Excerpt from my article on this project The Aesthetics of Journey, published in Contemporary Theatre Review Vol.I-2, special edition Japanese Theatre and the West edited by A. Horie-Webber, Harwood Academic Publishers, 1994
Noh Drama: Memory or Passion?
Paul Claudel once remarked that in western drama 'something happens' (quelque chose arrive) while in Noh 'someone arrives' (quelqu'un arrive). We may proceed to ask: what compels the Noh hero to 'arrive'?
In a typical Noh play, the central dramatic event is an encounter between characters travelling from different existential regions. The shite (protagonist) makes a journey across metaphysical boundaries from a world beyond, while the waki (secondary character), often in a priestly role, travels the phenomenal world to reach the locus of their chance encounter. And for a fleeting moment the phenomenal world extends its vision into the world beyond: the empty space becomes a supra-real arena where the dead, the deranged, demons, gods and men come to commune, or else to combat, or at least make cathartic contact.
The encounter brings about a certain anagnorisis. The gods are revealed to be benevolent: they come to impart their blessings ensuring good health and prosperity for men. Demons and malevolent spirits are duly exorcised or destroyed. As for the human protagonists, the dead and the deranged who inhabit the main body of the Noh repertory, the message they bring is bleak. They come to tell of the woes of the soul trapped in the limbo of its own obsession. They long to be freed from it. Some have gone mad on the account of it; some have lingered in this state long after their death. There seems little hope of salvation, save for the powers of Buddhist prayers made on their behalf. Some leave just as they came, condemned to their eternal limbo existence. Still, their coming has not been entirely without solace. At long last they aired their smouldering remorse and pain to a sympathetic listener; the encounter has been cathartic.
The essence of Noh drama featuring human protagonists lies in this dilemma of shite the protagonist. These are men and women possessed by a potent passion that will not let them go even in death. Thus they are compelled to 'arrive' to air their woes and seek release or at least to make a cathartic contact. As the shite mournfully recounts his predicament, what the waki and audience witness is not so much the hero's memory recalled or his past resurrected as the present progressive anger and remorse of a soul in conflict, condemned to live on in limbo trapped by its own immortal obsession.
On the Noh stage, where several metaphysical regions converge, where time takes on non-monotonic references, the past is in the present; the phenomenal world merges into the worlds beyond. Thus the audience too makes a journey into regions beyond its quotidian experience, to witness the peril that confronts those who fall prey to their obsession.