Arts & Culture

Playwright plumbs texts, ancient and modern

4 min read

‘I often time travel,’ says Radcliffe’s Miyagawa

You know Noh, no?

Chiori Miyagawa does. The Bard College playwright-in-residence, a Radcliffe Fellow this year, has steeped herself in Noh theater, a measured style of Japanese drama that dates back to the 14th century.

It’s one of the many literary echoes — some old, some ancient — that she brings to her work. “I often time travel,” Miyagawa told a lecture audience March 16 at the Radcliffe Gymnasium. “It’s my favorite thing to do as a playwright.”

Her 14 plays reach back to events for inspiration, including the 1945 bombing of Hiroshima. They also reach back to other writers, among them Kate Chopin and Anton Chekhov.

Miyagawa is inspired by old stories, too — “Antigone,” for one, and “The Tale of Genji,” an 11th century Japanese classic sometimes called the first novel.

Adapting from the past, she said, “begins with my dialogue with a dead writer.” For her play “Leaving Eden,” Miyagawa drew on five Chekhov short stories. Getting ready to write, she read his plays, stories, and letters. “I fell in love,” she said.

To the Japan-born American playwright, the theater is a place to explore notions of personal and public memory. It’s also an arena in which art forms from the East and the West can tangle tellingly.

Miyagawa called the Radcliffe experience “this utopia.” But she’s been busy here. She is adapting a handful of Noh dramas for a new play, “Restless Souls and Haunted Spirits: Crazy Woman, Warrior, Quasi-Madman, Ghost, Another Crazy Woman, Demon, Warrior from the Other Side, and Unfortunate Man.”

The long name captures some of the stylized, masked figures that populate the old form. (The last Noh play was written in the 15th century.)

Miyagawa invited an ensemble of five friends to read two scenes from her new play, preceded by one scene from an old. Four were Radcliffe Fellows: Peter S. Cahn, Michelle Clayton, Martin Harries, and Gwyneth Lewis. The fifth was Leighton Davies, Lewis’ husband.

The dramatic readers started with a scene from “Sumida River,” written more than 500 years ago by Zeami Motokiyo. He and his father Kan’ami Kiyotsugu ushered Noh into its classical maturity.

To see a lecture at Radcliffe Gymnasium morph into a dramatic reading is a stunning experience. All the shades were drawn up in the spacious old 19th century space, letting light stream in from dozens of high windows. It was like sitting inside a brilliant chandelier.

To layer the event with context, Miyagawa’s two Radcliffe researchers related a brief history of Noh and how its plays are structured.

Noh’s plebian roots included sarugaku — literally “monkey music,” said Amy Yoshitsu ’10. It was a circus-like blend of juggling, pantomime, and drum dancing.

Dengaku was another folk prefigurement of Noh, she said, popular in rural Japan as musical accompaniment to field work.

Percussion survived in classical Noh, said Vi Vu ’10. Hip, stick, and shoulder drums, along with a woodwind flute, now give measure to stylized movements.

Noh stages are temple-like, she explained, and peopled with traditional masked characters, including god, warrior, woman, and demon.

The five dramatic readers at Radcliffe needed no masks; emotions were raw, loud, and evident. The human condition — including anger, loss, indifference, and insanity — bridged the ages between fragments of the old Zeami play and the new Miyagawa play.

“Rave for us then,” Zeami’s ferryman tells a woman distressed over her lost son. “Rave and entertain us.”

In the first scene read from the new play, the 15th century riverside ferry dock was transformed into a modern bus terminal. There, a crazy woman looking for a lost son confronts two travelers — one indifferent, and one tender.

In the next scene, an aging father is caught between the conflicting stories of his teenage son and his young new wife. Is she a cheating temptress, or is the son a sex-mad liar?

Noh contains within it, said Miyagawa, “the emotions and archetypes of humanity.” (But her new play may be the only one ever that includes the distinctly nontraditional “Woman With Tragic Hair.”)

Memory — made fragile in the space between experience and shared history — is as much a character in Miyagawa’s plays as any. “We write our own history,” she said. “We write and rewrite our history until we die.”

Miyagawa moved to the United States at age 15. Without knowing a word of English, she found herself in an upstate New York high school, “cut off from all things Japanese.”

In self-defense, said Miyagawa, “I stopped being Japanese as much as I could” — embracing her culture (and with it Noh theater) only later in adulthood.

She turned to writing plays in 1994. Her approach to craft contains a seed of the Japanese girl, cautious in a new world. “I write every word carefully,” said Miyagawa. “There are no extra sounds.”