When Kabuki is Not Kabuki

At least since 2006, it has become fashionable for politicians and pundits used the term “kabuki” to describe a frustratingly slow legislative process.  As recently as June 1, Thomm Hartmann of Green 960 was describing the new Supreme Court rules about  Miranda rights, in which a suspect now has to be the first one to invoke such a right, as “kabuki,” meaning intricate or involved. Neither of these uses  define what “kabuki” actually means.
Because the real Kabuki is a theater form full of spectacle involving dance and music, with fabulously painted sets that can magically change before your eyes by revolving on the stage or by appearing and disappearing through trap doors or by being built up by stage carpenters in plain sight, with elaborate costumes, mask-like makeup, and hand props of startling array.

The word is said to have been derived kabuku, “a now obsolete verb of the Momoyama period (1573-1603), originally meant ‘to incline,’ but by the beginning of the seventeenth century it had come to mean ‘to be unusual or out of the ordinary,’ and carried the connotation of sexual debauchery,” according to Earle Ernst in The Kabuki Theatre (The University Press of Hawaii, 1974, p. 10,) who also notes that today it is written with three Chinese characters meaning “song,” “dance” and “skill.”

Its stories can variously involve violent and revengeful transgressions or heroic feats based in historical events or biographical studies called jidaimono; tragic sorrows of the heart from family loss or a lover’s betrayal, sometimes ending in suicide, called sewamono; ghostly legends made scary enough to cool the hottest summer night, and dance plays, called shosagoto.
While Kabuki acting style can involve slow or static moments, especially in the motionless tableaux-like convention of mie, when the actor, in extreme emotion, freezes, the audience’s overall experience is achieved through heightened action expressed in rhythmic patterns which structure speech and movement. In fact Kabuki actors’ training demands a gymnast’s strength and flexibility, a dancer’s agility and grace, and a singer’s vocal techniques, as the text is delivered with a wide range of sung tones and qualities accompanied by prescribed movement sequences that have evolved over time for each character.

Like two other classical Japanese theater forms, the Noh plays and Bunraku puppet plays, which both contributed much to Kabuki style, earlier in its history (the form has flourished since the17th century  Edo Period) Kabuki plays used to go on all day.  However, since the reestablishment of Kabuki after World War II (as the occupying forces banned Kabuki performances until 1947 and it was necessary to rebuild many of the great theater houses which had been demolished by aerial bombing), today Kabuki theater performances are likely to be completed in three hours or less, an adjustment acknowledging contemporary audiences’ preferences that prevails in American theater as well, unlike earlier eras when plays by such an American great as Eugene O’Neill could take four and even five hours to perform in entirety.

As media fashions demand new buzz words (remember hearing “bottom line,” “paradigm shift, “and “at the end of the day,” over and over, and today’s other current faves such as “game changer” and “tea bagger”), I wonder what the Japanese make of our referencing their traditions, particularly recently, with the Health Care debate, when the word almost seemed to function like a drumbeat?  If Japan is to be the chosen country of reference, the classic Noh Theater, their earlier, more esoteric and austere form, would provide the more accurate term to infer purposeful slowness.  But maybe that theater form was avoided because it gives away the true nature of the Republican opposition, which appears to be to achieve a “No” vote by any means necessary.

CARLA BLANK collaborated with Robert Wilson on KOOL- Dancing in My Mind, a live performance portrait inspired by Suzushi Hanayagi, legendary Japanese choreographer who was a long time collaborator and dear friend of both artists. It premiered in the NYC Guggenheim’s Works & Process series April 17, 2009 and, in a 26 minute filmed version, was aired on French television in May, 2010.  She is author of Rediscovering America: the Making of Multicultural America, 1900-2000 (Three Rivers Press, 2003) and co-editor of Pow-Wow: Charting the Fault Lines in the American Experience—Short Fiction from Then to Now (Da Capo, 2009).





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Carla Blank’s most recent book is “Storming the Old Boys’ Citadel: two Pioneer Women Architects of Nineteenth Century North America,” co-authored with Tania Martin. She collaborated with Robert Wilson on “KOOL, Dancing in My Mind,” which premiered at New York City’s Guggenheim Museum in 2009. In May 2015 she directed a production of Ishmael Reed’s play, “Mother Hubbard” in Xiangtan, China, and in September 2015 she directed Yuri Kageyama’s “News From Fukushima” at New York’s LaMama Café Theater.

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