I have for the last month or two been serving as dramaturg for the upcoming University of Hawaii Kabuki production “The Vengeful Sword,” which I have been posting about here, and in which I will also be appearing in a very small part, my stage debut.
I remain vague on what exactly a dramaturg is or what a dramaturg does, to be honest, and googling the term or looking it up on Wikipedia leads to lengthy discussions and descriptions that lead me to believe that, especially in the Western theatrical mode or tradition, there is a wide range of activities and responsibilities and roles which the dramaturg takes on. But, even so, I am rather enjoying this role, far more so than the standard kind of analysis-heavy, interpretation-heavy scholarship I am used to having to struggle to produce.
What I have been doing, and what I have been assured by my colleagues in the Theatre department counts as genuine dramaturgy, has chiefly been to maintain a blog filled with posts about places, names, and objects in the show. I have looked into the history of the Aburaya Teahouse where the play takes place, the actual historical incident upon which it was based, and of the pleasure district of Furuichi within which the Aburaya was located. I have looked into the Aoi Shimosaka sword – an object which plays a major role in the play – that is, into who the swordsmith Shimosaka was, why the sword is called Aoi Shimosaka, and whether there are any other plays or other stories that concern a curse associated with Shimosaka (I haven’t found any); and I looked into what a “certificate of authenticity” for a sword might look like.
As one series of exchanges in the play concerns the borrowing (lending) of ten gold pieces, or ten ryô to give the actual Japanese denomination, I recently looked into how much a ryô was worth. How much did it cost to visit a teahouse? How much did a wealthy merchant make, and how much did a low-ranking provincial samurai earn? How much is ten gold pieces to our samurai “hero”, relative to his income and/or to his other expenses?
Upon being offered the role of the taikomochi in the play, I also looked into what the term meant, i.e. who the taikomochi were. If I were to continue along this vein, I could certainly look more into all kinds of aspects of the world of the teahouse, how much a kimono or hair ornaments cost, and how much money the courtesans made as opposed to how much went to the teahouse1. I should also like to look into the history of the kiseru, what people smoked (tobacco, not opium, which never caught on in Japan apparently), and how the kiseru might have sometimes been used as a weapon; how tenugui were used, and precisely what style of wearing it has come to be standard signs (on stage, in other media) for a burglar, versus what way of wearing it is the samurai hiding his face (and protecting his hair) while going into a brothel. … One could also look into why it is that the shaved pate became popular (or socially mandatory, really) in Edo period Japan.
Lots and lots of things to look into, which help flesh out our understanding of the world in which the play takes place, helping us imagine it better, and helping us act out those roles better.
Of course, I don’t presume that I would ever or could ever make a living purely doing this kind of thing for theatre, especially not for Japanese theatre – how many kabuki troupes are there in the US, or even in the Western world as a whole? Certainly, one cannot make a career out of it (well, I’m sure there are troupes or theatres that do have their full-time paid dramaturges, but…). But, just to say that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed being able to flex my historical muscles in this way, to look into a variety of topics, to get at the meat of them, to take all kinds of bits and pieces normally overlooked in broader, more analytical/theoretical discussions of Edo period sociological and cultural developments, and to put them together to produce something which helps me (the historian) and the cast & crew (the readers) to find something interesting, something fun, to learn something more about the world of Edo period Japan, to better understand how certain things were used or what certain terms mean, and to just overall flesh out and expand our knowledge of the setting and our ability to imagine it more fully.
After all, that’s what drew me in about history to begin with – the study of history as a means by which to better understand and be able to visualize, imagine, and experience imaginatively the world of the past. I’m not one of those historians who is in it to understand sociological phenomena so as to better understand the present by looking at the past, or to better understand how to address current problems by looking to the past. That is all, of course, very valid and important work. But it’s just not my approach, and this dramaturgy effort has helped me realize more solidly that there is a place for the kind of research that I enjoy doing. I don’t know what I can or will do with this – as I said, I don’t expect that I could ever be a professional dramaturge (least of all in Japanese theatre) as a career – but, even so, it’s just good to get to do it for now.
I don’t know when, but I would like in the near future to create some posts for this blog here on the history of the kiseru (smoking pipe) and tenugui, so keep an eye out for those.
(1) Memoirs of a Geisha, as well as more serious, academic sources I have read, describe a system by which the girls (though, no, geisha and courtesans are not the same) are essentially indentured servants “owned” via contract by the house, and essentially working to pay out their debt to the house, incurred by the costs of their training, housing, food, clothes, etc.. And this play does discuss customers buying out the contracts of several of the courtesans, so as to ‘free’ them from the teahouse and take them home to be their wives. Yet, still, the play also talks of individual courtesans selling their hair ornaments and kimono to raise money to lend to a customer who requested it, and of another courtesan who seems to express the ability to choose of her own will who she will and will not marry. Cecilia Segawa Seigle, in her book Yoshiwara, discusses briefly how much teahouse staff made in tips. So, obviously, not all the money was going straight to the teahouse. I would definitely be curious to learn more about this, and am eager to read through Seigle’s book.