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The art of the flower
by David Sparenberg
2009-10-08 08:00:36
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It is my view that the three greatest personage of theater are these: Sophocles, Shakespeare and Zeami Motokiyo, also referred to as Kanze Zeami.  Nothing has come down to us from Sophocles on the Thespian Art.  From Shakespeare we have only the lines spoken by Hamlet to the traveling players at Elsinore Castle, “Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounce it to you, trippingly on the tongue…” generally taken to be the Bard’s counsel on how and how not to perform.  But from Zeami we have copious treatises, which Tom Hare humbly identifies as performance notes.

Certainly in their separate times there were vast and sundry difference in style between the tragedies of Sophocles, put on during the Festival of Dionysus in the polis of Athens during the governance of Pericles, the Elizabethan theater Shakespeare wrote for, played in and moved human identity beyond, and the court at Kyoto in Medieval Japan, where the great playwright and actor of classical Noh plied his trade.  There are differences between the primitive “goat-song” of ancient Greece and the “monkey dance” of ancient Japan.  And howsoever the differences of these roots of national theaters, even more so they differ from the English growth that transitioned out of mummers’ rustic antics and the miracle and mystery plays of Medieval England into the enduring stage-works of the Elizabethan Renaissance.

Yet differences of era and culture accounted for, the trio in discussion have in common the medium of spoken poetry and the public stage.  And one may well wonder through implication how each might question, mentor and learn from the others could they but gather at some fantasy round table to speak out of experience on the curiously human art of acting.

Aside from such pleasant speculation we have this book of Zeami’s writings, the first complete collection of his thought and instruction in English translation.

I have been an admirer of Japanese Classical Noh with its ritual set and performance style, its dream like qualities and the poetically refined text of both lofty and profound sensibilities revealed through subtle nuances.  Through the scholarship of Donald Keene (20 Plays of the No Theater, Columbia U. Press) and others after him, I had even come into some rudimentary understanding of the discipline and techniques of the Noh actor prior to taking up this present volume.  Zeami’s yugen, or style of mystery and depth, with its goal of attaining the “flower” of performance would have taxed and engaged, even delighted, so dedicated a disciplinarian as Jerzy Grotowski, as much as its outgrowth had, near the turn of the last century, enchanted the imagination of Yeats.

And yet, rather indirectly, I am of opinion that western audiences were covertly introduced to the attainment of the yugen-flower in the stage play made over into film, THE DRESSER, with Albert Finney and Tom Courtney in dual leading roles.  There, Sir, the head of a traveling Shakespeare troupe struggling from playhouse to playhouse during the London blitz of World War II, dies at the end of a King Lear performance, convinced shortly before his demise that for an interval, a scene upon the boards, he was none other than Lear himself.  The epiphany occurred during the storm on the wild heath, and Finney, in rapt amazement afterward, pronounces these words (the envy of every actor who ever was or will be): “The agony was in the moment of the acting created.”

Most like, Kanze Zeami would approve such a death as that which followed, considering it the best of all exits after attaining the highest of all aesthetic virtues.

Yet I have enthusiastically gotten ahead of myself in some measure, and would return to the volume under review, acknowledging the excellence of Professor Hare’s introduction, appendices and glossary; all of which are invaluable for the eager student.

On page 11 we find this insight: “…Zeami was deeply committed to subjectivity… the subjectivity of a character on stage is inextricable from the subjectivity of the individual actor, so that intricacy and depth of a character’s mind must have analogies in the actor’s mind.  In the end, the actor, like the character, cannot be fully subject to either convention or canon.  …Zeami never became simply doctrinaire in his approach, and in his acceptance of ambiguity and paradox he expresses the fascination with and suspicion of mind that are characteristic of Medieval Japanese thought.”

Ambiguity, paradox, fascination and suspicion of mind!  How would the author of Oedipus and the creator of Hamlet reply to such terms if not knowingly?  And should one not find sufficient parallels in either Sophocles or Shakespeare for these ideas, we might turn to Lorca and the Spanish martyr’s writing on duende to gain a further perspective.  “All arts are capable of duende,” the Spaniard informs, “ but where it finds greatest range, naturally, is in music, dance, and spoken poetry, for these arts require a living body to interpret them, being forms that are born, die, and open their contours against an exact present….  The duende takes it upon himself to make us suffer by means of a drama of living form… The duende works in the body of the dancer…with magical power…  The duende does not repeat himself, any more than do the forms of the sea during a squall.”

Now if there is a verifiable link behind those men of the theater named herein and that link is the aforementioned spoken poetry and public stage, then the link between the yugen-flower and the duende-squall is expressed in the single word, discipline.  Or perhaps more truthfully as the paradox of the free exploration-unto-attainment that only a dedicated and loving discipline can accomplish when at its best.

For Zeami and all following practitioners devoted to genuine Noh acting, the pursuit is life long.  One expects then, and indeed finds within these translated pages, extensive and detailed reflections and instruction, borne out of decades of experience as playwright, actor, stage director and troupe manager.  My review can but focus narrowly and so I turn attention upon that acknowledgement to the core of Zeami Motokiyo’s teaching: yugen, the way to the flower of perfect (performance) attainment, introduced but briefly in the paragraphs above.

On page 112 we find the dramatist’s words on this subject thus: “The expression of yugen is accounted the greatest achievement in many vocations and endeavors.  In this art particularly the expression of yugen is considered foremost.  In a general sense, it is something you can see, and members of the audience take particular delight in it, but an actor with yugen is not all that easy to find.  This is because few truly know the savor of yugen.”

Interesting!  Because in a short space, Zeami has already told us four things about the core aesthetic or inner alchemy of the yugen style: it is visible when present, it is looked for by those who enter the forum of playacting, it is rare, but when brought forth, it is know to the senses, it has a taste.

On page 113, Kanze Zeami continues through a treatise entitled A Mirror to the Flower—perhaps striking a cord that resonates across cultures and imagination’s maps of geography and time to echo in the player’s advice set forth by Shakespeare?  “…The purpose of playing whose end, both at the first and now, was and is to hold, as ‘twere, a mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own features, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.”

Zeami writes: “The seed of yugen comes from clearly discerning the underlying principles—studying poetics so that the words possess yugen, studying the proper standards of expression…so that the attitude possess yugen.”  And he continues:  “Unless you enter the world of yugen (the depth and mystery where the flower of perfection grows), you will not attain the greatest achievement…. What I mean by the greatest achievement is beauty and palpable quality…. You must realize that yugen resides in being beautiful in the broadest way—in visual attitude and in aural attitude.  Use your creativity in your own way regarding this principle, master it and you will be known as one who has crossed into the realm of yugen.  If you fail to use your creativity in these various matters and—need I mention?—fail to make them your own and simply think this or that should produce yugen, then never in your entire life will you find yugen.”

Here, let the reader be cautious and not too narrowly define the application of the term beauty.  Rather take it to stand in intimate connection with mystery, shining (even as luminal darkness,) and the aesthetic derived from the combination of a person or thing being portrayed in authenticity, as an exact presence, being true unto itself.  For there are indeed plays of suffering, loneliness, demons and possession within the repertory bequeathed by Zeami Motokiyo, as surely as there are the enigmas of heroic villains and stone cold heroes, witches of karma and agents of enchantment in the dramas of Shakespeare.  In both, even the ugly and ominous, the sanguine and uncanny are lighted to the depth by an elevating aesthetic.

On the Noh side we find this reinforced in the glossary of Tom Hare’s collected and translated volume, where the Princeton professor informs us thus:  “The word yugen has a long history in Japanese aesthetics.  In the late 12th century, yugen became a central term in poetics, designating a mysterious and dark profundity not apparent on the surface of a poem but crucial to its understanding.”  Oh—how many generations of critics and scholarly interpreters of, shall we say, Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Iago or Lear, would have benefited the general appreciation if they had but viewed such members of the Shakespearean canon through yugen (or Lorca’s duende) rather than the squinty eyes of reason, passing fads, wind blown fashions and fading customs?  If the question begs an answer, allow me to return us to that poignant remark from THE DRESSER, utterly timely and elusively outside of time:  “The agony was in the moment of acting created.”  Beauty in the wisdom of the fairy tale is a quality superlative unto itself and mystery in life fulfils its communicative purpose by instilling and inspiring awe.

While meeting places are discoverable, or at least imagined, there is no perfect symmetry, fearful or otherwise, between Zeami’s art and the dramatic approaches of esteemed masters in the history of Western theater; differences emerge.  One such is on page 115 under the section title On Binding the Many Arts with a Single Intent: “In their critique, members of the audience often say that the places where nothing is done are interesting.  This is a secret stratagem of the actor.  Now the Two Arts (singing and dancing), the different types of stage business, and varieties of dramatic imitation all are techniques performed by the body.  The gap between is where, as they say, nothing is done.  When you consider why it is that this gap where nothing is done should be interesting, you will find that this is because of an underlying disposition by which the mind bridges the gap.  It is a frame of mind in which you maintain your intent and do not loosen your concentration in the gap where you’ve stopped dancing your dance, in the places where you’ve stopped singing the music, in the gaps between all of the types of speech and dramatic imitation, and so on.  The internal excitement diffuses outward and creates interest. “

Perhaps where Occidental theater has reached closest to this gap containing infolded excitement, but requiring no external stimulus, is in the actor’s choice of introducing the distinguishing “psychological gesture,” developed by the genius of Michael Chekhov?

Drawing our volume-journey to an end, Zeami’s teaching on the development of yugen style extends into the section On Wondrous Places, pages 116-117, where we find written these words:  “By wondrous I mean what is marvelous.  By what is marvelous I mean an attitude without a figure.  In its formlessness, it is a wondrous style.

“Now then, in the performing arts, what I am calling wondrous places should be found, starting with the Two Arts, in every sort of action and such on stage…  All the same, put your ingenuity to work on this: isn’t it the case that in bringing one’s performance to its utmost to become the most expert of actors and in entering completely into a position of the fullest confidence in the great virtuosity (or consummate artistry), one does not rely in the slightest on the techniques of performance, but aspires to a visual style of the rank of no-mind and no-style---isn’t this what constitutes these wondrous places?  I would venture to say that the virtuosic fulfillment of yugen in one’s manner of expression must be fairly close to these wondrous places.  You should look into this very carefully in your own mind.”

The art of Noh is steeped in Shinto symbolism and Buddhist psychology.  Still, in closing, let me ask much in the way an engineer would inquire into the feasibility of building a previously inconceivable bridge:  How similar, if not identical, is Zeami’s wondrous places to that inner dimension of the universal human psyche Jung and James Hillman have named “mundus archetypus"—the world of archetypes or mystery realm in which we are all unconsciously rooted and from which arises patterns of profundity to most essentially define (and disturb) our being human and the consciousness of who, how, whither and why?

David Sparenberg  4 October 2009

THE ART OF THE FLOWER, review by David Sparenberg of ZEAMI Performance Notes, translated by Tom Hare, Columbia University Press, 508pp, hardcover, $45.00 usd 



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LL2009-10-08 09:54:12
interesting ...

Emanuel Paparella2009-10-08 12:50:10
The nexus between this very interesting article with yesterday’s on “tropicalism and tribalism,” may be a comment by Kenneth Clark in his video series Civilization where he makes an intriguing observation while discussing Rousseau’s idea of the “noble savage” supposedly found in America away from the corrupt societies of Europe; he says that undoubtedly the American noble savage has a culture and he may live more authentically within nature, but where are the Dantes, the Michelangelos, the Da Vinci, the Goethes, the Jungs in those fragile and primitive cultures? So there is a difference between a culture and a civilization and romanticizing the noble savage does not solve the issue. The noble savage may exemplify the Junghian archetypes but it is the civilized man that elucidates the archetypes and brings it to the fore of consciousness. When a clash of cultures occurs, it may be useful to keep those distinctions well in mind and refrain from the temptation to romanticize the culture exploited and colonized by cultural imperialists, for it is no solution for “noble savages” to eat the over-sophisticated white men, even in a metaphorical mode.

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