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Drama: The Forgotten Genre

Drama: The Forgotten Genre

Cody Poulton of the University of Victoria traces the rise and fall of drama as a literary genre in early 20th-century Japan.

By Lorena Olvera

Drama as a literary genre exercised some of the best minds of the Meiji era

Modern Japanese drama developed late in the Meiji Period (1868-1912), but was looked down upon by important critics and often relegated to publication in print instead of performance. Eagerness to westernize Japan reached the entertainment industry when a group of critics who were concerned with Kabuki's coarseness and failure to represent western ideals asked for the theater to reform. A new theater emerged and a new literary genre alongside it, explained Cody Poulton, a Professor at the University of Victoria, at a colloquium sponsored by the Paul I. and Hisako Terasaki Center on Feb. 9, 2009.

"Drama as a literary genre exercised some of the best minds of the Meiji era," even though many of these playwrights have been forgotten, said Poulton.

Drama began as a literary genre when Mori Ôgai, a Japanese translator and novelist, wrote an essay calling for a simpler style of theater; one "given life through its text" that challenged the writers, rather than the performers and marked a shift away from Kabuki's emphasis on performance over text. The shift continued in 1893-94 with Tsubouchi Shôyô's essay, Our Nation's Historical Drama, where he argued a need for a new style of dramatic narrative and went on to outline how drama should be written.

Shôyô went on to establish the Literary Art's Society which read Shakespeare's works and later produced them on stage. But it was his 1911 production of Henrik Ibsen's controversial A Doll's House that truly shocked the intellectual crowd. "The rise of the atarashii onna [the new woman] was instigated from the production of Ibsen's work," said Poulton. The play sparked debate and prompted women writers to create plays from a feminist perspective.

However, while the theater performed western plays in the Taisho Era (1912-1926), Japanese writers struggled to receive recognition and to get their works staged. There was a sense that "modern theater had to be western and it couldn't be Japanese," said Poulton.

Plays by Japanese writers thrived not on the stage, but in print. Even the popular female Kabuki writer Hasegawa Shigure, who began to write modern drama after Shôyô produced A Doll's House, is remembered as a Kabuki writer. She was most active in the 1920s coediting a literary magazine with plays and reviews by women. Many authors dabbled in modern drama, but "most of these writers have been forgotten by now and those remembered are remembered for other things," said Poulton who cites novelists Nogami Yaeko and Kikuchi Kan as examples.

The influential critic Osanai Kaoru, who opened the Free Theater in 1909 and Tsukiji Little Theater in 1924, produced primarily western plays, saying that Japanese plays were not good enough for the stage. Osanai finally produced Tsubouchi Shôyô's En No Gyôja, published ten years earlier, but by then drama as a literary genre began to wane. Theaters became highly political from the late 1920s until the Imperial Rule Association shut them all down in 1940. In the interim political playwrights who did not collaborate with the government were often imprisoned, exiled or blacklisted for their affiliations, said Poulton.

Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies