The JAPANESE drama, as all evidence seems to agrees in showing, still remains what in substance it has always beenan amusement passionately loved by the lower orders, but dignified by no literature deserving the name. Apart from its native elements of music, dance, and song, and legendary or historical narrative and pantomime, it is clearly to be regarded as a Chinese importation ; nor has it in its more advanced forms apparently even attempted to emancipate itself from the reproduction of the conversational Chinese types. As early as the close of the 6th century Hada Kawatsu, a man of Chinese extraction, but born in Japan, is said to have been ordered to arrange entertainments for the benefit of the country, and to have written as many as thirty-three plays. The Japanese, however, ascribe the origin of their drama to the introduction of the dance called Sambâso as a charm against a volcanic depression of the earth which occurred in 805 ; and this dance appears still to be used as a prelude to theatrical exhibitions. In 1108 lived a woman called Iso no Zenji, who is looked upon as "the mother of the Japaneses drama." But here performance seem to have been confined to dancing or posturing in male attire (otokomai) ; and the introduction of the drama proper is universally attributed to Saruwaka Kanzaburô, who in 1624 opened the first theatre (sibaïa) at Yeddo. Not long afterwards (1651) the play-houses were removed to their present site in the capital ; and both here and in the provincial towns, especially of the north, the drama has since continued to flourish. Persons of rank are never seen at these theatres ; but actors are occasionally engaged to play in private at the houses of the nobles, who appears formerly themselves to have taken part in performances of a species of opera affected by them, always treating patriotic legends and called n ô. The Mikado only has a court theatre.
The subjects of the popular plays are to a large extent historical, though the names of the characters are changed. An example is to be found in the j ô turi, or musical romance, in which the universally tale of Chiushingura (The Loyal League) has been amplified and adapted for theatrical representation. This famous narrative of the feudal fidelity of the forty-seven rouins, who about the year 1699 revenged their chiefs judicial suicide upon the arrogant official to whom it was due, is stirring rather than touching in its incidents, and contains much bloodshed, together with a tea-house scene which suffices as a specimen of the Japanese comedy of manners. One of the books of this dramatic romance consists of a metrical description, mainly in dialogue, of a journey which (after the fashion of Indian plays) has to be performed on the stage. Other popular plays are mentioned dealing with similar themes, besides which there are domestic dramas of a very realistic kind, and often highly improper, though all intrigues against married women are excluded. Fairyand demonoperas and ballets, and farces and intermezzos form an easy transition to the interludes of tumblers and jugglers. As a specimen of nearly every class is required to make up a Japanese theatrical entertainmentwhich lasts from sunrise to sunsetand as the lower houses appropriate and mutilate the plays of the higher, it is clear that the condition of the Japanese theatre cannot be regarded as promising. In respect, however, of its movable scenery and properties, it is stated to be in advance of its Chinese prototype. The performers are, except in the ballet, males only. Though the leading actors enjoys great popularity and very respectable salaries, the class is held in contempt, and the companies were formerly recruited from the lowest sources. The disabilities under which they lay have, however, been removed ; nor is it impossible that the reign of progress in Japan may revolutionize an agency of civilization which it seems for the present to have regarded as beneath its notice.
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