“I’d never seen a play. I get the feeling that it’s for that reason that I was able to write it.”

Abe Kōbō’s daughter Abe Neri (now Mano Neri) describes in an interview how her father’s first novel, Owarishi michi no shirubeni (Signpost at the End of the Road, 1948), has very theatrical scenes (“engegitekina joukei”) and a dramaturgical conception (“engeki kara hassōshite”) that could easily be translated to the stage (interview with Kato Koichi, available online). Indeed, as she says, several critics have pointed out the dramaturgical quality of Abe’s narratives. For example, Christopher Bolton has noted that Hakobume sakura maru (The Ark Sakura, 1984), perhaps influenced by Abe’s own prior theatrical work, “might be thought of as a play” (Bolton 2009: 260).

And yet Abe admits that he had no training in theatre, and perhaps had not even seen a play before having written his first. So he says in his essay Naze Gikyoku o Kaku (Why Write Plays?). Timothy Iles quotes from the essay in his book Abe Kōbō: an Exploration of his Prose, Drama, and Theatre: “Until I wrote my first play, ‘Seifuku,’ I’d never seen a play. I get the feeling that it’s for that reason that I was able to write it” (2000: 124). Donald Keene makes a less decisive assertion, that Abe “probably had seen very few plays performed before he wrote one” (2003: 80). This seems more likely, that he had probably seen “few” rather than “none”. If Abe said he’d “never” seen a play, perhaps he was being hyperbolic. He was indeed a notorious fictionalizer (dramatizer) of his own biography, as Keene notes (“For example, his account of the difficulty he encountered in leaving Czechoslovakia because, at a village near the Austrian border, his passage was blocked by a gypsy woman who declared that she intended to make him her husband”, 72).

I don’t want to stray too far from my point, however, which is that Abe emphasized that seeing a play was not important to writing one — or rather, to negate the negation: that not seeing was important to writing one (“I’d never seen a play […] it’s for that reason that I was able to write it”, emphasis added). Why does he say that not seeing enabled him to write? Why does he maintain seeing and writing as two distinct — mutually exclusive, even — registers? Am I reading too much into it? Is it simply Abe’s way of saying that he was not influenced or stifled by current theatre conventions? I don’t believe so, for even if we suppose that Abe had never seen a play, he had certainly read many. His daughter Abe Neri says in the same interview that there was a time in Junior High School when Abe was forced to stay home for a year, sick with tuberculosis, during which time he vociferously read all the books his family owned, including a “complete works of drama”. Is this Western drama, or Japanese? It would be important, I think to historicize the nature of “dramatic structure” and take into account different understandings of ‘drama’. Another time, I hope. But for now it is important to note that Abe read drama, and wrote it, before he had seen it. At least, we can say that for Abe, from the beginning there was a tension between writing and performance, and between reading and seeing.

Sources:

Iles, Timothy. 2000. Abe kôbô: An exploration of his prose, drama and theatre. Fucecchio (Firenze), Italy: European Press Academic Publishing.

Kato Koichi, and Abe Neri. Abe neri-san to kataru. in Horagai [database online]. 1998 [cited 09/25 2010]. Available from http://www.horagai.com/www/abe/neri.htm.

Keene, Donald. 2003. Five modern japanese novelists. New York: Columbia University Press.

Rolf, Robert T. 1992. Tokyo theatre 1990. Asian Theatre Journal 9, (1) (Spring, 1992): 85-111.

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