The Culture of Play: Kabuki and the Production of Texts
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Oral Tradition 20.2 (2005) 188-216



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The Culture of Play:

Kabuki and the Production of Texts

School of Oriental and African Studies
University of London

Text as Art

Japan is an interesting comparative point in the broader history of modes of reading and literary/artistic composition, and in understanding the role of performance in literary culture, although it has rarely been brought into the discourse on "oral traditions."2 One reason for this is that it has a relatively long tradition of literary production in both popular and elite genres. The creation and survival of literary texts in manuscript and in woodblock print (commercial woodblock printing from the early 1600s to the 1870s) is also considerable, and the many types of extant literary texts—illustrated scrolls, poetry sheets, manuscripts, woodblock printed book genres—have been treasured as precious objects. Court culture, from as early as the seventh century, demanded high literacy (including the skill of composing poetry) from those who participated in the aristocracy and government. Reading and literary composition (including in Chinese) has continually been a prized skill among the elite (courtiers, clergy, samurai, or merchants). As a consequence literacy rates have also been relatively high, particularly from the early modern Tokugawa period (1600-1868), and especially in the cities and towns. Along with this long history of the creation and preservation of literary texts as art objects, often with illustrations, we also see a culture that has consistently encouraged active participation in the arts, not only from the elites, but also at the popular level. [End Page 188]

This tendency to cherish physical texts as art objects (perhaps bolstered by the strong East Asian tradition of the high status of calligraphy as art), however, has not meant a diminishment of the importance of oral performance in literature. Ironically, the opposite seems to have been the case. "Orality" has remained central in Japanese literary culture even at the most highly literate levels. This has usually meant participation in a group activity, a performance of some kind, in which the individual takes a turn at being the reader/interpreter (audience) and at being the creator (performer).3 As a consequence, performance has been a key element in the process of both literary composition and literary reception, whether in poetic, narrative, or theatrical genres. Performance has also been an important stimulant for the visual arts.

The relationship between a performance (using the term in its broadest sense) and its physical representation is an essential aspect of literary cultures throughout the world. In this essay, I will make a case that performance in Japan has been a catalyst for the artistic production of physical objects, both visual and literary texts. Furthermore, I shall argue that it is more useful to consider such physical texts not simply as representations of performance. They, of course, may have been created directly in response to a performance (or in anticipation of a performance), but as physical objects they became something entirely distinct and of a different genre. Such objects (texts) existed on their own and usually served various functions, one of the most important of which was to stimulate new performances.

Performance as Text

Another fundamental premise of this essay is that a performance should also be viewed as a "text," one that has a physical existence in sound and movement, but which dissipates as it passes through time, continuing to exist only in the memory of the participants. Work on oral poetry4 has helped us to understand how an oral poem or story can be perceived as a text, and Haruo Shirane (1998) makes the point that most performances are repeated, thus creating forms that are held in the communal memory. These points may seem to be but truisms to readers of Oral Tradition. We need to [End Page 189] be continually reminded of it, nevertheless, because the physical object (text) sits in a privileged position within the modern academy (and the modern world of print) in relation to performance, which cannot...