In the Moscow Art Theatre, in Tel Aviv in the Habimah, productions have been kept going for forty years or more: I have seen a faithful revival of Vakhtangov’s twenties’ staging of Princess Turandot; I have seen Stranislavsky’s own work, perfectly preserved: but none of these had more than antiquarian interest, none had the vitality of new invention. At Stratford where we worry that we don’t play our repertoire long enough to milk its full box office value, we now discss this quite empirically: about five years, we agree, is the most a particular staging can live. It is not only the hair-styles, costumes and make-up that look dated. All the different elements of staging – the shorthands of behaviour that stand for certain emotions; gestures, gesticulations and tones of voice – are all fluctuating on an invisible stock exchange all the time. Life is moving, influences are playing on actor and audience, and other plays, other arts, the cinema, television, current events, join in the constant rewriting of history and the amending of the daily truth. In fashion houses someone will thump a table and say “boots are definitely in”: this is an existential fact. A living theatre that thinks it can stand aloof from anything so trivial as fashion will wilt. In the theatre, every form once born is mortal; every form must be reconceived, and its new conception will bear the marks of all the influences that surround it. In this sense, the theatre is relativity. Yet a great theatre is not a fashion house; perpetual elements do recur and certain fundamental issues underlie all dramatic activity. The deadly trap is to divide the eternal truths from the superficial variations; this is a subtle form of snobbery and it is fatal.
This made me hmmm as I consider what to think about the exiling of comedy now felt to be unacceptably hurtful.
We were up in San Luis Obispo and took a walk to the campus of Cal Poly.
In the college bookstore, among the unsold textbooks, I found this and bought it:
Man, I felt like Keats looking into Chapman’s Homer reading this thing. These lifeless translations can kill you when you take on foreign literature. The bad translation can put you off a whole literature for the rest of your life. In college I was supposed to read one of Chekhov’s plays. Trying to save a couple bucks bought the Dover Thrift translation, which is probably worse than putting the Russian into Google Translate. (We didn’t have Google Translate then, children).
I KNEW something was wrong here. There was something about Chekhov that moved people to tears, there was a reason theater people were still talking about Uncle Vanya.
Well, anyway, in this Annie Baker edition, you can feel it. The pain and the sadness and the funniness and the absurdity and the humanity of the whole situation. Man.
Bunraku is Japanese puppet theater. It’s been around since the beginning of the 17th century. The puppets are maybe three feet tall and are operated by people all in black.
Must credit young adult book The Master Puppeteer by Katherine Paterson for giving me some background in this bizarre art when I was a boy.
When I was in college the Awaji Island Puppet Troupe of Awaji Island came and did a performance in Boston. I went to see it and only left with more questions. Awaji puppets are similar to but not exactly bunraku.
Here we see Chikamatsu Monzaemon, who wrote at least 130 plays and is sometimes compared to Shakespeare. Until 1705, he wrote kabuki plays, for human actors. Then he abruptly switched to puppets.
Why did Japan’s greatest dramatist switch to writing plays for puppets?
Wikipedia wagers some guesses:
The exact reason is unknown, although speculation is rife: perhaps the puppets were more biddable and controllable than the ambitious kabuki actors, or perhaps Chikamatsu did not feel kabuki worth writing for since Tōjūrō was about to retire, or perhaps the growing popularity of the puppet theater was economically irresistible.
Perhaps in Chikamatsu’s day the puppets weren’t really point, the point was the lyrics and the music, so you may as well have puppets instead of actors.
How cool would it be if Aaron Sorkin switched tomorrow to puppets? Or better yet Shonda Rhimes?
After the switch, Chikamatsu’s career followed an all too familiar path:
Chikamatsu’s popularity peaked with his domestic plays of love-suicides, and with the blockbuster success of The Battles of Coxinga in 1715, but thereafter the tastes of patrons turned to more sensational gore fests and otherwise more crude antics
I feel I’ve reached the end of what I can learn about this art form unless I actually go to the National Bunraku Theater in Osaka to see a performance of The Love Suicides at Sonezaki.
“Art is something that lies in the slender margin between the real and the unreal.” — Chikamatsu Monzaemon, Naniwa Miyage