How many times has this happened to you?: You’re sitting there in the audience of the noh performances you attend regularly, and you sigh to yourself, “[Sigh], noh is delightful and all, but I’ve always wondered what the characters would be like if they just got totally wasted!...”
Well then, friends, have I got an entire genre of performance for you!: kyogen!
Over 500 years old, the form developed alongside noh, becoming distinguished more and more as both traditions developed. During the Edo period, many of the play were written down in full, and we have the rare pleasure of a comedy focused upon text, complete from a time when many texts—such as liturgical dramas or commedia scenarios—only pass down in obscure bits and pieces.
What we’re presented with is performance with the grace, discipline, and codification of noh, but with some fascinating twists. Vocal intonations are definitely more warped to spoof power, satirical reversals of class are practically inevitable, and, most shockingly, there are numerous moments of abrupt slapstick, all the more poignant against the staid nature of the rest of the performance and its style.
One could argue that the comedy and, more significantly, the parody involved predates and presages the lazzi of commedia and the politics of Molière.
The two pieces the other night were surprisingly entertaining and laugh out loud funny. The first, Shido hogaku (Stop in Your Tracks) mocks a malcontent, stingy samurai, who must borrow a sword, a horse, and tea for, yes, a tea ceremony. Annoyed, his servant tricks the master into switching places because of an ill-tempered horse. The servant rails against his master with the exact same words he had been scolded with moments before.
The second, Tsukimi zato (Moon-Viewing Blind Man) features a chance meeting between the titled blind man and a passerby, who drink, sing, and dance together in a field. After a lovely evening, the same passerby decides to trick the blind man by pretending to be someone else and picking a fight.
The moral in all these is that people are, essentially, assholes. Like any good satire should be.
Sure, they retain the soft steps and slow pace akin to noh, but the shared repetition is used for emphasizing the absurdity of the form. The spikes in pace also turn back in on traditional form. In fact, it’s one of the most incisive and well-developed satires of form I’ve seen. I can only think of the ironic, campy musicals of the past 10 years that are so palpable and integrated: both adoring and mocking their passion.