Dance Drama of the Samurai

Nov 17, 2012 – Feb 24, 2013

Noh is an ancient and uniquely Japanese form of theater that derives from sacred dances performed at forest shrines to entertain the gods. During the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, Noh was transformed into a performance art for an exclusive audience of samurai—the warrior elite. Medieval authors introduced a repertoire of plays that plumb the profoundest of human emotions—love, jealousy, hatred, and greed—through an elegantly choreographed blend of dance, music, and poetry.

Noh drama is deeply imbued with the Buddhist beliefs of the samurai class. In a typical plot, the shite (protagonist) is the ghost of a character from the distant past, one who is condemned to suffer in hell because of his (or her) attachments to the transitory world. In the course of a conversation with a traveling priest, the shite confesses his sins and seeks salvation. Through the catharsis of narration and re-enactment, the tormented ghost finds release at last.

Noh is an intimate and spare form of drama: an all-male cast, usually consisting of only two or three actors, performs on a thrust stage no more than twenty feet square. The principal actor wears a mask for most roles, and his dazzling silk brocade costume is a masterpiece of the weaver’s art. There is no scenery other than an auspicious pine painted on the back wall, and stage props are minimal. An orchestra of three drummers and a flutist sits beneath the tree, while the chorus of eight men, whose primary function is to chant the lines of the protagonist during the dance passages, is seated along the right edge of the stage.

This special exhibition presents a selection of traditional masks, costumes, and musical instruments that evoke the solemnity and celebratory splendor of Noh, while woodblock prints illustrate the performance on stage.

The Museum is grateful to the lenders who have made this exhibition possible by generously sharing their collections: Irwin Lavenberg, Sydney L. Moss, Ltd., Edwin and Ellen Reingold, and Target Stores.

Organized by the Portland Art Museum and curated by Maribeth Graybill, Ph.D., The Arlene and Harold Schnitzer Curator of Asian Art.