Early Asian Drama: Conversations and Convergences

Article excerpt


The idea for this special issue began as a proposal for a double session on the convergences of Eastern and Western Drama for the International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo in the spring of 2003. Entitled "East Meets West in Drama," these sessions were intended to provide an opportunity to initiate a dialogue and to engage in a broader discussion of an area of drama that had not previously been addressed in a venue of its own at the Congress before. The two-part session, located that year in one of the infrequently used and out-of-the-way buildings on the campus of Western Michigan University (Sangren Hall), drew a modest audience of interested conferees, some more knowledgeable on the subject than others, but all there to share what they knew and to learn more of what they did not know. What became apparent from the active exchange of information and the sharing of firsthand viewing experiences was that another series of sessions would be necessary to continue the discussion we had just initiated. With that in mind, the next year brought further development of the topic, a broadening of its parameters, and a decision to feature mixed-media presentations, one by Max Harris on the Croatian sword dance (written with Lada Cale Feldman) (1) and another by Zvika Serper, which included a live performance.

Two of the essays in this special issue derive from that early beginning--Mikiko Ishii's analysis of weeping mothers in Japanese Noh and early English drama and Serper's discussion of the complementarity of Noh and Kyogen drama. The three other essayists and their topics--Dongchoon Lee on the carnivalesque function of Korean mask dance, Min Tian on the script markings of Chinese Yuan zaju, and Cecilia Pang on the history and development of Chinese opera in the United States--were added along the way to expand the purview of the subject as well as to demonstrate the range and adaptability of Asian modes of drama.

Whether read individually or in conjunction with one another the work presented here initiates a project rich in implications for contemporary audiences both expert and novice. Early Asian drama, subject to change, and adaptable to the surrounding sociopolitical environment whatever that environment might be, was at the same time able to retain distinctively traditional characteristics: skills and performance techniques, instrumental and vocal music, dance, gesture, costume, masking, and script markings to name a few. From folk drama to more formalized presentations, these plays engage their respective audiences and encourage both imaginative and physical interaction in the symbolic world they engender. Whether high art or low, whether artfully stylized or profoundly parochial, the symbolic meanings of colors and shapes, of gestures and props, of masks and movement, transport their audiences to an otherworld, one jarringly unusual yet at the same time comfortingly familiar. It is in the realm of the symbolic, these plays seem to suggest, that certain truths about human existence can be expressed most openly even when those truths are represented as frequently by visual juxtapositions, percussive instrumentation, and nonverbal modes of communication as they are by verbal expression. Despite the most obvious differences between Asian drama and its Western counterpart, the many points of convergence and familiarity of themes--for example, the loss of a loved one, the disenfranchisement or alienation of self or community--suggest the presence of an underlying effort to address the circumstances and conditions of human experience from the most fundamental of family interactions to the place of humanity in the larger scheme of things.

In the essay that launches the collection Dongchoon Lee maps out the operations of such themes in Korean drama. Entitled "Medieval Korean Drama: The Pongsan Mask Dance" Lee's focus on mask dance, a form he calls a "composite art" demonstrates how dance, music, and symbolic meaning converge in carnivalesque fashion to defuse the frustrations of the "common people. …


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