Zeami’s notes: appreciating blossoming performances


ZEAMI: Performance Notes, translated by Tom Hare. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008, 528 pp., $45 (cloth)

Zeami Motokiyo (1363-1443), the actor, playwright and aesthetic theorist who established the Noh drama as a classical theatrical art, left behind some 21 treatises.

These were discovered late, in 1908, and have since appeared in a number of modern editions. They are perhaps best known under a title now considered erroneous, “Kadensho,” and have been several times translated into English.

Among the scholars/translators involved, before this new edition, have been J. Thomas Rimer and Yamazaki Masakazu, Mark Nearman, Shelley Quinn, and several others. One of the most appealing was that by the poet and teacher Lindley Willliams Hubbell. His edition, however, does not appear in Tom Hare’s bibliography for “Zeami,” nor is it reprinted in the two-volume “Works of L.W. Hubbell” (Iris Press, 2002). In any event, comparisons would not be useful since Hare’s is the first complete edition of all the treatises, here identified as “performance notes,” and comes backed by full, modern scholarship.

These notes, now in as authentic a state as they are likely to get, gives us the range of Zeami’s critical thought. They treat the aesthetic values of the Noh, the techniques of playwriting, the training of actors, and the relationship between performance and the broader intellectual and critical concerns of the day.

One of Zeami’s best known formulations was his referring to the “hana” (the “flower”) of the performance. Scholar Royall Tyler has defined this as a reference to freshness and aptness. “An actor who gives his audience the feeling that they are seeing for the first time, with keen emotion, an otherwise familiar role, has the ‘flower.’ ” Zeami said the effect was particularly affecting when the actor was no longer young so that his performance was like flowers blossoming on a gnarled bough.

Though the major manuscripts upon which this scholarship bases itself were destroyed by fire following the 1923 Kanto earthquake, various theoretical writings by Zeami kept turning up — the most recent finds dating from 1955.

Since Zeami lived to be 80 years old, and for half this period was writing (among other things) these notes on theory, his style, his way of phrasing himself, changed. Here Hare’s work is particularly interesting in tracing these stylistic changes, noting a growing preponderance of Chinese terms, eventually crafting a consciously elevated style, a kind of pseudo-Chinese. Here scholar Susan Matisoff has noted that Zeami’s “terminology borrowed, adapted, expanded, or distorted from other discourses of his time . . . .”

Current master of the field, he has here brought the critical focus much nearer his subject. For example, the small collection “Five Sorts of Singing” is one that has never before been translated. A collection it is and, at the same time, an anthology of musical methods. It is here given with its complete history, indications of all commentaries and a bilingual printing format that offers the original Japanese and the English translation on facing pages.

Hare has given us in this new edition of the complete extant theoretical writing of Zeami, a full, new view of the world of 15th-century Japan, its court, its theater and its aesthetics.