At its essence, Kyogen is both comedic and satirical in nature. It pokes fun at the wealthy and powerful in feudal Japan. At the same time, it gets at the heart of what makes people tick and acknowledges, even relishes, our follies and foolishness.
For the past six centuries, Kyogen playwrights and actors have shown themselves to be keen yet well-meaning observers of the human condition. The ubiquitous Taro character, and his sometimes counterpart Jiro, give us a glimpse into how servants saw the gentrified lifestyle of the merchant class during the Edo period in Japan (circa1605~1867). In “The Delicious Fatal Potion,” Taro and Jiro see through their master’s intentions and eventually turn the tables on him. In “A Demon for Better Working Conditions” and “Catching Plovers,” Taro outsmarts his master and his master’s adversary with insights into the mindsets of both. “The Persimmon Thief” is pure farce. Kyogen is at once part slapstick and part social commentary.
Before becoming the highly stylized art form it is today, Kyogen was an excellent example of extemporary theater. Traces of Kyogen can be found in the adlib comedy of today’s Konto (from the French conté) in Japan. These topic-based 15 to 20 minute sketches explore the mundane as well as heavy social issues such as suicide. Konto are very popular on TV as well as in live theater settings. Although Kyogen lost its extemporary element at the beginning of the 17th century, actors still have a fair amount of leeway when it comes to interpreting the scripts of its most famous stories.
Historians point out that Kyogen is no longer the searing satirical form of theater it once was. There is, however, a timelessness and grace to the humor of Kyogen. More than likely this comes from its close affiliation to its even more stylized cousin, No Theater. The two are often performed together with Kyogen providing a comic counterpoint to No. In fact, Kyogen is a genre of entertainment that appeals to all ages. Indeed, it is one of the few forms of theatre that can be enjoyed by adults and children alike without the former having to worry about the appropriateness of the content matter for the latter.
We think you will find the plays accessible in a way that belies the fact that they are being performed in a foreign language and are about an historical period that showcases a society quite foreign to U.S. audiences. The lack of scenery changes and minimal use of props requires imagination on the part of the audience. However, we believe what makes all of us human is readily apparent in the stories and characters of each of these short plays. Enjoy yourself and don’t be afraid to laugh out loud as these not too subtle plots unfold!
Hideo Inada and Robert Schalkoff
Robert Schalkoff is the Director of the Program for the Development of Global Talent at Yamaguchi Prefectural University in Yamaguchi, Japan. Hideo Inada is the Director of the Center for Regional Literature, also at Yamaguchi Prefectural University.
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