“Floating Bridge of Dreams,” from a chapter of the Tale of Genjii, a frequent subject of Noh theater. Utagawa Kunisada, 1854.
Credit: Courtesy of American Memory at the Library of Congress.
Noh, the oldest surviving Japanese dramatic form, combines elements of dance, drama, music, and poetry into a highly stylized, aesthetic retelling of a well-known story from Japanese literature, such as The Tale of Genji or The Tale of the Heike. Like the dramatic tradition of comedy and tragedy in ancient Greece, the Japanese theater is divided into the comedic, called Kyogen, and the more serious, though not necessarily tragic, Noh plays. In traditional Noh plays, all roles were played by men in traditional Noh masks and costumes. Today, Noh plays are no longer a form of popular entertainment in Japan, but interest and appreciation for the genre endures, and both men and women study its conventions. There are today approximately 1,500 professional performers who make their living largely through performing and teaching Noh.
This lesson provides an introduction to the elements of Noh plays and to the text of two plays, and provides opportunities for students to compare the conventions of the Noh play with other dramatic forms with which they may already be familiar, such as the ancient Greek dramas of Sophocles. By reading classic examples of Noh plays, such as Atsumori, students will learn to identify the structure, characters, style, and stories typical to this form of drama. Students will expand their grasp of these conventions by using them to write the introduction to a Noh play of their own.
Upon completion of this lesson students will be able to
Noh developed into its present form during the 14th and 15th centuries and flourished under the patronage of military leaders of feudal Japan before the societal reforms of the Meiji period (1868–1912) eliminated Noh's government patronage. Although Noh nearly died out, enough performers regrouped, found private sponsors, and began teaching the art to amateurs so that it slowly began to flourish again. You can learn more about the history of Noh Theater by reading this background information on Noh-Kyogen, available through the EDSITEment-reviewed website Asia for Educators.
Have students read the Noh play Atsumori, the text of which is available through the EDSITEment-reviewed web resource Internet Public Library. You may wish to assign this reading as homework before conducting the class discussion. As students read the play for the first time they should fill in the "Story Elements of Atsumori Chart" which is available either as an online interactive or as a PDF.
Once students have had an opportunity to read the play and to complete the work sheets on the story elements divide the class into groups of four or five students. Instruct each group to assign parts, with one student reading the part of the priest, one the reaper, one the group of reapers, one the chorus, and one Atsumori. In a group of four, one student could read the parts of the reapers and the chorus or the young reaper and Atsumori. Distribute copies of the worksheet "Questions about the Story Elements of Atsumori," available here as a PDF and as an online activity. Once they have finished reading the play, have students discuss the basic elements of the story: the setting, the characters, the conflict, the resolution, the theme, and the style of the writing. Students should write their answers to these questions in the spaces provided on the worksheet.
As a class discuss student responses to the play and its elements. What did students find about this play to be unique or unlike plays they have read in the past? Were there parts of the play that they found difficult to understand, or that they felt might contain a meaning they could not easily discern? Which parts of the play resonated with them?
Next, introduce the formal conventions of the Noh play using the "Background to Noh-Kyogen" and the "Elements of Noh-Kyogen" accessed through the EDSITEment-reviewed website Asia for Educators, which provides a number of photographs illustrating elements of the Noh Theater such as the stage and Noh masks. You may also wish to distribute the section on the history and conventions of the Noh plays provided by the "Reading" on Noh Drama on the EDSITEment-reviewed website Asia for Educators. You may wish to print out this information of have the class read it online. If time permits you may wish to introduce the class to some brief examples of Noh theater productions that are available on the EDSITEment-reviewed web resource Asia for Educators. As students read and view the online information on Noh Theater you have them fill out the "Questions and Information about the Conventions of the Noh Theater," which is available here as a PDF, or as an online activity. Once they have completed the questions based on the reading they can use as a point of reference for information about the Noh Theatre.
As students research the Noh form, have them identify what type of Noh play Atsumori exemplifies (warrior), who the characters are, and the structure of the play. You may want to provide students with this organizational chart, which is available as a PDF or as an online interactive (Part I
and Part II, in order to help them structure their thoughts. Finally, discuss as a class the conflicts faced by Rensei the priest and Atsumori and the realization Atsumori has at the end of the play. Students should be sure to discuss this conflict and Atsumori's revelation by answering the following questions. These questions are also provided here in a PDF and as an online interactive. You can use the Conventions of the Noh Play PDF as an answer sheet.
Buddhism is one of the most widely practiced religions in Japan, and has had a tremendous influence on the Noh theater. In this activity students will be introduced to some of the values found in Buddhism in order to better understand the context and meaning of the short Noh plays they will read in this lesson, and will be asked to analyze how the stories in the Noh plays they have read reflect some important religious or cultural values in medieval Japan.
Begin by having students read the essay Buddhism in Japan available from the EDSITEment-reviwed web resource Asia for Educators. A longer version of this essay, Shinto and Buddhism: Wellsprings of Japanese Spirituality, is available from the EDSITEment-reviewed website Asia Society. If you have time you may wish to have them read the entire essay, as this will give them a broader context within which to understand the influence of religion on Noh Theater.
Divide the class into small groups of three or four students. When students have finished reading the reading on Buddhism in Japan have them return to the text of Atsumori. Are there places in this play where they can discern the influence of Buddhism? Students should work together to answer the questions on the Buddhism and Noh Theater available here as a PDF Worksheet. They should be sure the give examples from the text which support the answers they have given.
Have students complete a short quiz on the Noh Theater and on the Noh play Atsumori. This quiz is available as a PDF.
Instruct students to choose a story from mythology, literature, folklore, or popular culture (film or popular persona) and write a short (3-4 page) Noh play based on that story. The play should have a title, a setting, and a list of characters at the beginning. As students create their plays, instruct them to keep in mind the stylistic conventions of the Noh play and to consider these questions: At what point should the story begin? What do the characters have to learn? How does the "doer" define his/her problem? What will the realization be? What is the dominant emotion guiding your character's actions?
When students finish their plays, have them write a one-page analysis of the play using the vocabulary terms for genre, characters, and structure and analyzing the shite's dominant emotion, transformation, and realization. If you have time you may wish to have students perform the plays they have written.
Now that students have read and analyzed the play Atsumori, they will now have the opportunity to put their knowledge to work in reading a second Noh play, the Sotoba Komachi.
Begin by distributing the text of the Sotoba Komachi, which is accessible through the EDSITEment-reviewed website Internet Public Library. After reading through this play have students complete worksheets on the play, including a chart and questions about the story elements; an organizational chart showing analyzing the Noh Theater components of the play; and a series of questions on the influence of Buddhism in the play. Each of these worksheets is available as a PDF file.
As an extension to the first activity, you might have your students compare the conventions of the Noh form with the conventions of ancient Greek theater. In both cases, the plays were shown as part of a full-day schedule of both serious and comedic performances, both make similar use of a chorus, masks and the stage and both dramatic forms reveal the values of the culture. Students might also contrast the Japanese concept of the dominant emotion with the ancient Greek concept of the tragic flaw and analyze in a short essay how these two intrinsic values guide the character's behavior in the play. EDSITEment has a number of reviewed websites that provide information on ancient Greece, as well as access to the texts of ancient Greek plays, such as Odyssey Online and the Perseus Project.
2 class periods