The Artistry of Aeschylus and Zeami: A Comparative Study of Greek Tragedy and No

The Artistry of Aeschylus and Zeami: A Comparative Study of Greek Tragedy and No

by Mae J. Smethurst


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The Artistry of Aeschylus and Zeami: A Comparative Study of Greek Tragedy and No by Mae J. Smethurst

By means of a cross-cultural analysis of selected examples of early Japanese and early Greek drama, Mae Smethurst enhances our appreciation of each form. While using the methods of a classicist to increase our understanding of no as literary texts, she also demonstrates that the fifteenth-century treatises of Zeami—an important playwright, actor, critic, and teacher of no—offer fresh insight into Aeschylus' use of actors, language, and various elements of stage presentation.

Relatively little documentation apart from the texts of the plays is available for the Greek theater of the fifth century B.C., but Smethurst uses documentation on no, and evidence from no performances today, to suggest how presentations of the Persians could have been so successful despite the play's lack of dramatic confrontation. Aeschylean theater resembles that of Zeami in creating its powerful emotional and aesthetic effect through a coherent organization of structural elements. Both playwrights used such methods as the gradual intensification of rhythmic and musical effects, an increase in the number and complexity of the actors' movements, and a progressive focusing of attention on the main actors and on costumes, masks, and props during the course of the play.

Originally published in 1989.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691608952
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 07/14/2014
Series: Princeton Legacy Library Series
Pages: 356
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.20(h) x 0.90(d)

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The Artistry of Aeschylus and Zeami

A Comparative Study of Greek Tragedy and No

By Mae J. Smethurst


Copyright © 1989 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-06752-0


Structure in No

The successful playwright of no constructs his work in such a way that he engages the audience's attention by means of a progression that controls the mood of the play from beginning to end and that focuses onto the main character the visual appeal of costume, mask, and props; the meaning of the no; the story on which the author has drawn; and the modes of presentation — the music, the words, the stage action. Because the number of characters is limited; the visual effects — costumes, masks, and stage props — are used economically in most no; the subject is chosen on the basis of its adaptability to a performance, and then, in the best no, is integrated fully into that performance, the audience's attention is seldom distracted in various directions, as in some theaters, away from the main character and the mood that the author purposefully creates.

In his treatises, Zeami gives specific and general advice that is a key to understanding how he achieved the kind of focus one finds in many of his no. And from these works, it is clear that, like any good playwright, actor, teacher, or writer about drama, Zeami does not think a no will be successful if, though well written, it is poorly performed, and also that he considers the audience's reaction important — the reaction to visual effects, to acting, to music, to language, to literary and historical sources, to "structure," and to subject, and not to any one of these alone. He writes about how one should choose subjects as the basis of no; how one should organize a no; how one should fill out a no verbally, musically, and kinetically; how the actors should be trained; and how they should perform. At its best and in Zeami's hands, no is a theater that engages the audience's attention fully, is entertaining, emotionally compelling, and at the same time, aesthetically and spiritually uplifting.

Zeami's views on the aesthetic and practical matters involved in the composition and performance of no contain advice relevant for almost any playwright or actor and pertain to the appreciation of much theater. However, when they are understood at their most fundamental level, his views pertain especially well to theater in which there are dance or patterned movements and both vocal and instrumental music, in which a mood or certain emotions are developed, and in which characters and visual effects are used economically — that is, as I shall argue, the kind of theater Aeschylus created. In fact, in a number of ways Zeami's views are suggestive of how one can appreciate certain features of the emotionally compelling and religiously and ethically instructive play, the Persians. However, for an analysis of Aeschylus's works in terms of no to be meaningful, one needs to understand some of the principles that Zeami recommended to the playwright composing no.

In the treatise called both Sando (Three Ways) and Nosakusho (The Composition of No), Zeami's views on the composition of no reveal how, when he maps out and fills in the details of a play, he has the performance in mind. He says at the beginning of the Sando that there are three elements required for the composition of a no: shu ("seed"), sakit ("construction"), and sho ("writing of words"). In section one of the Sando, Zeami treats the first of these, the seed, which he says entails an author's thorough knowledge of his sources and his choice of subject. That subject, he advises, should be a character whose actions are "especially effective in terms of the Two Arts of dance and song." (By "song," Zeami means both music and poetry.) Zeami explains that even if a character is a famous person from the past or highly gifted, unless he or she can be presented in terms of the two arts, the theatrical effect appropriate to no is not possible. His examples include female gods, deities, and other characters who would be naturally associated with the performance of sacred songs and dance; men who are highly cultivated, such as poets; and women accomplished in poetry and dance. Zeami adds that even for subjects who are unknown, roles should be created so that "the characters can be rendered suitable for the arts of song and dance."

From among early no and part of the present-day repertory, one can see that by choosing the appropriate character as subject, the playwright is able to integrate subject and performance effectively. For example, the main character of Hyakuman is a dancer whom the author skillfully, yet naturally, integrates into the performance of her story, which is accompanied by dance and song. Since the warrior Yorimasa was as well known to the audience for his poetry as for his prowess on the battlefield, Zeami was able to conclude his no Yorimasa with a finale appropriate to the source, the character, and the theater: the quotation of a poem composed by the epico-historical Yorimasa and delivered by his dramatic counterpart. To these two examples, drawn from many, I add the no Atsumori, written about the young warrior Atsumori, who was not a poet or artist, but who, according to the epico-historical accounts of his death, was said to have played his flute at dawn on the day he was killed in battle.' A high point in performances of Atsumori today is created quite naturally at the moment when, in the context of verbal references to flutes, the instrumentalist on stage plays his flute. In each of these three examples, source, character, and an art appropriate to the theater are integral and interrelated parts of the no.

If Aeschylus in his Achilleid trilogy had based a scene on the ninth book of the Iliad, the source he knew so well, and had portrayed the character Achilles playing his lyre and singing at one of the musical peaks of the performance, he could have gained an effect comparable to that which one enjoys in Atsumori. But he did not. In extant Greek tragedy there seem not to have been character roles directly connected with the arts of song, dance, instrumental music, or literature. Instead, prefiguring the advice of Aristotle, who gave plot priority over character and text priority over performance, the Greek playwrights often chose as the subject of their tragedies an event or an action for which the character of a play was famous, rather than a character known for an artistic skill. Any degree of comparability in this realm lies instead between those no in which a deity or spirit dances and sings (for example, in the no Takasago) and those tragedies in which there exists a natural connection between the character and a song or dance (for example, the song and dance of enchantment enacted by the Furies in Aeschylus's Eumenides, or the sacred hymns and dances to Dionysus, enacted by the chorus of his adherents in Euripides' archaizing play, the Bacchae).

Even when the main character of a no is not an artist, but is familiar to the audience as a subject of poetry, history, or literature, the playwright tries to integrate character and literary source with the arts of song and dance. Zeami features this type of character in his no Sanemori, a play to which this analysis will turn later. Sanemori was not an artist but a famous warrior, drawn from epico-historical accounts of the fighting between the Heike and Genji "families" who vied for control of Japan. In the no, Zeami organizes and uses his source materials in such a way that, without transforming the warrior into an artist, he presents the warrior's story effectively in performance on stage. To this extent, I shall argue, his approach is comparable to Aeschylus's. In addition, Sanemori was a topical play in which Zeami was able to capitalize on an event that occurred within seven years of his composition of the no and thus use the arts of song and dance quite naturally in it. It was known to the audience that Sanemori had appeared as a ghost to a priest in the year 1414, when that priest was traveling about the countryside and proselytizing at services that included not only his sermons, but also religious songs and dances, odori nembutsu. The no features both a waki (second actor) who plays the part of that itinerant priest and the performance of religious music. There is a kind of analogue in tragedy, if Aeschylus intentionally alluded to parts of the Panathenaic festival parade with his inclusion of a procession enacted by metics and the women of Athens at the end of the Eumenides. The allusion to this festival is suggested because it was regularly held in Athens, which is a setting of the play, in honor of Athena, who is a main character of the tragedy, and included metics dressed in crimson robes, in which the metic Eumenides of Aeschylus's play are also dressed. (About plays not based on a specific literary source, but related to a famous place or historical site, as the Eumenides is in part, Zeami says at the end of the first section of the Sando that they are the achievements of the talent of a supreme expert.)

In the second section of the Sando, Zeami discusses saku ("construction"), the next element of composition, which I have called structure. This structure is not so much a desis ("tying up") and lusis ("untying") in Aristotle's terms (Poetics 1455b24–32), if indeed such terms are relevant, as it is an aesthetic progression toward various peaks in which words, music, and action on stage reinforce each other. The construction is not an Aristotelian plot fashioned out of characters' actions and arranged in terms of logical and probable relationships, but the arrangement of the parts of a play in terms of a principle called jo-ha-kyu, a principle that a playwright should bear in mind if he wants to engage successfully the full attention of all members of the audience and provide them with a feeling of satisfaction at the end of a performance.

According to Zeami in this second section of the Sando, jo-ha-kyii is divided into five parts — jo is comprised of the first, ha the next three, and kyu the last part. (The three parts into which ha is divided are also called a jo and a ha and a kyu.) We might define jo-ha-kyu as a beginning, a middle, and an end; but, because it applies to performance, it is more accurate to call it an opening, a development, and a finale. The quiet opening section is jo; the developing middle section ha (literally meaning "break open"); and the climactic, quickened final section the kyu. Since this principle originated in performances of dance and music, it is understandable that Zeami advises against thinking of it in terms of text alone. Section fifteen of the late work Sarugaku dangi (An Account of Reflections on the Artof Sarugaku [no was called sarugaku in Zeami's day]), in which Zeami's son Motoyoshi wrote down his father's views, says that to think of jo-hakyu mechanically or only in terms of the text is an inferior way of composing no. One should compose in terms of a performance in which the jo mood progresses to the ha, which "breaks it open," that is, elaborates upon it. He adds that the jo-ha-kyu of the words of the text only may be entertaining to listen to during a performance, but he also says that one should not separate words and action in performance. It is clear from a section on the relationship between performance and text in an earlier treatise of his, the Fushikaden (Teachings on Style and the Flower), that Zeami or his father Kan'ami, whose views we are told are recorded in this treatise, thought the movements of the actor's body should depend on the text and that the actor should make his feelings conform to the written word. For example, Zeami says that when the text reads "look," the actor should make the gesture of looking; "point" or "pull," he should point with his finger or pull his hand back; "listen," he should assume the attitude of listening; and so forth. In other words, the movements of the body depend on what is written in the text and not the other way around.

Finally, in section three of the Sando, Zeami discusses the third element of composition: sho ("writing of words"). In this section of the treatise he advises that one choose words appropriate to the no and to the character who is the subject of the no — the poems and songs should correspond to the types of emotions and moods to be expressed. To this extent his views are compatible with those of most, if not all, playwrights. But he continues with more specific advice suited especially for no, namely that one should include a quotation from a famous poetic source for the shite (main actor) to recite and that, if the play focuses on a famous place or historic site, a well-known song or poem about the place should be included in important places in the ha section. I will turn to the subject of the words in Chapter Three.

Zeami's advice on the three elements — the choice of subject, the construction, and the writing of words — reveals the high degree of mutual integration he intended them to exhibit. But essential to an understanding of how and why the elements of composition and performance are coordinated is an understanding of the second of Zeami's elements, construction according to the jo-ha-kyu principle. This principle, Zeami tells us, is a process toward completion that involves a sense of fulfillment in everything. In no, it applies to the broadest and the most specific aspects — it is the means by which a playwright can satisfy the members of an audience and make them feel that the opening, development, and finale of a no program, of a no play, or of one part of a no — a dance, a section of recitation, a gesture, or even the pronunciation of one syllable — is just right. For example, Zeami informs us that the utterance of the sound o ("yes") in response to a question, if too quick, does not observe this principle. Timing is an important part of jo-ha-kyu. The moment before a person utters the sound, says Zeami, is the jo, the word itself constitutes the ha, and the moment after the actor stops is the kyu.

In the Fushikaden, Zeami speaks of the jo-ha-kyu of no on a broad scale, in a full program of four or more plays. The distribution of the plays into each of the four or more positions on a program, he says, will be determined according to the artistic content of the performances. Without explaining in detail what he means, Zeami says that the first play serves as the jo portion of a program and should be based on an authoritative classic or well-known legend, should be dignified without too much complexity of style in the movements and songs of the actor, and should be executed smoothly. Words of blessing, such as prayers for the long life of the emperor or the well-being of the nation, are essential to this first play, which is termed waki sarugaku, that is, waki no, literally meaning "adjacent no," so called because it is placed next to a religious piece in song and dance, called Okina, with which a program is introduced (today on festive occasions in particular). In other words, the first play in the jo position of a program sets the proper tone for the day and therefore must contain congratulations and felicitations. The second and third plays in a program, Zeami says, should be fine productions, well-composed plays more intrinsically interesting to the audience in terms of the actor's skills than the play that preceded. Finally, the play in the kyu position, often (but not always) the last piece of the day, will include especially vigorous movements by the actor and the full degree of concentrated acting skill at his disposal.

It is clear that Zeami's suggestions are meant to be understood in terms of audience reaction and the securing of a successful performance, for he adds that the waki no, when presented on a day after the first day of dramatic performances, should have a different appeal from the waki no chosen for the first day, and that the plays that are particularly moving, in the sense of exciting feelings of pity or sadness, should be placed in the middle part of a program on those successive days. Zeami's advice is not merely theoretical, but practical. His works are full of such advice — for example, in the context of emphasizing that the playwright and actor must be one and the same person, he warns that it is important to choose plays that differ from those of one's rivals. One can see that playwrights of no had an advantage over their Greek counterparts, who were required, preliminary to the actual performance days, to enter a proagon ("something before the dramatic contest"), in which they probably announced the subjects of their plays to a panel of judges. Thus it would seem that the Greek tragedians could not switch their programs on the basis of what a competitor had produced the day before.


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Table of Contents

  • FrontMatter, pg. i
  • Contents, pg. vii
  • List of Abbreviations, pg. ix
  • Acknowledgments, pg. xi
  • Introduction, pg. 3
  • ONE. Structure in Nō, pg. 23
  • TWO. Structure in Aeschylean Tragedy, pg. 81
  • THREE. The Style of Nō, pg. 148
  • FOUR. The Style of Aeschylean Tragedy, pg. 205
  • Coda, pg. 276
  • Appendix 1: A Comparison of Structural Parts in Nō, pg. 279
  • Appendix z: A Comparative Translation of Sections of Sanemori and The Tale of the Heike, pg. 282
  • Appendix 3: Japanese Passages Analyzed for Style in Chapters Three and Four, pg. 287
  • Appendix 4: Greek Passages Analyzed for Style in Chapters Three and Four, pg. 293
  • Glossary of Japanese Terms, pg. 305
  • Glossary of Greek Terms, pg. 308
  • Works Cited, pg. 311
  • Index, pg. 323
  • Index locorum, pg. 337

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