The giant billowing sheets that come to be associated with the Abe Kōbō Studio are preceded by a more modest, but no less entrancing object: the green stocking. It makes its entrance not merely as an inanimate object, but as a sort of main character in Abe’s Midori iro no sutokkingu (The Green Stockings, 1974): in its first act, there are several white objects on the stage, which appear to be furniture, or like the sheets that cover objects in a museum — some are in fact furniture, but others turn out to be characters in the play. They emerge from the sheets one by one (and later, some crawl back under the covers, together). In other words, like in Edogawa Ranpō’s The Human Chair, or Abe’s own The Box Man, there is a peculiar trick played on the viewer, the stable parameters of object and subject are shaken up.
The stockings are themselves a character in the play — the man’s lover, his dance partner, his replacement for real women. He has a fetish for collecting women’s clothing:
MAN: . . . High-heel shoes run down at the heels, stockings like twisted membranes, panties with flower patterns looking like frayed handkerchiefs, elastic bands with metal fittings of some kind attached, brassieres with the sponge rubber spilling out, corsets spread out like squid drying on a line . . . (1993: 80)
He steals them from clotheslines around the neighbourhood, his radius of activity ever dwindling, further zero-ing in on his house — it’s only a matter of time before he’s found out — “And try to imagine what it’s like when you’re caught in the act. (Cringes in shame.) It’s the bottom!” (80). Indeed, he’s found out, worst of all, by his wife and daughter.
Being caught in an excruciatingly embarrassing situation as such, it’s “the sort of thing one may expect to encounter in a dream or a nightmare”, says Timothy Iles (2000: 142). And as with all of Abe’s work, this play is suffused with the logic of dreams, and a questioning of the assured “reality” and permanences of the waking state. The man begins with a soliloqui on happiness: “Are you happy? Of course — or at least that’s what I keep telling myself, but I wonder . . . Isn’t it simply I’m afraid to think I’m unhappy? The minute you begin to have doubts, the floor under your feet starts to shake” (1993: 74). This can be read as an Abe-esque expression of general distrust towards all that is stable: traditions, the notion of a homeland, received social conventions, and so on. It is also in a sense an affirmation of the ‘unreal reality’ of the dream world. Abe’s world is one of constant surprise and instability. It’s a dream world, a fact he emphasizes countless times. Nancy K. Shields documents a conversation she had over lunch with Abe, Abe Machi (an artist in her own right, who also happened to be Abe’s wife, and who designed the sets for several of his productions, including The Green Stockings), Nitta Hiroshi (his agent), Seimei Tsuji and Kyo Tsuji (both ceramic artists) after watching The Green Stockings:
“I think it is a dream,” Seimei Tsuji says. “In Guidebook I the question itself arises: “Is this a dream?” I think the same question can be asked here.” Machi responds, “Originally Abe thought about calling it A Dream in a Wild Field.” It is a consensus among us that in The Green Stockings, dream logic prevails in the easy flow between the seemingly disparate levels of reality that we have seen in the theater. (1996: 126)
The man’s “number one favourite” item of women’s clothing is the pair of green stockings. It’s interesting to view the stocking in the light of this discussion of the dream-world that Abe expresses in his plays: in the sense that it can be turned inside out, inverted, like a sock or a knitted glove, or like the telling of a dream. When I tell my dreams, I take my interior world and turn it inside out, so that its lining is exposed. Benjamin expresses this in his Arcades Project:
Boredom is a warm gray fabric lined on the inside with the most lustrous and colorful of silks. In this fabric we wrap ourselves when we dream. We are at home then in the arabesques of its lining. But the sleeper looks bored and gray within his sheath. And when he later wakes and wants to tell of what he dreamed, he communicates by and large only this boredom. For who would be able at one stroke to turn the lining of time to the outside? Yet to narrate dreams signifies nothing else. [D2A,1]
As with Benjamin, there is an ambiguity here for Abe, in turning the stocking inside out. For Benjamin, its boredom is both inertia and disruption, and the intoxicating phantasmagoria of history as progress contains, like the trojan horse, the germ of something anti-historicist (a transcendence which is, in the end, the point).
In Abe’s play, the colour of dreams is green, a “colour mixed of anger and love”, one that is, like the man’s very metamorphosis into a termite-like herbivore, capable of eating grass, straw, paper, and so on, both oppressive and liberating. The man’s son’s fiancée says,
I like it . . . green, I mean. It fascinates me. I wonder why . . . Maybe it’s because green is connected with happiness. (Looks around.) But a place like that that’s positively crawling with green is oppressive. (92)
This is a key passage, I think, for understanding the ambiguity of Abe’s dream world: a space of transgression, but only within limits. There can be too much dream, and too much desire, too much happiness, to the point where it becomes stifling.
Iles, Timothy. 2000. Abe kôbô: An exploration of his prose, drama and theatre. Fucecchio (Firenze), Italy: European Press Academic Publishing.
Abe, Kōbō. 1993. Three plays, ed. Donald Keene. New York: Columbia University Press.
Shields, Nancy. 1996. Fake Fish. New York: Weatherhill.