Recently I have attended a number of Noh performances where actors or chorus members would forget their lines. I am not talking about amateurs but professional actors on important stages. Some might find this surprising: forgetting lines would be inadmissible in other kinds of theatre. Imagine a super-famous tenor, or a Shakespearean actor forgetting what they had to sing or say during a performance at La Scala or at The Globe. Unthinkable as it might be in other contexts, this kind of mistake is fairly common, and to a certain extent accepted, in Noh.
How so? There are various reasons I can think of:
- Actors cannot concentrate on studying only one single play intensively for an extended period of time. Noh shite actors are involved in many other performances as ji-utai chorus while studying for their own part as shite main actor. This means studying a great number of libretti at the same time.
- A good Noh actor is like Ray Bradbury’s ‘living books’ in Farenheit 451: they should be able to recall the lines of dozens of plays at any time without the need to look at the utaibon. Maybe a ‘living juke-box’ would be a better metaphor.
- Since, to put it simply, Noh chants are basically variations around a very limited set of melodies, one can easily get confused, and take one line for the other. Oftentimes some verses are also the same or very similar, adding to the risk of confusion.
- Unlike other forms of theatre (not opera or anything that follows the libretto literally) it is impossible for a Noh actor to improvise. If the line does not come to mind, one can only wait for the koken stage assistant to prompt him, or else jump to the next line.
- Finally, one of the reasons why this kind of mistake is more accepted than in other contexts is that in Noh there is no intention to ‘hide’. There is no ‘trick’ or pretence of ‘fourth wall removal’ everything is on stage, including the fact that actors are humans.
Concluding, I hope this won’t happen to me during the forthcoming Kiyotsune! It is accepted, but better not to have the audience accept it!