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Lecture Notes
Week 6

The Theatre of Asia


Key Terms:




        Dance origins

        Sanskrit Dance Theatre





        Chinese Opera


        David Henry Hwang

        Influences--On modern theatre tremendous!

          Brecht, Steven Berkhoff, Prince, Meyerhold, Grotowski, Artauud.



Three Geographical Regions


          India & S.E. Asia (incl. Thailand, Burma, Malaysia).

          China--Pure, true Chinese theatre was done in Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong,

                        not in mainland China.  Now there is an effort to re-juvinate it.

          Japan--We know it best




Conventions:  All acting, characters and props are stylized and

          conventionalized.  For instance, in Chinese opera and Kabuki:

                        Acting business--example is walking in circle for a journey.

                    Costuming--Color conventions. Fingernails.

                    Character types--Female, male, warrior, clown.

                    Props--set pieces--trees, rivers, rain, wind, prop men in black.



India and Southeast Asia


          Subject matter--India and Southeast Asia Ramayana is the main legend, much like

                        Odyssey.  Epic poem.  Not seen in entirity.  You go to see the sylization, not the

                        story, just as we like seeing a favorite ballet performer or opera singer.


                    Dancers trained from infancy these positions: 

                              13 head

                                    36 eyes

                                    7 eye brows

                                    6 cheek

                                    6 nose

                                    9 neck

                                    5 chest

                                    24 R. hand

                                    24 L. hand

                                    finger (Thailand)

                                    32 feet

          Religions:  Hindu, Budhist, Muslim 

                    Some more restrictive than others, and hence performances will be affected by the local religious beliefs.


                    Sanskrit Dance-Theatre  (dates from 200 B.C.)

                    Kathakali (Story play)   May take 8 to 12+ hours.  Some begin at

                                    10 a.m. and go all day.

                                    Ramayana, Mahabharata

          Thailand:  There will be legends, done in dance.

          Puppets:  Originally shadow puppets.  Not for children. Wayang.


Chinese (Peking) Opera


          Cultural revolution: (1966) eliminated traditional opera from mainland China.

          Conventions:  Best parts of legends acted out conventionally.  Music, theatre,

                        dance.  (see Farewell My Concubine.)

                    Circle--long journey over great distance.


                    Wind--sleve of grament.

                    Performers know--songs, acrobatic acts.

                    Furniture--table & several chairs, but used with imagination.


Japan:  Dates back to 794-1195 A.D.

          Noh (No):  14th c.  A troupe headed by Kanami, Zeami.  Seen by Shogun, whose son became Zeami's patron.  Many of Zeami's plays are still done. 

                    Actors trained from childhood in all aspects of performance.

                    Stories for noh plays came from literary or historical sources.


                              Shite:  Main character.

                              Waki:  Explainer.

                              Tsure:  Accompanying role.


          KyogenComic version (see Theatre of Yugen tape).

                    Staging:  Masks, description of training. 

                    Stylized.  Ritualistic.  Masks.


          Bunraku (puppet) Theatre:  1600

                    Came about through traveling character telling chronicles of

                              medieval wars, tales of romantic heroes and heroines.


          Kabuki:  History:  Originally female, but by 18th century male adult


                    Physical theatres.


                              Samisen player.

                              Gidyayu (reciter).

                    Actor Families

                    Acting style

                              Onnagata--males who play women's roles.

                              Aragoto (outlandish exaggeration of the Samurai).

                              Wagoto (soft style associated with Kyoto.  Romantic but effeminate,

                                                petulant, amusing).

                              Koken (prop men, dressers, "invisible", in black).

                              Mie (freeze).

                              Makeup (no masks).


Study questions

1.  Describe the diversity of Asian theatre.

2.  From what roots did Asian theatre spring?

3.  Meaning "storyplay" and originating in rural villages in the province of Kerala in the seventeenth century, which drama is based on any of thousands of stories from two great Indian epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata?

4.  What are the characteristics of "storyplay" performances?

5.  In Chinese, Chinese Opera is called xiqu, which means_________.

6.  What are the genres for xiqu plays?

7.  Which country is home of the oldest continuous theatre tradition?

8.  Xiqu performances offer the actor the opportunity to display his four-fold skills, which include what? _______, ____________, __________________, and _____________________.

9.  The most comprehensive and detailed theatrical treatise of the ancient world, detailing analyses of dramatic texts, the theatre building, acting, staging, music, and even theatre-company organization, is ____________________

10.  Know conventions of Asian theatre.

11.  In what period did Kabuki flower?

12.  What is the origin of the word kabuki?

13.  By what century did kabuki become a full-fledged dramatic medium with multi-act plays, magnificent costumes, scenery, and star performers?

14.  What was the new etymology for kabuki, reformed by the end of the seventeenth century?

ka (________) bu (________) and ki (__________)

15.  Know conventions and the true nature of kabuki play scripts.

16.  Who was Kabuki's greatest playwright?

17.  What did Kabuki scenery provide?

18.  What is the onnagata?

19.  Know tradition of the koken.

20.  What is the mie?

21.  What is no theatre?  How does it differ from kabuki?

22.  Who is the shite?

23.  What characterizes no drama?

24.  If you attended a performance in which the only scenery was a single, gnarled pine, you would immediately understand that you were attending which kind of performance?

25.  If you attended a performance in which a series of painted, forward-rolling cylinders, used to depict the ocean with wavy black, blue, white, and gray lines, flowed between two houses of warring families to their estrangement, you would know you were attending what kind of performance?


26.  The khon mask of theatre of Thailand, the wayang wong dance drama of Java, and the kamyonguk mask-dance of Korea have in common that they are still presented as part of agricultural rituals throughout the Asian countryside.

27.  In xiqu, men and women perform on the stage, though, since 1911, gender is defined by makeup, costume, and the associations of the role, since the two sexes could rarely appear on the same stage together.

28.  Virtually all kabuki actors in modern Japan arise out of the lower classes, from sons and daughters of common laborers seeking a better life.

29.  In its early forms, kabuki was a stylized court entertainment permitted only by upper-class nobles, none of whom could be foreigners, during designated times of the sacred calendar.

30.  Kabuki dramatic types include history plays (jidaimono), domestic plays (sewamono), and dance dramas shosagoto).

31.  Not only had kabuki become so entwined with prostitution by 1629 that the Japanese government outlawed women from the stage, but because many domestic kabuki dramas end in suicide, or double suickde, the government attempted to ban such plays because they were leading to real suicides as a consequence.

32.  Kabuki domestic dramas typically unfold the conflict between patriarchal authority and the younger generation, as fathers contend with sons for the possession of property.

33.  The historical event that created the thirteen-year haitus in the playing history of the Beijing Opera was the intrusion of western merchants in the 1500s.

34.  Kabuki actors must train for much of their lives, working from small parts to larger ones, inheriting major roles in their forties, developing a "kabuki face" by their fifties.

35.  The waki, a no character, always a living male human, usually a minister, commoner, or priest, is played without a mask.