Noh as a System of Performance

by Monica Bethe and Karen Brazell1

Noh is a system of performance that has been transmitted from master to disciple (usually from father to son) since the days of Kannami (1333-1384) and Zeami (1363-1443). Because the means of transmission is primarily imitation, the system is internalized by its practitioners, who, like native speakers of a language, know which phrases and sentences are possible, although they are not necessarily able to abstract the rules that underlie their choices. A performer traditionally studies noh from early childhood, memorizing the texts, dancing the various roles, and learning to play the instruments, build the set pieces (tsukurimono), and to appreciate, if not to create, masks (nōmen) and costumes (shōzoku). A mature actor can perform a play with a few days' notice, although he of course prefers to have more time to prepare. Such preparation is largely mental; he mulls over the play, attempting to come to grips with its meaning. When he practices his role he does it alone or perhaps with the aid of an older actor, but he does not rehearse with the other performers until a day or two before the performance, when they run through the difficult parts of the play once.2

Aware of the rehearsal schedule, or lack of one, the modern Western viewer cannot help but be amazed at the smooth precision of a noh performance. Seemingly unrelated rhythmic and melodic patterns coalesce into an organic whole. Stray notes of the flute, sporadic beats on the drums merge so perfectly with the mood that one is hardly aware of them but for the impression they have left. Timing appears irregular, yet exact. Nothing is arbitrary; everything fits.

Such sophisticated coordination would be impossible were it not for the set patterns and rules that inform noh. Behind the performance is a system composed of many interlocking sub-systems formalized enough to facilitate memorization yet flexible enough to accommodate great variety. In the 14th and 15th centuries, when performers also composed plays, they did not often create wholly new dances or melodies but altered and adjusted model forms and set patterns to suit the materials of each play. This repetition does not deaden the forms and patterns but rather evokes a sense of familiarity and heightens expectations.

Performers today rarely compose new plays. Instead they concentrate on presenting the classical repertory, re-creating in each performance a system that has been transmitted intact.3 Every performance of a particular play is the same in its basic sounds and movements. The individual performer concentrates on subtlety of expression and intensity of moment.

The more one is aware of the system behind the performance, the firmer is one's grasp of the play. Therefore much of the audience in a noh theater is composed of amateur performers: students of chant (utai), dance (shimai), one of the drums (otsuzumi, kotsuzumi, taiko), or the flute (nōkan). We began our work in exactly that way: Bethe studied with the Izumi Yoshio of the Kanze school in Osaka for five years, and Brazell spent one year and parts of two summers under Takabayashi Kōji of the Kita school in Kyoto.

Another avenue to understanding the system of noh is to work as a linguist does, by abstraction and analysis. This is what we do here. Our work has been possible because of the cooperation of noh specialists, particularly Izumi Yoshio and Takabayashi Kōji, who have shared their mastery not only by teaching us in traditional fashion but by patiently answering questions that may sometimes have seemed (or have been) irrelevant and by repeatedly explaining concepts that many noh actors would find impossible to verbalize. Whatever validity this study has is due to their help; its shortcomings are obviously our own, for the system works beautifully even if our analysis should prove faulty.

The performance of noh combines the arts of poetry, chant, drums, flute, dance (mai), costuming, and props.4 None can be said to predominate; rather, each takes its turn coming to the fore. Neither is it accurate to describe the various arts as accompanying each other, for often they perform quite independently, each adding to the total effect but not necessarily maintaining congruent rhythms or producing a single melody. Sergei Eisenstein’s comments on kabuki aptly describe this type of ensemble: "The Japanese have shown us another, extremely interesting form of ensemble — the monistic ensemble. Sound — movement — space — voice here do not accompany (nor even parallel) each other, but function as elements of equal significance."5

The system of noh performance can be visualized as a modular structure, in which small units are linked in regular ways to form larger modules. For example, the primary modules of drum rhythm - simple named patterns of beats - are arranged in set ways to form sequences that in turn compose designs. Singers and drummers do not necessarily begin or end their modules at the same time; rather, the modules often overlap, pushing the performance forward. The drums may begin a new pattern while the chant is still drawing out the last syllable of the previous line, and the flute often enters midway through a dance or drum pattern.

Just as a dance consists of sequences of set patterns (kata), a play is made up of scenes created from different segments. These segments (shōdan), the primary modules of the play's construction, are named and have poetic, melodic, rhythmic, and kinetic characteristics. They are linked in regular ways to form four basic types of scenes: entrance, conversation, presentation, and exit.6 The most important of these are the presentation scenes in which the main performer, aided by the chorus and the musicians, presents the kernel of the play, either through dance to instrumental accompaniment, which Zeami calls "eye-opening scenes" (kaigen, e.g. mai), or through song, sometimes accompanied by dance, in "ear-opening scenes" (kaimon, e.g. kuse).

The ordering of segments within the scene agrees with the basic aesthetic principle underlying the noh, that of jo-ha-kyū, a progression borrowed from earlier court music and dance. Jo is an introduction: slow, simple, dignified. In ha, the development breaks this mood and begins the exposition. This is the longest section and usually contains the most important materials. The presentation scene is always in the ha section of the play. Kyū is a short, fast finish: exciting, but leading back at the end to the introductory jo. The progression is always cyclical and is generally applicable: it orders the segments within the scenes, the scenes within the plays, and the plays within a day's program. Each of the arts of noh (chant, dance, etc.) also has its characteristic mode of jo-ha-kyū. In dance, the speed, the intensity, and the complexity of movement increase; in poetry, the continuum is from unmetered prose to strictly metered poetry; in drumming, the music goes from sparse, simple patterns to more dense and complex ones. The progression can also be seen in the number of arts performing at one time and in their rhythmic relationship to each other. At the jo extreme of the progression is a single performer chanting an arhythmic line of prose, while at the kyū extreme is a performer dancing in time to a pulsating rhythm maintained by the drums and the chorus with the flute adding touches of color.

Because every level of noh adheres to the principle of jo-ha-kyū, there is an extremely complex overlapping of progressions. In a day's program of plays, Yamanba would normally be performed last, as the kyū of the program. The kuse scene occurs beyond the middle of the play, toward the end of the ha section. The scene has its own jo-ha-kyū progression, as does each segment within it, and each art contributes to its performance. Performers do not, of course, consciously analyze such complexities; they sense the progressions as any performers sense the rhythms of their art.

These two principles - modular construction and jo-ha-kyū progression - guided the composer in structuring a play and continue to guide the actor in creating the aesthetic experience of a performance. The composer was free to add, subtract, rearrange, abbreviate, or expand particular modules (be they whole scenes or small patterns) to best express his meaning. In Yamanba, for example, the composer has skillfully highlighted the ambiguity of Yamamba's identity by eliminating the first entrance scene of the shite, which normally contains information about his or her character.7 The main performer can also, within limitations, choose to omit or modify certain modules to best express his interpretation of the play or to suit the occasion.8 The basic jo-ha-kyū progression of a play was set by the composer who had to select appropriate material for each section, but the performers are responsible for the actual execution of the jo-ha-kyū, and timing is perhaps the most important aspect of performance. The same music or dance sequence differently timed can have completely different effects.

  1. 1. An earlier version of this essay appeared as "Chapter 1: Introduction" in Noh as Performance: An Analysis of the Kuse Scene of Yamamba, published by the China-Japan Program (now the East Asia Program), Cornell University, 1978. Here we have abbreviated the text (leaving out much of the material about Yamanba), included more images and added links to Internet sources. For an archival copy of the original, click here.
  2. 2. This single rehearsal (mōshiawase) is not the equivalent of a dress rehearsal because costumes are not worn and less important passages are often omitted. The shite (main performer), who is in charge of the performance, explains to the others his interpretations of important passages. We use the masculine pronoun for actors because the great majority are male, although in recent years, some schools of actors (ryūha) have permitted women to become full professionals and to perform on stage with men. Throughout the history of noh, there have also been occasional troupes of female actors.
  3. 3. A few contemporary masters of the noh system are involved in composing new plays. Two examples are Izumi Yoshio’s Onna to kage, based on a work {put in French name} by Paul Claudel, and Yokomichi Mario’s Takahime, based on William Butler YeatsAt the Hawk’s Well.
  4. 4. Dramatic lighting has never been a part of noh. When performed at night or inside, fire baskets, torches, candles and more recently fluorescent lights have lit the stage. Likewise, elaborate backdrops and sets, such as those found in kabuki or the puppet theatre, have no part in noh. Simple but elegant set pieces and beautiful costumes create the visual interest on stage.
  5. 5. Film Forum (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1949), p. 20.
  6. 6. This is our typology. Conventionally each act of a noh play is said to consist of five scenes, with the entrance of the waki and the shite considered two separate types of scenes. Because the form of the entrance scene is not completely dependent of the role of the actor who enters, we prefer to consider all entrance scenes as a single category. The number of scenes in an act can vary considerable, but any scene will fit into one of our four categories.
  7. 7. The shite must of course enter the stage, but Yamanba’s calling to Hyakuma from offstage (yobikake) can best be understood as the beginning of a conversation scene, not as an entrance scene.
  8. 8. In Zeami’s day, when performers were also composers, there appears to have been a considerably amount of flexibility in performing a play. Today, scenes or passages are often omitted or abbreviated to shorten performances, but the artistic changes the performer makes are comparatively minor.
Go to GloPACGo to GloPAD (database)