Wednesday, April 29, 2020

67. BUNRAKU. From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975

The Bunraku troupe in Tsuri Onna (Fishing for Wives).
"In Lieu of Reviews"

For background on how this previously unpublished series—introducing all mainstream New York shows between 1970 and 1975—came to be and its relationship to my three The Encyclopedia of the New York Stage volumes (covering every New York play, musical, revue, and revival between 1920 and 1950), please check the prefaces to any of the earlier entries beginning with the letter “A.” See the list at the end of the current entry.

BUNRAKU [Drama/Japanese/Puppets] TR: Faubion Bowers; P: Kazuko Hillyer i/a/w City Center of Music and Drama, Inc., in the National Puppet Theatre Production; T: City Center 55th Street Theatre; 4/3/73-4/15/73 (17) Ehon Taikōki (The Exploits of the Tycoon); Shinpan Utazaemon (The Triangular Love); Heike Nyōgo no Shima (The Priest in Exile); Tsuri Onna (Fishing for Wives); Sonezaki Shinjū (The Double Suicide at Sonezaki)

One of the world’s theatrical gems, bunraku is a Japanese genre originating at the turn of the 17th century in which slightly smaller than life-sized puppets are manipulated in full view of the audience by three manipulators each, one for the head and right arm, one for the left arm, and one for the legs, all working in perfect coordination. Vocal passages are spoken and chanted by one or more narrators seated on their knees behind a reading stand on a platform at stage left, where they are accompanied by a similarly seated musician playing the three-stringed shamisen.

Performances are given in elaborate sets scaled to the size of the puppets but large enough for a considerable number of them and their operators to appear. The plays are principally of two kinds, historical and domestic, the latter depicting the lives of everyday commoners during the Tokugawa period (1603-1868).

This was the second visit of bunraku to America, following one in 1966, and included a repertory of five plays representing examples of the historical and domestic genres, with one dance piece (Tsuri Onna) adapted from the comical form called kyōgen. Japanese theatre expert Faubion Bowers translated the plays and provided simultaneous commentary on rented headphones, as he did for many similar visits of Japanese troupes. The titles of most of his translations are more descriptive of their themes than literal versions of their Japanese meanings.

The reviewers were suitably impressed by the skillful mastery of the performers, and were surprised at how the onstage puppeteers soon seemed to fade from notice as the highly articulated and realistically maneuvered dolls captured all their attention. “Bunraku’s figures offer us the idea of the represented person rather than specific human beings, even when the characters . . . are ostensibly a commonplace soy-shop clerk and a courtesan,” wrote Harold Clurman.

The effect of bunraku is best appreciated in the more intimate confines of the smallish theatres they employ in Japan. This feeling was somewhat dissipated by the cavernous City Center auditorium.

Previous entries:

Abelard and Heloise
Absurd Person Singular
“Acrobats” and “Line”
The Advertisement/
All My Sons
All Over
All Over Town
All the Girls Came Out to Play
Alpha Beta
L’Amante Anglais         
American Gothics
And Miss Reardon Drinks a Little       
And They Put Handcuffs on the Flowers
And Whose Little Boy Are You?
Anna K.
Anne of Green Gables
Any Resemblance to Persons Living or Dead
As You Like It
The Au Pair Man

Baba Goya [Nourish the Beast]
The Ballad of Johnny Pot
Barbary Shore
The Bar that Never Closes
The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel
The Beauty Part
The Beggar’s Opera
Behold! Cometh the Vanderkellens
Be Kind to People Week
Berlin to Broadway with Kurt Weill
Bette Midler’s Clams on a Half-Shell Revue
Black Girl
Black Light Theatre of Prague
Black Picture Show
Black Sunlight
The Black Terror
Black Visions
Les Blancs
Blasts and Bravos: An Evening with H,L. Mencken
Blue Boys
Bob and Ray—The Two and Only
Boesman and Lena
The Boy Who Came to Leave
A Breeze from the Gulf
Brief Lives
Brother Gorski
Bullshot Crummond