N? Catharsis

He enters the stage with a relaxed heart, looking afar. He is an old man. And he has found a way to be graceful while old, to show his desire to be young in his footsteps. He dances. And he accepts that his legs disobey but this acceptance of tangible impermanence does not surface in his demeanor. He is an old man, who knows he is old, and tries to look young.

This is the Japanese n? representation of an old man, a layered display of aged existence. Of the three characters in n? theatre (old man, woman, and warrior), the old man is the most complex and the actor portraying him must fully understand the teachings of n? acting to be effective.

In 1400, in Japan, Zeami, the son of one of the most influential theater-owners and playwrights of the time, wrote down his family’s aesthetic secrets. In the late 1400s, one of the originators of the Japanese tea ceremony, Murata Shuk?, said, “I do not like the moon without clouds.” Zeami’s teachings called for Japanese drama to follow the same approach toward human action onstage as Shuk? would eventually take toward the moon. Zeami’s teachings are not about acting as the representation of a person, but of a state of existence, an imperfect one at best.

Western theatrical tradition, particularly ancient Greek theater, is also deeply rooted in the portrayal of imperfection, but of a more psychological type. Catharsis is the goal, an elusive purge of emotion from the audience. Achieving it relies on showing the consequences of an overly ambitious psyche, as characters think they have the agency to understand or alter their fate. When the limitations of the individual are ignored, and a protagonist expects to have a chance against the will of the Gods or against fate, a downfall is inevitable. Through witnessing the fall, the audience experiences the inflated sense of self onstage as a cathartic method that humbles the self offstage.

In n? theater, Buddhist influence establishes a different theatrical method. The ego that can fatally overstep its boundaries is abandoned. Instead, according to Zeami’s writings, the ultimate achievement in acting is to attain the enlightened state of the Flower, n?’s version of the elusive catharsis. Flower is a precise balance between emotion and grace, an equilibrium that abandons the ego entirely, rather than expanding it. In its most successful moments the Flower state can unveil a type of universal perfection of action to the audience, a balance not only meant for the stage, but for all human action beyond it.

N? acting is an organic and symbiotic process. The actor gains direction from his role but also gives his own novel understanding of truth to it. There is no fatal mistake or flawed ego to reveal. There is no exact moment of catharsis. There is no need to dramatically humble the self. The old man dancing on Zeami’s stage is already aware of his flawed, disobedient body, but comfortable in his awareness.  Unlike Greek protagonists, he already knows his boundaries. And he embraces them, in the same way Shuk? embraces the clouds that obscure and enrich his moon.