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Asian drama

These are dramatic works produced in the East. Of the three major Asian dramas—

  • Sanskrit
  • Chinese
  • Japanese

—the oldest is Sanskrit, although the dates of its origin are uncertain. 1

See also Sanskrit literature; Chinese literature; Japanese literature; and drama, Western. 2

Sanskrit Drama

Sanskrit drama is part of Sanskrit literature, the classical literature of India, which flourished from about 1500 B.C. to about A.D. 1100. The earliest extant critical work on Sanskrit drama is attributed to Bharata, the legendary formulator of the dramatic art in India. That work, the Na ya-sastra (c.2d cent. A.D.) is relatively late but could be a reworking of a much earlier version. References to the drama and to dramatic criticism in the work of the grammarian Panini constitute a more certain indication of an early date for Sanskrit drama. The earliest-known Sanskrit playwright was Bhasa (c.3d cent. A.D.) while among the most renowned were Kalidasa, Bhavabhuti (c.8th cent. A.D.), and King Harsha. Few Sanskrit plays survive, perhaps due to the limited size of their exclusively aristocratic audience as well as to their antiquity. 3

The Sanskrit plays were performed in palaces and, as in all Asian drama, the performances were highly stylized in terms of gesture and costume, and music and dance played a significant part in them. To the Westerner, Sanskrit plays would probably seem overladen with religious and supernatural elements. However, they are also firmly grounded in the real world, which often forms a positive contrast to the negative aspects of the supernatural; the plays of Kalidasa convey a sense of the natural world with a fine simplicity, whereas those of Bhavabhuti depict a more grandiose nature. 4

It is undoubtedly the religious influence that explains the happy endings occurring in all Sanskrit drama. Love and heroism are the two most common sources of emotion in the plays, although there is a frequent infusion of a sense of wonder produced by the supernatural elements. Indeed, some plays are almost totally concerned with the supernatural (Kalidasa’s Vikramorvasi) while others treat political and historical topics (Kalidasa’s Malavikagnimitra). Another type is represented by Mrcchakatika, attributed to the legendary King Sudraka, which concerns ordinary people and is profuse in exciting, melodramatic incident. 5

Sanskrit drama later developed into a didactic form of religious allegory represented by the Prabodhacandrodaya of Krsnamisra (11th cent.). The language of Sanskrit drama alternates between prose and lyric poetry. Since Sanskrit is a literary language, it is used only by important characters; inferior characters speak in the vernacular known as Prakrit. 6

Chinese Drama

The classical Chinese theater developed during the Yüan dynasty (1260–1328). Springing from story cycles made familiar by professional storytellers, Yüan plays relied for their appeal on romantic or sentimental plots. During the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) the drama utilized the plots of popular novels. Until the 19th cent., Chinese drama was not spoken; it was a mixture of music and declamation. Like the Sanskrit, Chinese drama avoids tragedy as that term is understood in the West. However, it is frequently infused with pathos, often involving the deaths of women. 7

Although acting style, character types, stage properties, and other external features of Chinese drama are highly conventionalized, there is great narrative freedom in the plays themselves. Often they are replete with Confucian ethical precepts, propounded with rigid didacticism. Many of the plays, however, embody a Taoist mysticism that runs counter to Confucian influence. Chinese drama is more social and less concerned with romantic love than is the Sanskrit. Family and country are frequently regarded as of more importance than the individual. 8

In contrast to the Sanskrit, Chinese drama was written for a popular audience, and dramatic performances took place in virtually every village. There are many Chinese plays extant, ranging in mood from pathos to farce. Among the masterpieces of Chinese drama are The Injustice Suffered by Tou F by Kuan Han-ch’ing, The Western Chamber by Wang Shi-fu, and The Orphan of the House of Chao by Chi Chun-hsaing (all 12th–15th cent.); The Peony Pavilion by T’ang Hsien-tsu (16th cent.); and The Palace of Long Life by Hung Sheng (17th cent.). 9

In the West, Chinese drama has traditionally been regarded as an entertainment rather than a serious art form. There are several reasons for this judgment: first, the formlessness of Chinese plays, as, for example, Hung Sheng’s Palace of Eternal Youth (1688), a play in 49 scenes without any act divisions; second, the spectacular nature of Chinese drama, which relies heavily on music, song, acrobatics, mimicry, and costuming; and third, the preponderance of stock characters, such as the comic drunk. 10

In Chinese drama no attempt is made at realism; props and scenery are symbolic (for instance, a flag represents an army); the property man is present on stage; characters at times directly address the audience. Often only parts of plays are performed, or scenes are performed in arbitrary sequence. Since the early 19th cent. the Beijing opera has been the dominant force in the Chinese theater. After World War I a realistic, spoken drama, patterned after Western plays, developed, but after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 the theater (except on Taiwan) devoted itself to political propaganda until the 1990s. 11

Japanese Drama

The Japanese No (or Noh) drama stands in stark contrast to both the Sanskrit and the Chinese. No plays are very short, virtually plotless, and tragic in mood. Performances of No plays are highly stylized, and they move at an extremely slow pace, often stretching a text of two or three hundred lines into an hour-long stage play. Such performances integrate singing, speech, instrumental music (three drums and a flute), dancing, and mime into a unity in which no single element dominates. Wooden masks are used by the principal character, women characters, and old people. 12

The No drama was developed in the 14th cent., bringing together elements from the earlier sarugaku [monkey music] and dengaku [rustic music]. Its invention is attributed to Kanami Kiyotsugu (1333–84), while his son Zeami Motokiyo (1363–1443) brought the No to its peak of refinement. Zeami was also a playwright who produced such classics of the No drama as The Well-Curb and The Lady Aoi. There may have been thousands of No plays written, but only about 250 are still performed. The language of the No is highly concise and symbolical. Quotations from Chinese and Japanese poetry are included to give the works a traditional basis; they are often central to the theme. 13

The setting is usually limited to a single place of extreme importance to the main character. All the actors are male. The plays center around a single character called the shite. Of secondary importance is the waki, who is often a priest and who serves as a foil to the shite. Both the shite and the waki have one or two attendants. There is also a chorus whose sole function is to sing. Frequently the chorus sings the lines appropriate for the shite, while he dances or mimes the action. It is common for characters to speak lines that seem meant for another character or to finish up another character’s speech; finally, a character may speak of himself in the third person. The effect of these devices is to objectify and universalize what otherwise is a highly emotional and personalized experience. 14

The usual form of the play is to present two manifestations of the shite. In the first part the shite presents a false or disguised appearance. In the second part he presents his true or spiritual self. The No stage is a plain platform about 20 ft (6 m) square with a walkway leading from the back of the stage to the greenroom. The musicians are placed at the back of the stage, and the chorus is on the right. The positions of all characters are very precisely set, as is the stylized movement on stage. Developing about the same time as the No was a type of short farce known as the Kyogen. The Kyogen are placed between No plays as comic relief. They do not use music, take about 20 min to perform, and are broad in their humor. 15

In the 16th and 17th cent. two forms of drama developed in Japan that have since surpassed the aristocratic and difficult No drama in popularity; they are the Ningyo-shibai [marionettes] and the Kabuki. The Ningyo-shibai reached its peak in the 18th cent. with the work of the playwright Monzaemon Chikamatsu; both it and the Kabuki show similarities to the No in their integration of movement, music, and language. Also, like the No, the Kabuki uses only male actors, even for female roles. However, both the Ningyo-shibai and Kabuki place greater emphasis on excitement and conflict in the plot. 16

The Kabuki uses more characters than the No, features much stage action as opposed to the stately, slow movement of the No, and avoids the use of recondite symbolism and allusion that frequently make the No a puzzle. The most popular play in the Kabuki repertoire is a revenge play entitled The Treasury of Loyal Retainers. One interesting facet of Kabuki, perhaps reflecting its popular origins, the Kabuki stage is marked by a walkway (hanamichi), which extends from the stage into the audience and to the back of the auditorium. The Kabuki, both in classical and modernized form, continues to be popular in Japan while the No is restricted to a few theatrical groups and is often obscure even to Japanese. 17

In the 20th cent. the Japanese have produced many Western plays, but their influence on Japanese drama has not yet been significant. The contemporary novelist Yukio Mishima wrote some No plays that, with their modern setting and pessimism, are far different in spirit from the originals. 18


See F. Bowers, Japanese Theatre (1952); J. J. Brandon et al., Studies in Kabuki (1978); A. Waley, ed., The N Plays of Japan (1922, repr. 1957); H. W. Wells, The Classical Drama of India (1963) and The Classical Drama of the Orient (1965); A. C. Scott, ed., Traditional Chinese Plays (3 vol., 1967–75); M. Gunji, Kabuki (tr. 1969); D. Keene, ed., Twenty Plays of the No Theatre (tr. 1970); L. C. Pronko, Guide to Japanese Drama (1973); I. Sekhar, Sanskrit Drama: Its Origins and Decline (1977); T.-C. Hsu, The Chinese Conception of the Theatre (1985). 19

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