Suzuki Tadashi's Theatre: A Japanese Export that Enriches

Marianne McDonald
Department of Theatre
University of California at San Diego
La Jolla

Suzuki has staged three 'Greek' tragedies, or four, if we consider his two versions of Euripides' Bacchae as separate. The first Bacchae was presented in 1978, and the second was performed last year in Saratoga. The second version was called Dionysus. The other two plays are an adaptation of Euripides' Trojan Women and Clytemnestra, a combination of Aeschylus' Oresteia, Sophocles' Electra and Euripides' Electra and Orestes.

The Japanese expropriation of Greek tragedy, one of the West's greatest cultural treasures, is symptomatic of its emergence from pre-twentieth century isolation and post-World War II reparation. It also illustrates a new internationalism in the arts facilitated by the technological advances with which the Japanese are particularly identified. The new geopolitical construct is connected by an umbilical cord of communication that can nourish in some instances, strangle in others. Markets rather than nations now seem to dominate. This is the world of the broken boundary. As national barriers are blurred, barriers have become indistinct even between human and human facsimile. Philip Dick's androids are more human than the human, whereas the sarariman ('salary man') is expected to be robotic.

Most entertainment that survives the market takes few risks, but the theatre of Tadashi Suzuki still dares to ask questions, rather than simply lull its audience to sleep. His theatre crosses boundaries and challenges the imagination. It gives us a focus on the changing conditions of our own lives, as well as the lives of ancient Greeks and modern Japanese.

Suzuki formed his first company in 1966, the Waseda Sho-Gekijo; he is now based in Toga (Suzuki Company of Toga: SCOT), Tokyo, and a new theatrical facility built by Isozaki at Fujiyama. He also collaborates with Anne Bogart at The Saratoga International Theatre Institute located in Saratoga Springs in America. He began in Japan by doing some Japanese drama, and then turned to modern American classics. He was disappointed by the particularity of the latter and sought the universality offered by ancient Greek drama.

At the same time he developed a style derived from the classical Japanese tradition, particularly Noh and Kabuki, which involved the use of the whole body so that communication was carried out nonverbally as well as verbally. He also mixes casts, having Japanese work with American Caucasians, the latter speaking in English and the former in Japanese. Costumes are mixed: Clytemnestra is dressed in traditional Tokugawan costume, whereas Orestes and Electra appear in shorts and T-shirts. Western music mingles freely with that of the East, past with present.

Euripides appears to be Suzuki's favorite of the Greek tragedians; his acute psychological commentary and social criticism seem appropriate for the issues that Suzuki deals with. The Trojan Women is a study in suffering. A woman who has survived a catastrophe (Hiroshima?) imagines herself as Hecuba, and the drama unfolds. The original actress, Kayoko Shiraishi, played Cassandra also, and her transformation before our eyes from aged actress to young maiden was spectacular and thoroughly convincing. This play indicts the arrogance of the conqueror and shows how in wars it is the women and the children who suffer most: they survive only to mourn.

The stage backdrop of Trojan Women consists of brightly colored fishnets, and the suggestion is of the tangle that exists in the human mind, as in society. Samurai soldiers goose-step onto the stage in place of Bronze-Age Greek warriors. Their arrogant swagger and cruelty increase our sympathy for the abused women. A Japanese Bodhisattva (enlightened saint, or god equivalent), Jizo, is introduced. He stands on the stage motionless until 'Andromache' pelts him with a flower, blaming him for not protecting the innocent, particularly children. He doubles over in agony. The woman/Hecuba collapses, and presumably dies. 'Andromache,' who has been raped by the guards, leaves the stage to the sounds of 'I Want You to Love Me Tonight.' Just as female prisoners of war in the Greek world became the concubines of their captors, many young Japanese women were forced into prostitution in order to survive post-war horrors.

Suzuki's The Bacchae showed people oppressed by a tyrant who enact the Bacchae as a sort of catharsis. Pentheus the tyrant is killed and the people rejoice. But Pentheus comes back from the dead, and the cycle repeats itself. Again and again throughout history the tyrant returns; by bringing Pentheus back, Suzuki calls the egoistic individuality of the American into question. Dionysus, on the other hand, makes organized religion and the state the villains. Pentheus becomes a victim of Dionysus whom Suzuki represents by a group of priests who encircle Pentheus as they kill him. A group of people in wheelchairs enters the stage and leaves it reciting the lines from Macbeth which begin, 'Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow'. They are members of the 'Farewell to History' cult. One cult replaces another in Dionysus, and we see the individual as victim, a message appropriate for a Japan that lives by the maxim 'The nail that sticks out must be pounded down.' Dionysus as group and Pentheus as the individual are both deadly.

Clytemnestra deals more with the war of the sexes. It shows us a woman in a patriarchal society who fights back. Clytemnestra, after she has been killed by her son, kills him as he is locked in an incestuous embrace with his sister Electra. The incest is not an invention of Suzuki's: the implications are already present in Euripides' Orestes, (Or. 141-151), Clytemnestra as murdering ghost is Suzuki's creation. This Clytemnestra is like a ghost from a Noh drama, jealous and desirous of having her honor reinstated. She will kill the living to achieve that. She symbolizes both the mother who wields great power over her child and the wife who is powerless. In Japan, as in ancient Greece, the mother is confined to the home for much of her life, so her main freedom is in raising her child. It is through her child that she gains her freedom and her vengeance. Suzuki presents these issues masterfully in this play.

Suzuki used the natural setting of Delphi, where the play was performed, to dramatic effect. The cliffs called the Phaedriades ('the shining ones') formed a backdrop. As Clytemnestra approached Orestes and Electra in the final scene where she kills them, her shadow was projected against the mountain so that it loomed over the children, obliterating them with darkness before she plunged her knife into their joined bodies. Suzuki achieved the same effect in Japan by performing the play in the outer theatre designed by Isozaki for Suzuki following a Greek model. A lake lies behind the stage area and the audience can see the opposite shore with its tall trees. Clytemnestra's shadow was projected against these trees, and it overwhelmed the children there as effectively as it did in Greece.

Like ancient Japanese drama, Suzuki takes advantage of the natural setting and conveys a sense of the sacred. Some of the Noh stages were built over hollow spaces in such a way that they not only made the floor echo, but engendered the belief that they were inhabited by spirits that inspired the actors as they moved above them. Foot-stamping could be used to ward off evil. Suzuki's actors must learn to use their entire bodies, and how to have their feet tap the energy of the ground. Ki is centered in the lower body, and this gives force to the performance.

Suzuki speaks of four principles of Noh drama that have influenced him: 1. 'From the rehearsal period down to the actual performance, virtually no energy that is not human goes into an artistic creation'; 2.'Noh is non-realistic in its expression'; 3. 'The environment in which the whole of the Noh exists is altogether fixed'; and 4. 'The nature of Noh performance [is such that] even if a Noh actor in the middle of his role, falls dead on the stage, the performance continues' (pp. 29-31, The Way of Acting).

These principles tell us a great deal about Suzuki's work. He emphasizes the human, the actor, and the way the actor communicates in both verbal and nonverbal ways. Suzuki also uses artifice freely: controlled body movements and dramatic use of the voice, techniques mixing ancient with modern - East with West. Suzuki also chooses his locations with care, and they become 'sacred' spaces. The actors he works with are dedicated to their work and to each other, and to the sacred quality of every performance. Suzuki is as much a sacred leader as a director.

Suzuki has merged Japanese and Western drama with contemporary issues in an effective way. The clash of philosophies between the Japanese and the ancient Greeks contributes to an expanded perception in the Western audience, which is no longer constrained by logic, or linear time, or the belief that death is the end in an absolute sense. When someone dies in Suzuki's plays, he or she is as likely as not to reappear as a ghost. The messages of Noh, where the spirit world still informs the world of the living, are now inserted into Greek tragedy. Darius, indeed, in the Persians and Polydorus in Hecuba come to inform, but hardly to kill or to initiate a new cycle of oppression. But the avenging ghost, particularly the ghost of a jealous woman, is a common theme in Noh (e.g., The Lady Rokujo from the Tale of Genji) and in Japanese literature and movies (e.g., Ueda Akinari's Ugetsu Monogatari, and its movie version by Mizoguchi, Seijun Suzuki's Zigeunerweisen). Time is perceived in cycles rather than in fixed and discrete periods. The fluidity of the Zen world predominates, and what we need is to fully appreciate Suzuki's reality isthe freedom and abandon of a 'mind of a fish' as it swims in water.

Suzuki's is no ordinary theatre. It is what Peter Brook would call sacred theatre. Suzuki puts extraordinary demands on his cast (which we could properly call a thiasos). He likewise demands a commitment from the audience, which is well rewarded. One feels and experiences his plays physically and spiritually as well as intellectually. Suzuki also asks dangerous questions about us and our relation to society, our relation to life and death, our relation to oppression and freedom. How much are we free and how much are we slaves? What choices do we make that perpetuate our servitude? Is there perhaps no escape, except in interludes of passionate theatrical play? There is an overriding pessimism, but also a beauty in Suzuki's jewel-like creations that makes each performance a way for us to experience that moment in and out of time, 'caught in a shaft of sunlight.' Suzuki has revitalized the Greek classics and made them live and sparkle in our time. He has also redefined for us what it is to be human. By combining elements from two such distinct cultures as the ancient Greek and the modern Japanese, he has distilled out an element that transcends both: the essence of human suffering.

Further Reading

Tadashi Suzuki. The Way of Acting: The Theatre Writings of Tadashi Suzuki, trans. J. Thomas Rimer. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1986.

Three chapters on Suzuki in: Marianne McDonald. Ancient Sun, Modern Light: Greek Drama on the Modern Stage. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991.

'The Madness that Makes Sane: Mania in Tadashi Suzuki's Dionysus, TheatreForum, 4.1(1994)11-18.

Marianne McDonald

Marianne McDonald is a well-known patron of the arts.