The Japanese theatre claims a peculiar importance, as the only remaining place where the life of Old Japan can be studied in these radical latter days. The Japanese drama, too, has an interesting history. It can be traced back to religious dances of immemorial antiquity, accompanied by rude choric songs. An improvement was made in these dances at the beginning of the fifteenth century, when some highly cultivated Buddhist priests and the pleasure-loving Shōgun Yoshimasa took the matter in hand, and inaugurated a new departure by combining the religious dances with popular tales whose themes were history and legend, and with snatches of poetry culled from various sources. It had been the custom, during the earlier Middle Ages, for a certain class of minstrels to recite the tales in question to the accompaniment of the lute. Thus, on a double basis, helped on too perhaps by some echo from the China stage, yet independently developed, the Japanese lyrical drama into being. Edifices-half dancing-stage, half theatre- were built for the special purpose of representing these Nō, as the performances were called; and though the chorus, which was at the same time an orchestra, remained, new interest was added in the shape of two individual personages, who moved about and recited portions of the poem in a more dramatic manner. The result was something strikingly similar to the old Greek drama. The three unities, though never theorised about, were strictly observed in practice. There was the same chorus, the same stately demeanour of the actors, who were often masked; there was the same sitting in the open air, there was the same quasi-religious strain pervading the whole. We say "was;" but happily the Nō are not yet dead. Though shorn of much of the formality and etiquette which surrounded them in earlier days, representations are still given by families who have handed down the art from father to son for four hundred years. There is no scenery, but the dresses are magnificent. Even the audience, composed chiefly of noblemen and ladies of rank, is a study. They come, not merely to be amused, but to learn, and they follow the play, book in hand; for the language used, though beautiful, is ancient and hard of comprehension, especially when chanted. The music is-well, it is Oriental. Nevertheless, when due allowance has been made for Orientalism and for antiquity, it possesses a certain weird charm. Each piece takes about an hour to act. But the entire performance occupies the greater part of a day, as five or six pieces are given, and the intervals between them filled up by comediettas, whose broad fun, delivered in old-fashioned colloquial, serves as a foil to the classic severity of the chief plays.
From the Nō theatres of the high-born and learned to the Shibai or Kabuki theatres of the common people is a great descent, so far as taste and poetry are concerned, though the interest of the more vulgar exhibitions, viewed as pictures of manners-not in the world of gods and heroes, but in that of ordinary Japanese men and women-will be of greater interest to most foreign spectators. The plays given at these theatres originated partly in the comedi ettas just mentioned, partly in marionette dances accompanied by explanatory songs, called jōruri or gidayū. This explains the retention of the chorus, although in diminished numbers and exiled to a little cage separated from the stage, where they sit with the musicians. Hence, too, the peculiar poses of the actors, originally intended to imitate the stiffness of their prototypes, the marionettes. It was in the sixteenth century that this class of theatre took its rise. Oddly enough, though the founders of the Japanese stage were two women, named O-Kuni and O-Tsū, men alone have been allowed to act at the chief theatres, the female parts being taken by males, as in our own Shakspeare's age, while at a few inferior theatres the conditions are reversed, and only women appear. It would seem that immorality was feared from the joint appearance of the two sexes, and in sooth the reputation of O-Kuni and her companions was far from spotless. Of late years the restriction has been relaxed, and performances by mixed troupes of actors and actresses may occasionally be witnessed.
From the beginning, plays were divided into two classes, called respectively jidai-mono, that is historical plays, and sewa-mono, or dramas of life and manners. Chikamatsu Monzaemon and Takeda Izumo, the most celebrated of Japanese dramatists, divided their attention equally between the two styles. It may be worth mentioning that both these authors belonged to the eighteenth century, and that both of them dramatised the vendetta of the "Forty-seven Rōnins." But Chikamatsu's most famous piece is one founded on the piratical adventures of Kokusen-ya, who expelled the Dutch from Formosa in 1661. The Japanese Kabuki theatres are amply provided with scenery and stage properties of every description. One excellent arrangement is a revolving centre to the stage, which allows of a second scene being set up behind while the first is in course of acting. On the conclusion of the first, the stage revolves, carrying away with it actors, scenery, and all; something entirely different greets the spectators' eyes without a moment's waiting.
The Nō actors were honoured under the old regime, whilst the Kabuki actors were despised. The very theatres in which they appeared were looked down on as places too vile for any gentleman to enter. Such outcasts were actors at that period that, when a census was taken, they were denoted by the numerals used in counting animals, thus ip-piki, ni-hiki; not hitori, futari. Those to whom Japanese is familiar will appreciate the terrible sting of the insult. But these actors formed the delight of the shopkeeping and artisan classes, and they supplied to whole generations of artists their favourite objects of study. Most of the lovely old colour-prints representing frail beauties and other heroines were taken, not from the women themselves, but from the impersonation of them on the boards by actors of the male sex.
With the revolution of 1868, customs changed and class prejudices were much softened. Actors are ostracised no longer. Since 1886, there has been a movement among some of the leaders of Japanese thought towards the reform of the stage, Europe being of course looked to for models. No tangible result seems, however, to have been produced as yet. For our own part, though favouring the admittance of actors into Japanese good society, if their manners fit them for such promotion, we trust that the stage may remain, in other respects, what it now is-a mirror, the only mirror, of Old Japan. When our fathers invented railways, they did not tear up the "School for Scandal," or pull down Covent Garden. Why should the Japanese do what amounts to the same thing? The only reform called for is one which touches, not the theatre itself, but an adjunct, an excrescence. We mean the tea-houses which serve as ticket agencies, and practically prevent theatre-goers from dealing with the theatre direct. Engrossing, as these practical little establishments do, a large portion of the profits derived from the sale of tickets, they are probably the main cause of the frequent bankruptcy of the Tōkyō theatres.
Talking of reform and Europeanisation, it fell to our lot some years ago to witness an amusing scene in a Japanese theatre. The times were already ripe for change. A small Italian opera troupe having come to Yokohama, a wide-awake Japanese manager engaged them, and caused a play to be written for the special purpose of letting them appear in it. This play represented the adventures of a party of Japanese globe-trotters, who, after crossing the Pacific Ocean and landing at San Francisco where they naturally fall among the Red Indians who infest that remote and savage locality, at last reach Paris and attend a performance at the Grand Opéra. Thus were the Indian singers appropriately introduced, Hamlet-like, on a stage upon the main stage. But oh! the effect upon the Japanese audience! When once they had recovered from the first shock of surprise, they were seized with a wild fit of hilarity at the high notes of the prima donna, who really was not at all bad. The people laughed at the absurdities of European singing till their sides shook, and the tears rolled down their cheeks; and they stuffed their sleeves into their mouths, as we might our pocket-handkerchiefs, in the vain endeavour to contain themselves. Needless to say that the experiment was not repeated. The Japanese stage betook itself to its wonted sights and sounds, and the play-going public was again happy and contented.
By a curious fatality, Japan has just (1903-4) lost all her greatest actors within a few months of each other,-Danjūrō, Kikugorō, and Sadanji. Among the lesser men, their survivors, Shikwan and Gatō perhaps rank highest. The actress of most repute is Kumehachi, a woman of over sixty, who excels in young men's roles. "Sada Yakko" was not locally known, except as a singing-girl, till the echoes of her successes on the Parisian stage in 1900 reverberated on Japanese shores.
Of European authorities on the subject of the Japanese drama, there are few to mention. Aston History of Japanese Literature will be found helpful, as usual, within the limits of a narrowly restricted space. Florenz Japanische Dramen may be recommended to those who read German, together with the same author's versions of two dramas,-Asagao and Terakoya. The late T. R. McClatchie, the one European who made a speciality of the Japanese stage, produced nothing, in his Japanese Plays Versified, but some English pieces in "Ingoldsby Legend" style on four or five of the chief subjects treated by the native dramatists. Though extremely entertaining, they bear but the faintest resemblance to their so-called originals. Unfortunately, Japanese plays are apt to run to extreme length,-five, seven, twelve, even as many as sixteen acts. Adequately to translate them presupposes an intimate knowledge, not only of several phases of the language, but of innumerable historical and literary allusions, obsolete customs and superstitions, etc. Even to understand, or at any rate to relish, such translations when made, would demand considerable local knowledge on the part of the European reader. For all these reasons, doubtless, this field has been comparatively neglected hitherto. The Nō, though more ancient and to the Japanese themselves far more difficult, are in a way easier to bring before the foreign public, because of their concise, clear-cut character. The present writer, in the early days of his Japanese enthusiasm, tried his hand at several of them, which were published, along with other matter, in a volume entitled The Classical Poetry of the Japanese, long since out of print. He ventures to disinter from this limbo one of the versions then made, called The Robe of Feathers, which is founded on an ancient tradition localised at Mio, a lovely spot just off the Tōkaidō, near the base of Fuji. The prose portions are rendered literally, the lyrical passages perforce very freely. It is hoped that the total result may succeed in conveying to the reader some idea of the delicate, statuesque grace of this species of composition. If he will keep in mind that music and dancing are of its very essence, he may perhaps be brought to see in it a far-off counterpart of the Elizabethan "masque."
THE ROBE OF FEATHERS. (HA-GOROMO.)
A FAIRY. A FISHERMAN. THE CHORUS.
SCENE.-THE SHORE OF MIO, ON THE GULF OF SURUGA.
[The piece opens with a long recitative, in which the Fisherman and the Chorus describe the beauties of Mio's pine-clad shore at dawn in spring. The passage is a beautiful one; but after several efforts at reproducing it in an English form, the translator has had to abandon the task as impossible. At the conclusion of this recitative the Fisherman steps on shore, and the action of the piece commences as follows:-]
Fisherman. As I land on Mio's pine-clad shore and gaze around me, flowers come fluttering down from ethereal space, strains of music are re-echoing, and a more than earthly fragrance fills the air. Surely there is something strange in this. Yes! from one of the branches of yonder pine-tree hangs a beauteous robe, which, when I draw nigh and closely scan it, reveals itself more fair and fragrant than any common mortal's garb. Let me take it back to show to the old folks in the village, that it may be handed down in our house as an heirloom.
Fairy. Ah! mine is that apparel! Wherefore wouldst thou carry it away?
Fisherman. 'Twas found by me, forsooth, and I shall take it home with me.
Fairy. But 'tis a fairy's robe of feathers, a thing that may not lightly be bestowed on any mortal being. Prithee leave it on the branch from which it hung.
Fisherman. What, then, art thou thyself a fairy, that thou claimest possession of this feathery raiment? As a marvel for all ages will I keep it, and garner it up among the treasures of Japan. No, no! I cannot think of restoring it to thee.
Fairy. Alas! without my robe of feathers nevermore can I go soaring through the realms of air, nevermore can I return to my celestial home. I beg thee, I beseech thee, therefore, to give it back to me.
Fisherman. Nay! fairy, nay! the more I hear thee plead, The more my soul determines on the deed. My heartless breast but grows more cruel yet; Thou mayst not have thy feathers: 'tis too late.
Fairy. Speak not, dear fisherman! speak not that word! Ah! know'st thou not that, like the hapless bird Whose wings are broke, I seek, but seek in vain, Reft of my wings, to soar to heav'n's blue plain?
Fisherman. Chain'd to dull earth, a fairy well may pine.
Fairy. Whichever way I turn, despair is mine;
Fisherman. For ne'er the fisher will her wings restore,
Fairy. And the frail fay sinks helpless evermore.
Chorus. Alas! poor maiden, in thy quiv'ring eyne Cluster the dews; the flow'rets thou didst twine Amidst thy tresses languish and decay, And the five woes declare thy fatal day!
Fairy. Vainly my glance doth seek the heav'nly plain, Where rising vapours all the air enshroud, And veil the well-known paths from cloud to cloud.
Chorus. Clouds! wand'ring clouds! she yearns, and yearns in vain, Soaring like you, to tread the heav'ns again; Vainly she sighs to hear, as erst she heard, The melting strains of Paradise' sweet bird: That blessèd voice grows faint. The heav'n in vain Rings with the song of the returning crane; In vain she lists, where ocean softly laves, To the free seagull twitt'ring o'er the waves; Vainly she harks where zephyr sweeps the plain: These all may fly, but she'll ne'er fly again!
Fisherman. I would fain speak a word unto thee. Too strong is the pity that overcomes me, as I gaze upon thy face. I will restore to thee thy robe of feathers.
Fairy. Oh, joy! oh, joy! Give it back to me!
Fisherman. One moment! I restore it to thee on condition that thou do first dance to me now, at this very hour and in this very spot, one of those fairy dances whose fame has reached mine ears.
Fairy. Oh, joy untold! It is, then, granted to me once more to return to heaven! And if this happiness be true, I will leave a dance behind me as a token to mortal men. I will dance it here,-the dance that makes the Palace of the Moon turn round, so that even poor transitory man may learn its mysteries. But I cannot dance without my feathers. Give them back to me, I pray thee.
Fisherman. No, No! If I restore to thee thy feathers, thou wilt fly home to heaven without dancing to me at all.
Fairy. Fie on thee! The pledge of mortals may be doubted, but in heavenly beings there is no falsehood.
Fisherman. Fairy maid! thou shamest me: Take thy feathers and be free!
Fairy. Now the maiden dons her wings And rainbow robes, and blithely sings:-
Fisherman. Wings that flutter in the wind!
Fairy. Robes like flow'rs with raindrops lin'd! [The Fairy begins to dance.]
Fisherman. See her dance the roundelay!
Fairy. This the spot and this the day,
Chorus. To which our Eastern dancers trace All their frolic art and grace.
Chorus. Now list, ye mortals! while our songs declare The cause that gave to the blue realms of air The name of FIRMAMENT. All things below From that Great God and that Great Goddess flow, Who, first descending to this nether earth, Ordain'd each part and gave each creature birth. But older still, nor sway'd by their decree, And FIRM as ADAMANT eternally, Stand the wide heav'ns, that nought may change or shake, And hence the name of FIRMAMENT did take.
Fairy. And in this firmament a palace stands Yclept the Moon, built up by magic hands;
Chorus. And o'er this palace thirty monarchs rule, Whereof fifteen, until the moon be full, Nightly do enter, clad in robes of white; But who again, from the full sixteenth night, One ev'ry night must vanish into space, And fifteen black-rob'd monarchs take their place, While, ever circling round each happy king, Attendant fays celestial music sing.
Fairy. And one of these am I.
Chorus. From those bright spheres, Lent for a moment, this sweet maid appears: Here in Japan she lights (heav'n left behind), To teach the art of dancing to mankind.
Chorus. Where'er we gaze, the circling mists are twining: Perchance e'en now the moon her tendrils fair Celestial blossoms bear. Those flow'rets tell us that the spring is shining,- Those fresh-blown flow'rets in the maiden's hair.
Fairy. Blest hour beyond compare!
Fisherman. Heaven hath its joys, but there is beauty here. Blow, blow, ye winds! that the white cloud-belts driv'n Around my path may bar my homeward way. Not yet would I return to heav'n, But here on Mio's pine-clad shore I'd stray, Or where the moon in bright unclouded glory Shines on Kiyomi's lea, And where on Fujiyama's summit hoary The snows look on the sea, While breaks the morning merrily! But of these three, beyond compare, The wave-wash'd shore of Mio is most fair When through the pines the breath of spring is playing.- What barrier rises 'twixt the heav'n and earth? Here, too, on earth th' immortal gods came straying, And gave our monarchs birth,
Fairy. Who, in this Empire of the Rising Sun, While myriad ages run, Shall ever rule their bright dominions,
Chorus. E'en when the feath'ry shock Of fairies flitting past with silv'ry pinions Shall wear away the granite rock!
Chorus. Oh, magic strains that fill our ravish'd ears! The fairy sings, and from the cloudy spheres, Chiming in unison, the angels' lutes, Tabrets, and cymbals, and sweet silv'ry flutes, Ring through the heav'n that glows with purple hues, As when Someiro's western slope endues The tints of sunset, while the azure wave From isle to isle the pine-clad shores doth lave. From Ukishima's slope-a beauteous storm- Whirl down the flow'rs: and still that magic form, Those snowy pinions, flutt'ring in the light, Ravish our souls with wonder and delight.
[The Fairy pauses in the dance to sing the next couplet, and then continues dancing till the end of the piece.]
Fairy. Hail to the Kings that o'er the Moon hold sway! Heav'n is their home, and Buddhas, too, are they.
Chorus. The fairy robes the maiden's limbs endue
Fairy. Are, like the very heav'ns, of tend'rest blue;
Chorus. Or, like the mists of spring, all silv'ry white,
Fairy. Fragrant and fair,-too fair for mortal sight!
Chorus. Dance on, sweet maiden, through the happy hours! Dance on, sweet maiden, while the magic flow'rs Crowning thy tresses flutter in the wind Rais'd by thy waving pinions intertwin'd! Dance on! for ne'er to mortal dance 'tis giv'n To vie with that sweet dance thou bring'st from heav'n: And when, cloud-soaring, thou shalt all too soon Homeward return to the full-shining Moon, Then hear our pray'rs, and from thy bounteous hand Pour sev'nfold treasures on our happy land; Bless ev'ry coast, refresh each panting field, That earth may still her proper increase yield!
But ah! the hour, the hour of parting rings! Caught by the breeze, the fairy's magic wings Heav'nward uplift her from the pine-clad shore, Past Ukishima's widely-stretching moor, Past Ashitaka's heights, and where are spread The floating clouds on Fujiyama's head,- Higher and higher to the azure skies, Till wand'ring vapours shroud her from our eyes!