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  • A Beggar's Art: Scripting Modernity in Japanese Drama, 1900-1930
  • David Jortner
A Beggar's Art: Scripting Modernity in Japanese Drama, 1900-1930. By M. Cody Poulton. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2010. 280 pp. Paper, $29.

The late Meiji, Taishō, and early Shōwa eras were a fairly tumultuous time for Japanese drama, as authors and audiences were exposed to new forms of theatre and dramatic literature influenced by Western realism and naturalism. In addition, the older classical forms, such as and kabuki, struggled to adapt to changing societal circumstances and audience desires. As one can imagine, there has been a fair amount of scholarship in Japan on the challenges and opportunities for theatre artists during this period. However, there have been only sporadic efforts at examining this era in English. Most notably, these attempts have either been as a part of a larger work of theatre history (as in Benito Ortolani's The Japanese Theatre [1995] or Brian Powell's Japan's Modern Theatre [2002] or focused on one specific playwright or topic (such as Thomas Rimer's Toward a Modern Japanese Theatre or David Goodman's editing and translation work on Kishida Kunio [1995] and other work [1986, 1988]). Fortunately, this gap in scholarship is ably filled by M. Cody Poulton's new work, A Beggar's Art: Scripting Modernity in Japanese Drama, 1900-1930. Focusing primarily on dramatic literature and playwriting, Poulton presents his reader with an excellent overview of the issues and history of this time period as well as a selection of nine plays in translation, showing the reader the breadth and depth of Japanese playwriting during this time.

A Beggar's Art opens with a chapter on Meiji dramatic theory before the introduction of Ibsen to Japan. This chapter is fascinating, as it explores the emergence of dramatic writing as literary genre, discussing how plays were written to be read as well as performed. This chapter also details the rise of the playwright as a literary figure, emerging from the shadow of the more "performative" kabuki. This first chapter gives the reader a broad overview of the attempts to reform and change kabuki to fit within the new paradigm of bunmei kaika, the Meiji government's program of "civilization and enlightenment." The chapter also includes a section on the emergence of more realistic or melodramatic influenced shinpa and its attempts at adaptation, especially of contemporary novels. Finally, the chapter includes a fascinating theoretical and historical discussion on the ideas of drama (as both literature and the basis of performance) and the meaning of the terms "modern" and "modernity." Many scholars simply use these terms without going into the multiple meanings and usages of these terms. One of the most interesting elements of this text is that Poulton provides a broad historical and theoretical overview of the discussion about these terms at this point in Japanese theatre history, illustrating the multiple understandings and confusions present in this time.

The rest of the book is divided into two sections, with the first covering the modern theatre from 1900 to 1924 and the second examining the theatre from 1924 to 1930. Each section begins with a chapter discussing the primary dramatic theories and ideologies of the period as well as providing a brief history of the theatre and relevant events at the time. Following this chapter on [End Page 325] theory and history is a selection of translated works from the time period (four plays in the first section and five in the second) along with a brief introduction to each author and play.

The first section covers the emergence of modern drama in Japan, highlighting the influence of Ibsen on Japanese playwrights. In addition, Poulton illustrates the difficulties faced by authors trying to merge the sense of dramatic action with the attempt to capture the rhythms of everyday life onstage. Finally, this chapter of the book illustrates how drama was seen as a literary endeavor by many of these playwrights and their readers; this also helps to explain the growth and popularity of the one act play as a literary genre. This section also includes translations of the plays The...