SubStance 31.2&3 (2002) 73-93
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The Structure of Theater:
A Japanese View of Theatricality
The Western concept of "theater" did not exist in pre-modern Japan. Engeki was the word chosen to translate "theater" when it was introduced to Japan in the second half of 19th century. 1 It still sounds a little foreign to Japanese people. Traditionally Japan had a word shibai, which was almost equivalent to "theater," but was, and still is, applied only to Kabuki and Bunraku (puppet theater) and not to Noh. The modern westernized theater is not usually called shibai, either, for this sounds too colloquial or too non-literal. The adjective forms of shibai, shibai-jimita or shibai-gakatta, imply "pretentious" or "insincere" behavior, a definitely pejorative nuance, equivalent to the negative meaning of the English term "theatrical."
"Theatricality," on the other hand, is rendered in Japanese as engeki-sei. The suffix -sei makes an abstraction of the preceding noun. The foreignness of engeki is reinforced by this suffix, for the abstraction of theatricality is also a Western way of thinking, imported into Japan only in modern times. Grammatically, it would be possible to add -sei to shibai as well, but shibai-sei sounds odd and is not in common usage. This means that there is no Japanese word that is exactly equivalent to the slightly pejorative "theatricality." Instead, engeki-sei (theatricality) is used to mean the spectacular quality of theater, or the qualities unique to theater—i.e. particular qualities that construct the kind of performance we could call theater. It is in this sense that the word was often uttered to describe the new trend of Japanese theater since the late 1960s. But some representatives of this "underground" theater would like to call their activities shibai rather than engeki, as a revolt against "modern theater." They have even declared themselves to be closer to the old conception of performance art in Japan, geinoh.
Geinoh ("gay-noh") is another Japanese word, fairly equivalent to "theater" but covering the broader or narrower realm of performance arts, depending on the context. (I will return to this issue later.) Though the word itself first appeared in literature in the 10th century, 2 much earlier than shibai, today the word is also commonly used, and obviously intersects with engeki-sei. The distinction between engeki, shibai and geinoh is not a clear-cut one, [End Page 73] and it becomes almost meaningless to attempt to define the words at all. (Such confusion is an inevitable result of modernization, and is seen in many fields of culture in Japan.) But if our goal is not simply defining terms, but understanding what theater is, then we need to move beyond the definition of concepts. Our understanding of the topics will be deepened in the course of discussing them. Our topics are theater and theater-like performances, which still exist in abundance in Japan.
There are many ways to analyze theater. I will limit my arguments here to the structural analysis of theater events—i.e. basic characteristics of theater to be distinguished from other performative activities, in order to clarify "theatricality" to some degree.
From Creator to Audience
Theater is play and so is music. As an art form, theater and music have some structural similarities. In the aesthetic classification of art forms, theater and music are put into the same category—performing arts.
A composer writes a piece of music, which is perceived by someone else. This "someone else" is usually a musician who plays the score to be perceived by the audience. This sequence can be schematized as follows:
The upper and the lower levels have a similar structure in the way they are produced. For this reason, music is called an art form of "double productions."
Different musicians may play the same score differently, but it would not be unreasonable to say that what the composer composes and what the musician plays are almost the same. In a competition of musical composition, the nominated works are performed in front of the judges. What the...