Art is a universal experience, we like to think, but its individual forms are culturally arrayed. The difficulty for both maker and viewer is understanding how they mean.
Take Noh, a traditional Japanese theater that became its own form in the 14th century. To the uninitiated Westerner it is opaque, beginning with language and continuing through mannered movements, proscribed poses, repetitious chanting, musical segments in predetermined blocks, and allusions to previous texts. Characters shuffle slowly across the stage without lifting their feet and often wear masks and clothing that reduce expression, except for those educated to their significance. Set decoration, with its four pillars and panel of a tree, only seems simple.
Noh is not meant to enact, as in most Western theater, as much as it is “to suggest the essence of.” Like other Japanese arts, it is founded in ritual, compression, and brevity. It shares with language the problems of translation. Practitioners say is it not theater at all, but a way of life.
Mark Swed, music critic at the Los Angeles Times and an admirer of the form, says even Japanese theater-goers struggle with it:
[N]othing about Noh resonates with modern life, even in Japan. […] Most Japanese, having suffered through studying Noh in school, find performances excruciatingly boring, if not downright alienating. This is a subject so arcane that Noh masters, who spend their lives learning the tradition, say they never fully understand it. But those who do fall for Noh become so immersed in its intricacies that it influences every aspect of their lives, their very being becoming Noh.
Theatre Nohgaku, a US-based troupe formed in 2000, have the goal of creating and performing, for English-speaking audiences, “contemporary [Noh and Noh-inspired] work that reaches across boundaries of culture and language to tell stories that reflect our shared humanity.” (Noh is often performed in sets of three or five, with comic interludes called Kyōgen; together these are Nohgaku.)
“We have found that this traditional form retains its dramatic effectiveness in languages other than Japanese,” the ensemble’s mission statement says. Their most recent play, written by Founding Member Elizabeth Dowd, is called Gettysburg: An American Noh.
Gettysburg, like most Noh, is nearly plotless. It is “about” a veteran, and descendant of Union General Hancock, who travels to Gettysburg National Military Park, where he meets the ghost of Confederate General Armistead.
In real life, Hancock and Armistead were West Point classmates and friends before the war, but Armistead was mortally wounded by Hancock’s troops on Cemetery Ridge, during Pickett’s Charge, which has been memorialized as “the high-water mark” of the Confederacy.
To the uninitiated Westerner it [Noh] is opaque, beginning with language and continuing through mannered movements, proscribed poses, repetitious chanting, musical segments in predetermined blocks, and allusions to previous texts. Characters shuffle slowly across the stage without lifting their feet and often wear masks and clothing that reduce expression, except for those educated to their significance.
The contemporary veteran in the Noh’s libretto returns a pocket watch he inherited from Hancock to the battlefield; the wounded Armistead had sent it to Hancock. (In performance, this changed to the vet leaving his hat on the battlefield, as Armistead had in life.) The vet and Armistead’s ghost “speak across time of their shared experiences of war, loss, and duty.”
A symposium, sponsored by the University of Pittsburgh Department of East Asian Languages and Literatures, was held in mid-September on Gettysburg, before its world premiere in a theater at the base of the Cathedral of Learning. Some sixteen scholars and five Theatre Nohgaku members spoke separately, together, and often past each other about the Noh, and one session in particular got heated over the responsibilities of filling an artistic form, given its historical topic.
• • •
Elizabeth Oyler, Associate Professor of Premodern Japanese Literature and Performance at Pitt, and a family friend, asked if I would respond to the libretto, at the symposium, as a veteran. She knew I had served, as well as written a book-length study of veterans at Standing Rock. Because I served in the Cold War, I was uncomfortable speaking on a panel titled “War, Memory, and Trauma,” but we failed to find a writer-vet with combat experience, so I flew out as the symposium got underway.
Theatre Nohgaku were practicing intensely, across campus, as scholars’ panels began in the Gettysburg Room of Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall. Presentations had titles such as “(In)appropriating Noh,” and “Noh Theatre Across Boundaries: Thoughts on Genre, Tradition, and Ownership.”
In Noh, the shite [“shee-tay”]—a central character and, here, Armistead’s ghost—wears a mask that concretizes, simplifies, and protects his identity. Masks supersede other systems of self-belief, so they are largely amoral, just as being a “warrior” or a “veteran” can be used to justify nearly any action.
I struggled to say something about the “veteran” content in the five-page libretto. Its first words are, “I am a veteran,” and we were told off-page the contemporary vet had PTSD, but there are few specifics. He is the waki, a supporting role, and in performance would often sit motionless and silent. His lines are often generic, such as, “I too have marched without falter towards the enemy. / I too have left good men on the ground.” Some of his suffering, the preface says, is based on losing his “wife to another man’s arms—a union unpreserved,” a melodramatic equation that unintentionally plays to the military’s comic sense. The bulk of the libretto explains Armistead’s relationship with Hancock, a history so unique it calls into question the commonality between ghost and contemporary vet.
I was able to say that, in my experience, memories from military service have a way of becoming metaphors, and we continue to assign ourselves missions based on them. As a former military diver, now writer, one of my own can be found in Job: “Hast thou walked in the search of the depth?”
In Noh, the shite [“shee-tay”]—a central character and, here, Armistead’s ghost—wears a mask that concretizes, simplifies, and protects his identity. Masks supersede other systems of self-belief, so they are largely amoral, just as being a “warrior” or a “veteran” can be used to justify nearly any action. (There were veterans on both “sides” at Standing Rock.)
Playwright Elizabeth Dowd said in an interview that her masked Confederate general does not regret how he fought, necessarily, or even perhaps for whom, but rather “that it came to this.”
• • •
The next morning, in a room heavy with Corinthian columns, purple drapes with gold fringe, and a cut-glass chandelier, the scholars resumed their critiques. The troupe members were still elsewhere.
LeRon Harrison, from Murray State, spoke of the role of place as a determiner of who we are as a nation. Gettysburg originally was known as the place where the war turned for the North, where Lincoln said the field was “a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live.” But 50 years on, Harrison said, the main narrative became “equivalent bravery” on both sides—the white reconciliationist approach. He thought the cultivated spaces in the play “flout[ed] the natural world” and ignored the scars and wounds of the battle. The park was being “landscaped … blade by blade,” he said and reminded us that “scape” and “shape” had a common etymology, which indicated a “production of interrelations.”
Reggie Jackson, from University of Michigan, recalled what had dropped out of the play by looking at what it privileged: race. This Noh’s failure of empathy, he said, forced us to consider “the elephant in the room”—slavery, which is not mentioned. Racial amnesia and a nostalgia for reconciliation are artistic failures that can be generative, he said, so the play succeeded in some ways despite itself. Its subtitle, “An American Noh,” worked, because it was premised on amnesia and “lives up to its potential in this way.” The white vet stood in for all the battered bodies neither mentioned nor mourned; having unsettling dialogues with ghosts (of other white people) is all we do.
Reggie Jackson, from University of Michigan, recalled what had dropped out of the play by looking at what it privileged: race. This Noh’s failure of empathy, he said, forced us to consider “the elephant in the room”—slavery, which is not mentioned.
Scott Sandage, from Carnegie Mellon, said that eighty years were lost in America to the Civil War, its aftermath, and Jim Crow, so we tried to make up for it, in part by recasting Gettysburg Park as a place of reconciliation. Even in Frederick Douglass’ lifetime (he lived to 1895) there was a battle for memorializing it, in terms of either emancipation or white reconciliation. The latter required an act of forgetting. Sandage alluded to a speech Douglass made in 1877, in which he said there were men who
would have us forget and forgive, strew flowers alike and lovingly, on rebel and on loyal graves. This sentiment is noble and generous, worthy of all honor as such; but it is only a sentiment after all, and must submit to its own rational limitations. There was a right side and a wrong side in the late war, which no sentiment ought to cause us to forget, and while today we should have malice toward none, and charity toward all, it is no part of our duty to confound right with wrong, or loyalty with treason. If the observance of this memorial days has any apology, office, or significance, it is derived from the moral character of this war, from the far-reaching, unchangeable and eternal principles in dispute, and for which our sons and brothers encountered hardship, danger, and death….
Lincoln understood slavery was America’s sin and that “lash-blood was paid for with sword-blood,” Sandage said, paraphrasing Lincoln’s second inaugural address. By contrast, Gettysburg: An American Noh perpetuated, he said, the “man to man” notion that Jennifer M. Murray writes about in On a Great Battlefield: The Making, Management, and Memory of Gettysburg National Military Park, 1933–2013:
Certainly by 1913, the battle’s fiftieth anniversary, the landscape [at the Park] had been deliberately cultivated and promoted as a site of sectional reconciliation. The July 3, 1913, meeting of Union and Confederate veterans at the Angle, shaking hands in reconciled fraternity, best exemplified this spirit. Virginia Governor William Hodges Mann further reinforced the spirit of reunion and the construction of a reconciliationist narrative in a speech delivered on July 3, 1913. “We are not here to discuss the Genesis of the war, but men who have tried each other in the storm and smoke of battle are here to discuss this great fight,” Mann declared. ”We came here, I say, not to discuss what caused the war of 1861-1865,” he continued, “but to talk over the events of the battle here as man to man.”
Sandage felt strongly that the Noh needed to be revised, though the real question was how to be “more honest.” Should its spoken interlude (not included in the libretto, but which he heard at a rehearsal) explain the shift in the nation’s memory? Sandage said the Park docent speaking in the interlude said, “It doesn’t matter what side they fought for,” quoted Lee, and told only the basic facts of the Hancock-Armistead relationship.
“Figuring out what happened is the easiest part,” Sandage said. “Why and what it means is the hard part.” The people working on this play should “take that as their challenge.” Others agreed.
An impromptu writing workshop broke out. Should the veteran be a person of color, or would that be a “tokenist approach”? What would it mean if the ghost were African American, given connotations of insubstantiality? Should Vietnam and Afghanistan be mentioned as examples of other racialized wars? There was a brief argument over the racial and gender makeup of the chorus in Noh theater.
Reggie Jackson asked, “What’s it mean to have this play marked as offensive, difficult, uncouth?” But in the end, he said, “the lit fan in me comes out,” so he would “leave [the play] as it is, then deal with it.”
In the coffee break that followed, another scholar got emotional describing what she believed were the play’s shortcomings on race, but when I asked if she would change it, she said no, it provided an opportunity for “pedagogy.”
• • •
The troupe members came in. Playwright and co-director Dowd had told me the night before that she was “desperate to hear what everyone was saying” in the panels and talks. David Crandall, Musical Co-Director, said now it was “deeply gratifying” to be “invited to the table to change” through dialogue. But for nearly an hour only the troupe members spoke—about Noh as a form (“The stylization is insane—beautifully insane, but insane,” one said), the rigors of participating in it, and their process in adapting it for Western audiences.
Each had their own focus: whether to replace traditional drums and flute with two drums, a violin, and a harmonica; whether the ghost of Armistead should be wearing a Confederate uniform and a sword, instead of a robe and a fan; whether traditional gesturing should be used. The scholars listened politely, but their eyes were active.
Dowd told her story of the Noh’s genesis. After dancing a warrior piece, she “came to understand the idea in warrior Noh that a warrior is sometimes fighting his final battle through eternity…. That was so powerful to me.” She thought that today “soldiers are condemned to that hell in this life, they don’t have to wait until they die,” due to PTSD. “[S]o I started thinking about what would it be to create a piece where a warrior that was trapped in a hell from that afterlife could have a conversation with a warrior who may have post-traumatic stress disorder,” she said.
To follow convention, in this instance, she needed the Noh to be set on a battlefield. She thought, “[W]hat’s a battlefield we all know? Gettysburg! And then often Noh will take the form of the losing side, because there’s more pathos in that story, so we will look at a Confederate. But this Confederate has a friend on the other side.” A man in a workshop suggested she look at Armistead and Hancock. “And then I fell into the realm of Civil War research, which is a very big, deep, wide place to fall into,” she said. “And it was profound for me.”
“I feel like with Noh, if you don’t have the people there, it’s not the real thing,” he [John Oglevee, Co-Director] said. “So we’re counting on you.”
Dowd said, “I didn’t spend time thinking about the circumstance, it’s just the context in which this story happens, and I thought there was something eternal in that. It was of great interest to me.” She “spent some time thinking of whether the waki should be a re-enactor,” but “I thought that that could become inadvertently comic.” She and Crandall discussed making it a waki Noh, but didn’t want “to get overinvested in the story of the traveler. We want to know just enough to care, but that’s not the main point.”
The troupe spoke about audience reception. John Oglevee, Co-Director, said, “If everyone is in flow, then the intense concentration becomes powerful, and the audience is having a great time, and you’re having a great time.” He said they would never perform a Noh in full costume with musicians if there was no audience. He compared it to the tea ceremony, which is always “an offering.”
(In his note in the playbill, Oglevee says, “The form of noh is an offering, an exorcism of past ghosts that cannot find peace. There are no heroes or villains in noh, only souls that ask for consideration. Noh offers a time and space for consideration. I encourage the audience to do just that.”)
“I feel like with Noh, if you don’t have the people there, it’s not the real thing,” he said. “So we’re counting on you.”
There was a big release of nervous laughter.
Elizabeth Dowd said, “The point is the conversations,” unintentionally echoing the scholar who thought all this could lead to “pedagogy.”
• • •
Finally, 55 minutes in, Christina Laffin, a self-described “clueless Canadian” from The University of British Columbia, said, “I just wanted to open up the conversation, based on many of the things we talked about already, and think about some of the elephants in the room of slavery, and racism, and the historical context, because you’ve discussed this in passing in your comments….”
Laffin said she grew up Canadian, “but to my understanding, [the American Civil War was] about slavery, right? You mentioned, Elizabeth, you didn’t feel like the circumstances were that important for the story, or that you were seeking this friendship. But I want to invite others to talk about this—what happens when you have the story of two white men and their friendship in the US, which to me looks like an incredibly racist society?”
Elizabeth Dowd said it was “a very fair question,” and that troupe members had asked her “about including language about slavery within the context of the play,” and she “did make an effort to do that.”
“And what I came to in myself—and it could be wrong? I will accept that—I felt then that I was just touching on something that deserves an entire play unto itself. And there is a Noh play to be written about why the Civil War was fought. And I have really good ideas about it, but I don’t think that I’m the person to write that play….”
One of Dowd’s colleagues said she had written a warrior Noh. “So it’s about warriors … if there had been…something about slavery in there, it would defuse the work. Noh is about one thing, and you make it about one thing. It’s an expansion of a moment, rather than a distillation of many things.”
After a pause, LeRon Harrison said he “would push back on that,” because “Noh is a practice of borrowing, and so it borrows from so many different texts, and to say that it’s about one thing, when you’re reaching across all these texts to center them around one thing, is suspect. […] And it’s unfortunate … there are these elements that are being cut out, for whatever reason…. The absence of something speaks of the presence of it, and especially in this moment, the absence of it speaks in silence, in a screaming silence, about the presence of it.”
Dowd said, “I hear that, and I accept it. I don’t feel I could mount a defense that would be in any way adequate…. So I will just be quiet.”
Dowd’s colleague said, “But if you look at the traditional repertory, the warrior pieces, none that I am aware of touches on who’s right and who’s wrong. It doesn’t deal with the politics of those wars … the Noh plays that come from that do not deal with … who is just and who is not just. You can tell me if this is wrong, because I know you know.”
Harrison said, “The moral question be damned, but it does need to be mentioned if you are talking about Noh and this traditional practice of its borrowing … and its putting things in that are supposed to be evoking other things.”
Dowd said she had lived in Pennsylvania for 40 years and been to Gettysburg Park many times, but it had never come alive. “And in working on this piece, that changed,” she said. “That absolutely, profoundly, profoundly changed. In all of this complexity—because we can say it was a war against slavery—but was it?”
Reggie Jackson said it was an interesting discussion, “and I say this as someone who really enjoyed, I really kind of applaud you for putting something like this together, I mean, at least on the page; I haven’t seen the actual performance, and I think it reads really well, and I think it’s really evocative, and I think it succeeds in literary merits and all these other things….”
But he wondered about “certain omissions,” and audience expectations, “rightly or wrongly, morally or otherwise.” He wondered if there were “aspirations for what the play might provoke or produce—besides aesthetic appreciation, on the part of [Dowd] or David, or even the other members of the troupe….”
Dowd said she had lived in Pennsylvania for 40 years and been to Gettysburg Park many times, but it had never come alive. “And in working on this piece, that changed,” she said. “That absolutely, profoundly, profoundly changed. In all of this complexity—because we can say it was a war against slavery—but was it? I mean, there’s a whole symposium there: was it just economic advantage?”
She said she did not mean to justify omissions, that she accepted those. But she did feel Gettysburg “became a hallowed ground for me in a very personal way. And I hoped, I think, that audiences will have some moment of awakening in themselves, what we ask of men and women of all races and creeds who fight.”
Composer David Crandall said one of his own aspirations was “seeing other people respond, seeing other people create work. And how wonderful it could be if such a piece would be created, coming out of a response to this—this needs to be said—wouldn’t it be interesting if this story [slavery] were told through this form? I mean, write a piece for us! You know? Perform with us. I think we’re desperate for these responses and fascinated by opening up the conversation and continuing it and bringing people in. So that’s been one of the great joys of working with the company, for me, and I think it really is an invitation for other people to join us to talk and to learn from each other through the form.”
A scholar asked if these discussions would guide revisions. Dowd said they would, “but you all have seen something on a piece of paper, and it would be a richer conversation in the context of the whole performance. I think the silences will remain, but it will be at least better or worse—I don’t know.”
Crandall said they would try to improve: “We’re opportunistic.” But: “There are a zillion Noh within the Civil War. It’s a perfect vehicle for more stories to be told.” He said they had a writer’s workshop every summer—in Tokyo.
“Please come on over!” he said.
• • •
The premiere that night was in the Stephen Foster Memorial. Three brief Noh segments were performed first: a dance, an instrumental, and a portion of Blue Moon Over Memphis, an English-language Noh about the ghost of Elvis, by Deborah Brevoort.
Gettysburg’s five-page libretto became 90 minutes in performance, due to its spoken interlude, musical passages, and slow verbalization. The word “red” was 10 syllables long when sung by the shite Armistead. At the same time, the meaning of the stylization was not always evident. If the shite shuffled irregularly, it meant anguish, I was told. It had been a while since I was so far at sea with artistic conventions that I could not see the shore.
In the talkback, there was at least one loaded question about appropriation: Why not cut the cast’s hair to look “more Japanese”? An Asian woman with an accent said a traditional flute made a Noh feel ghostly and sad, and she simply was not getting that from the violin and harmonica. Nor did she hear “Civil War encampment” in those instruments. She said the harmonica reminded her of “lazy, drunk blues musicians.”
If the shite shuffled irregularly, it meant anguish, I was told. It had been a while since I was so far at sea with artistic conventions that I could not see the shore.
As we filed out, a Pitt grad student told me Noh was dying out because young people had other distractions, like the internet, which were consumed passively. It took expertise to fully appreciate an art, he said. In the old days, when there was no other entertainment, and the form was handed from father to son, it must have been hot.
Later I read that traditional conceits of Noh include feudal codes of ethics of soldiers, the elegant manners of aristocracy, and the humiliation of the shite in defeat. Would Gettysburg have been “better” if it interrogated those conceits in light of the Confederacy? Might Armistead have begged for salvation instead of focusing on the Twilight-Zone coincidence of his death?
Wendy Meaden, a symposium participant from Butler University, told me later she was “comfortable with Theatre Nohgaku’s goals and choices.”
“On the other hand,” she said, “I observed colleagues who were dismayed at the whitewashing of a representation from the civil war. Their approach and response seemed influenced by critical race theory, which would not normally be part of Noh evaluation or discussion, but is relevant to the civil war.
“It was interesting to me because it continues to raise questions: is race an appropriate topic in Noh? Can an American Noh about Gettysburg fairly ignore the issue of race? […] As theatre practitioners and creative professionals, what is our responsibility to history, culture, audience? What impact does our decision to write a white only perspective have? Are we obligated to incorporate racial reconciliation into works that historically affect non-white people? Are white people poised to fairly offer the voices and perspectives of people they subjugated?”
• • •
A couple of weeks later I asked writer Elizabeth Dowd by email how she felt it went. She said she was “taken aback by the shift in focus from Noh to racism in the symposium,” and “would have preferred to have taken that up after they had seen the piece. By the end it felt less like a conversation to me and more like an accusation.”
She said something similar happened at Bucknell University, where Theatre Nohgaku members “felt the conversation was on track and of great interest until the last portion, when a professor brought up racism. It seems as though that backed people into corners and things got unpleasant.”
At Penn State Abington, Dowd “was heartened by the earnest searching in the room—it was there that I realized I was engaged in a discussion versus being held accountable for a racist piece of art. The difference was that they were taking to each other and comfortably disagreeing with each other without a sense of there being a clear right or wrong.” She asked them if it would be valuable to know, beforehand, “that noh warrior pieces take the perspective of the losing side without taking sides or holding one up as good or bad. They felt the work should be allowed to speak for itself.”
“This is a long way of saying that I was disheartened and discouraged and nearly convinced that we should remove Gettysburg from our repertoire,” Dowd said, but the post-performance discussion “helped me to hear that the play also had resonance and served as a powerful bridge to understanding noh’s aesthetic of power and beauty through spareness.”
As a result of the symposium, she had made “a few changes” and might consider others if they would “offer balance without shifting the focal point of the story—the cost of war on the men and women who must fight it.”
She added, “In my personal life I am a social justice activist. I have attended Undoing Racism workshops and organized community conversations on race in the town where I live. In the years it took to bring this piece to its premiere the world shifted around me. I failed to see that it could cause pain. That is hard to own, but own it I do.”
• • •
I mentioned Dowd’s response to a scholar who was at the premiere. He was sorry to hear she felt the need to say it. He invoked the “confessions” required by apparatchiks exercising power over cultural activities in the Soviet Union, where “rituals of public repentance and recantation were often the condition of an artist being allowed back into the game.”
He wondered “who has the upper hand in the creative and performance process: critics, theorists, rule-givers, as in the neo-classical system of art? Or the artists themselves?” As for telling a story set at Gettysburg that does not focus on slavery, “There is a difference between repressing from social consciousness and merely foregrounding something else.”
Moby-Dick, after all, does not much condemn the industrial slaughter of whales, which seems shortsighted in a Sixth Extinction reading, but it is one of the great works. (Chinua Achebe’s criticism of Conrad using “Africa as a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity … thus reducing Africa to the role of props for the break-up of one petty European mind…” might apply in some ways to Melville and the sea.) The Bible and classical literature use the word “slave” without censure.
“If a man sees the artistic beauty of a thing,” Oscar Wilde said in the dustup over Dorian Gray, “he will probably care very little for its ethical import.”
Could a “good” Noh be written about an American vet finding commonality with the ghost of an SS officer who died defending the camps, without the Holocaust ever being mentioned? Try writing your own analogy, on a topic important to you.
Another compressed form, the haiku, rarely considers politics and evades the form/content trap by taking the long view. Three hundred years ago Bashō viewed the helmet of a legendary 12th-century warrior, in a shrine at Komatsu, and wrote:
under the helmet
It is an unassailable story of men at war.