Tuesday, March 10, 2015

15 April - The Real Inspector Hound by Tom Stoppard and Sotoba Komachi: a Noh Play

In March we enjoyed the highly entertaining Sleuth, which had definite parallels with Deathtrap which we had read last year.  It is basically a two-man play, and we enjoyed the surprises when additional characters were revealed to be one of other of the protagonists.

In April we will be reading an entirely different sort of murder mystery.  One by Tom Stoppard (Sir Thomas Stoppard that is).  This Czech-born Brit is a prolific writer, whose works are usually quite mentally challenging!

Sir Tom Stoppard

The Real Inspector Hound

The Real Inspector Hound, a short, one-act play, is definitely one of Stoppard's more accessible works.  The plot follows two theatre critics  who are watching a ludicrous setup of a country house whodunnit and, by chance, they become involved in the action causing a series of events that parallel the play they are watching.  The play was written between 1961 and 1962, and is a parody of the stereotypical mysteries such as those written by Agatha Christie.  Indeed, the title is a direct reference to the ending of The Mousetrap.  Interestingly Wikipedia tells us that the producers of Agatha Christie's play could not publicly object to Stoppard's title without drawing even more attention to the closely-guarded ending of The Mousetrap.

The Real Inspector Hound examines the ideas of fate and free will, as well as exploring the themes of the play within a play.  It is an example of absurdism, farce, parody and satire!

Noh Plays

I have to confess that I have had to resort once again to Wikipedia for a summary of what a Noh play is!

Noh, or Nogaku, is derived from the Sino-Japanese word for "skill" or "talent" and is a major form of classical Japanese musical drama that has been performed since the 14th century. Developed by Kan'ami (1333 – June 8, 1384, a Noh actor, author, and musician) and his son Zeami, it is the oldest major theatre art still regularly performed today. Traditionally, a Noh program includes five Noh plays with comedic Kyōgen  plays in between, although an abbreviated program of two Noh plays and one kyōgen piece has become common in Noh presentations today. An okina (a particular sort of Noh) play may be presented in the very beginning especially during New Years, holidays, and other special occasions.

Noh is often based on tales from traditional literature with a supernatural being transformed into human form as a hero narrating a story. Noh integrates masks, costumes and various props in a dance-based performance, requiring highly trained actors and musicians. Having a strong emphasis on tradition rather than innovation, Noh is extremely codified and regulated.

Emotions are primarily conveyed by stylized conventional gestures while the iconic masks represent the roles such as ghosts, women, children, and old people. Written in ancient Japanese language, the text "vividly describes the ordinary people of the twelfth to sixteenth centuries".

Some Noh masks:

Sotoba Komachi by Yukio Mishima

Yukio Mishima (January 14, 1925 – November 25, 1970), was a Japanese author, poet, playwright, actor, and film director. Mishima is considered one of the most important Japanese authors of the 20th century; he was nominated three times for the Nobel Prize in Literature.  He was expected to win the prize in 1968 but lost the award to a fellow countryman and it was presumed that this was because of his radical right-wing activities. His avant-garde work displayed a blending of modern and traditional aesthetics that broke cultural boundaries, with a focus on sexuality, death, and political change.

He is remembered for his ritual suicide by beheading following a failed coup d'etat attempt, known as the "Mishima Incident". Mishima and four other members of his Tatenokai (private defence force formed by Mishima) barricaded themselves and in the office of a defence commandant, and tied the commandant to his chair. With a prepared manifesto and a banner listing their demands, Mishima stepped onto the balcony to address the soldiers gathered below. His speech was intended to inspire a revolt to restore the power of the emperor. He succeeded only in irritating the soldiers, and was mocked and jeered. He finished his planned speech after a few minutes, returned to the commandant's office and committed suicide (with the aid of one of his colleagues) following  a traditional suicide ritual, which included the composition of so-called death poems.  Mishima planned his suicide meticulously for at least a year and no one outside the group of hand-picked Tatenokai members had any indication of what he was planning. His biographer suggests that the coup attempt was only a pretext for the ritual suicide of which Mishima had long dreamed. Mishima made sure his affairs were in order and left money for the legal defense of the three surviving Tatenokai members.

Mishima was also known for his bodybuilding and modelling.  Despite having a wife and children, after his death Mishima's sexuality was also questioned and a male lover published letters that he had received from him.

Sotoba Komachi 

The original work was a conversation between two priests and a 99-year-old lady at a Buddhist shrine. She later admits that she is Ono no Komachi (one of the six great waka poets in Heian period). She is then possessed by Captain Fukakusa (one of Komachi’s suitors) angry spirit and confesses him visiting Komachi for 99 nights in order to earn her love but lacking one and dying in agony. Mishima reworked the story and borrowed the characters (the old lady and Captain Fukakusa) from Kanami’s Sotoba Komachi.

Mishima reset the story in a 1950s urban park. At the beginning of the story, five couples were sitting on the benches and embracing. A 99-year-old lady appeared in the scene and was questioned by a drunk poet, who was sitting alone observing her actions. They started a conversation and the old lady later confessed that she was once a beautiful woman when she was young and was admired by Captain Fukakusa. Suddenly the poet found themselves in the Rokumei Hall, a ballroom where many splendid-looking ladies and gentlemen were dancing. Everyone in the ball room were amazed by the beauty of the old lady (whom they recognized as the beautiful Komachi). The poet was surprised that the old, ugly and wrinkled woman became this beautiful young lady and felt in love with her. Not knowing the fact that all men who complimented Komachi’s beauty would die, he was not able to stop his affection towards her and spoke the taboo words. His last words before he died were ““I will meet you again, I am sure, in a hundred years, at the same place.”

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