Steve Martin and Noh Drama

I’ve been working my way through some of the core critical texts on theater this summer, so expect some nuggets from those as I go along.

They’ve taken on a different resonance as I’ve begun rehearsing Steve Martin’s wacky adaptation of The Underpants at FST. It’s been a secret little project of mine to go into rehearsals and see what from these texts I can bring into the work. Pity and fear with your farce?


I did come across a wonderful and enigmatic fifteenth century text on Noh Drama by Zeami— Teaching on Style and the Flower—that I think speaks to something I find quite challenging about this role in particular, but also with regard to acting in general.

One of the major difficulties I am finding as I work on this show is that I am playing the ingénue. She’s very much a “type–” which is, incidentally, one of the elements of theatrical texts that Carlson explores in The Haunted Stage (see entry on June 16). You’ve seen her many times before—across cultures and throughout time.

So the challenge lies in how to make such a specific and recognizable type unique, or as Zeami puts it, “novel.” Has a really compelling conception of this work in which he uses the flower as a metaphor for Noh drama.

 When speaking of flowers, in all their myriad varieties, it can be said that they will bloom at their appointed time during the four seasons, and because they always seem fresh and novel when they bloom at that appointed season, they are highly appreciated. (98*)

According to him, “a real flower is the one that seems novel to the imagination of the spectator.” (99)

He describes how the feeling of novelty can be experienced by the audience:

On the occasion when the audience believes that the performance will consist of the same movement and changing as usual, they imagine that they know what to expect. An actor can carry out his performance in a different fashion, however, so that for example, even if the play being performed maintains fundamentally the same appearance, he will attempt to play his role in such a way that he infuses it with a more delicate level of feeling than before; or, in the case of his chanting, even though he changes nothing, he will use anew all his old arts, color the music in his voice in a skillful manner, using a level of concentration he has never felt before, and show exceptional care. If such a successful performance is achieved, those who see it and hear it will find it more novel than usual and they will praise it. This effect is surely what constitutes the feeling of novelty felt by the audience.  (100)

A gifted performer can find a path to novelty by grasping the essence of a character’s, “inner music” (100):

An elderly person, no matter how youthfully he wishes to dance, will not, in principle, be able to keep up with the beat of the music. Here, for the spectator the sense of novelty comes from the fact that an old person dances like a young one. This is a flower blooming on an ancient tree. (101)

The flower also arises out of paradox. I particularly love this passage:

For example, when an actor plans to express the emotion of anger, he must not fail to retain a tender heart. Such is his only means to prevent his acting from developing roughness, no matter what sort of anger is expressed. To appear angry while possessing a tender heart gives rise to the principle of novelty. On the other hand, in a performance requiring Grace, an actor must not forget to remain strong. Thus all aspects of his performance—dance, movement, Role playing—will be genuine and lifelike. (102)

He also has a great little section about how secrets relate to craft and the flower:

Over and above this, it is important to know that a Flower blooms by maintaining secrecy. It is said that ‘when there are secrets, the flower exists; but without secrets, the Flower does not exist. (103)

I have a friend whose secret in auditions is to make at least one choice that no one else will make. I think this is a wonderful strategy, but to my mind it takes a tremendous amount of skill to execute. I am in awe of actors who are facile in this way and who can so surprisingly delight us with their flower.

*All selections from Theatre/Theory/Theatre: The Major Critical Texts edited by Daniel Gerould. 

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