SCOT Suzuki Company Of TOGA

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SUZUKI’s Philosophy
of Theatre
  • The Theatre’s Mission Ⅰ
  • The Theatre’s Mission Ⅱ
  • Culture is the Body
  • Theory of Acting
  • The Promise of Theatre

The Promise of Theatre

The current trend of contemporary society, in this so-called age of globalization, can be characterized by two commonly used phrases. In other words, one can easily say that our way of living is strongly prescribed by a system symbolized by these two terms: market economy and digital communications. First, it is possible to estimate all forms of human activity on the basis of their economic worth. Even the location in which they take place and the time that they encompass are regarded as a form of economic activity known as consumption, to say nothing of the products resulting from such activities. All our actions and even our very existence are from the start open to valuation in terms of monetary worth. This is the hallmark of the market economy system that prescribes our contemporary life, now caught in the maelstrom of globalization.

Second, our means of perceiving the world increasingly depends on the agency of non-animal energy sources (such as electricity, petroleum, and nuclear energy), while at the same time we rely more and more exclusively on our sense of sight when placing value on things. Even concerning the actions individuals take in their private lives, there is a tendency to be guided more and more by situational judgments made solely on the basis of visual recognition. It is getting more and more difficult for us to use all of the five senses (sight, hearing, touch, smell, taste) in conjunction when sizing up a situation, taking action, or forming human relationships. The way we now communicate by email or text messaging is a case in point.

Of course, it is quite possible—even with people on opposite sides of the globe whom we have never met directly, i.e., by means of simple animal energy, never shared a common place or time together—to live in harmony as lifelong friends or, conversely, to slaughter each other. Indeed, the drive to establish an order that depends on non-animal energy and visual recognition is the hallmark of digital communications systems.

This tendency to maintain a collective order reliant on the digitalization of these economic and communication systems will not merely expand around the globe; it portends the eventual deterioration of the nation state, one of the principal frameworks of group formation that humankind has developed over the ages. Whether, with the aid of these systems, the search for a way for nations and people to coexist will result in peace, or whether it will precipitate conflicts of interest between nations, feelings of hostility between people, and environmental devastation leading to a worldwide crisis threatening the very survival of the human race, nobody has the faintest idea. And yet, there’s no denying we’ve reached a point where theatre specialists like ourselves must take steps to thoroughly examine the state of theatre to decide what must be abandoned, what must be preserved, and what must be created anew.

What sort of future is in store for theatre, a cultural activity that has endured for two thousand some years? If the cultural activity known as theatre is to have any raison d’être for humankind in the future, what would that be and what sort of hardships must we overcome in order to achieve it? Taking these issues into account, allow me to offer my thoughts on theatre.

Theatre as a form of expression is generally said to have its roots in ancient Greece. Moreover, this Greek theatre focused attention on ineluctable human conditions and basic issues which the state, family, and individual had to face in their continued survival, and thus demanded that people consider how to cope with such issues. These include religion, family, sexuality, war, and politics, that is, matters concerning the rules and codes of conduct of a collective in which the effort or judgment of a single individual has no sway. Why is it that Greek theatre focused not on the hardships of life or on the troubles of individuals in their everyday lives, but rather dealt with incidents and human relationships that brought about the collapse of families and nations? I believe it is because the Greeks of that era were most concerned with those rules that determined the formation of group order and the rules by which the order of the group was maintained. As evidence of this, one may point to the fact that most of the protagonists of Greek tragedy have committed the crime of murder. The act of murder is the ultimate enemy of public order.

Oedipus, Medea, and Orestes, as well as the Greek soldiers in “The Trojan Women” and the Maenads in “The Bacchae”, are therefore, as a matter of course, murderers. Even though the reasons that led them to the act of murder all differ, and they all were admittedly of the mind that their actions were fully warranted, there is no question that each of them would be put on trial as a criminal under our modern legal system. In other words, setting aside whether such events actually occurred or were simply imagined as possible, it was in any case theatre artists who furnished an overall picture of crime to the general public, providing material for discussion on what to make of it. And the location where this took place was the public facility known as the theatre. In this sense, one can say that theatre artists were those who discovered meaning in every possible sort of human action and the events ensuing therefrom, who thought of how that concerned the group, and who made their views publicly known.

Allow me to present my case by offering a concrete example. Among the protagonists in the works of Euripides—one of the three great Greek tragedians—there is a young man named Orestes. This Orestes kills his mother for having murdered his father, a warrior, and then, due in part to the censure of the citizenry and in part to the severe anguish he feels from the guilt of his crime, turns half-crazy, wandering from country to country. Yet this Orestes, when his mother’s father denounces the deed as an unjust crime, insists, on the contrary, that what he did was not unjust at all but simply an ill-fated, unfortunate act and, in the end, a righteous deed. In justification, he argues that if a woman were to murder her husband and the child took pity on her and pardoned her simply because she was his mother, any woman could go ahead and kill her husband whenever she liked, as long as she could come up with something suitable with which to accuse him. And since through killing his own mother Orestes prevented such conduct from becoming custom, he claims that what he did constituted a service to Greek society as a whole.

It is not wholly impossible to appreciate Orestes’ argument on a gut level. If the perpetrator of the murder of one’s father managed to survive, he argued, it is only right that one should seek vengeance. So why should that act be considered unjust? In response to this, Orestes’ grandfather, whose daughter had been killed, insists that she should be punished for her crime by due process of law, not by some kind of personal revenge. Arguing that it would result in a never-ending chain of retaliation, he suppresses both the sympathetic voices pleading Orestes’ innocence and those calling for his banishment and instead incites his fellow citizens to execute Orestes. This development, however, can be read as Orestes’ grandfather, lamenting his daughter’s murder so much, using the law as a pretext to fulfill his own personal revenge.

If one considers the way arguments develop and events unfold in the story of the fall of the house of Atreus—in which a single murder sets off a chain reaction of murder after murder—in light of the seemingly endless string of international conflicts in the modern world, the story is so familiar that it is hard to believe it was written more than two thousand years ago. Looking at the twentieth century as a historical example, it would be difficult to assert that the repeated slaughter of different ethnic groups during wartime in the name of lawfulness and justice faithfully followed modern legal systems made up of dictates for maintaining order. Rather one can hardly deny that these acts were underpinned by the feelings of discrimination and vengefulness of the powerful, whipped up to the level of mass hysteria.

When I first read this text of Euripides’ it struck me as strange. The words Orestes speaks in rebuttal to his grandfather are uttered not in the present but in the past tense as if spoken from some future standpoint. I encountered here an entirely different type of stage language from that of dialogical drama, in which a play is composed of words that reveal the current psychological or emotional state of the characters. This is what Orestes says: My actions served society by preventing the murder of husbands by their wives from becoming customary.

When a criminal’s own deeds are put on trial, it is common for him to insist that his behavior was justifiable and not illegal. However, it is not so usual for a criminal not only to insist on his own righteousness but to contend that his own action and thinking transcend his own interests and offer a service to society as a whole. Moreover, I’m sure it would be quite unusual for anybody to incline an ear to him when he insists that the grounds for his exoneration lie in the future, that history will vindicate him. In order to survive a time and place where this sort of thing is realized, that individual must, to some degree, have a real feeling for and take pride in having lived in an age associated with a changeover in the values of an entire society. Apart from those whom one might call political criminals of conscience, it is a scenario from life unlikely to visit upon the majority of people who live in peaceful circumstances.

For killing his venerated father and for being treated poorly, a young man who had been leading a peaceful life kills his mother. Such an incident may have actually taken place in ancient Greece. But it is inconceivable that any person who was actually party to the crime would insist immediately afterwards that he had prevented the custom of killing husbands, calling upon a future society for justification of his deeds. It seems to me that if there were a young man who had actually committed the same sort of murder as Orestes, he would either lament the ill fate and misfortune he had been dealt or reflect deeply on the righteousness of his own feelings which led to the deed—not the deed itself—and fall into deep silence.

The words placed in the mouth of the character named Orestes are in fact the words of the playwright Euripides who, after some passage of time, interrogated the true feelings of the murderer as well as the meaning of the deed, feelings which had sunk into the silence of the past. It was a past that Euripides wished to relate directly to the people of his same era.

Through my encounter with these words in a play of Euripides’ I discovered once more the power of this form of expression known as theatre along with its raison d’être. So what does an audience feel when they see the character Orestes actually enacted on the stage? When an actor playing Orestes recites the words of the script I have been talking about, there are three levels of time and space—call them three societies—which the spectators encounter. One is the level in which the murderer named Orestes lived, the second is that in which Euripides lived, and the third is that of the actor performing on the stage in the present moment. By experiencing these three levels of time and space, the audience is able not only to perceive the historical circumstances they themselves reside in but also catch a glimpse of a future time and space as well. Even if the conclusions reached are founded on a set of values and standards of judgment different from one’s own nation or ethnic group, in the commonly shared form of expression enjoyed globally at present, that very dissimilarity may stir the imagination and invigorate one to think of human existence in a universal way.

For any nation, the people and incidents of its past never remain unchanged matters of historical fact. Things that are reinterpreted or modified to suit each political purpose or to justify the actions of a particular group are forever referred to as past historical fact. Time and again we have witnessed the revision of historical fact by political power-holders or religious figures bearing malicious intent. However, Euripides once again reminds us how theatre makes possible a variety of interpretations of past reality, making it a powerful weapon for enabling the individual to participate freely in the creation of history.

I stated at the outset that our contemporary society is prescribed by rules generated by two kinds of systems by which order is formed. These two systems, that of the market economy and that of digital communications, are both based on rules having clear aims and standards of worth. And they are each systems that tend to form a society dependent on non-animal energy.

The first of these systems posits the value that making a profit and achieving economic prosperity are the highest aims either an individual or a community can pursue. The other holds that providing all information rapidly and wherever possible in visual form and sharing it with many people as possible is the ideal. All human activity, even physical and mental conditions, are quantified in monetary terms and rendered as visual information as a means of fulfilling the aims of a particular group or nation. The global society propped up by these systems and spreading to all corners of the earth differs utterly from the society which human beings had established up until the mid-twentieth century, which had cherished principles of group formation and systems of communication in which animal energy was utilized and refined. At first glance, they may appear to be systems of society that embrace a diversity of values, but in fact quite the opposite is the case: Because their goals are so singular they give rise to a tendency toward standardization based on the value inherent in the activities and mental states of human beings. For that reason, nations that have established a democratic political system or achieved high economic or educational standards are not necessarily most able to adapt to these systems. Nations ruled by political despots, economically impoverished countries, or groups sustained by feudalistic human relationships much more swiftly appropriate these aims, and their people are much more likely to succeed in adapting themselves to such systems.

In such an epoch as this, there is no doubt that theatre as a form of communication will dwindle to a minor cultural activity enjoyed only by a small number of people. Because theatre cannot be experienced without sharing a common space and time, no matter how excellent it may be, the impact it has on contemporary society is pitifully small compared with other media that utilize non-animal sources of energy. And yet, one must not forget the fact that theatre has survived for well over two thousand years unbowed by the changing circumstances of any age. What is more, it was in order to reconfirm the meaning of human existence that people forged and tempered this animal energy that is the theatre and held such an unflagging belief in its power.

Throughout human history there has never been a time without actors who discovered a reason for living in the passionate expenditure of animal energy in an attempt to deepen the understanding of the human condition, or without dramatists who forged their reason for living into words in the hope that it could be shared with as many people as possible. And if one imagines, over these two thousand some years and in regions all over the face of the earth, how very many people have experienced this form of communication compared to other forms of communication which have come and gone with the times, one can take great pride in the fact that theatre is yet prevailing, even if only a small number of people may now enjoy it.

In the future, if theatre is indeed to survive and still be needed as theatre, it can do so only with the help of people who feel that this longevity itself is a marvelous thing, and who, no matter what changes the times may bring, strive to maintain a consciousness through this form of communication that enables individuals to participate in the creation of history.

As I was born in Japan, the principal stronghold of my endeavors as a theatre artist has been Japan. However, I have collaborated with innumerable artists from outside of Japan in a variety of theatrical enterprises, through which I have come to the conviction that for any artist, home is not a matter of where one was born or operates. Rather, there exists a home within the heart, joined by powerful emotions and in solidarity with others, where human beings can find repose. Now, at my advanced age, I can say without hesitation that having this conviction is the main reason I have been able to remain active in theatre for so many decades. And although I may not have many years left, I would like to end my speech by asserting in front of you all that with this conviction I will continue my endeavors in the theatre to the very end.


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