1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Drama/4
4. Japanese Drama
The Japanese drama, as all evidence seems to agree in showing, still remains what in substance it has always been—an amusement passionately loved by the lower orders, but hardly dignified by literature deserving the name. Apart from its native elements of music, dance and song, and legendary or historical narrative and pantomime, it is clearly to be regarded as a Chinese importation; nor has it in its more advanced forms apparently even attempted to emancipate itself from the reproduction of the conventional Chinese types. As early as the close of the 6th century Hada Kawatsu, a man of Chinese extraction, but born in Japan, is said to have been ordered to arrange entertainments for the benefit of the country, and to have written as many as thirty-three plays. The Japanese, however, ascribe the origin of their drama to the introduction of the dance called Sambāso as a charm against a volcanic depression of the earth which occurred in 805; and this dance appears still to be used as a prelude to theatrical exhibitions. In 1108 lived a woman called Iso no Zenji, who is looked upon as “the mother of the Japanese drama.” But her performances seem to have been confined to dancing or posturing in male attire (otokomai); and the introduction of the drama proper is universally attributed to Sarnwaka Kanzaburō, who in 1624 opened the first theatre (sibaïa) at Yeddo. Not long afterwards (1651) the playhouses were removed to their present site in the capital; and both here and in the provincial towns, especially of the north, the drama has since continued to flourish. Persons of rank were formerly never seen at these theatres; but actors were occasionally engaged to play in private at the houses of the nobles, who appear themselves to have taken part in performances of a species of opera affected by them, always treating patriotic legends and called nō. The mikado has a court theatre.
The subjects of the serious popular plays are mainly mythological—the acts of the great spirit Day-Sin, the incarnation of Brahma, and similar themes—or historical, treating of the doings of the early dynasties. In these the Subjects of the plays. names of the personages are changed. An example of the latter class is to be found in the jōruri, or musical romance, in which the universally popular tale of Chiushingura (The Loyal League) has been amplified and adapted for theatrical representation. This famous narrative of the feudal fidelity of the forty-seven ronins, who about the year 1699 revenged their chief’s judicial suicide upon the arrogant official to whom it was due, is stirring rather than touching in its incidents, and contains much bloodshed, together with a tea-house scene which suffices as a specimen of the Japanese comedy of manners. One of the books of this dramatic romance consists of a metrical description, mainly in dialogue, of a journey which (after the fashion of Indian plays) has to be carried out on the stage. The performance of one of these quasi-historical dramas sometimes lasts over several days; they are produced with much pomp of costume; but the acting is very realistic, and hari-kari is performed, almost “to the life.” Besides these tragic plays (in which, however, comic intermezzos are often inserted) the Japanese have middle-class domestic dramas of a very realistic kind. The language of these, unlike that of Chinese comedy, is often gross and scurrilous, but intrigues against married women are rigidly excluded. Fairy and demon operas and ballets, and farces and intermezzos, form an easy transition to the interludes of tumblers and jugglers. As a specimen of nearly every class of play is required to make up a Japanese theatrical entertainment, which lasts from sunrise to sunset, and as the lower houses appropriate and mutilate the plays of the higher, it is clear that the status of the Japanese theatre cannot be regarded as at all high. In respect, however, of its movable scenery and properties, it is in advance of its Chinese prototype. The performers are, except in the ballet, males only; and the comic acting is said to be excellent of its kind. Though the leading actors enjoy great popularity and very respectable salaries, the class is held in contempt, and the companies were formerly recruited from the lowest sources. The disabilities under which they lay have, however, been removed; a Dramatic Reform Association has been organized by a number of noblemen and scholars, and a theatre on European lines built (see Japan).