Noh drama is both austere and enthralling.
Whereas gagaku traces its origins to Tang China, Noh evolved within Japan, notably with the canonical work of Zeami (c1363–1444).  While the local ritual dramas (often using masks) of China have been much studied (setting forth from projects led by C.K. Wang), everything about Noh seems remote from Chinese theatre.
The plots, derived from medieval literature such as the Genji and Heike monogatari, are based on the theme of exorcism; often a traveller or pilgrim (the waki role) meets a local dweller, who is later revealed as the ghost of a renowned ancient personage who died there in tragic circumstances (the role of shite).
Perpetuating the spirit of Zen in modern Japan (cf. posts on Eugen Herrigel and Gary Snyder), all the performative elements are mesmerizing—from the vocals of the solo actors and chorus, to the hayashi ensemble of piercing flute punctuated by the haunting rhythms of the three types of drums (with their otherworldly kakegoe cries), and the cathartic final dance.
Noh in Japan, 1992. My photos.
Orchestral tours always gave me an opportunity to explore local cultures (flamenco in Seville, táncház in Budapest; for a fortuitous spinoff, see here), and on tours of Japan in the 1990s local Noh theatres were always my first port of call. Here are two complete dramas:
Atsumori is a mugen ghost play by Zeami, based on the Heike monogatari:
The monk Renshō (in the waki role) arrives at Ichi-no-Tani seeking to ask forgiveness from Atsumori (the shite role) and calm his spirit. There he meets a flute-playing youth and his companions; after they briefly discuss the flute and Atsumori, the youth reveals that he has a connection to Atsumori.
In the second act, after a kyōgen interlude, the actor who played the youth in the first act has changed costume, now playing Atsumori. Along with the chorus chanting for him, he relates his tragic story from his perspective, re-enacting it in dance form. The play ends with Renshō refusing to re-enact his role in Atsumori’s death; the ghost declares that the monk is not his enemy, and asks him to pray for his release.
In Takasago, a priest travels to Takasago in pleasant spring weather. Among the beautiful pine trees, he hears a bell toll in the distance. An elderly couple arrive and begin to sweep the area under the pine bower. The old man recites from a collection of waka poetry, describing the Takasago and Sumioe wedded pine trees that, according to legend, will remain together for eternity. When he explains that the paired pines are a symbol of the marital relationship, the priest observes that all relationships, like life itself, fall short of the ideal expressed in the poem.
At this point, the old couple reveal that they are the spirits of the paired pines, and they set sail across the bay in a small boat. As the tide goes out, the priest also sets sail.
* * *
While the Noh scene in Japan has remained largely faithful to medieval plots, Allan Marett, working with Richard Emmert, has composed two remarkably imaginative new Noh dramas in English. Among the distinguished pupils of Laurence Picken working on Tang music at Cambridge in the 1970s, Allan then began devoting himself to Noh, and his drama Eliza (1985) makes a kind of bridge to his fine fieldwork on aboriginal culture in Australia:
A traveller to Fraser Island in Australia meets an old woman who tells the story of Eliza Fraser, the wife of the captain of a ship shipwrecked years ago. The woman begins to tell fantastic stories about Eliza’s experiences and how these were used to satisfy the beliefs of white society. As the traveller questions her story full of exaggeration, the woman’s true nature as the spirit of Eliza is set free. The spirit then reappears and dances in an aboriginal festival, reliving her experiences of aboriginal culture and the truth of her harmonious stay with aboriginal peoples.
No less remarkable is his 2015 drama Oppenheimer:
In Noh, agents of suffering (often warriors) first appear trapped in the form a ghost and then—in the course of the play—attain liberation; thus the drama traces the spiritual journey of Robert J. Oppenheimer from tormented ghost to agent of redemption. It makes an allegory about the tragedy of Hiroshima and how it affects us all. As Allan comments, “my play points beyond Hiroshima to all acts of violence and inhumanity.”
Oppenheimer has the structure and form of a traditional mugen Noh, where the main character is the ghost of a person who, because of some karmic hindrance, is unable to leave their human form at death. In many cases, the action of a mugen play will free the ghost from the wheel of samsara, so that they can attain liberation. In this play, the ghost is that of J. Robert Oppenheimer, who, tormented by the horrible consequences of his action in fathering the atomic bomb, is condemned to return each year to Hiroshima to himself suffer the agonies that his weapon caused. Through a contemplation of the traditional Zen story of Hyakujo and the fox, the ghost of Oppenheimer is finally released from his suffering when he encounters Fudô Myô-ô within the fires of Hiroshima. Fudô gives Oppenheimer his sword and snare, so that he can dance for the liberation of all beings from suffering, and in particular the wounds and scars that we all bear as a result of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.
Putting to one side experiments like traditional Noh versions of Shakespeare (such as Macbeth), and the influence on Western dramatists and composers (Yeats, Brecht, Britten, and so on), much of the impetus for innovation within Noh has come with international collaboration. Richard Emmert has long been a protagonist in developing Noh in English. Here’s his introduction to its history—citing several other productions, including Pagoda and Between the stones by Jannette Cheong, as well as Deborah Brevoort’s Blue moon over Memphis,
a stark and beautiful meditation on loneliness, with numerous textual and musical allusions to 20th-century popular song. Judy is a lonely, middle-aged woman, and a devout Elvis fan. She makes a pilgrimage to Graceland on the anniversary of Elvis’s death, but she is forced to wait outside, due to the overwhelming crowds. Her dream shattered, she is left to reflect on her life, through the verbal imagery of popular song. But then, during the candlelight vigil, a mysterious man lets her into the Meditation Garden where Elvis is buried, and there, under the light of a blue moon, she encounters a spirit.
Further productions are listed on the Theatre Nohgaku site.
Such creations feature new plots while remaining faithful both to the spirit of Noh (recognition, redemption, and so on) and to traditional performance style and staging. I wonder impertinently if there’s more radical potential for modern Noh. Bruno Nettl has suggested some parameters for change in world musicking (gradual or radical, allowable variation, isolated preservation, and so on), with varying approaches to maintaining elements considered to be core. In Europe, opera changes substantially over time. Apart from new operas, we have avant-garde productions of older operas, using the original plots but interpreting them in modern settings, often with the “original” music; and we have “rock operas”. Within Japan, might one use sax, or ondes martenot, with drum-kit, and punk vocals; skyscrapers and modern costumes? [Noooh—Ed.]
Irrespective of such idle musings, works like Eliza and Oppenheimer make refreshing, stimulating innovations in the Noh repertoire.
Having enjoyed a London reunion with Allan Marett,
I much appreciate his guidance on this post.
 For a useful database, see here. For succinct introductions to Noh in the context of other Japanese genres, see Isabel Wong’s chapter in Bruno Nettl et al. (eds.), Excursions in world music, and David Hughes’s chapter in Michael Church (ed.), The other classical musics.