Political writers are fond of using “Kabuki dance” to refer to various tactics and machinations during political battles. We have unfortunately had too many examples of this during the past several years with government shutdowns, bailouts, failed grand bargains and now our tenth month without a state budget. The Chicago Tribune recently referred to Gov. Rauner as a “failed governor” because of his inability to compromise to get a signed budget. If this were a Kabuki play he would be playing either the fool or the villain. Using “kabuki” and politics or politicians in the same phrase always seems an insult to the artists of the Kabuki theater.
The three syllables Ka-Bu-Ki are roughly translated to, in no particular order: music, dance and skill(acting). The form began in the dried riverbeds outside of Kyoto about 1600. The choice of location was a result of market forces in that the flood-prone riverbeds were part of the commons and so the earliest performers, who were all women, could set up their platform stages without any rent. The style of performance was very popular and the number of companies grew. Unlike the restrained and philosophical “No” (or “Noh”) drama that was favored by the elites, Kabuki was brash, topical and danced to the accompaniment of drums, and shamisen which is a four-stringed instrument which culturally was the equivalent of our electric guitar.
It has always been difficult to make a living as an actor. Soon the women kabuki performers were arrested for prostitution and banned from further performing. Eventually by order of the Shogun only adult men were able to perform Kabuki and that was the beginning of the “onnagata” or female impersonator. Kabuki actors were segregated from the rest of the community and lived within the larger compounds of the theaters. This forced segregation led to extended theater families and roles, training, and secrets of technique were closely held. Until the founding of The National Theater of Japan in 1966, the only way to become a kabuki actor was to be born into the family business. The training is rigorous, complex and difficult. Kabuki actors are highly trained; part artist, dancer, musician and even athlete. When the founder of the National Theater, Nakamura Matagoro II, passed away a few years ago he was named a national treasure.
I wonder how many of our current politicians will be so remembered.