Every Tuesday and Thursday at the Whitney Humanities Center, a class of roughly seven students meets to learn about and discuss kabuki, a form of Japanese theater that emerged in the 17th century.
The Theater Studies Department has made it a focus to incorporate global themes and courses into Yale’s theater curriculum, said its Director of Undergraduate Studies Paige McGinley. Despite administrators’ intent to broaden the cultural scope of the Theater Studies major, neither the class’s professor William Fleming nor three students in the class were aware of this goal. Regardless, two students said that by studying kabuki, they have been inspired to define theater in a more inclusive way.
“As someone who’s doing a lot of theater, this course has directly influenced me in terms of the kind of theater I try to do,” said Gabrielle Hoyt-Disick ’15, a student in the class.
Hoyt-Disick explained that kabuki is “a beautiful impulse,” often embracing the overt theatricality that Western theater hides. Kabuki, for instance, incorporates costume changes into the performance itself. Alex Oki ’13, another student in the class, said he watched a kabuki performance for the first time in Japan and had never seen anything similar in Western theater.
“The elaborate costumes, stylized delivery, dramatic makeup and poses and men performing female roles … are all very unfamiliar and disorienting,” Fleming said.
While Hoyt-Disick said that even the most realistic kabuki storylines are wilder than “the craziest Shakespeare plot,” Oki said love suicides and other seemingly unusual events were not particularly rare when these plays were written. During class last Thursday, Fleming explained that kabuki’s tales were often influenced by fictional Japanese comic books from the Edo period, which lasted from the early 1600s to the mid-1800s.
“Writers and readers were avid theatergoers, famous actors moved in the same circles as popular authors and the theater was a great source of stories and inspiration,” Fleming said. “Edo popular fiction and popular theater can’t be separated from each other.”
Oki said many plots were derived from news stories that “everyone knew about, and these playwrights were producing them overnight.” The Japanese word for such plays literally translates to “overnight pickles.”
Although the development of the kabuki class took place as part of the Theater Studies Department’s increasingly international focus, Fleming said he feels that the gradual internationalization of the arts at Yale has come from students, individual faculty members and small groups rather than the administration.
“I’m not sure any internationalization, real or perceived, is the result of a centralized effort so much as the product of numerous smaller programs, initiatives and collaborations around the University,” Fleming said.
Three students interviewed said their interest in studying kabuki grew out of a desire to learn more about Japanese culture.
“[Kabuki] comes from a completely different culture with very different societal norms,” Oki said.
The link between studying an untraditional form of theater and gaining cultural knowledge is especially clear at Yale, which East Asian Languages and Literatures Director of Undergraduate Studies Tina Lu said has one of the “strongest” East Asian studies programs in the country.
This is the first semester in which the class is being offered.