 years and published about 4000 works during this time, including compositions by Adolphe AdamLuigi BoccheriniLudwig van BeethovenMuzio Clementi,Johann Baptist CramerJohann Ladislaus Dussek,Johann Nepomuk Hummel and Georges Onslow.
Pleyel visited Vienna on business in 1805, meeting his now elderly mentor Haydn for a final time and hearing Beethoven play.
In 1807, Pleyel became a manufacturer of pianos; for more on the Pleyel piano firm, see below.

Old age

Pleyel retired in 1824 and moved to the countryside about 50 km outside Paris. He died in 1831, apparently quite aware that his own musical style had been fully displaced by the new Romanticism in music.[citation needed] He was buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.

Pleyel's music

Pleyel was prolific, composing 41 symphonies, 70string quartets and several string quintets and operas. Many of these works date from the Strasbourg period; Pleyel's production tailed off after he had become a businessman.
Recent scholarship has suggested that the theme for the Variations on a Theme by Joseph Haydn, byJohannes Brahms, opus 56a, was probably composed not by Haydn but by Ignaz Pleyel.

Reputation and assessment

Pleyel is one instance of the phenomenon of a composer (others include CherubiniMeyerbeer, andThalberg) who was very famous in his own time but presently obscure. Keefe (2005) describes a "craze for his music c. 1780–1800", and quotes a number of contemporary witnesses to this surge. For instanceFrançois-Joseph Fétis wrote, "What composer ever created more of a craze than Pleyel? Who enjoyed a more universal reputation or a more absolute domination of the field of instrumental music? Over more than twenty years, there was no amateur or professional musician who did not delight in his genius."[12]
Pleyel's fame even reached the then-remote musical regions of America: there was a Pleyel Society on the island of Nantucket off the coast of Massachusetts, and tunes by Pleyel made their way into the then-popularshape note hymnals. Pleyel's work is twice represented in the principal modern descendant of these books, The Sacred Harp.
In his own time, Pleyel's reputation rested at least in part on the undemanding character of his music. A reviewer writing in the Morning Herald of London (1791) said that Pleyel "is becoming even more popular then his master [Haydn], as his works are characterized less by the intricacies of science[13] than the charm of simplicity and feeling."[14]
Pleyel continues to be known today as a composer of didactic music: generations of beginning violin and flute students, for example, learn to play the numerous duets he wrote for those instruments.

Pleyel pianos

The piano firm Pleyel et Cie was founded by Ignace Pleyel and continued by Pleyel's son Camille (1788–1855), a piano virtuoso who became his father's business partner as of 1815. The firm provided pianos used by Frédéric Chopin, and also ran a concert hall, the Salle Pleyel, in which Chopin performed his first—and also his last—Paris concerts.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Carolyn Broe
5:37 PM (6 hours ago)
to aswass, Beth, Daniela, Danieldanandli., David, Diane, Edwin, Eleanor, Erin, Gene, Goodson, Greg, Gregory, Honorary, Jeanette, Jeff, jeff, Joe, me, Joy, Judy, Kathryn, Kebba, Laurie, Linda
Hello music patrons,
The Four Seasons Orchestra will be holding our Spanish Concert on Saturday September 28th at 7:00 PM.  We will be performing Spanish themed classical pieces with selections from Lalo's Symphonie Espagnole, Hubay's Carmen Fantasie Brilliante, Ravel's Tzigane "Gipsy Dances" for Violin, and Sarasate's Navarra for Two Violins and Orchestra.  We are featuring five amazing violinists including Alexandra Birch, Myra Lin, Tiffany Chang, David Kwak, and Tiffany Weiss.  We will also be performing Joaquin Rodrigo's famous Concierto de Aranjuez with Classical guitar soloist Chris Carelli.  Mr. Carelli has studied and toured with members of the royal Romero Brothers family of guitarists.  I will be conducting the orchestra.  This concert is free to the public and the seating is festival at the Tempe High School Auditorium.  I am attaching a flier for more information.
I hope you can join us for this concert of Romantic music.
My Best Wishes,
Carolyn Broe

Tuesday, August 6, 2013


Uploaded on May 27, 2010
Ensemble Nipponia - Kabuki and other Traditional Music

Kanjincho (The Subscription List)

"The entrance music of the two hand-drums and flute (just after the kabuki-style flute-and-taiko curtain opening), evokes the gravity of a Noh performance. The introductory vocal, also in the style of the Noh, sets the scene of mountain priests on a journey (the shamisen interlude that follows is perhaps descriptive of that journey). The concluding excerpt from Kanjincho skips the central plot developments and moves directly to the rousing finale, a kind of victory celebration. Two instrumental interludes are heard here: the first, an expression of joyful intoxication, leads into a sung passage praising the purity and eternal plenty of waterfalls; the second, the famous taki nagashi. Depicts a waterfall's boundless energy. The final vocal section expresses the relief of the travelers as, inspired and re-invigorated by their experience, they resume their journey. "

I have taken the liberty to post my friend's lucubrations on Kabuki theater to help us when we listen to YouTube Kabuki music. Arizona Violin, Dr. Jordan Richman

About Me: Rick Kramer, from Rick on Theater (ROT)

After college and the army, I studied acting and theater; I have an MFA in Acting and uncompleted Ph.D. in Performance Studies (ABD). I have worked as an actor, director, dramaturg/literary advisor, critic/reviewer, essayist, editor, and teacher of theater and acting (studio/conservatory, college, high school, and middle school). Several years ago, some theater friends who don't live in New York anymore asked me to keep them informed about what I see and I began sending them detailed, opinionated e-mails.1 November 2010

Kabuki: A Trip to a Land of Dreams

Westerners seeing a Kabuki play for the first time frequently call it “wonderful.” That’s perhaps more appropriate than they imagine, for the world of Kabuki is a world of wonder—a world of poetry, color, spectacle, grace, energy, and artistry. It is, to be sure, a world more of dreams than of reality, if by reality we mean everyday life. That quotidian reality so cherished by Western theater has little place in the Kabuki theater. The word kabuki, for example, is made up of three Chinese characters: ka = song; bu = dance; ki = skill or technique (sometimes rendered as “acting skill”). The whole word, however, is derived from the verb ‘to tilt’ or ‘to lean to one side’ and means ‘something abnormal or askew’ in the sense of deviating from the ordinary. Kabuki, therefore, actually means ‘off-beat performance,’ something deliberately outrageous.

Kabuki actors have often admonished their fellows to imitate life. “A Kabuki actor,” remarked Sakata Tojuro I (1646-1709), “should singlemindedly try to copy real life in performing whatever role he is cast in.” This wasn’t the reality of everyday life, however, but the reality of imagination. In The Actors’ Analects, a collection of commentaries on Kabuki by 17th-century actors, Sugi Kuhe (dates unknown, fl. 1670-80) says, “The realism of a play springs from fiction . . . ,” and Yoshizawa Ayame I (1673-1729) advises, “It is probably good, after all, to make a mixture of half realism and half imagination.” The Kabuki world has its own “reality” and like Alice passing through her looking glass, the Kabuki audience passes into the Kabuki wonderland.

The non-representational nature of Kabuki is unsurprising considering its roots. There’s no room here for a detailed history of this 17th-century Japanese theater, but it should be noted that its father was the older, highly stylized Noh drama, its mother popular dance, and its sibling the Bunraku puppet theater. Given this lineage, a nonrealistic performance style was only natural. Nonetheless, within its strict techniques and traditions, Kabuki seems to generate a good deal of emotion both in its actors and its audience. At first glance, this might seem unlikely, especially to a Western observer who understands neither the language nor the traditions of Kabuki theater. On closer examination, however, this seems not only less incon­gruous, but downright inescapable.

How, in fact, are Kabuki actors trained to express the feelings of their roles? Are there means other than acting that are used in Kabuki to express feelings?

Though they are not impenetrable, the performance traditions of the Kabuki stage aren’t loose or flimsy. The Kabuki actor has learned his techniques from his predecessors by years of observation and imitation. Each gesture, movement, pose, and inflection has been carefully worked out and perfected over three hundred years of use. These techniques, including movement and vocal practices, costume, make-up, properties, music, sound effects, stage assistants, and so on, are called kata; they’re passed on from generation to generation, inherited along with the names of the actors themselves within an acting family. (I’ll address some of these non-acting kata later.) A young Kabuki actor must be born or adopted into a perform­ing family to gain access to its kata, and he learns them by rote from his father or other senior male relative. The restrictive iemoto system under which the Kabuki world operates dictates that the head of the family, the iemoto, determines who’ll be allowed into the family and what happens within it. The training of Kabuki actors, all of whom are male, is unlike Western training in many respects. Though some formal classes have been instituted in recent years, the traditional training system for Kabuki actors is by master and disciple. The new system speeds the process up a little, but it’s still a long, rigorous, and highly disciplined one. The Kabuki actor’s theat­rical education is based “upon exact and unquestioning imita­tion,” not explanations of theories or principles. It is largely unwritten, passed on in secrecy by word of mouth from master to student.

The formal training I’m referring to here is artistic or theatrical training. Today, many Kabuki children attend regular schools for a general education. Samuel Leiter, one of the most respected Western scholars of Japanese theater, points out, “The number of college-educated Kabuki actors is growing though there are those who complain that the time spent in college is a waste for the Kabuki actor who aspires to greatness.” Because of the hereditary nature of the kata and the privacy of the teaching, the actor-training process remains largely secret and inaccessible to most outsiders. Very little has been published regarding the specific training of Kabuki actors within the family. Since the advent of the National Theater’s training program, though, some description of the work is available, and Kabuki actor Nakamura Matazo II (b. 1933), an adoptee who’s devoted himself to demystifying the Kabuki world by lecturing and teaching abroad and to foreigners in Japan, has published Kabuki Backstage, Onstage: An Actor’s Life which details aspects of the life of a Kabuki actor off stage.

In 1969, the National Theater launched its Kabuki Actor Training Center which trains young men (and, lately, some women, though they won’t be members of the Kabuki troupes) who aren’t members of any of the traditional families. The training center is subsidized by the Japanese government and the program is free for those accepted. The training, which lasts two years, includes voice production and vocal expression, make-up, dance and movement, singing, and music (particularly, playing the samisen), but the kata still remain private preserves of the families that own them. A graduate who wishes to perform with the great Kabuki companies must still become an apprentice (deshi) to an actor in one of the families (though there are independent and experimental companies, as well as filmmakers, who adapt traditional Kabuki techniques for modern performances). Nakamura Matazo, who (along with most other sources) puts the start of the training center in 1970, has taught there and reports:

We have found that the biggest problem is in placing the students once the two-year training program is completed. In March 1972 our first group of students demonstrated the skills that they had learned in a graduation recital at the conclusion of two years of hard work. But even though they had completed the program, they were by no means ready to play starring roles on major kabuki stages, and those of us responsible for the program had no idea what to do with these young kabuki actors of the future.

In the iemoto system, training in classical dance, which begins almost as soon as the little boy can walk, takes up most of his formal training. This, as we’ll see, is an important factor in shaping the Kabuki world. In addition to dancing, the Kabuki actor must be capable of some very demanding physical performances, including animal roles, such as tigers, rats, or parts of horses, and elab­orate somersaults and flips for battle scenes. Part of his training, therefore, includes strenuous acrobatics and martial arts. Though he will have a master for dance and acrobatics, his knowledge of the theater and the family’s traditional roles and kata will come from his father or adoptive father. His first lessons come not from classes, but from watching his father and the other senior actors in the company. Later, still at the very young age of three or four, he’ll play small parts in actual performances, often appearing with his father in early roles. In the 1985 U.S. tour of the Grand Kabuki, there were several such multi-generational performances. In The Scarlet Princess of Edo (Sakura-hime Azuma Bunsho), Kataoka Takao (b. 1944) starred in a dual role while his teenaged son Takataro (b. 1968) played a small part. In the dance-play The Earth Spider (Tsuchigumo), Onoe Shoroku II (1913-89) appeared with both his son, Tatsunosuke (1946-87), and his then-ten-year-old grandson, Sakon (b. 1975). (Kataoka Takao took the prestigious name of Nizaemon XV in 1998. Onoe Tatsunosuke I died unexpectedly at 40 and was posthumously elevated to his father’s name as Shoroku III in 2002. Onoe Sakon II became Tatsunosuke II in 1991 and Shoroku IV in 2002. Kabuki actors are traditionally called by their given names. In Japanese tradition, the family name is given first, though many publishers of European-language texts, and some Japanese born since World War II, follow Western custom.)

As the young actor watches and copies his elders, learning the kata he hopes to be called upon to perform himself in later years, he’s expected to act each new role exactly as he learned it. The roles a master teaches his student are carefully chosen according to the young actor’s physical and temperamental qualities. Though younger actors are permitted to make minor variations if their teachers feel there’s a physical or temperamental need, any changes must be requested by the student and agreed to by the teacher. As he rises from one level to the next, each step granting him more interpretive freedom—within very narrow limits—he’s constantly being tested and judged by his family, the Kabuki community in general, and the audiences. Even after long years of training, the process of study and discipline doesn’t stop, and a Kabuki actor isn’t deemed to have reached the level of mastery, if he ever does, until well into middle age. With each step of the actor’s development, he faces the knowledge that, although he has achieved one level of artistic skill, he must still face another, higher level. Many actors, such as Bando Tamasaburo V (b. 1950), the popular onnagata, or female-role specialist, continue to study the techniques of earlier actors whose physical appearance resembled their own.

It’s interesting to note, incidentally, that Tamasaburo, one of the best onnagata actors of his day, is an adopted member of the Morita acting family. At 60, he’s still performing as a young girl. The first Kabuki onnagata to appear in a western female role when he played Lady Macbeth in 1976, he remains extremely popular in Japan, appearing in films as well as modern stage performances. Other onnagata also continue to play girls and young women well into their 80’s: Sakata Tojuro IV (b. 1931), a Living National Treasure and the first since 1774 to hold that name, still convinces audiences he’s a young girl on stage. Nakamura Utaemon VI (1917-2001), like Tojuro a Living National Treasure, last performed one of his signature roles in 1988 at the age of 71. In 1988, as Nakamura Senjaku II, Tojuro toured western North America and Honolulu—where I saw him—with the Grand Kabuki company. He appeared then as Chubei, a wagoto male principal, in A Messenger of Love in Yamato (Koi Bikyaku Yamato Orai) opposite his own son, then Tomotaro (b. 1959), as Umegawa, a courtesan—a role Senjaku II, his father, had played opposite Kanjaku IV, his grandfather. (Tomotaro took the name Kanjaku V in 1995.)

The Kabuki actor faces this never-ending process because he’s entered onto the “way of art,” or geido, which is the “known path to knowledge and the initiate is guided in his steps along the path by a master already proficient in its secrets.” Although this path includes specific kata, the Kabuki actor “looks beyond them to a total approach to kabuki acting.” The “way of art” and the total approach to Kabuki are important in the examination of how this stylized theater creates its emo­tional effect. We’ll see that the effect itself is somewhat different than its counterpart in the Western theater.

If Kabuki is not concerned with factual truth but imagina­tive truth, it’s because drama refines truth and an actor should be able to perform so that the audience is impressed with the refined beauty (yugen) of his performance. In Japanese esthetics, yugen is the epitome of truth. Unlike the Western representa­tional theater, in which an actor must convince his audience that he is someone he’s not, in Kabuki drama, because it has its roots in dance, the actor needn’t do this. His audience easily accepts him as an artist; they know they’re watching a play whose performers are as much dancers as they are actors. The spectators aren’t there to be fooled, or to be moved by a vision of daily existence. They’re there to be moved “by images clearly distin­guished from reality by the precision of their design.” Readily accepting, even demanding this, the Kabuki audience is moved by the technical skill and virtuosity of the actor as he executes kata they have seen before, and which they know almost as well as the actor does. (Even Westerners at a ballet don’t demand realism or the realistic portrayal of emotions. Yet the Western audience, just like the Japanese Kabuki audience, might weep or cheer, too, if etiquette permitted it. They, too, may have been moved by the grace of a Gelsey Kirkland pirouette, the power of a Mikhail Baryshnikov leap, or the beauty of a grande promenade.)

This isn’t to say that Kabuki actors don’t feel any of the emotions of their characters. The strength and importance of the technique notwithstanding, they do experience the feelings, too. Nakamura Utaemon VI, one of the best onnagata of the 20th century, explained, “My father, Utaemon V [1865-1940], used to teach me and other apprentices to learn the interiorization of characters before anything else. . . . What was important was that [the actor] had the internal conception correctly. The first thing is internal characterization. After it comes the external.” Not all Kabuki stars agreed. Bando Mitsugoro VIII (1906-75), an expert in aragoto male roles and one of the founders of the National Theater training program, insisted, “I don’t believe that an interiorization is absolutely essential to kabuki acting. The external is enough.” However, “If you are just presenting a form—with no feeling, no heart—you are just a doll,” said Onoe Baiko VII (1915-95), another famous onnagata (and Living National Treasure). “There is no impact.” A talented actor may learn the kata perfectly, Baiko added, but unless he also has kimochi, the feeling true to the character and the situation, he will give empty performances. An example of how this comes out can be seen in the following moment from a performance of Nakamura Kichiemon I (1886-1954), admired for his line delivery, as Jirozaemon in Kagotsurube Sato no Eizame (The Courtesan or The Bewitched Sword):

After the scene of “the first encounter” is over, Jirozaemon, a hick, a pock-marked merchant, realizes that in all his life he has never seen such a wonderful woman and, umbrella in hand, stands there, watching her walk away on the hanamichi. His servant is behind him, but, he, his mouth agape, keeps watching the end of the hanamichi, as if he’d been robbed of his soul. His haori coat [jacket worn over a kimono] starts sliding down, so his servant calls out, “Master, sir.” Jirozaemon says, “Yado e kaeruwaa.” As you know, the complete line is, “Yado e kaeru wa iya ni natta” (I no longer want to go back to my inn). But saying, “Yado e kaeruwaa,” he continues to watch the end of the hanamichi, entranced. He’s holding an umbrella, you see, and he will drop it, but he doesn’t do it for a long, long time. The audience keeps watching. “Yado e kaeruwaa” having been said, the audience is waiting to see what comes next. Then the umbrella drops with a thump. The wooden clappers give the first clap, then comes “iya ni natta,” the clappers continue, and the curtain falls.

This description, by controversial Japanese novelist and poet Yukio Mishima (1925-70), a devotee of Kabuki theater, is fraught with emotional content—at least as Mishima responded to the performance. When they were originally conceived, the kata were methods devised by actors to convey emotions or other meanings. Over the centuries they’ve become codified, and the modern Kabuki actor learns them technically. (They may be compared superficially to the stage gestures and expressions devised by François Delsarte in the early 20th century.) For instance, a female character might show grief by holding her hand in front of her face to conceal her tears. Constant repetitions, however, “lead the actor to an appreciation of the interior truth behind his physical exertions in the role.” In fact, he learns the original reason for the kata’s creation. Though he comes to feel the emotions of the character he’s playing, a Kabuki actor doesn’t ordinarily motivate his actions the way a Western actor does. (Many contemporary Kabuki actors study Stanislavsky and other Western acting theories, but not so much for practical use as to be conversant with other interpretations of their art.) In his preparation for his entrance, for example, a Kabuki actor sits before a large mirror in the small room at the end of the hanamichi entrance ramp. He studies the external appearance of his character so he can absorb its nature. His character isn’t based on something internal but on the outer image.

Kata, though they’re traditional techniques many of which have been used for centuries, aren’t always as rigid as this may seem to make them. There’s considerable variation in the perfor­mance of kata, though it may take a very experienced eye to notice. Specific kata may be performed differently by different actors doing the same role; even if the general shape of the kata, say a mie, is the same, it may be invested with different energy and feeliings by different actors—thus communicating a different psychological or emotional state. “If I can use a traditional form [kata] to portray an emotion, I do so,” explained Baiko. “If the traditional form in a certain scene does not suit my style, I think it over and proceed to perform as I see fit, even if it means a change from the conventional manner.” Novelty for its own sake, of course, isn’t a virtue in Japanese art, but variation has its place.

Some deviations in kata are the result of several versions existing from the past. Earlier Kabuki actors had far more freedom to create kata to suit both their needs at the moment and their physical strengths and limitations, and these kata have each become part of the available tradition for today’s per­formers. An actor may choose one of the variations at his dis­cretion, providing he has the artistic stature to do so. Often, the difference may seem minuscule, but occasionally the choices are quite dissimilar. In one common scene in many Kabuki plays, for example, in which a character must inspect the head of an executed child, the actor may use one of a number of distinct kata. He may lightly touch the sides of the box containing the head and look into it, he may shade his eyes with his hands, or he may draw his sword on another character and look into his face. The kata themselves are traditionally executed, but the actor has a choice of which one to use, and each will convey a different emotion for the character.

Even the traditional kata of past generations can be altered. It’s not easy, and the adjustments may be very subtle, but as an actor achieves higher and higher levels of proficiency, he may personalize the kata he’s inherited. He may, for instance, impatiently tap his hand at a significant moment, or walk in one scene with is toes pointed out instead of in. These refinements and interpretations may be abandoned after one performance, or they may become part of the tradition themselves. Actors change kata for several reasons, not all of them aesthetic. The actor may want to rein­terpret a character or a scene, or he may wish to accomodate some peculiar physical strength or weakness. An ancient actor may, for instance, have changed a bit of business because he grew fat or became injured and modern actors may still use the “new” kata even though they don’t have the same physical limitations. Kataoka Gato V (b. 1935), a tachiyaku, or actor specializing in male roles, plays the same characters his father (Nizaemon XIII, 1903-94) and grandfather (Nizaemon XI, 1857-1934) played; in fact, he learned the kata from them and then his father taught him the roles. But Nizaemon XIII was slimmer than Gato and the son adjusted his performances to accommodate his physicality, subduing his performances somewhat, playing the parts less forcefully than his predecessor.

So far I’ve been discussing kata in general, and since the term covers every aspect of the Kabuki performance, it’s necessary to look at it broadly first. There are dozens of categories of kata, many of them non-acting, and each category has myriad types and each type may have several variations. There’s hardly room here to discuss any of this in detail, so for our purposes I’ll examine briefly, and superficially, a very few of the most striking kata an actor can use to demon­strate emotions and mood, as differentiated from kata that primarily convey plot, pure esthetics, or technical adjustments.

The most unusual device of a Kabuki performance, one that has no like in any other theater form, is the mie. A “frozen moment,” as Samuel Leiter calls it, a mie is a dynamic pose held rigidly for a few minutes by one or more actors; it’s created and selected by the actors as an effective way to show the inner feelings of the character. It’s been compared to a spotlight on a stage actor, a close-up in film, or ital­ics in print. It stops the action of the scene and intensifies the emotions much the way the “significant moment” of a televi­sion soap opera does—except with much more panache. There are dozens of dif­ferent mie, all with different configurations and purposes. One of the most powerful belongs to the Ichikawa family. This mie, which includes a fierce, cross-eyed grimace called nirami, is performed at the Kojo or name-taking cer­emony by the Ichikawa actor assuming the title Danjuro. It was a highpoint of the 1985 Grand Kabuki tour which included the Kojo for Danjuro XII (b. 1946), holder of the most illustrious name in all of Kabuki. This mie is so powerful, Kabuki devotees consider it to have magical powers, tremporarily driving illness, misfortune, and other evil forces out of the theater.

Another famous mie occurs in A Messenger of Love in Yamato, a popular wagoto (“soft style") play of the Nakamura family. The hero, Chubei, a poor, young courier, and his rival, Hachiemon, a wealthy but boorish merchant, are both in love with Umegawa, a beautiful courtesan. Each actor demonstrates his antagonism towards his opponent by striking a mie, held for two clacks from the tsuke wood blocks, combining the effects of the visual image and the sound to emphasize the heat of the moment.

Almost as striking as the mie is a certain kind of exit, usually executed on the hanamichi, called a roppo. Literally meaning “six directions,” the roppo is a swaggering walk which may indicate arrogance, bravado, or machismo. The best known of these exits is the tobi, or “flying,” roppo. The ac­tor almost lit­erally flies down the hana­michi in great jumps, his arms and legs going in “six direc­tions” at once. It’s a spec­tacular sight, and greeted with much de­light by the audience.

Both the nirami mie and the roppo are elements in aragoto acting, one of the five general Kabuki acting styles. Invented in Edo in the 17th century by Ichikawa Danjuro I (1660-1704), it’s the grandest, most exaggerated style, projecting power and masculine bravura of both villains and heroes. Aragoto’s converse, showing tenderness or humor, is wagoto acting, the special province of the Nakamura family of the Kyoto-Osaka Kabuki center, invented by Sakata Tojuro I. Certain plays and roles are written in these styles, so they’re not really options an actor can choose; nonetheless, they’re techniques that convey emotion and inner character. (The other three acting styles are maruhon, or “puppet style,” borrowed from Bunraku; shosagoto, “dance style,” used in Noh-derived dance plays; and danmari, “wordless,” a short pantomime suggesting nighttime action. These styles have less to do with character and emotion than spectacle and technical virtuosity.)

The Kabuki script, which isn’t regarded with the same reverence as a Western play text to start with, includes many points where actors are expressly required to improvise. (James Brandon, a professor of theater at the University of Hawaii at Manoa—I’ve taken two classes from him myself—and one of our most respected experts on Asian, especially Japanese, theater, has written a fairly comprehensive essay on the various kinds of improvisations specified in a Kabuki script: “Performance and Text in Kabuki” in Japanese Theatre and the International Stage.) These prescribed breaks in the performance text, to use Richard Schechner’s phrase, are intended to provide actors an opportunity to “express his character’s feelings and thoughts.” (I believe that what Yukio Mishima was describing above were instances of Kichiemon’s using his freedom to improvise to show how his character felt.) Of course, an actor’s license “to fill the moment” are restricted according to the actor’s artistic standing and the acquiescence of the leading actor, who’s responsible for the overall shape of the production. (Traditional Kabuki troupes don’t have directors in the conventional Western sense, but the lead actor serves as artistic director—much like the principal actor in 19th-century Western troupes.)

Dance and choreography are another skill the Kabuki actor must use to convey emotion. Not only is Kabuki as a whole derived in part from dance (bu, the middle syllable, means dance, you’ll recall), but much of the Kabuki repertoire are dance dramas (shosagoto) and plays derived from Noh. As I mentioned, dance is a fundamental part of the training for novice Kabuki actors because shosagoto plays require them to portray their roles almost exclusively through choreography. In Kasane (Kesakake Matsu Narita no Riken), for example, a two-hander in which a pair of onnagata each play two roles, the characters express their passion and confusion, ranging from lyrical elegance to savage ferocity, in dance.

Along the same lines, physical dexterity and agility are also tactics Kabuki actors can use to convey emotion and psychological state. Along with dance, Kabuki actors are trained extensively in acrobatics and martial arts and tremendous strength and control is a necessity for Kabuki acting. “An actor needs tremendous coordination of body, suppleness, ability to adjust from one position to another, and he must have perfect balance,” asserted Baiko. The greatest actors can manipulate the smallest parts of their bodies and make the smallest gestures and movements so that the subtlest changes carry meaning because the norm on the Kabuki stage is stillness. Nakamura Matagoro II (1914-2009), a renowned onnagata, was known to be able to move his eyebrows alone, without moving any other part of his face, even his eyelids. Matagoro was expert at the technique of separation—moving one part of the body while keeping the other parts immobile. Few other actors had his skill in this area, but the principle holds: Kabuki actors use their superb physical control to enhance the emotional aspects of their performances.

Since Kabuki is rhythmic both in its move­ment and its speech, there are several identifiable vocal kata. Most are written into the script, but, as with any kata, there’s still room for variation by master actors. One in particular is sawari, analogous to our soliloquy but always spoken by a female character. The name means “touch,” and it’s a device for touch­ing the chords of pathos in the audience as the heroine expresses her sorrow. The onnagata shares the dialogue with the chanter, who speaks while the actor mimes the character’s deepest feelings. (Matagoro also had extraordinary skill at manipulating his voice, using varied pitches in his vocal delivery. This is clearly another technique Kabuki actors, highly trained in singing—the first syllable, ka, means “song”—as well as dance, can use to communicate emotions.)

Although Kabuki is an actor-centric theater, there are dozens of other elements essential to the performance. These are also governed by kata, many of which help convey emo­tion, mood, or atmosphere, assisting the actor to develop the scene. Possibly the most impor­tant, given the dance roots of Ka­buki, is the ubiquitous musical and rhythmic ac­companiment. Music, which establishes mood for every scene, is provided by an off-stage geza ensemble. Though care­fully matched to the content of the scene, it’s not coordinated to the actor’s actions in the same sense that Western background music is. Among the several sound kata are wooden clappers, known as tsuke, which usually underscore the already spectacular effect of a mie or augment the martial atmosphere of tachimawari stage combat. The tsuke clacks enhance the emotional content of the mie by filling the sound space of the action. The kata for the tsuke and the other wooden clapper, the ki, are pretty standard, but there are variations possible, and, according to ki- and tsuke-players on tour with the Grand Kabuki in 1988, the actors can request certain types of rhythms, thus selecting the emotional support the beats give their scenes.

Costume and make-up kata, of course, help reveal character in some of the same ways they do in the West. Since dress and appearance are codified, there’s little leeway for variation, but one kind of make-up because of its stylized design enhances the actor’s ability to express emotion. As worn by the aragoto actor, the kumadori make-up is composed of bold lines that follow the musculature of the face. Rather than hiding the expressions the actor uses like a Noh mask or even other Kabuki make-up, kumadori make-up allows “every facial gesture to be seen clearly in the vast reaches of darkened theaters,” making the feelings evoked by the actor’s grimaces and scowls all the more visible to the audience.

There are many other devices that can be used to affect emotional portrayal in Kabuki, including the position on the stage or hanamichi; stage effects manipulated by kurombo, the black-clad stage assistants; narration by a reciter, an effect borrowed from the puppet theater; and even special curtain kata that reveal things about the characters and their feelings. The list is endless, since, in the stylized perform­ance of Kabuki, the symbolic use of any device can transmit a meaning to the knowledgeable audience. Furthermore, since the audience is mostly there for the beauty and spectacle of the presentation, it’s less the message than the medium that moves them. Kabuki theater is meant to be an emotional experience for the audience, not the intellectual or spiritual one that Noh provides. The very nature of the performance, the characters, the dialogue, the kata, the designs, costumes and make-up, and special effects all evolved, and not by accident, to make the audience respond emotionally and viscerally. It is, in the end, the complete harmony of all the ele­ments of the production, each making its own contribution to the overall beauty, that results in the special world of dreams that is Kabuki.

[The art of Kabuki theater is complex and fascinating, especially to us Westerners. I’ve discussed only a small aspect of the acting techniques used to express and convey emotion (with a brief mention of some non-acting practices), but there is a great deal more to this performance form than I’ve hinted at here. Indeed, many Western scholars and theater artists have devoted their lives to studying and trying to understand this art. There are many sources for a history of Kabuki, including the Internet. The interested reader should also consider, among others, Chapter 20 of Yoshinobu Inoura and Toshio Kawatake’s The Traditional Theater of Japan (New York: Weatherhill, 1981). A more detailed analysis of the form is provided in Studies in Kabuki by James R. Brandon, William P. Malm, and Donald H. Shively ([Honolulu]: University Press of Hawaii, 1979).]
Posted by Rick at 10:00 AM 2 comments:
Labels: acting, actor training, actors, Asian theater, Japanese theater, Kabuki

07 September 2011

“It's Time to Retire 'Kabuki': The Word Doesn't Mean What Pundits Think It Does.”

By Jon Lackman
[A little over a year ago, a friend sent me a column from Slate, the on-line journal. At the time, the word Kabuki was making the rounds in political punditry as a term meaning ‘affectation’ or ‘pretense’ and the columnist, Jon Lackman, thought it was being overused by the chattering class. (The word Kabuki, though derived from three Chinese characters that mean song, dance, and acting skill, as a whole means ‘something abnormal or askew’ in the sense of deviating from the ordinary. Kabuki, therefore, actually means ‘off-beat performance,’ something deliberately outrageous.) I think my friend sent me the column in part because I’d studied about Kabuki and liked it as a theater form; I imagine he thought this particular article would amuse me. He was right. I’ve been waiting for a suitable slot in the ROT schedule so I can share it with the readers, and now that we’re about to lurch into another presidential campaign season, I suspect the word may have another burst of popularity among political commentators. Lackman’s original column appeared on Slate in “The Good Word: Language and How We Use It,” a regular column in the journal, on 14 April 2010 (]

Judging from op-ed pages and talk radio, American pundits know a lot about Kabuki, the 400-year-old Japanese stage tradition with the Lady Gaga get-ups. Health care reform recently brought Kabuki to mind for both Rush Limbaugh—"what you have here is 'Kabuki theater' "—and
New York Times columnist Frank Rich: "[I]f I were to place an incautious bet on which political event will prove the most significant of February 2010, I wouldn't choose the kabuki health care summit." For The New Yorker's George Packer, all the capital's a Far Eastern stage, and all its men and women merely players. "I looked for answers outside the Kabuki theatre of Washington personalities."

Pundits use
Kabuki as a synonym for "posturing." The New Republic's Michael Crowley, for example, has defined it as a "performance, in which nothing substantive is done." But there's nothing "kabuki" about the real Kabuki. Kabuki, I'll have you know, is one of UNESCO's Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity! And it's nothing like politics. It does indeed use stylized gestures, expressions, and intonations, but it's far from empty and monotonous. As the scholar A.C. Scott has written, a great Kabuki actor's performance will "contain an individuality beneath the unchanging conventions, his symbolism must be something more than imitative repetition." Unlike a Dick Durbin stemwinder, the quintessential Kabuki moment (known as a kata) is colorful and ruthlessly concise, packing meaning into a single gesture. It is synecdoche, synopsis, and metaphor rolled together—as when, in one Kabuki play, a gardener expecting a visit from the emperor cuts down all his chrysanthemums except one, the perfect one. And in contrast with our own shortsighted politics, Kabuki concerns not the present so much as a "dreamlike time shrouded in mist but ever present in the subconscious," to quote critic Shuichi Kato.

Of course, pundits don't care about the real thing. They use
Kabuki precisely because they and everyone else have only a hazy idea of the word's true meaning, and they can use it purely on the level of insinuation. They deploy Kabuki because:

1) It sounds funny.
2) It sounds childish.
3) It sounds foreign.
4) It sounds incomprehensible.
Kabuki succeeds chiefly because it makes your opponent sound silly and un-American. And finally kabuki works because:

5) It sounds Japanese.

Needless to say, it sounds Japanese because it
is Japanese. Point is, the word can conjure certain stereotypes about Japanese politics. As the scholar Gerald Curtis has noted, we have "an image of Japanese politics in which bureaucrats dominate . . . and policy making is little more than a process of collusion." For Rush Limbaugh, what better image with which to tar health care reform?

But how did Kabuki, one of Japan's most revered arts, come to signify loathsome fakery? Kabuki escaped derision only so long as no one had heard of it. The Japanese initially considered it too difficult to export; indeed, seeing a Kabuki play cold is like tuning into
Lost midseason. Consequently, the word didn't appear in print in English until the late 19th-century, and then only rather infrequently. That changed when, following World War II, Japan's government tried to shed its image as a global marauder by touring its best Kabuki troupes. As historian Barbara Thornbury has written, "spectacular, larger-than-life kabuki was seen as having the potential to reignite America's nearly hundred-year-old romance with exotic Japan." This concept, alas, failed miserably. Although America's urban theatergoers lauded Kabuki, their good opinion did nothing to improve ties between the United States and its one-time enemy. Indeed, relations worsened due to drawn-out treaty negotiations. When American official James C. Hagerty visited Tokyo in 1960, protesters surrounded his car, broke its windows, and nearly flipped it.

According to my research, it was in this hostile atmosphere that Kabuki acquired its modern derogatory meaning. Writing in 1961 about a State Department plan to revise its security measures,
Los Angeles Times writer Henry J. Taylor declared, "[By] finally dismissing Chester Bowles as undersecretary of state at the moment he did, the President unhitched the plan's kingpin in this shoddy piece of left-wing kabuki." Six months later, Taylor struck again, "Agriculture Secretary Freeman announced he has discussed Billie Sol Estes' political corruption kabuki with Robert F. Kennedy and 'had mentioned it informally to the president.' "

Writers have enlivened their prose with
Kabuki ever since. Usage increases whenever Japan is in the news for disingenuous behavior—as in the early 1990s, when it turned out that Japan's go-go economy was an elaborate sham. It's been cropping up most recently due to the Toyota recall, which has made some Americans question the Japanese car company's commitment to safety. "Toyoda Is Wary Star of Kabuki at Capitol," blared the Wall Street Journal. The word is also on the ascendant whenever fakery seems particularly rife in American politics. Kabuki loves itself a Senate nomination hearing.

It may seem P.C. or peevish to ask writers to resist
kabuki. (Is Kabuki resistance itself Kabuki?) The request is impractical, I admit. If a former theater critic such as Frank Rich can't be trusted to use it properly, who can? This is one of those writerly words that is helpfully absent from ordinary conversation, that says, "Stand back, pundit here!" (Slate writers, by the way, have also abused Kabuki—repeatedly!) But how would you feel if your favorite art form, ballet or truckers’ quilts, say, became another nation's derogatory epithet? How many Americans today steer clear of actual Kabuki (it is regularly performed here) because of the word's reputation? And there's a final reason to ditch it: Posturing is far too tepid an indictment of contemporary American politics. I'd sooner opt for Grand-Guignol, which Wikipedia aptly defines as "graphic, amoral horror entertainment." It is seppuku time for Kabuki.
© 2011 The Slate Group, LLC

[Back in November 2010, I published a column on Kabuki theater, “Kabuki: A Trip to a Land of Dreams,” followed by the republication of an old review I’d written on the performances in New York City of the Grand Kabuki company in 1985 (1 and 6 November 2010 on ROT, respectively). In the first article, I said of the theater form: “Kabuki is a world of wonder—a world of poetry, color, spectacle, grace, energy, and artistry.” That’s a far cry from the implications about which Lackman is writing above. At the end of my 1985 review, I asserted, “Singing, ballet, acting, storytelling, music, poetry—even worship—are integral parts of most Eastern performances. Kabuki is an example, as the current tour of the Grand Kabuki demonstrates to incomparable pleasure.” I think, like Lackman—who seems to know Kabuki himself—that most Americans who toss around the word derisively have never marveled at an actual Kabuki performance. I’ve been in and around theater most of my life, perhaps as long as 55 years as spectator, actor, director, teacher, and writer. I was on my second grad school go-round when I first encountered Kabuki, so I was no novice to theater—and I fell madly in love with the performance form immediately. It is, in my opinion, one of the most astonishing and remarkable forms of art—not just performance—I have ever experienced. For those of us who know the art, misusing its name as dismissively as do the pundits Lackman deplores is more than unfortunate and misleading. It’s a mark of ignorance.]
Posted by Rick at 10:00 AM 2 comments:
Labels: Asian theater, Japanese theater, Jon Lackman, Kabuki, Slate, writing

21 November 2010

'Throne of Blood' (BAM)

On Saturday evening, 13 November, my friend Diana and I drove over to Brooklyn to see Ping Chong’s staging of Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood. This is the great filmmaker’s 1957 adaptation of Macbeth, starring Toshiro Mifune in a masterful performance as Taketoki Washizu, the ambitious samurai who is the Macbeth character in the film as well as Chong’s stage adaptation. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen the Kurosawa flick—college, I think—so I don’t remember many of the details, except that it was black and white and a driving, thrilling movie, a classic in its own right, even without Shakespeare’s poetry. Chong’s version, of course, is in English, but he doesn’t return to the Shakespearean text.

Chong’s stage version, presented at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Howard Gilman Opera House over an hour and 40 minutes without intermission, was commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and the cast is drawn from the resident Ashland troupe. (The play ran at OSF’s Angus Bowmer Theatre from 21 July to 31 October this year.) The cast is heterogeneous so, aside from the English dialogue, Chong’s adaptation is already a step or two away from Kurosawa’s vision. Furthermore, the stage obviously can’t accommodate the sweep and visual force of Kurosawa’s film, which was almost wordless.

Chong’s Throne of Blood is a curious, but fascinating, effort. First of all, it’s not Shakespeare and it’s not Kurosawa; Chong, known for his multi-media experimental and avant-garde performances for the past 30 years, isn’t up to that level of artistry in my opinion. The only review I saw before Saturday was Charles Isherwood’s notice in the Times the day before, and he took Chong to task essentially for not doing the movie or the Elizabethan original. But if you look at Chong’s Throne of Blood as an artwork on its own, rather than an attempt to capture the essence of either of its predecessors, that doesn’t matter as much (even though Isherwood’s right in the short run). My companion was unimpressed (to put it mildly): “What do you get out of it?” she asked, after I disagreed with her negative response. A profound theatrical experience, it’s not. This isn’t West Side Story or My Fair Lady set beside Romeo and Juliet or Pygmalion. It’s also not Terrence McNally and Kander and Ebb’s Kiss of the Spider Woman compared to the Hector Babenco film. What’s on show here are the staging techniques and the visual effects Chong devises to accomplish what Kurosawa did with his camera. And while even these aren’t fully satisfying in their execution, there are some ideas it’s intriguing to imagine in their ultimate perfection (as they probably can only be achieved on the mind’s stage).

The outlines of Shakespeare’s story are still here, as they were in Kurosawa’s film, transposed from medieval Scotland to feudal Japan. Chong, I think wisely, doesn’t revert to the playwright’s words (except for a few allusions to phrases from several plays), which would only make the play seem pretentious and more derivative than it already is. The language of Chong’s version, based on the subtitles from the film, is neither poetry nor contemporary prose. What it resembles more than anything else is the English translation of classical Japanese theater, principally Kabuki. Since Chong draws considerably on Kabuki and Noh staging traditions for his presentation, this seems appropriate to me, rather than a draw-back. It comes off as being foreign—sort of like a well-dubbed film—but neither lofty nor pretentious. It also let me remember that I was watching a performance, not a slice of reality or fictionalized history like, say, Lion in Winter or Man for All Seasons. Since there are other elements in the production that are presentational, this fits with the style I believe Chong is after.

Isherwood seemed to complain about the film sequences Chong used (designed by Maya Ciarrocchi) and the suggested scenery (by Christopher Acebo) because the one suggests Kurosawa’s cinematography without realizing its “mood and atmosphere,” and the other doesn’t evoke the “sweep and intensity” of Kurosawa’s outdoor imagery. Again, if you don’t insist on comparing this play with the film, that becomes an academic point, I think, and both work for what Chong is doing. The films, which are projected in a strip above the set, are mostly segments of nature scenery—trees in a forest, cherry blossoms, rain. These serve as fragments of projected scenery, to set the image of the terrain and the landscape the way fragmentary sets do for interiors on a stage. Some of the projections are story-related, like the moving of Spider Web Forest (the stand-in for Birnam Wood). One repeated image is the abstract ink drawing, in a style reminiscent of Japanese painting, of bare branches with two leaves that become a pair of staring eyes in a suggested face at the end of the two Forest Spirit scenes. The fact that the projections resemble film means they unavoidably call cinema to mind, and Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood in particular, but I don’t believe that Chong means for this technique to substitute for Kurosawa’s film work; Chong, after all, is a multi-media artist in his own right. Aside from directing, writing, and choreographing, Chong, whose parents were performers in Chinese opera (a precursor of Kabuki), is also a video installation artist. He got his start as a performer with Meredith Monk, and has worked in such diverse fields as puppetry and oral history.

As for the stage sets, it’s incontrovertible that they can’t compete with the outdoor vistas that made Kurosawa’s film so visually powerful, but since this is a stage play and not a film, no setting could, so why try to compete? The play is episodic, one of its weaknesses, so there are a lot of scene changes. The set fragments, which silently move in electronically on slides or drop down from the flies, accomplish this with alacrity and elegance, giving the impression of a place without depicting it literally. While Kabuki plays use elaborate and often quite realistic sets (Noh uses almost no scenery), this looks more like Japanese interior design—simple, unobtrusive, spare.

The acting, though, is what was interesting to me. Chong obviously wants to incorporate the stylized performance of Noh and Kabuki in his staging of Kurosawa’s semi-realistic screenplay (written by the director with four collaborators). First of all, the whole play is framed as a flashback, with a prologue and an epilogue (in Japanese with English supertitles projected on a photograph of the ruins of Spider Web Castle) that outline the backstory—and, in Brechtian manner, remind us that this is an ancient tale, not a contemporary one. This makes the play an enactment of the history of the place, a very typical Noh structure. (In true Noh, the narrator of the tale, who’s only a voice-over in Throne, transforms into the spirit of the place, often a demon or the ghost of someone connected to the story. This isn’t part of either version of Throne of Blood.) Then the music, composed by Todd Barton (who also did the sound design, which includes such effects as the sounds of weather conditions—very integral to Kurosawa’s film—nature, and horses’ hoofbeats), is recognizably evocative of Kabuki and Noh music (that is, for anyone who has a familiarity with those forms of theater, of course). There are also koken, the black-clad stage assistants of Kabuki and Noh theater, on stage several times.

The Forest Spirit, Throne’s stand-in for the witch (there’s only one instead of three as in Shakespeare), is a Noh demon, all in white with a very long, full white wig. Sitting on a small platform, the spirit turns the wheel of a loom, weaving . . . . what? A spider web? He’s in Spider Web Forest—and a familiar character in Noh and Noh-derived Kabuki is the Demon Spider (who looks a lot like this Forest Spirit). Is this spirit out to ensnare Washizu in his magical web of enticing prophesies? As portrayed by Cristofer Jean, he speaks in a rasping, unreal, stylized (and electronically manipulated) voice that is an approximation of the slow, rhythmic delivery of many Noh characters.

Lady Asaji (the Lady Macbeth character), the most Noh-infused role in the film, wears pasty makeup with stylized facial features so that her face resembles a living Noh mask. The actress (Ako, who is from Japan originally and performed there with an all-female troupe, the Takarazuka Theatre) moves with the deliberate gait of a Noh actor. These and other aspects of the performance demonstrate that Chong wants to evoke traditional Japanese theater in his staging. This is where his experiment fails for me.

Chong can’t improve on Shakespeare and he can’t duplicate Kurosawa’s masterpiece, so what would have worked for me was to see the script interpreted in a hybrid of Western and Japanese staging styles. As I said, I think that’s what Chong is attempting, but while he can get the production artists—the designers and technicians—to approximate Japanese staging techniques, he can’t make Western actors do after a few weeks of rehearsals what Japanese actors do. So, though I can see what Chong probably wants on stage (because, as some of you know, I’ve studied Asian theater, especially Kabuki, for some time), I can also tell that the performers don’t execute it precisely. It’s the difference, I’d say, between learning a language from childhood, with years of study and living among native speakers, and learning some speeches phonetically after a few months of practice and coaching. (Ako, who trained in Kabuki dance, lent her knowledge and expertise in Japanese traditional performance to the task of training the company, along with a movement coach.) I’ll give you one example. There’s limited action in the play; many scenes involve groups of characters sitting, as in the great councils the emperor holds several times. In a Kabuki play, when an actor isn’t the focus of attention on the stage, he’s absolutely still. Having struck the pose he’ll hold during that scene, often kneeling and sitting on his heels, he doesn’t move a muscle until he has lines or business. (This is a very important element of Kabuki performance, and total stillness is a skill all novice Kabuki actors must learn very early.) This stillness makes the slightest movement momentously dramatic and theatrical; but it also makes the merest twitch from an actor not in focus destructively distracting. In Throne, the actors come on stage for those councils, say, and take their positions in semi-darkness, and we can see them strike their poses, usually a wide-legged seated stance, because they do it with a sharp, deliberate movement, all executed at the same instant. But Western actor aren’t expected to be totally still under just about any ordinary stage circumstances—and no actor who’s not been trained in this technique can manage it. So while they’re sitting without moving about or turning their heads, they aren’t really still. What I believe is supposed to be a Kabuki moment just isn’t, which mars what I think Chong is aiming for theatrically.

Stillness is only the most salient of this kind of problem, the easiest to spot and to describe. There are similar issues with walking—both Noh and Kabuki have very distinctive walking styles and it looked like the cast was trying to approximate them here—and the choreographed fight sequences, which seem to be modeled on Kabuki tachimawari battle techniques. Only Ako, trained and experienced in this performance style, executes it well—and her presence on stage makes the slips and lapses of the Western actors that much more obvious. (In my studies of Asian theater, one of my teachers has been James Brandon of the University of Hawaii at Manoa. His department there has a program of presenting Asian theater forms in English with American actors, and I’ve seen taped performances of Kabuki in English. Those actors, who are coached by professionals from the theater they’re emulating, have similar problems because the discipline is different.)

I think I’ve made this all sound much more disastrous than it was. I said that in my mind, I could see the perfect version of what I believe Chong wants, but for an ordinary Western viewer, I suspect none of that is noticeable. Perhaps I’m hypersensitive, or at least hypercritical. Without the execution of the Japanese traditional techniques in Throne, however, we do come back to Diana’s question: “What do you get out of it?” For whatever reason, the Japanese seem taken with Macbeth: aside from Kurosawa’s 1957 treatment, popular Kabuki actor Tamasaburo Bando V became the first onnagata (specialist in female roles in the all-male Kabuki theater) to portray a Western female character when he played Lady Macbeth at Tokyo’s Nissei Theatre in 1976; in the ‘70s and ’80s, director Shozo Sato created a Kabuki Macbeth (and a Kabuki Lady Macbeth); in 1986, New York’s Pan Asian Rep staged Shogun Macbeth; and in 1990, BAM imported the image-dominated, experimental Macbeth by Yukio Ninagawa. The various staging styles aside, what these adaptations all show is the universality of Shakespeare’s play about ambition and treachery, which I believe was Kurosawa’s motivation to make Throne of Blood 53 years ago. (Kurosawa’s been said to have been responding to World War II, which ended just a dozen years before he made the film. Chong has said that he sees the world today as very similarly self-destructive.) But having already demonstrated that (assuming, of course, that the very longevity of Shakespeare’s tragedy hadn’t already made that clear), why translate to the stage what Kurosawa already showed on film? Well, besides making the screenplay accessible in a different medium (not to say, a different language), I contend that it’s the staging style, the theatricality Chong envisioned, that prompts yet another go at the Scottish play à la japonaise. (At the risk of making an unnecessary, and perhaps irrelevant, joke, it begins to sound as if we’re encroaching on the territory of that silly series of ads for Starburst candy where a character calls his son a “contradiction” because he’s “Scotch-Korean.”) If that vision is badly executed, the experiment fails, I’d say. The idea’s not uninteresting, theatrically speaking, but without a much longer training time, and maybe some resident Kabuki or Noh actors in the company, I don’t think it’s viable. Still, the attempt was interesting—even a failed experiment can be worthwhile—and I don’t join my friend Diana in saying it was a painful experience. (I should probably equivocate some here: without my admittedly somewhat rare perspective, other spectators might find far less of interest in the production.)

One thing about which Isherwood was correct is that “most of the actors make little impression.” Except for Ako, as he noted, no one stands out. (Cristofer Jean gets spotlighted as the Forest Spirit, but that’s the role, not so much the performance, that’s prominent. Jean does a fine job of it, however.) Kevin Kenerly as Washizu, much like the other soldiers, has little to do but bluster and strut, He has a couple of choreographed fights with the samurai sword, and he’s convincing enough given the caveat I’ve already issued about the tachimawari, but it even took me a few scenes to be sure which actor was Kenerly as Washizu and which was Danforth Comins as Yoshiako Miki (Banquo) because there’s so little to distinguish one character from another aside from the costumes. (The costumes, which approximate 17th-century Japanese armor and other dress, are beautifully designed by Stefani Mar. They’re modeled more from museum exhibits, I’d say, than from Kabuki or Noh costumes, but they have an air of authenticity. I must add that the battle helmets are wonderfully exotic, with horns, wings, and crescents looming atop the actors’ heads.) Eventually, the plot made the distinction for me, but there’s nothing in the staging that might have approximated, say, a bombastic aragoto (“rough style”) performance from Washizu, as I might have expected in a Kabuki rendition. In fact, in several scenes of great tension with Lady Asaji, while she’s kneeling in stillness, a figure all in white (including her face makeup) except for the blood-red splotches on her kimono, Washizu paces all around her in what looked to me like aimless agitation. That weakens the character (in Kabuki terms, it almost makes him a wagoto, or “soft style,” character), which may align with psychologically realistic Western behavior, but in a traditional Japanese performance, it makes him less than the ruthless protagonist of a Shakespearean tragedy as reflected in a Kabuki mirror. Washizu’s fall is more anticlimactic here than tragic. I can’t entirely blame Kenerly for this; it looked like a directorial choice, not an actor’s; but if Chong had been true to the Kabuki or Noh style in such moments, Washizu would have stood stock still, looking like a giant in an oversized costume, or stridden across the stage in slow, heavy steps.

If Chong doesn’t entirely succeed in translating Kurosawa’s film masterpiece to the stage, he has done some intriguing work in the attempt. Isherwood called the effort “an ill-conceived theatrical enterprise,” and Diana agreed with that. The Backstage reviewer, however, asserted that the production “succeeds and then some” in its ambitious aims. I don’t agree with either estimation, but I ended feeling it was a worthwhile theater experience—although I may have had an inside track.

[For some explanation of the Kabuki terms and techniques I mentioned in this report, see my recent article, “Kabuki: A Trip to a Land of Dreams” (1 November).]
Posted by Rick at 10:00 AM No comments:
Labels: Akira Kurosawa, Asian theater, Brooklyn Academy of Music, Japanese theater, Kabuki, Macbeth, Next Wave Festival, Noh, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Ping Chong, Throne of Blood, William Shakespeare

05 December 2009

Theater and Computers

Some time back I was doing some reading to catch up with the latest developments in theater tech and staging concepts. This included some experiments in the employment of computers in performance in ways that went beyond lighting control and scenery shifting. A long time ago I had read an article in Time that reported on a new computer program, developed at MIT, that let playwrights test scenes on screen without hiring actors and a stage. Actors, directors, and designers were aghast, as you might imagine, considering this now-primitive computer theater the nose of a very scary camel inside the tent. If playwrights learned they didn’t need actors, directors, and designers to see their work come alive, what might ensue? We could all be out of business permanently.

Well, that hasn’t come to pass yet, and it’s been over 20 years since that report appeared. Film has been invaded by computer technology, especially in the action-adventure genre, and computers have become standard equipment in theaters for scenic and lighting control (which might exercise IATSE), but the only area of performance in which computers have become an issue of contention is music--the substitution of computer-generated music for real instruments played by live musicians. (This is a real issue for AFM members and has been the focus of much action by that union.) But computer-generated acting does exist, still mostly at an experimental level, though it has been used on stage a little already. It’s coming, that’s for sure, unless some other, more applicable technology arrives first.

Now, I’ll confess that I like technology in theater. I don’t mean that I reject theater-unplugged, as it were; but I can be bowled over by the clever (and theatrical) use of tech in a performance when it enhances the live elements of theater. I was amused when Harry Guardino did scenes with a projected cartoon in Woman of the Year in 1981. When Emily Mann used closed-circuit TV on stage in her Broadway production of Execution of Justice in 1986, I thought it was neat. I was delighted with Penny Arcade’s use of live video in Invitation to the Beginning of the End of the World (Invitation to the Beginning of the End of My Career) in 1990. I don’t reject theater tech out of hand, though there are many who disparage the use of anything beyond a Fresnel and a Leko on stage. What I don’t appreciate is using tech to emulate movies as if the goal of theater were to become a live-action video game.

While I was revising an old essay on documentary drama (another version of which appears on ROT as “Performing Fact: The Documentary Drama,” 9 October), I began to consider the use of computer-generated imagery on stage as a real, if somewhat gimmicky, application. Computer controls long ago changed the way lights, sound, and sets are designed and run in the theater. As of now, however, computer theater’s a speculation, but if we expand the idea into some of the emerging technology that is already in experimentation for live theater, we get intriguing potential developments: satellite broadcasting (that is, from remote locations), CGI and holography, virtual reality, computer sensors and motion capture, bluescreen technology, Internet productions (live performances transmitted via the Internet). There are certainly other computer applications that are not yet part of the public awareness, still in experimental stages in laboratories, which would expand this short list, but some of this computer technology is already in use in performance. Experimental theater artist George Coates has been using CGI and other computer (and proto-computer) techniques in his work for three decades and universities (where the technology exists for now) have been testing various applications of computers on stage beyond controlling the lights and the set changes.

The name for this hybrid theater hasn’t been settled on yet, either in the lit or in common parlance. “Virtual reality (or VR) theater,” “cyber theater,” and “computer theater” have their advocates, but all have other meanings that create ambiguities. Other terms exist, too, but most have broader or more limited applications than the computer-assisted theater to which I’m referring. The leading contender right now seems to be “digital theater”--the one I’m going with for now--though that, too, has alternative meanings referring to other applications. (Among these are the recently-launched program in London of broadcasting live theater performances to screens at remote theaters, including in North America and other continents; the Internet transmission of performances staged in a studio or another location and viewed on home computers; and a method, developed by the Digital Theater System, Inc., for recording surround sound for films and video.) The two most significant criteria for the kind of digital theater I mean is that it must focus on live actors in a performance space with living spectators present for the performance. (For the performance to be theater, as distinguished from, say, dance--which has already been experimenting with computer-assisted performances more than theater--a certain reliance on text or narrative must be evident. But my emphasis here is on the computer aspects of the performance, so a dance or performance art presentation would serve just as well for my purposes.) Whether the cyber element is a digitized actor or virtual scenery is irrelevant to my point--except that it would have to be substantial to make the production rise to the level of digital theater, something more than a computer-generated special effect. (Though a few years old already, the best article on this subject, with several examples of the kind of technology to which I’m referring, is “Live Media: Interactive Technology and Theatre,” Theatre Topics 11.2 [September 2001]: 107-30, by David Z. Saltz, who is director of the University of Georgia’s Interactive Performance Laboratory.)

There’s a history, short of course, for digital theater. The pre-history picks up with the George Coates Performance Works, founded in San Francisco in 1977. He started with electronic sound systems that manipulated music in live performances the way a recording studio does on tape; as electronic and digital technology advanced, so did his theatrical experimentation. (Going back further into pre-history, we encounter the works of other avant-gardists in the 1910s, ‘20s, and ‘30s who used the technology of their eras in experimental ways--film, projections, amplification, and so on.) Moving into the 1980s, we begin to see the true early stages of digital theater as computers became small enough to bring into the theater and studio and powerful enough to do more and more complex tasks in creating works of art. Music and visual art were the first forms to capitalize on the new machines that were being invented for communications, recording, and writing or drafting. Artists merely turned the quotidian devices from office and school work to art. By the ‘90s, the Internet and other advancements in the cyber world had become part of everyday life and artists spread out into the potentialities the new tech offered. Film and eventually TV capitalized on the new possibilities almost immediately; it was a natural fit: electronic devices for the electronic media. Dance took advantage of the new tools next. As the technology became cheaper, simpler, and more powerful and flexible, artists found more and more ways to use it in their work, and digital theater was born. In 2002, for instance, Kabuki director Koji Orita used a computer-projected image animated in real time by an actor in an off-stage room to portray a mythical creature on stage opposite a live actor. Digital theater’s still in the early experimental stages now, but just as sure as the Lord made little green apples (as Harold Hill put it), it’ll be on our stages soon enough.

For good or bad, computers will become an element of the theater world. Along with the work of Roy Ascot, GCPW, and the Gertrude Stein Repertory Theatre, some universities, especially MIT, the Interactive Performance Laboratory at the University of Georgia, and the Virtual Reality Theatre Lab (now the Institute for the Exploration in Virtual Realities) at the University of Kansas, have worked with computer-generated imagery in live performances. Computer sensors and motion captors allow actors to interact with sets, props, lights, sound, and CGI’s. The Internet and satellite transmission allow actors distant from one another--even as far away as different continents--to act together in the same play at the same time as live actors appear with projected images of a distant actor. Plays produced on the World Wide Web using webcams already represent a kind of guerrilla theater where actors perform in public spaces as spectators, warned to tune in to a certain website, watch on computer screens at remote locations. (While this may be a form of digital theater by a looser definition, the lack of a co-present audience at these productions puts them outside the type of theater I’m considering. The technology, however, can be adapted for use with live, co-present spectators.)

A few years ago, I was at the Shaw Festival in Ontario and one of the plays that season was an adaptation of H. G. Wells’s Invisible Man. As I was watching the show, it occurred to me that this would have been a great play on which to experiment with computer-projected images. Since the title character was invisible for so much of the play, his stage "appearances" consisted mostly of standing off stage somewhere, delivering lines over a mic while the rest of the cast and the stage techies accomplished all the physical stuff. Like the mythological character in Koji Orita’s Kabuki production, a gauzy version of the character might appear in projection on the set as the actor “performs” off stage in real time.

Emily Mann’s Execution of Justice had live closed-circuit video on stage, but it was either prerecorded film--from The Life and Times of Harvey Milk or news coverage of the murders--or transmissions of images from the stage as if they were on-location TV broadcasts. But Mann did do some of this while characters were still coming on stage from the wings--as if the TV cameras were following newsmakers--and the audience saw the screen images before the live actors were visible. That's a rudimentary precursor of what I'm imagining. With the Internet and satellite transmission, the images can be created live from a continent away; and with holography, they can be projected not onto a screen, but onto the stage.

Just as film actors (and TV weathercasters) now perform before computer-generated bluescreen images that to the spectators look as real as if the performers were filmed on location, I can imagine actors in the theater working against projections or even holograms from a real location historically associated with the events of the play, what might be called virtual scenery. We may perhaps see King Lear ranting before the actual Stonehenge or Hamlet live on the ramparts of the real Elsinore castle in Denmark.

Singer Natalie Cole famously performed a 1991 duet with the video image of her dead father, Nat King Cole, but we might soon see live on-stage actors interacting with computer-generated images of long-dead historical figures--a kind of live-action Zelig.

In Woman of the Year, Harry Guardino acted with that animated drawing--but that was a fake, of course: the projection wasn't really reacting to Guardino. In a revival, however, the actor might actually interact with a projected cartoon animated in real time by an actor off stage.

In And Then They Came for Me (1996), audiences not only heard the recorded voices of survivors of the Anne Frank hideout, they saw these people on video tape projected onto the stage in New Brunswick, New Jersey. In the future, actors would be able to appear on stage with actual participants live from the site of the events depicted in the play. Think of a three-dimensional video conference (or a Star Trek holodeck). A live actor in the theater could act with another live actor miles away, but in real time.

A further step along this continuum might be to put a live actor on stage with real events that are happening at that moment somewhere else in the world. In my original documentary theater essay, I suggested that the epitome of the genre would be what I dubbed drame-vérité--from cinéma-vérité, filmed actualities--a form of reality on stage. I said it couldn't be accomplished--and given the technology of the early '80s, it couldn't. But the march of technology has made that possibility more likely and not unforeseeable at all. I'm not sure, but I think all the technology necessary is available, though it's very expensive, obviously, and not entirely reliable at this stage of development. But we know that that situation doesn't last very long.

Theater may or may not be deliberately emulating movies, but I project, based on these technological "advancements" that sooner or later, movies and plays will be one and the same thing: you'll go to a theater for a "live" event that's really holograms and computer-generated images, whether it's Hamlet and Horatio, Luke Skywalker and Han Solo, or Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort. It'll be a theatrical version of virtual reality. (Shortly after that, they'll hook you up to electrodes and project the performance right into your mind--a combination of play, movie, and dream.)
Posted by Rick at 10:00 AM No comments:
Labels: CGI, computers, cyber theater, digital theater, George Coates, holography, virtual reality theater, VR

06 November 2010

Grand Kabuki (July 1985)

[Twenty-five years ago, the Grand Kabuki of Japan launched a tour of the United States, which also included stops in Washington and Los Angeles, with performances at the Metropolitan Opera House, 8-20 July 1985. The company included two Living National Treasures: Onoe Shoroku II, a principal actor and the Grand Kabuki’s artistic director, and musician Kiyomoto Shizutayu (1898-1999). The performances were divided into two nights and I went to both evenings as a reviewer for Stages, a New York theater monthly. As a companion article to “Kabuki: A Trip to a Land of Dreams,” ROT, 1 November, I’m publishing here my original review (which was longer than the version that appeared in the September 1985 issue of Stages).]

During the Kojo, or “name-taking” ceremony, for Danjuro XII, one of the participants admonishes the audience, “You call us ‘Kabuki dancers’; we are Kabuki actors.” Make no mistake: they are. And Kabuki is an actors’ theatre, music and effects notwithstanding. The latest visit by Japan’s Grand Kabuki leaves no doubt of this.

In two programs combining selections from the Tokyo-based company’s varied repertoire, and, for the first time outside Japan, the celebration of a great actor’s rise to a new name, the troupe demonstrates not only the actors’ virtuosity, but also their primacy in the world of Kabuki.

Note, for instance, that the program lists no credit for director, lighting, sets, or costumes. These, of course, are traditional for each play, so there are few changes from production to production. But someone must be responsible for attending to the faithful execution of the traditions. Doubtless, someone is; but he is anonymous. Not so the actors. Every member of the company is listed by name in the front of the program, no matter how small his role.

Consider, also, who was chosen to make the current tour. Onoe Shoroku II is a Living National Treasure; Bando Tamasaburo V and Kataoka Takao are the most popular young actors in Kabuki and Danjuro is the most honored actor of the year, akin to having been awarded the best-acting Oscar, Emmy, and Tony, and being knighted all in the same season. This is not only an acting company, but a star company. [Shoroku died in 1989 at 76; Takao became Nizaemon XV in 1998.]

The current center of attention is Ichikawa Danjuro XII. Having been elevated to his family’s most illustrious name, vacant since his father’s death in 1962, Danjuro has been celebrated in a daily Kojo since April. Undoubtedly an actor’s ceremony, the Kojo has but one purpose: to spotlight the honored performer while his colleagues praise and congratulate him. The culmination of the ceremony is Danjuro’s demonstration of a fierce mie, a glaring pose, that is an exclusive specialty of Danjuros. The fact that this ceremony has never before been performed outside Japan further emphasizes the specialness of the actor in this tour.

Because of Danjuro’s special status, the Grand Kabuki is devoting its season to traditional plays of Danjuro actors. Scores of leading actors appear in plays mounted in his honor, such as the heroic comedy Shibaraku, which was first presented by Danjuro I in 1697. It is a prime example of aragoto, or “rough style,” acting—the province of the Ichikawa family, invented by Danjuro I.

The play tells of an evil courtier, Takehira (Shoroku), who usurped the prime ministership by disgracing his rival. As Takehira is about to have his rival’s sons beheaded, the fierce Kagemasa shouts from offstage, “Shibaraku!” which literally means ”Wait a moment!” Kagemasa (Danjuro) lumbers into view on the hanamichi, the runway through the auditorium, still shouting “Shibaraku!” terrifying Takehira and his warriors. Indeed, he is a terrifying sight: immensely tall, dressed in an oversized costume, brandishing a six-foot sword, and wearing bold, red-and-black (kumadori) make-up that signifies his ferocity and rage.

After a speech praising his and other company members’ past performances, Kagemasa takes on all comers, including a dozen of Takehira’s soldiers whom he beheads with one swing of his giant sword. All this is performed with the bombast and bravura that is the essence of aragoto acting.

Showcasing another actor, and another acting style, Kasane is a two-character shosagoto play, or dance piece, starring the Kabuki “matinee idols” Bando Tamasaburo V and Kataoka Takao. Kasane, a beautiful court lady, is played by Tamasaburo, an onnagata, or specialist in female roles in the all-male Kabuki. One of the most popular actors on the Kabuki stage, he has a following to make a Western rock star jealous.

In a lyrical pas-de-deux, Tamasaburo and Takao dance the story of the love of Kasane and the dashing Yoemon, a disgraced samurai. Years ago, Yoemon had an affair with Kasane’s mother and killed her father. Now Kasane becomes possessed by her father’s spirit, which disfigures her face with a hideous scar. As Tamasaburo changes from lovely, gentle Kasane into a fierce, vengeful demon, it is hard to remember that both are played by a man. Yoemon kills Kasane and tries to flee, but cannot escape her spirit’s grasp. The choreographed struggles between Tamasaburo and Takao make clear why they are such popular stagemates.

Sakura-hime Azuma Bunsho (The Scarlet Princess of Edo) provides another opportunity to see Tamasaburo and Takao together, this time in dual roles. (In its complete version, which is no longer performed, Sakura-hime is an all-day Kabuki play. We saw the Prologue, two scenes of Act I, and Act V of the six-act melodrama which has been described as “The Duchess of Malfi as rewritten by Eugene O’Neill or Tennessee Williams.”) In this nineteenth-century play, Tamasaburo appears first as a young acolyte, one of his rare male roles, then as beautiful Princess Sakura, who sinks from an exalted position to degradation as a prostitute. Takao, in a series of quick changes, plays both the priest Seigen, who loves the acolyte and then struggles to save the princess’s soul, and the murderous thief Gonsuke, who seduces her and to whom she is drawn.

The play is powerful and action-packed, covering everything from love and mystery, through rape, murder, and suicide, to satire and high comedy. The Prologue is the most visually striking scene of the tour. In a beautifully lighted, fantastically atmospheric set resembling a Japanese painted woodblock, Seigen and the boy climb a cliff overlooking the sea. Planning a double suicide, the boy jumps—but Seigen is unable to follow. An eerie blue-green flame—the boy’s spirit—rises from the sea and hovers over the weeping Seigen. It is, however, the combination of Tamasaburo and Takao, and their double impersonations, that is the attraction. The princess’s fall from grace is heart-wrenchingly believable, and Takao’s instantaneous shifts from haunted Seigen to villainous Gonsuke are absolute marvels.

The other two plays, drawn from the Noh repertoire, both require virtuosic acting. Another shosagoto, Tsuchigumo (The Earth Spider), adapted from a Noh classic, stars Shoroku as both an evil magician and a goblin spider. The play is about a young nobleman (Onoe Tatsunosuke, Shoroku’s son) overcome by a strange sickness while under the malevolent magician’s power. Attempting to escape in the guise of a great spider by ensnaring his would-be captors in his web, Shoroku shoots streamers of white ribbon from his fingertips as if he were, indeed, magical. [Tatsunosuke died suddenly at 40 in 1987 and was posthumously elevated to his father’s name as Shoroku III in 2002.]

The spider is pursued to his lair, where a superbly choreographed battle is danced, pitting the enchanted webs of Shoroku against the sword of Danjuro, as the nobleman’s loyal retainer. Throughout the battle, several koken, ubiquitous but “invisible” stage assistants, run about raveling up discarded webs with quick twirls of their hands, like human forks twirling spaghetti.

In Tachi Nusu-Bito (The Sword Thief), the Kabuki version of a Noh Kyogen, or comic interlude, a sly thief (Tatsunosuke) steals a drunken country samurai’s sword. When he is caught, the thief tries to convince the magistrate that the sword is his by mimicking everything the samurai says and does. It is a complex and hilarious mirror exercise, performed in stylized high comedy and dance requiring extraordinary comic timing.

Kabuki is unquestionably an actors’ theater and Kabuki performers are unquestionably actors; they just happen to be actors who sing and dance as well. It is a nearly impossible to separate the performing arts into categories in Asia the way we do in the West. Singing, ballet, acting, storytelling, music, poetry—even worship—are integral parts of most Eastern performances. Kabuki is an example, as the current tour of the Grand Kabuki demonstrates to incomparable pleasure.

[At the time I reviewed these performance, I had studied Asian theater some and had become especially taken with Kabuki. Three years after this tour, The Grand Kabuki visited western North America and made a special stop in Honolulu where it was in residence at the University of Hawaii-Manoa for three weeks. The university offered a course in conjunction with the stay that included backstage access and lectures and demonstrations by the master artists of costume, make-up, music, and acting. I attended the course but unhappily, I never documented the experience in writing. This review, too short by half to provide an inkling of the truly magnificent event it was, is the only record I have of the extraordinary performance form that Kabuki is.]
Posted by Rick at 10:00 AM No comments:
Labels: Asian theater, Danjuro Ichikawa XII, Grand Kabuki, Japanese theater, Kabuki, Kojo, Onoe Shoroku II

26 August 2012

National Yiddish Theatre – Folksbiene, Part 2


[In Part 2 of “National Yiddish Theatre – Folksbiene,” I pick up with the development of Yiddish drama and theater, first in Eastern Europe, then in New York City. In the final section, I’ll trace the history and, so far as we can predict, the future of the last producing Yiddish theater troupe in New York, the Folksbiene. As much as the language itself fascinates me, the existence of a Yiddish theater astonishes me. It is, as I’ve stated, what I believe to be an entirely unique achievement in human cultural history.

[At the end of Part 2, after I reiterate some the definitions of some of the Yiddish words that have cropped up in the article, I name a few useful sources and resources for anyone who is curious enough to look further into this art form.]

Jewish drama in Europe began in the Middle Ages with performances of the traditional Purim play (
Purimspiel), the Biblical story of Esther, Mordechai, Ahasuerus, and Haman by amateurs going from house to house. By the 16th century, these itinerant performances, which included references to contemporary matters as well as improvisations, songs, and dances, were performed in Yiddish. I’m giving short shrift to the prehistory of Jewish theater, but suffice it to say that during their sojourn in Western, Central, and Eastern Europe, the Jews of the Diaspora came into contact with the theatrical entertainments of their host countries from the Middle Ages on. During the 18th-century Haskala, intellectuals wrote plays that extolled their beliefs, but popular plays, ones that entertained and probed, began to appear in the late 19th century. By the 19th century, the new Jewish theater, following the tradition of the serious European art theater in its dramatic writing and content, was equally famous for its music. (There was a parallel development in Eastern Europe of Jewish minstrelsy that grew out of the impromptu singing and dancing performed at weddings. At a certain point, the two traditions met.) Offerings ranged from revues to operettas to musical comedies, melodramas to naturalist dramas to expressionist and modernist plays.

Abraham Goldfaden (1840-1908), a Ukrainian journalist, teacher, and poet (whose poems had already been set to music and become popular songs), is credited with staging the first Yiddish play, a presentation of one of his own musical scripts at a Romanian tavern in Iasi in 1876. The location isn’t entirely coincidental as some of the foundational influences for Jewish drama happened in Romania in the Middle Ages: while Jews elsewhere in Europe had been barred from attending the Christian religious performances, such as the Passion Plays and the miracle, mystery, and morality plays that were the origins of post-Roman European theater, the Romanian Orthodox Church wasn’t so restrictive and Romanian Jews saw these seminal performances. In any case, the Iasi presentation was successful and Goldfaden, known as the father of Yiddish theater, soon established the first professional Yiddish theater troupe there, though he later moved his base to Bucharest. Decades later, Bucharest is one of the three remaining centers of Yiddish theater, with Tel Aviv and New York.

The Jews of Europe being among the most literate people—out of necessity, many spoke three or four tongues—and Yiddish having been established as a literary language, this new art form was immediately appealing. A few Jews were familiar with the theater of their home cultures, but for most, literary pursuit meant books and prose. Within a few years of Goldfaden’s success in Romania, however, the idea of Jewish theater spread abroad. Goldfaden himself was urged to come to other cities like Warsaw and Vilnius to start Yiddish theaters and his Romanian company toured frequently, playing taverns and cafés across Eastern and Central Europe. Since the Ashkenazim shared common experiences despite their different countries of residence, the new Yiddish plays traveled easily and the successful playwrights immediately gained international followings. This spurred more Yiddish theaters to open and Goldfaden’s scripts were also published, spreading the idea of Yiddish plays and playwriting even further. Almost immediately, other Yiddish theaters popped up all over the Ashkenazi diaspora, prompting a simultaneous burgeoning of Yiddish playwriting to fill the little stages from Moscow to Berlin and beyond, stretching all the way to Vienna, Paris, London, and finally New York.

Joining a tide of Yiddish-speaking Jews fleeing the wave of anti-Semitic pogroms that followed the assassination in Russia of Czar Alexander II in 1881, Abraham Goldfaden emigrated to America. (In 1883, the government of Czar Alexander III banned Yiddish theater. The ban was lifted in 1904.) By 1887, two established companies from Eastern Europe had already crossed the Atlantic to set up in New York City—comedian Sigmund Mogulesko (1848-1914), from Moldavia via Romania, and his dramatic co-star, David Kessler (1860-1920), also Moldavian, were playing on the Bowery at the Rumania Opera House and a smaller troupe was working out of the Oriental Theatre. Goldfaden attempted to put his work on in New York in 1887, but the success he had in Europe eluded him here. His last play, however,
Ben Ami (1907), opening five days before his death, was well-regarded in a production directed by Boris Thomashefsky, the première actor-director of the Jewish Broadway, Second Avenue on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Many other playwrights arose, a number of them following Goldfaden to the United States and New York City, fast becoming the world capital of the Yiddish stage.

In 1880, there were 240,000 Jews in the United States, 60,000 of them in New York City. New York already had the largest concentration of Jews in the world, all from different countries with different languages. Between 1880 and 1910, the Golden Age of Yiddish theater, one-third of all the Jews in Eastern Europe had emigrated, 90% of them to the U.S. They were a ready-made audience for the migrating Yiddish theaters expelled from Eastern Europe. Much of the early stage fare were translated, often bowdlerized versions of European plays—but they offered astonishing talent, with the likes of Boris Thomashefsky (1868-1939), who arrived in New York from Russia in 1881 as a 12-year-old, and his wife, Bessie (1874-1962); and Jacob Adler (1855-1926), two of whose children, Stella (1901-92) and Luther (1903-84), became both famous and influential on the English-speaking stage and in Hollywood. (Stella Adler, a founding member of the Group Theatre, became one of America’s most respected acting teachers and one of the world’s most important interpreters of the Stanislavsky system of acting.) In 1899, the United States’ first actors’ union was formed by the Yiddish performers; the Hebrew Actors Union fought for actors’ rights 14 years before the Actors’ Equity Association was founded. 

Audiences began to include non-Yiddish-speakers and by 1900, there were three professional Yiddish theater troupes on New York City’s Lower East Side, charging from 25 cents for the gallery to a dollar for orchestra seats. In 1918, there were as many as 20 companies in the city, presenting over a thousand performances which brought in two million spectators from across the entire spectrum of Jewish society. The strip of 15 Yiddish theaters along Second Avenue between about 6th and 14th Streets was dubbed “The Yiddish Rialto” and New York’s Yiddish theater became a significant cultural establishment not just for the Jewish population, but the entire city. (Indeed, it benefited the entire country eventually. Vaudeville in the ’30s and ’40s and TV comedy of the ’50s inherited the talent that had been honed by New York’s Yiddish stages. Broadway and Hollywood did well from Second Avenue as well, with stars like the Adlers and Muni Weisenfreund—better known as Paul Muni.)

The young Thomashefsky, still only a child himself, orchestrated the emigration of two Romanian brothers with theatrical backgrounds and when they arrived in 1882 with four other actors, the boy, who’d never seen a play himself, persuaded a neighborhood tavern-owner to hire a hall and produce a play, Goldfaden’s
Koldunye (The Witch, 1877). It was such a success, despite stiff opposition from upper-class German Jews who looked upon Yiddish theater as undignified, that Thomashefsky’s credited with staging the first Yiddish theatrical performance in New York. No older than 13, Thomashefsky became the first impresario of New York’s Yiddish theater. He took the new company on tours to Philadelphia; Washington, D.C.; Baltimore; Pittsburgh; Boston; and Chicago, playing before enthusiastic audiences of working-class Jews. Besides original plays by Goldfaden and others, Thomashefsky’s troupe, one of the most celebrated of the many then playing in New York City and touring the country, also presented Yiddish adaptations of such works as Hamlet (called The Yeshiva Student), Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Faust, and Oscar Wilde’s Salome, starring a hugely successful Bessie Thomashefsky in the title role. (Many of the adaptations, like King Lear or Hedda Gabler, were given haimishe—‘homely’ in the sense of ‘warm,’ but here connoting ‘happy’—endings.) Still, while the English-speaking audiences uptown were seeing lightweight comedies or melodramas like Alias Jimmy Valentine or The Heart of Maryland, the Jews on the Lower East Side were seeing the work of modern European writers such as Shaw, Strindberg, Ibsen, and Gorki, along with the new Yiddish works of Ansky, Asch, Aleichem, Pinski, and others.

Though adaptations of European classics dominated the fare on the Yiddish stage, a practice often disparaged by the Jewish intellectual class, that began to change drastically around 1890, the start of the Golden Age of Yiddish theater. Jacob Gordin (1853-1909) took his lead from the best Russian theater, including the Moscow Art Theater of Konstantin Stanislavsky which was already reforming the theater of the western world. His début play for the New York theater,
Siberia (1891), incorporating some of the style of secular Yiddish literature, was the first realistic play about Jewish life of the day (though by today’s standards, it was full of melodramatic plot elements). His Yiddish King Lear (Der Yidisher Kenig Lir, 1892) wasn’t a translation of Shakespeare but an original play inspired by the Elizabethan classic. Gordin’s central character is Dovid Moishele, a wealthy Jewish merchant in 19th-century Russia, the family patriarch and a most familiar figure to the East European theatergoers.

Though Gordin’s plays demanded sincerity on stage and attention from their audiences, he wasn’t above incorporating comic and musical elements to appeal to the spectators. The plays, both Gordin’s and those of other popular Yiddish dramatists, were most often about family life and problems—one popular theme was the generational conflict between American-born children and their old-country parents—with characters that resembled the playgoers and their neighbors, and situations they saw around them. Topical events also found expression on the Yiddish stage: the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and the sinking of the
Titanic were both subjects of downtown dramas. Some of the plays were serious art and others were shund, trash, but the theater quickly became the cultural core of the Ashkenazim’s life in America. Playwright Isaiah Sheffer (b. 1935), a child actor on the Yiddish stage who eventually became artistic director of Symphony Space, explained that he went to Yiddish theater “for great depth of feeling, a richness of feeling. The idea of fullness, richness and overflowing table.” The great director Harold Clurman (1901-80), describing his own response to the output of Second Avenue, said that “it really satisfied and responded to the needs and the feelings and sentiments and the hopes of the people. It was not an entertainment or a pastime. It was a necessity.” Broadway actors came downtown to have a look and the New York press began to take serious note of this rival to Broadway as the English-language papers began running reviews of Yiddish performances around 1900.

The Yiddish Rialto also had its own culture, much like Broadway’s uptown. There was even a “Sardi’s of Second Avenue”—the Cafe Royale on East 12th Street—where fans and artists hung out after performances and between gigs. (The famous coffee shop was fictionalized in the 1942 play—revived on Broadway in 1989—and 1964 musical
Cafe Crown.) The world of Yiddish theater was a separate universe, possibly an escape from the drudgery of daily life or the reality of the bleak world the immigrants had so recently left behind. In fact, more than Broadway, the Yiddish theater resembled the world of Kabuki, in which the actors’ children went into the family business as soon as they could manage to cross the stage. Lulla Rosenfeld, the late granddaughter of Jacob Adler and his colleague and friend Abba Schoengold (her parents were Adler’s daughter Frances and Schoengold’s son, Joseph), recounted that her sister Pearlie “made her debut at the age of 2, and created an uproar when, forgetting her role, she addressed Jacob Adler as ‘Zayde’ (Grandpa) . . . .” (The error brought laughter and “a rain of coins” from the audience.) The few Yiddish artists who married outside the profession introduced the spouses to the theater immediately and soon found an excuse to get them on stage. At the other end of history, sadly, is the burial ground, Block 67 at Mount Hebron Cemetery in Queens, maintained by the Yiddish Theatrical Alliance (a branch of the HAU) exclusively for artsts and stage hands of the Yiddish theater.

The theater managers engaged in publicity wars with one another over their stars on posters and handbills and in the press, and insults to rival actors at another theater were inserted into scripts. Devoted fans, called
patrioten, truly adored their stage stars; many were fans of particular actors and would even yell advice from their seats at critical moments (much the way Japanese patrons of Kabuki might shout out encouragement or criticism at performers). Just as in a Kabuki-za, spectators ate and drank, exchanged loud remarks, and shamelessly cheered and booed the performers. Patrioten rabidly defended their favorite’s turf to all boosters of anyone else, even resorting to tossing a rival patriot out of the auditorium. Once a well-known patriot of actor David Kessler, Jacob Adler’s chief rival famous for his histrionics, turned coat and began supporting Adler, known for his dignity and reserve on stage. This was such an upheaval in the sphere of Yiddish theater, it got full-page coverage in the Jewish press.

Not only were productions quickly sold out, even among the working-class immigrants for whom the 25-cent ticket price was a small fortune, but the stars’ off-stage luster helped raise up their fans and the whole Jewish community. As I noted, many of the later stars—the Marx Brothers, Molly Picon, Paul Muni, Fyvush Finkel; even Leonard Nimoy and Tovah Feldshuh had a taste of the Yiddish stage in their youths—moved on to stardom on Broadway or Hollywood, but the star that shone brightest on Second Avenue was Jacob Adler, an émigré from Latvia via London in 1889. His performances in such Yiddish classics as
The Yiddish King Lear moved audiences beyond control. It’s reported that one spectator ran toward the stage bellowing:To hell with your stingy daughter, Yankel! She has a stone, not a heart. Spit on her, Yankel, and come home with me. My yidene will feed you. Come Yankel, may she choke, that rotten daughter of yours.

(“Yankel” is the common nickname for Jacob, Yakov in Yiddish.
Yidene is a derogatory term for a Jewish woman, somewhat more insulting than “old lady.”) In 1901, Adler performed the role of Shylock in a Yiddish translation of The Merchant of Venice at the People’s Theatre on the Bowery. So successful was his portrayal of “The Jew of Venice” as a man driven not by revenge but pride, motivated, in the words of the New York Times review, to vindicate “Israel against the despiteful usage of the Christian merchant and his friends,” that he was invited to repeat the performance on Broadway and in May 1903, Adler appeared at the American Theatre on West 42nd Street in a production where he spoke in Yiddish and the other actors responded in English. When Adler, who had been nicknamed Nesher Hagodl, Hebrew for “The Great Eagle” (Adler is German and Yiddish for ‘eagle’), died in 1926, hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers gathered to view his body as it lay in state for two days at the HAU.

But the New York Yiddish theater also presented the particular world of the American Jew, expressing pride in both the people’s Jewishness and their Americanness. Patriotism for their new land, keenly felt because of the freedoms they found (despite what we would recognize as casual and societal anti-Semitism and general xenophobia—far less than the new Jewish Americans had left behind in Europe) and the opportunities they had to express themselves artistically and intellectually, was expressed in plays like Boris Thomashefsky’s
Der Yidisher Yenki Dudl (1905). The United States’ entrance into World War I in 1917 found the Stars and Stripes adorning every Lower East Side stage as Yiddish stars sold thousands of dollars of Liberty Bonds and raised large sums for the Red Cross. They could look with pride at fellow immigrant Irving Berlin (1888-1989), whom George M. Cohan had dubbed “the Yidishe Yankee Doodle,” and his raft of popular—and often patriotic—American songs and Broadway scores.

At its height of popularity, up to about the Second World War, Yiddish theater spawned as many as 200 troupes in New York City and around the U.S. Today, the only producing Yiddish company in New York City is the Folksbiene, founded in 1915 on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. There were over a dozen companies in New York City when the Folksbiene Yiddish Theatre formed, an arm of the Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring, a socialist-oriented labor organization founded in 1900. (Another company, the Yiddish National Theatre, was affiliated with a different labor organization, the now-defunct Hebrew Actors Union.) Remember that the large majority of Yiddish-speaking immigrants were working-class people laboring for wages and their culture reflected that. It’s this association to which I was referring when I suggested earlier that there’d been a practical effect of Yiddish literature’s leftist proclivity.

After the genocide of World War II destroyed most of the European Yiddish-speaking community, the pool of both writers and performers, as well as spectators, who spoke Yiddish diminished. (In 1921’s Emergency Quota Act and the Immigration Act of 1924, Congress had imposed restrictions on immigration from Eastern Europe.) American Jews had meanwhile become so assimilated that they preferred the English-language theater (as was true of most ethnic groups who arrived in the mass immigration of the turn of the century) and many of the stars of the Yiddish theater transferred to the English-speaking stage and Hollywood. In 1959, two of the most prominent Yiddish theater buildings on Second Avenue were demolished (initially for parking lots); in 1985, the last Yiddish play was produced on Second Avenue; in 1996, the same year the Hebew Actors Union went out of business, the Yiddish Rialto’s last theater was torn down.

Like many of the small theaters in New York City and around the country, Folksbiene, thought to be New York City’s longest continuously-producing theater troupe of any kind, began as an amateur company. It soon became a semi-professional outfit, first hiring renowned directors like Joseph Buloff (1899-1985) and Jacob Ben-Ami (1890-1972), followed by professional actors. Its earliest commitment was to present plays of literary worth, including Yiddish versions of classics from other cultures, though it now produces more popular fare to attract a wider audience. Folksbiene—the name, as I explained in my introduction, is Yiddish for “the people’s stage”—became an independent, not-for-profit theater in 1998, hiring a professional staff (currently about 10 personnel) and acting company. It embarked on a program of modernization in an effort to expand its audience. Having renamed itself the National Yiddish Theatre – Folksbiene in 2006, its modern mission, as stated on the company’s own website, is “to preserve, promote and develop Yiddish theatre for current and future generations.” Toward this end, along with the more liberal repertory, Folksbiene has also added supertitles in English and Russian for theatergoers who don’t understand Yiddish. Formerly housed in a midtown synagogue on the East Side, the company has been nomadic for several seasons now but has raised around $2 million towards building its own permanent performance space. The troupe, one of just five professional Yiddish theaters in the world still operating, currently presents one main play a year during the winter (though it also has other programs).

Folksbiene says that these efforts have increased their audiences threefold. In 2007, the theater won the Drama Desk Special Award “for preserving for 92 consecutive seasons the cultural legacy of Yiddish-speaking theatre in America”; its 2006 mounting of
Di Yam Gazlonim, a Yiddish adaptation of The Pirates of Penzance, was nominated for the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Revival of a Musical. Though the troupe’s original focus was on preserving and memorializing the traditional Yiddish theater culture, both the popular work and the classical plays, it has turned in recent years to original work that continues the tradition in modern ways. In 2011, for example, Folksbiene presented a co-production with Theater for a New Audience of a new klezmer musical, Robert Brustein’s Shlemiel the First, an English-language adaptation of a story by Isaac Beshevis Singer. Folksbiene artistic director Zalmen Mlotek, a Yiddish music specialist and conductor, explained: “We’re encouraging young artists to use the Yiddish culture and reinterpret it for the widest possible audience.” Its outreach efforts include bringing Yiddish shows to communities outside of New York City and offering free performances at colleges. Folksbiene has also expanded its offerings beyond theater to include concerts, literary programs, and children’s performances (Kids & Yiddish) in an effort to redirect its emphasis to the whole of Yiddish culture.
Coming up on its 100th anniversary, Folksbiene has announced plans for an international Jewish arts festival in 2015. Kulturfest: The First Chana Mlotek International Festival of Jewish Performing Arts will include performances and workshops exploring Jewish identity through the arts. (Chana Mlotek, the mother of Folksbiene’s Zalmen Mlotek, is the music archivist at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.) The company anticipates a week of celebration featuring 100 concerts, film screenings, and theater events, though fundraising isn’t complete yet. One question the plans raise, however, is embedded in the festival’s proposed name. As Jewish novelist Thane Rosenbaum, who writes frequently about Jewish culture, phrased it: “Is there is a distinctly Jewish art today, and what is its connection to Yiddish?”

The concepts of “Jewish” and “Yiddish” aren’t identical, though they clearly overlap. If nothing else, of course, “Jewish culture” must include not just Ashkenazi and Sephardi arts, but the creative work of Mizrahim (the Jews from Muslim-majority lands of the Middle East) and even the Falashas (the Jewish sect that arose in Ethiopia), among the many Jewish sects and communities around the world whose language isn’t Yiddish. (There are, for instance, centuries-old, indigenous Jewish societies in India and China.) “Jewish” theater, for instance, can be written in any language—there’s a lot of it in English, for example—and be creatively based in any nation, even as the Yiddish theater can be. But shouldn’t “Yiddish” theater be written exclusively in Yiddish? Traditionally, it also depicts the Ashkenazi world, either of the past or the present, though there’s no reason it must. As Rosenbaum put the query: “Is this really about world Jewish culture?” or “Is this just homage to Yiddish culture?” Does the use of Yiddish automatically make something Jewish? Shane Baker, executive director of the Congress for Jewish Culture, declared, “I’m a gentile fluent in Yiddish, and I play in Yiddish theater” and suggested, “I imagine one of the things they’ll be looking at is what is Jewish culture.” (It’s provocative to note that the official announcement of the Kulturfest plans came at a gala Town Hall concert in honor of, among others, pop singer Neil Sedaka, a Sephardic Jew—raised, curiously enough, in an Ashkenazi-influenced home).

Another provocative question, pertinent more today in this time of assimilation and homogenization, is raised by Theodore Bikel, the actor and folksinger: “Is someone a Jewish artist or a Jew who happens to create music or books?” Was
Death of a Salesman a Jewish play (Willy “Lohmann”?) because Arthur Miller was a Jew? Is Barefoot in the Park a Jewish comedy because Neil Simon’s Jewish? West Side Story was famously written and staged by five Jews. It’s hardly a Jewish play, I wouldn’t say. (All five artists were also gay. Is West Side Story a gay musical?) On the other hand, Fiddler on the Roof is surely a Jewish play and story—albeit with universal themes and appeal. But when it opened in Tokyo, Japanese theatergoers and critics reportedly declared, “It’s so Japanese”! (A recent Broadway revival of Fiddler was mounted with no Jews among the principle artists engaged in the staging. It was humorously dubbed “Goyim on the Roof” and, coincidently or not, roundly criticized for its lack of personality and verve. Goy is the slightly derogatory—“condescending” is perhaps a kinder adjective, remembering that Yiddish words never have a single translation—Yiddish term for ‘gentile.’)

Is there even still a “Yiddish culture”? Thane Rosenbaum reminds us, “It is still a dying language,” spoken in fewer and fewer households, especially outside the Hasidic world. Rosenbaum also asks, “Are there original plays being written in Yiddish?” The theatrical section of the Mount Hebron Cemetery is steadily filling up as the practitioners of Yiddish theater dwindles. Could there possibly be a resurgence? Does it matter? Is the long and stunning history enough to justify the celebration or even the existence of an organization like Folksbiene? As I admitted, Yiddish and the Yiddish theater have intrigued me most of my adult life—yet I never learned the language. Are most Jews like me? Is the Folksbiene fighting a losing battle, sticking a finger in a dyke that's going to burst anyway? Are we getting ready to say, as one Mount Hebron epithaph reads, “The play is done, the curtain drops slow, falling to the prompter’s bell.” Sentimentally, I hope not. Realistically? “God alone knows,” as Hodel, Tevye’s daughter, says in
Fiddler.[I’ve tried to make clear what I’ve meant by the Yiddish words and phrases I salted through “The National Yiddish Theatre – Folksbiene,” either by defining them specifically or carefully situating them in context. Still, just to be safe, let me go over some of them again, in the order in which they appear above. Bear in mind that a) English spellings will vary and b) no Yiddish word has a simple, one-dimensional meaning.

Folksbiene, the company’s name, means ‘people’s stage.’ Mame-loshen refers to the Yiddish language, the ‘mother tongue.’ A mavin is an ‘expert,’ a ‘knowledgeable person.’ Haimishe means ‘humble,’ ‘homey,’ ‘comfortable.’ Yidishe (note the single d) is the Yiddish word for both ‘Yiddish’ and ‘Jewish’; only the context reveals the proper sense. (Yid is the word for ‘Jew,’ though it’s usually an offensive name if pronounced with a short i as in ‘kid,’ the way anti-Semites say it; if pronounced in Yiddish, “yeed,” it’s neutral.) Shund means ‘trash’ or ‘rubbish.’ A zayde is a ‘grandfather,’ though it can be used as a term of endearment for any old man. Patrioten (plural of patriot) means ‘fans’ as in ‘devotees’ and shouldn’t be confused with the English cognate it looks like. Yidene is an ‘old woman’ and is always a put-down in the sense that “my yidene” would be the equivalent of a man calling his wife “my old lady.” Klezmer music is traditional Ashkenazi folk music and hymns played by itinerant groups of three to six musicians playing trumpets, bugles, flutes, clarinets, fifes, violins, cellos, or drums. (The name comes from the Hebrew for ‘musical instrument.’) Originally, the players were untrained and the groups informal, though today the musicians are trained and the music is notated. Goy (pl.: goyim) is the way Jews refer to a ‘gentile’ or a ‘non-Jew’ and it can carry a condescending, even insulting connotation, depending on whether it’s spoken with a sneer or a smile.

[There are lots of books and articles about the three main topics I’ve covered in “The National Yiddish Theatre”—the Yiddish language, Yiddish literature, and Yiddish theater—too many to list. For the language, one of the most amusing—and still informative—is Leo Rosten’s
The Joys of Yiddish. It’s principally a vocabulary with wonderful examples of the uses of a word or phrase, but it also has encyclopedia-like articles about many surprising aspects of Yiddish culture and language and Jewish life and history. Another fun book, if you can find a copy, is Martin Marcus’s Yiddish for Yankees. For Yiddish theater, I recommend starting with Vagabond Stars: A World History of Yiddish Theater by Nahma Sandrow. Lulla Rosenfeld’s biography of her grandfather, Bright Star of Exile: Jacob Adler and the Yiddish Theatre is also a fascinating and engaging entrée into that world. Most libraries, especially university collections, have excellent resources on these subjects, and the New York Public Library’s Dorot Jewish Division at the Stephen A. Schwartzman Building (5th Avenue at 42nd Street) is easily one of the best collections of Judaica in the U.S., but for all three subjects, plus anything else about Yiddish culture (food, music, poetry) or Jewish customs and life, check out the Center for Jewish History in New York City (15 W. 16th Street); CJH includes the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.]
Posted by Rick at 10:00 AM 3 comments:
Labels: folksbiene, Yiddish language, Yiddish literature, Yiddish theater
Subscribe to: Posts (Atom)