From L'Art Du Théatre                                    KAWAKAMI         SADA YACCO
Climax in the Japanese drama, "The Geisha and the Cavalier." Katsouraghi, the Geisha, after an extremely violent scene of jealousy, dies in the Cavalier's arms. 

Theatres and Theatre-Going in Japan

MODERN Japan, despite its ready adoption of Western manners, is in things theatrical still faithful to the ancient feudal days, and the sanguinary, interminable dramas written many centuries ago are still the chief attractions in the Mikado's theatres. It is true that within the last few years—in fact, since the triumphant European and American tours of those distinguished Japanese players, Sada Yacco and Oto Kawakami—the old school drama has to some extent lost ground, and quite recently performances of Shakespeare's "Othello" and "Hamlet," and Daudet's "Sappho" have been received with favor by Tokio audiences.

The explanation of this curious survival of the old form of play, at a time when all Japan is eagerly imitating the foreigner, is undoubtedly to be found in the peculiar customs of the country. The progressive Japanese finds it easier to change his mode of dress than to reform habits bred in the bone. The old plays, lasting, as they formerly did, from early morning until nearly midnight, just suited the Japanese play-goer, who, when he does go to the theatre, makes an all-day affair of it. Indeed, theatre-going in Japan is a very serious matter, like an ocean voyage or long railroad journey with the American, and not to be entered upon lightly or without due preparation. Some ten or twelve years ago the Japanese police limited the duration of a dramatic performance to eight hours, and more recently Sada Yacco and Oto Kawakami, who learned a good deal in their foreign travels, introduced the comparatively short evening performance of three or four hours, an innovation which was at once welcomed by the better class of people. But the new arrangement found little favor with the general public, whose honorable traditions it rudely upset, and particular indignation was aroused in the bosom of the Japanese Matinee Girl—fully as important a person in Japan as in America—who loves to sit in the theatre as long as possible and weep over the play. For, to the gentle mousmé, the theatre is essentially the place for weeping. Japanese girls are extremely sentimental, and a play without borrowing situations would not appeal to them in the least. The musical comedy—as presented in America and England—is quite unknown in Japan, for which we Japanese should perhaps be devoutly thankful. Recently, attempts have been made to introduce grand opera in the Flowery Kingdom, but only with indifferent success.

From a native print.  Scene in a Japanese theatre during the performance of a play, showing the spectators stowed away in their little compartments.

Three kinds of plays are popular in Japan—the religious dramas, mingled with farce, the domestic dramas of everyday life and love, and the historic dramas, bristling with blood and suicides, which are liked best of all. The religious drama dates from the ninth century, when the country was visited by a terrible earthquake. Flames issued from the ground, and the priests, to propitiate the gods, executed [<167] a dance near the spot. The flames at once stopped, and in recognition of the miracle every performance of a religions play to this day is preceded by the Sambash or rhythmic dance executed by an old priest and accompanied by a plaintive chorus.

The programme for one day usually consists of three different pieces. The first is invariably an historical play, dealing with some noble family—its quarrels and misfortunes; and the third is a love story. The piece between these two is called a "Middle Curtain," being a classic with a wonderful display of dress and dancing.

At the end of each act the curtain is drawn to slowly in order to let the spectators remain as long as possible under the spell of the situation, which is continued, but at the end of the intermission it falls abruptly in order to dazzle the public suddenly with the splendor of the picture. These drop curtains are covered with enormous characters and in striking colors: black on orange, white on blue, violet on red. The same curtain is not used during the whole performance. It is the custom to make the present of a curtain to a favorite actor. Thus, when speaking of a popular performer, you say, "He has so many curtains!"


There are several fine theatres in Tokio, the most important being the Kabukiza, the Meijiza, and the Tokyoza. They are imposing edifices constructed of stone in semi-European style, but the interior is arranged in the old Japanese manner which has been in vogue since the birth of the native drama. You do not purchase your ticket at the box-office, as in other countries, but at the neighboring tea-house, where arrangements are also made to keep your party supplied with refreshments during the long hours the play lasts. Over the main entrance of the theatre is a large framed poster depicting scenes in the play then being performed. Entering the theatre you see a large square floor partitioned off into tiny compartments or boxes, giving the effect of a gigantic checker board. The boxes are three feet square by about three feet high, and they each accommodate four or five persons. On either side of the parterre, and almost level with the top of the boxes, is a plank which runs from the entrance down to the stage. This is called The Flower Path, its sides in olden times having been decorated with flowers. The Japanese stage is always supposed to face the south, but the origin of this tradition has been lost in time. There are two or three rows of boxes outside the flower path, raised slightly higher than the parterre, and the auditorium is closed on both sides by other boxes. On the second floor, facing the stage, are similar boxes, rising one behind the other and closed in at the back by a long, barred window. On the far side of this window is a narrow passageway or "chicken coop" to which are admitted those theatre-goers who on payment of two cents can see a single act. These form a special public, and a most important one to the Japanese manager. They are theatre enthusiasts who cannot let a day go by without seeing at least some part of the play. They are known as the success makers. They are equally well known as the noise makers! The din they make whenever one of their favorite actors makes his entrance is appalling. They shout Naritaya! (the stage name of the late celebrated Danjuro). The success or failure of a performance depends on the amount of noise they succeed in making, for in Japan very little attention is paid to what the dramatic critics have to say. Happy land!

When a Japanese makes up his mind to go to the theatre, he proceeds first by interesting his neighbors. If he is a married man he consults his wife and daughters. If he is a bachelor, he gets together a party of friends. The Japanese women are passionately devoted to the drama. It is usual for a party to book a box through a tea house connected with the theatre and at the same time make arrangements for what refreshments they wish served. The Japanese maiden makes the most elaborate preparations days beforehand, and when the eve of the eventful day arrives, she has been known to sit up all night so as not to oversleep herself the next morning. To be at the theatre on time, playgoers must rise with the sun, and all their meals, including breakfast, are eaten in the tiny box in the playhouse. It is not an easy task to reach one's seats and once the family has settled down, nothing but a catastrophe would induce it to leave its box. They eat in it, smoke in it, nurse babies in it, and put themselves thoroughly at their ease. In each box there is a small stove, at which they light the short Japanese pipe, and at their side is the plate of rice and fish with the traditional chop sticks, and a bottle of saka (rice brandy) and cups of tea, which are filled as often as emptied. The women chew candy and the men partake freely of saka as the play goes on. A man who has been obliged to escort his women relatives is often to be seen fast asleep, for politeness to women is not seriously discussed in Japan. During the intermissions, attendants with cakes, confectionery and tea pass up and down the elevated aisles offering their wares.

The Japanese thespian is a vastly more important personage than his professional brother in other countries. Directly he makes his appearance on the plank leading to the stage there is a flutter of excitement among the audience, and fans, purses and tobacco pouches, which have been specially embroidered for him, are thrown to him. When he reaches his dressing room lie finds notes containing burning declarations, and his effigy adorns the tortoise-shell hair-pin that keeps up the raven tresses of many a dainty mousmé. But the player has a more substantial reward than mere social success. He is also well paid. The Japanese theatrical season only lasts four or five weeks, but a good actor in that time can easily make his $5,000, while the wretched playwright, a poor, despised creature who in Japan is looked upon in the light of a theatre attaché, has to be satisfied with a miserly $100. When a manager wants a new attraction, he sends for the official playwright and suggests a subject. The author prepares two or three scenarios, of which the manager selects the best, and then the actors also have the right to alter the plan, to suit themselves.

Japanese audiences are very loyal to their favorites. What enthusiasm there used to be when the great Danjuro made his appearance! This magnificent actor, the greatest tragedian ever known in Japan, died a few months ago. He left no son, and it is a question who will inherit his name, which has been prominently connected with the Japanese stage for nearly four hundred years! And how delighted we were to watch the late Kikugoro, that wonderful actor whose talented son Baiko is now a matinee idol.

In 1890 the realistic acting of Oto Kawakami and Sada Yacco appeared as a protest against the old school. They were encouraged by the intelligent public, and they put on the stage an adaptation of "Sechu Bai," a political novel. This was the first time that a novel had been dramatized in Japan. With the death of its two greatest actors, Danjuro and Kikugoro, the old school of Japanese drama is declining. The past régime is slowly but surely merging into the new, only following in this, the irresistible progressive movement to which modern Japan owes her present important place among the nations.