No and Purification: The Art of Ritual and Vocational Performance

By Tsuchiya, Kiyoshi | Studies in the Literary Imagination, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

No and Purification: The Art of Ritual and Vocational Performance


Tsuchiya, Kiyoshi, Studies in the Literary Imagination


The art form we know today as No theatre was established by two geniuses, Kan'ami (1333-1384) and his son Zeami (1363-1443). The play consists of two elements of performing art: dancing and miming, or ritual and drama. Kan'ami and Zeami fused these two elements. Kan'ami's contribution was to initiate this combination and Zeami's was to formulate it into a theory of performing art.

W. B. Yeats also attempted to recover the primitive dramatic elements of ritual and drama in his adaptation of No. Referring to his version of a No play in the preface to Ernest Fenollosa and Ezra Pound's collection of translated plays, Yeats says, "Perhaps some day a play in the form I am adapting for European purposes shall awake once more, whether in Gaelic or in English, under the slope of Slieve-na-mon or Croagh Patrick ancient memories" (Fenellosa and Pound xix). Yeats insists that there was in the ancient past and still is in the deepest layer of our collective memory the experience of an original performance. For him, original performing art is the same as original religion. He declares, "it is still true that the Deity gives us, according to His promise, not His thoughts or His convictions but His flesh and blood.... We only believe in those thoughts which have been conceived not in the brain but in the whole body" (xviii). According to Yeats, this "promise" is still valid, for No is the living embodiment of that promise. Yeats observes that "the elaborate technique of the arts" seems "to create out of itself a superhuman life" (xviii). Europeans who saw No in the early nineteenth century shared the same surprise; for example, Arthur Waley quotes a letter referring to "the right moments" when the No mask "lives" (308). An anthropologist of the day, R. R. Marett, observed a similar phenomenon in his study of primitive cultures and argued in 1909 that "Savage religion is something not so much thought out as danced out" (xxi). His statement in turn recalls one Hirai, a Shinto priest, who (as Mircea Eliade records in his diary), when asked of his theology, pondered awhile and replied, "we have no theology, therefore we dance" (263-64). The Europeans were correct in discerning the ritual in No as they did in many other "primitive" performances. The literati among them also saw drama in No and believed that they were witnessing an archetypal performance--the original ritual/drama they only had assumed existed in the ideal past--performed right in front of them. While Europeans knew little of Kan'ami's venture or Zeami's art theory, they certainly could appreciate their attempts and achievements.

Masakazu Yamazaki points out No's inherently transcendental nature in applying to it the term Getragenheit, coined by Oskar Becket in his 1929 essay, "Von der Hinfalligkeit des Schonen und der Abenteuerlichkeit des Kunstlers" (64-71). (1) Yamazaki's point is that a No actor's commitment to ritual fulfillment involves not only lifelong asceticism and meticulous preparation but also, ultimately, luck beyond his power. It is, therefore, genuinely "transcendental." The No tradition thus appears to support Yeats's insistence that transcendence was first practiced in ritual performance. It also seems to support Mircea Eliade's aspiration to write metaphysics and ethics using only materials from primitive and Eastern civilizations, though Eliade could have added aesthetics to his list.

Ritual and drama already had become separate entities in Kan'ami and Zeami's time. A ritual dance in Japan is called kagura (literally, "divine play," or "divine pleasure"). It is the general term for Shinto ritual and encompasses music, ritual dance, and mime. As an indigenous ritual of an agricultural society, kagura is an offering to Shinto deities and a celebration of the harvest. The prototype on which drama is based is called sarugaku (literally, "monkey play," "monkey pleasure"--that is, mimicry), which is

   an entertainment ... songs and dances, acrobatics, and conjuring tricks. … 

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