Bloomsbury Cultural History - Genres and Repertoires: Redressing the Nation in Ireland and Japan
A Cultural History of Theatre in the Modern Age
A Cultural History of Theatre in the Modern Age

Kim Solga

Kim Solga is Associate Professor of Theatre Studies at Western University, Canada. Her books include Performance and the City (2009), Performance and the Global City (2013), Violence Against Women in Early Modern Performance (2009), and A Cultural History of Theatre: The Modern Age (Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, 2017). Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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Bloomsbury Academic, 2017



Ireland, Japan

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Genres and Repertoires: Redressing the Nation in Ireland and Japan

DOI: 10.5040/
Page Range: 159–180

Introduction: From a Literary Framework to a Performance Studies Model

The words ‘genre’ and ‘repertoire’ have typically been understood as a means of organizing information taxonomically about dramatic performance. Historically, ‘repertoire’ names the collection of plays that an actor or theatre company is capable of performing, and ‘genre’ describes different types and styles of theatre, beginning with Aristotle’s division of theatre into tragedy, comedy, and satyr play and going on to distinguish popular from ‘high’ culture theatre, musical forms from spoken forms, and so on. In a wider sense, however, genre can be understood as a system in which the features of a (usually literary) art object are made sensible through their distinctiveness within a broader classification of artistic forms. As John Frow argues in his book Genre, genres are thus ‘productive of meaning’, not merely ways of classifying meanings.[1]

Just as Frow expands typical definitions of ‘genre’, Diana Taylor redefines and expands the use of the word ‘repertoire’ in her book The Archive and the Repertoire to draw attention to the ways in which embodied performances can maintain and transmit cultural meanings. Through the live, embodied aspects of performance, the repertoire preserves social memories (or, indeed, theatrical ones) that may not have been captured by the more ‘official’ methods of documentation that rest in the archive. Both Taylor’s and Frow’s interventions into the terms ‘genre’ and ‘repertoire’ will underwrite our thinking in this chapter, particularly as we pay attention to how theatrical performance necessitates approaches that expand well past the usual literary connotations of these terms to encompass not just texts, but auditory and visual presentation, material objects, and even political and cultural ideas and ideals.

In this chapter, we examine ‘genre’ and ‘repertoire’ in the modern age as intertwined concepts. That is, we explore how both of these concepts are embodied in the modern theatre, how they overlap and mutually determine one another, and indeed how they ultimately become productive of modern bodies themselves on the modern stage. An instructive example of ‘embodiment’ as a generic, classificatory practice can be found in the ways that costume functions, on the stage but also beyond it, as it encodes ways of being and doing the body that align with modern politics, and especially with the politics of nationalism during the twentieth century.

As Anne Hollander suggests, costumes are the expression of bodily codes that pre-exist performers and individual play texts; they represent a case where repertoire precedes and then manifests genre in performance. As she argues of ritual performances, ‘the costumes are the drama, the characters are known by what they wear and any accompanying words support the clothes instead of the other way round’.[2] The popular genres of variety theatre sketched out in the previous volume in this series emphasize how generic categorization exceeds the level of text, since the shared codes of that stage are contained primarily in performed behaviours and stage effects. Costume’s role in shaping genre is further evident in Tracy C. Davis’s claim that the costumes worn by nineteenth-century actresses mapped directly onto the hierarchies of classification in the period: ‘while black velvet and white lace were the marks of artistry, gauze and spangles were the key to mass appeal and commercial success’.[3] Davis’s study suggests that nineteenth-century actresses’ costumes not only indicated the generic status of a performance, they actually constituted genre on the stage, fixing character types within specific styles of performance and enabling audiences to decode the visual rules of the form. The costumes that actresses were required to supply for their own performances correlated to different, standardized theatrical genres in the nineteenth century, allowing performers to render themselves intelligible within various repertoires and simultaneously to ensure that audience members could situate their experience within the correct set of theatrical conventions. Contemporary dramas and comedies were even known as ‘modern dress plays’ in contrast to classical tragedies, which were played in stylized period costumes.

In this way, costume might be understood to recognize the particular status of genre in the theatre, which becomes a means of classifying, and comprehending, a repertoire of embodied practices enabled by costumes, while costumes in performance in turn make meaning in relation to generic classifications already evident on the stage. Theatre costume thus does not function as merely ‘surface’ decoration within a performance but rather works to constitute the point of interdependence between genre and repertoire, creating, as Frow argues, ‘effects of reality and truth, authority and plausibility’ on (and beyond) the stage.[4]

Modern Theatre and the Politics of Dress

Modern theatre, like ‘modernity’ in a wider sense, can be characterized by the attempts of a range of artists to break down old generic divisions and invent new theatrical forms that would better reflect the tumultuous experiences of modern life, which seemed to its participants to be moving and changing ever more quickly through revolutions in technology, the rapid expansion of cities, shifting morals and societal norms, and shattering new forms of warfare. In response to the psychic disorientation that these changes induced, modern avant-garde theatre-makers proposed to overcome the old bourgeois theatre’s fixed dramatic genres – characterized by drawing room comedies, well made plays, and sensational melodrama; the folk displays and orientalist spectacles characteristic of ballet and opera; as well as Shakespeare productions costumed in modern dress – accusing these genres of being inadequate for the theatrical depiction of a shocking, new, modern world. For example, in his 1880 essay ‘Naturalism in the Theatre’, the playwright and novelist Émile Zola demanded a more scientific and socially aware theatre that used psychology to portray gritty, urban, ‘true life’ stories rather than providing aspirational and consumerist spectacles of upper middle class life.[5] His writing chimed with George Bernard Shaw’s joking dismissal of bourgeois drama’s aesthetics, which he described as ‘a tailor’s advertisement in the middle of an upholsterer’s and decorator’s advertisement’.[6]

Artists at the turn of the twentieth century proposed to restore the stage to its imagined role in depicting the world authentically. Movements that re-imagined theatrical genres included naturalism and realism in the late nineteenth century, Symbolism around the turn of the twentieth century, Expressionism, Futurism, Dadaism, and Absurdism through the two world wars, as well as the specific practices of various individual theatre theorists and makers: Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty, Bertolt Brecht’s Epic Theatre, and Jerzy Grotowski’s Poor Theatre, for example. The politicized exploration of genre carried on, after the mid-century, into postmodern performances that sought to systematically deconstruct the unity and coherence of the theatre-going experience by scrutinizing text, scenography, temporality, and even audience pleasure for aesthetic or political ends. Genre in the modern age might be described ultimately as having been atomized into smaller and smaller units.

As part of these theatrical experiments, artists routinely renegotiated the meanings of stage costume, and this concern with costume was in turn driven by an intensive theatrical focus on the status of the body in modernity. That body was often imagined by artists and cultural critics to be deformed, exhausted, unhygienic, unwell, inauthentic, and in need of revival. (For more on the modern theatre’s overarching interest in embodiment, see Chapter 9.) The modernist drive towards a critique of human embodiment at the theatre mirrors other approaches to the body in the early twentieth century. Various dress-reform movements across Europe sought to restore the body to its imagined natural, unpolluted state: the Italian Futurist Giacomo Balla’s claim that modern dress was responsible for ‘the negation of the muscular life’ was typical.[7] As Russian costume and dress designer Nadezhda Lamanova wrote in 1923, ‘if [. . .] we gain comfortable, harmonious and functional clothing, we will achieve at the same time an enrichment of our daily life, and we will wipe out the prejudice of fashion [. . .]. The new dress will suit the new life – active, dynamic and conscious’.[8] To change clothes was, for these writers, to restore the body to a healthier state, making it capable of greater dynamism and action on the stage and in the street. The changing nature of stage costume thus became a key front in the battle to rehabilitate the human body in the modern public sphere.

These approaches to dress reform sometimes sought to produce the idea of a ‘pure’ body, uncontaminated by fast-paced modern life; however, modern life itself complicated this impulse as technological advances in travel and communication brought the countries of the world into ever-closer contact, with mixed results. Through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the theatre registered the complexities and pleasures of imperialism and globalization through the transnational circulation of popular forms: acrobats from China and Japan toured Europe, Britain, and the US; amateur and professional theatre companies toured European and English-speaking outposts around the globe; ‘freak shows’ and museum exhibits brought ‘specimens’ from around the world together into pseudo-educational displays; and the dissemination of dominant cultural products (like Shakespeare) was aggressively pursued in colonial territories. Yet, even as international exchange became a regular and inextricable part of daily life, many nations became powerfully concerned with articulating specific national identities through the management of the body and its dress. Cultural nationalists across Europe, for example, drew on the fantasy of a pure identity lost to globalizing modernity in order to advocate for an embodied return to an imagined, pre-modern state through folk costume and performance. International exchange and the emergence of nationhood as a political concept thus worked in concert, resulting in new, hybrid forms of embodiment that were paradoxically imagined as nationally ‘pure’ even as they rested for their recognition upon cross-cultural repertoires of performance and dress.

Taking costume as the central focus of this chapter enables us to consider its role in helping to shape key social, political, and aesthetic debates as those manifested on and in the bodies displayed on the modern stage (and in the modern street). Understanding genre and repertoire at the theatre as channelled primarily through the body, we explore some of the ways in which theatrical modernism used the organization and classification of bodies through costume to articulate powerful new forms of national, and transnational, subjectivity. The next section of this chapter, ‘Inventions’, tracks the politicized rejection of historical theatrical genres through the development of new forms of national costume in Ireland and Japan in the early part of the twentieth century. The following section, ‘Interventions’, investigates how the new genres created through that process were then reframed and once more rejected via the costuming of postmodern, transnationally hybrid bodies in both countries at the end of the twentieth century. We conclude with an example that brings the two national contexts together: Yeats’s At The Hawk’s Well demonstrates how the collision of a Japanese body, a pan-European dance practice, and the work of an Irish playwright exemplifies the contradictions and tensions embedded in the orientalist borrowing and transnational circulation of repertoires and genres during the modern period.

Our case studies come from Ireland and Japan because they are two countries whose national contexts are sometimes treated as implicitly marginal in Anglophone theatre studies, and yet their histories may simultaneously be seen as paradigmatic to global modernism. By focusing on Irish and Japanese theatre costume, we demonstrate how experimentation with genre through costume at these cultural ‘margins’ can reveal new insights into stage practices in so-called theatrical ‘centres’. (See Chapter 5 in this volume for a similar approach to theatrical circulation in the modern period.) The period we explore includes the violent emergence of the new Irish state in the early twentieth century, as well as the massive cultural upheavals wrought by the modernization campaign of Japan’s Meiji era from 1868 to 1912 (and beyond into the twentieth century). Tracking Irish and Japanese theatre costumes alongside the expression of national senses of self and cultural concepts of public space helps us to see how competing claims for modern, national bodies were dialectically intertwined with existing cultural conditions, as well as with the renovation of extant artistic repertoires. Throughout the chapter we use examples from Irish and Japanese theatre, dance, and street performance to sketch out two, contrasting strategies of national embodiment: a recourse to ancient ideals, untouched by the ‘polluting’ effects of modernity; and a determined re-imagining of national identity as fundamentally contingent on transnational negotiation.


Red Shawls and Petticoats

Modern Irish theatre is famous for its riots, and quite a number of these riots have centred on the question of costume. From the opening of the Abbey Theatre in 1904, the stage was a site of contestation and debate over how the nation should be understood in the midst of the nationalist struggle for independence and how the new Irish state should be articulated after a bloody civil war in 1922. At the heart of these struggles were the questions of how Irish bodies should be rendered intelligible on stage, and of the ways in which old repertoires of stage dress, such as those of nineteenth-century melodrama and stage-Irishness, should be reformed and rejected in the service of modern Irish subjectivities. From its inception in 1899 as the Irish Literary Theatre, the Abbey’s founding artists set out a reforming manifesto, characterized by Lady Augusta Gregory’s statement that ‘we will show that Ireland is not the home of buffoonery and of easy sentiment, as it has been represented, but the home of an ancient idealism’.[9] The Abbey set itself most forcefully against the genre of Stage-Irish melodrama, inherited from the popular theatres of the British Empire, which featured powerfully in the plays of the great Irish impresario Dion Boucicault. Theatre artists such as Sean O’Casey, W.B. Yeats, and J.M. Synge responded to this challenge by offering new models of the Irish body through an experimental modernism, and by utilising old forms of costume explicitly in order to reject them (see Figure 8.1).

The popular nineteenth-century stereotype of Irishness on stage depicted Irish men as drunken, violent, inarticulate, and irrational, maintaining a British colonial fantasy of Ireland as an infantilized and uncivilized place in need of imperial rule. Of course this stereotype was made instantly recognizable through the generic encoding of the Stage-Irishman’s costume: his (usually green) ragged clothes, his stovepipe hat, and his ever-present shillelagh (a walking stick also used as a weapon) all served to encode the character as an instantly recognizable type. The female counterpart to the Stage-Irishman was the innocent young peasant girl, who was known by her costume of red shawl, petticoat, or bodice. These red costumes were enshrined in performance by Dion Boucicault’s 1860 melodrama, The Colleen Bawn, setting off a souvenir trade and fashion trend among the female spectators of the London bourgeoisie who bought them as souvenirs and wore them to the theatre.[10] Red shawls also featured in nineteenth-century paintings of Irish peasant women such as Frederic William Burton’s The Aran Fisherman’s Drowned Child (1841), Augustus Nicholas Burke’s A Connemara Girl (1865), and Ford Maddox Brown’s The Irish Girl (1860), and were displayed in folk spectacles such as the Columbian Exhibition in Chicago in 1893 and the Imperial International Exhibition in London in 1909. Synge himself described them in his depiction of the Irish peasant women he observed on his many anthropological trips to the Aran Islands: ‘their red bodices and white tapering legs make them as beautiful as tropical sea birds’.[11] Through the nineteenth century, then, red costumes functioned as the insignia for a generic and sentimentalized version of Irish femininity on the stage and in paintings, rendering any woman wearing them as instantly ‘Irish’ in a simplified, melodramatic form. Irish peasant women were depicted by theatre artists such as Boucicault in the 1860s as uncouth and naïve but also pure of heart, standing in for a nostalgic depiction of innocent pre-modern femininity. This stereotype combined with that of ‘Hibernia’ or Mother Ireland in nationalist iconography in the period, too, as Barbara O’Connor has pointed out.[12]

Figure 8.1. Example of Stage-Irishman costume, in an image by Samuel De Wilde of Mr Rock as the Irishman. Image courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

In attempting to offer a counter-image to this inherited tradition of generic characters and costumed repertoires, which they saw as the debased, colonial misrepresentation of Irish identity, playwrights including Yeats, Gregory, Synge, and O’Casey experimented openly with the meanings of costume in their work, influenced by the dress-reform movements and the modernist theatrical experimentation taking place across Europe that we note above. This experimentation approached the meanings of inherited costume traditions through the adoption of a radically new repertoire of performance styles that undid the extant generic codes governing the relationship between performers and their costumes (for example, red petticoat as signifier for sentimental Irish melodrama). A particularly influential manifestation of this project can be seen in J.M. Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World, which mixed conventional ‘Stage-Irish’ costumes with a stylized, even satirical form of realism. Set in a rural community in the west of Ireland, Playboy tells the story of Christy Mahon, whose claim to have murdered his father turns him into a local celebrity and sex symbol; he is then attacked by the community once he is exposed as a fraud. Central to the play’s social critique is not only Mahon’s tall tale of brutality, but the community’s own hypocrisy in condemning him for it. The play caused huge controversy in its opening performances in Dublin in 1907, and was greeted by riots and protest.

Synge framed the Playboy as a modernist rejection of the languages of the popular bourgeois melodrama of the late nineteenth century. The power of the performance was located in the ways in which it relied upon the inherited visual repertoires of the Stage-Irish genre, most particularly in the use of red shawls, petticoats, and bodices to costume the female actors. However, when Synge deployed these generically encoded visual repertoires in his work, it was with the desire to upend a sentimental portrait of Irish poverty and to reveal the dark complexities and contradictions of Irish peasant life. When Pegeen Mike, the female protagonist of the play, appeared as ‘a wild looking but fine girl [. . .] dressed in the usual peasant dress’[13] at the start of the play, it was clear that the visual world of the play relied upon a set of familiar generic codes that the performance set out to critique. It was not so much that Synge offered an alternative image to the popular colonial versions of Irishness, but rather that he orientalized them, estranging the familiar tropes so that they became ‘tropical’ for their modern Dublin audiences, a suggestion also contained in the play’s title that invoked ‘The Western World’ as a distant and exotic space of otherness for bourgeois metropolitan spectators. Synge’s use of red petticoats and shawls relied on his audience’s intimate familiarity with the genre of Stage-Irishness in order to make female Irish bodies intelligible onstage; it then estranged that familiar image in order to produce the crucial modernist experience of shock, depicting an inherited, colonial representation of Irish culture to modern Irish audiences as corrupt and hypocritical rather than safely and sentimentally comical. In essence, the characters wore the clothes from a theatre form that they no longer fit, to provocative political effect.

In fact, the controversy that ensued over Playboy emerged not only around female dress, but specifically around female underwear – the ‘shift’ or chemise invoked by Christy’s line, ‘it’s Pegeen I’m seeking only, and what’d I care if you brought me a drift of chosen females, standing in their shifts itself maybe, from this place to the eastern world?’.[14] On this line during the play’s premiere, pandemonium ensued in the auditorium, as Gregory put it in a telegram to Yeats: ‘Audience broke up in disorder at the word shift’.[15] As Nicholas Grene explains, the word ‘shift’ had become taboo in London and Dublin, and uttering the term was seen to pollute a version of Irish womanhood held to be sacred by nationalists.[16] While the image of the Irish colleen produced by Boucicault had characterized the Irish peasant girls Eily O’Conor or Arrah na Pogue through their innocence and purity of heart, here, scandalously, Synge invoked what might be going on ‘underneath’ the costumes. The reaction of the Freeman’s Journal was typical, describing the play as an ‘unmitigated, protracted libel upon Irish peasant men, and, worse still, upon Irish peasant girlhood. . . . The worst specimen of Stage-Irishman of the past is a refined, acceptable fellow compared with that imagined by Mr. Synge’.[17] To invoke a sexualized image of womanhood with lines spoken from within costumes that resembled the powerful iconography of a sentimentalized melodrama was to upturn the meanings of these repertoires of dress and the political identities they encoded.

The source of the Playboy controversy can be pinned to Synge’s ‘leaky’ employment of the generic image of Irish womanhood: notably, he did not overthrow that image, but reconfigured it so that the stage conventions usually produced by red shawls and petticoats were re-inscribed and reframed within a ‘not this, but also this’ logic that echoed the later work of Bertolt Brecht. Synge’s production of shock relied directly upon the well-known generic codes of Stage-Irishness, the repertoire of costumes that produced it on stage, and the colonial vision of Irish bodies that it attempted to reject; the result of his remixing of repertoire (Stage-Irish dress) and genre (switching a sentimental, melodramatic framework for a critical, realist one) was upheaval inside the theatre, and a pointed political intervention beyond it.

The Emperor’s New Costume

In Japan, modernity was first experienced as a great shock from abroad during the second half of the nineteenth century. After more than two hundred years of isolationist foreign policy, which had cut off the vast majority of Japanese people from the rest of the world and vice versa, the United States spearheaded a campaign, beginning in 1853, to force Japan to trade freely with them and other imperial powers. By 1868, the domestic turmoil surrounding Japan’s forced re-calibration of international relations led to a regime change known as the Meiji Restoration. Although the new government gained power with the slogan Sonnō jōi (尊皇攘夷, ‘Revere the emperor, expel the barbarian’), that refrain quickly changed to ‘Civilisation and Enlightenment’ (文明開化, or bunmei kaika). Bunmei kaika came to describe an all-encompassing cultural project of adopting and adapting Western practices in Japan in hopes of avoiding colonization and competing with Western nations for imperial supremacy on the global stage. This cultural project operated on both a macro level, with major changes to government (introducing a constitution and democratic legislative assembly), the military, and national infrastructure, as well as on a micro level, at which the government took an intimate interest in remaking the individual bodies of citizens, advocating and even coercing changes in diet, hairstyles, and clothing (for example, moving from kimono to Western dress).

Theatre in Japan during this time both obeyed the injunction to ‘civilize and enlighten’ and demonstrated the promises and perils of Japan’s cultural makeover project. The long-established indigenous forms of theatre – principally noh, bunraku, and kabuki – were immediately relegated to ‘backward’ status within the paradigm of bunmei kaika. While noh is a high-status form, using slow and mysterious dancing and chanting to recount tales of mythological and supernatural happenings, and kabuki is famous for swashbuckling, sprawling narratives of valour, daring, or forbidden love, emerging theatre artists in Japan during the modern period drew primarily on European dramatists like Ibsen as inspiration for a new theatre form that would emphasize text over live performance elements and realistic acting and scenography over highly stylized, indigenous ones.

The project of Westernization in Japan went hand in hand with the project of modernization, and, just as in our Irish example, in Japan changing generic codes at the theatre reflected and supported these projects in large part through the re-styling of Japanese bodies on the stage. Costumes are a key mode by which bodies are interpellated into a social milieu; where noh and kabuki costumes are gorgeous, elaborate, and richly symbolic confections that render the actor’s body monumentally impressive on stage, the new genres of shinpa (新派, ‘New School’) and shingeki (新劇, ‘New Drama’), both modelled on European realism, favoured realistic costumes meant to be indistinguishable from everyday clothing. In some early performances of foreign plays in Japan, actors even donned blond wigs and fake noses to approximate those characters’ European appearances.[18]

Such literal costuming may seem laughable now, but these experiments in cultural mimesis vividly materialize the deep crisis the bunmei kaika policy posed to Japanese subjectivity near the beginning of the twentieth century. In the theatre, the limits of cultural borrowing were tested and debated: what indeed is necessary to evoke ‘modernity’ in Japan? Is blond hair on a head a prerequisite for Western ideas inside that head? To what extent is the preoccupation with precise imitation of a model a hallmark of naturalism and realism? (For example, André Antoine, naturalist pioneer, famously hung real sides of beef in his slaughterhouse set for The Butchers in 1888.) What is most ‘natural’ to a play onstage – that artifice be used to make the actor resemble the character portrayed, or that an actor appears as indistinguishable from a ‘real’ person on the street as possible? Performing foreign plays with Japanese bodies forced a reckoning of how imported ideas could best be assimilated, and thus of how bunmei kaika could best be carried out by domestic bodies outside the theatre.

Experiments with foreign, realistic-looking costumes extended beyond the stage as they also shaped the struggle to define a new Japanese citizenry. Just as a director might use a character’s choice of suit or kimono to declare something about that character’s attitude toward policies of Westernization and modernization, so ordinary men and women in Japan used their personal appearance to situate themselves in shifting social contexts. For example, in the early twentieth century, the term hai-kara (ハイカラー) became a popular way to describe very modern and cosmopolitan, urbane young people – the term is a transliteration of the ‘high collar’ on their Western-style shirts. Although the term refers to men’s shirts worn with ties, hai-kara could refer to men or women – what was important was less the specific item of clothing than the modern attitude such clothing denoted. Hai-kara people employed the performative power of clothing to present themselves as exemplary citizens of a modern, cosmopolitan Japan; in effect, they inhabited bunmei kaika as social genre on the stage of everyday life.

Perhaps the most ‘realistic’ change introduced via the adoption of the genres of shinpa and shingeki, however, was the return of women performers to a sex-desegregated stage. While some bunmei kaika changes had been fairly simple to make, others contradicted deeply held Japanese attitudes. Such was the case with women and mixed-gender performances: Japan’s performing arts had been rigidly gender-segregated for generations, with kabuki, bunraku, and noh performed officially by men only beginning in the seventeenth century. (This despite the fact that the invention of kabuki is attributed to a woman named Okuni in 1603.) Meanwhile, women performed as geisha (‘arts people’) in tea houses and private parties, singing, dancing, and playing music in modes quite similar to those men pursued in kabuki and bunraku. Some critics made arguments against allowing women to take the stage on aesthetic grounds, arguing that women playing female characters would bring no artistry to the portrayal, that they would be merely themselves (women) rather than the idealized Woman that an onnagata could allegedly portray. In practice, early shinpa did feature both onnagata (male performers of female roles in kabuki) and actresses until the 1910s (and the traditional genres of noh, kabuki, bunraku, and kyogen at the professional level remain gender-segregated to this day).

The controversy about allowing women to perform on the modern stage exemplified other offstage issues regarding the role of women in the reorganized nation, particularly in regard to women’s visibility. Indeed, their appearance on the stage might be considered a quintessential example of women’s status as public individuals in modernizing Japan. Despite the fact that female characters had always appeared on stage, biological women, especially respectable wives and mothers, rarely made public appearances. In the Meiji period, at the same time that shinpa was negotiating the appearance of women as stage actresses, the wives and daughters of nobles and politicians were so unused to social appearances that many balls and banquets for the social elite were attended instead by hired geisha – ‘public’ women who were accustomed to mingling and entertaining and therefore more emboldened to play at the dancing and conversation-making required of European-style society interactions.[19] The appearance of female performers on the stage thus mirrored the rising visibility of women on the street, who increasingly took newly created jobs like those of elevator girls and shop assistants and attended new schools for women.[20] Modern girls were such a phenomenon that they even gained their own neologism: moga, a portmanteau of ‘modern’ and ‘girl’ (モダンガール: modan ga-ru).

Shinpa and shingeki experiments with both costumes and female performers baldly demonstrated the juxtaposition between inherited representations of the ideal Japanese body and Japanese conceptions of the (ideal) Western body, performing before audiences the collision of foreign and indigenous definitions of modernity. Attempting to forge a modernity recognizable to and approved by foreign powers lent a sense of self-conscious theatricality to the Japanese modernization project, what scholar Morris Low calls ‘exhibitory modernity’[21]; yet, these imported ideas were subjected to a process of ‘domestication’ to Japan’s unique situation.[22] In this way, Japanese citizens on and off the stage worked together to negotiate new, embodied practices that could instantiate a shared genre of Japanese modernity, enabling both economic trade and cultural exchange with the West that Japan sought to emulate. Direct generic borrowing from the Western stage reflected but also refracted clothing practices at street level; meanwhile, performances of self on the street were transformed by new uses of costume, dress, and the appearance of female bodies on the stage. As in the example of Synge’s Playboy, an inherited genre (in this case, that of European realism) blended with culturally hybridized repertoires of dress and its embodied performance (wigs, high collars, and other trappings of Western style, practiced in estranging fashion on Japanese bodies both on and off stage) to generate both new, modern subjectivities (the moga, like the Irish colleen clad only in her shift) and a fresh national politics. As in the case of Irish nationalism, however, Japanese bunmei kaika could also not be practiced in a straightforward fashion. The generic codes deployed by authorities in the service of normalizing a hoped-for, modern national identity collided with quotidian practices on and off the stage as repertoires of dress challenged linear progress narratives and transformed performers’ bodies into peculiar cultural hybrids.


Modern Girls Will Be Boys?

Japan’s most wildly successful modern theatre domestication project appeared not from amongst the intelligentsia practicing shingeki and shinpa, but in a small town outside Osaka in 1914: Takarazuka, the all-female musical revue, was dreamed up by Kobayashi Ichizo, the owner of the private Hankyu rail line, as a tourism ploy. Expressly modelled on contemporary Parisian showgirl extravaganzas, but with a fierce emphasis on clean, family entertainment, the Takarazuka Revue featured actresses acting, singing, and dancing in both men’s and women’s roles. ‘Takarasiennes’ were advertised as good girls from upstanding families whose performances brought an exciting international flair to central Japan during the heyday of modernization. In this sense, Kobayashi’s theatre appeared to be an exemplary bunmei kaika project, but in fact it was a hybrid undertaking, catering to the expectations of its domestic audiences with a deliberate appeal to exotic novelty. The gender segregation of the Revue cleverly inverted the generic performance codes of traditional Japanese all-male troupes while also relying on other, more traditional theatre practices such as oshiroi (the makeup used for white-face performance). Chosen for their height, beauty and foreign(esque) features, yet admonished to embody ‘Japanese’ values like modesty and filial loyalty, many Takarasiennes became celebrities, and emblematic of the moga. Takarasiennes, shinpa and shingeki actresses, and their off-stage counterpart the moga, together reflected the domestication of imported Western standards and instantiated new, hybridized repertoires of Japanese personal identity, fundamentally informed by the ongoing encounter with the West (see Figure 8.2).

In the early twenty-first century, the Takarazuka company remains arguably the most popular theatre in Japan, performing about a thousand shows a year and reaching 2.5 million audience members. While the majority of Takarazuka’s repertoire remains the performance of stories set in far off places and times (including adaptations of popular American musicals like Guys and Dolls, West Side Story, and Gone with the Wind), the company also presents stories and plays set in a fantastical, historical Japan. For example, the 2011 Cosmos troupe production, A Beautiful Life – Ishida Mitsunari, His Eternal Love and Loyalty, is set in the sixteenth century and tells the story of a noble samurai and his exploits. Although the plot features classic kabuki twists such as the forbidden love between a samurai and a concubine, it also includes Americanized song and dance numbers (like a jitterbug performed in front of Osaka castle), as well as handsome male characters played by women in very distinctive costumes that signify the features of the character alongside high-heeled shoes, fluffy dyed pompadours, and elaborate eye makeup. Like every Takarazuka show, this one ends with a spectacular curtain call, during which each star performer wears a glittering finale costume featuring large feather fans.

Figure 8.2. Tokyo, Japan: Yuri Shirahane (L) as Queen Marie-Antoinette, Wataru Kozuki (C) as Swedish Count Hans Axel von Fersen, and Kei Aran (R) as female captain of the royal guard Oscar François de Jarjayes wave in the grand finale during the Takarazuka theatre’s The Rose of Versailles final rehearsal in Tokyo, 17 February 2006. TOSHIFUMI KITAMURA/AFP/Getty Images.

Takarazuka’s well-honed formula retains its obvious relation to certain generic features of the Western musical revue, such as Las Vegas or Parisian showgirl feathers and Broadway or West End song and dance, but to the regular European or American audience member much of Takarazuka also seems quite bizarre. Beyond the unexpected mix of melodramatic storylines and requisite glitzy curtain call, what tends to be shocking is not so much that women are playing both the female and male roles but that in Takarazuka male characters present a highly stylized and (many fans would say) idealized portrayal of a man. Takarazuka features a very specific repertoire of gendered performance that offers up to the audience fantastical, exotic bodies performing virtuosic feats of artistry. While the wildly dressed, heavily made up, gender-bending Takarasienne is certainly not commonly thought of as an example provided for contemporary people to emulate, nevertheless she presents an exemplary postmodern Japanese body – carefully calibrated in terms of appearance, combining influences from around the globe into a uniquely Japanese model of virtuosic ability and virtuous offstage lifestyle.

In the Takarazuka version of traditional Japanese stories, even Japan’s own history is exoticized as a timeless, romantic fantasy. This sense of all history ‘universally available but equally emptied of meaning’[23] to be redeployed as pastiche is often considered fundamental to the ‘postmodern condition’ and yet in Takarazuka these detached signifiers of other times and places are consistently re-harnessed to contemporary concerns about what it means to embody Japanese values and represent oneself as a member of the national culture. In the early twentieth century the moga-Takarasienne helped to establish new norms for Japanese women: more publicly visible, with shorter hair, but still dutifully attached to hierarchical institutions and domestic moral virtues. Today, performance at Takarazuka continues to stage the ideal national body as a hybrid of traditional Japanese behaviours matched to generic practices from the US, Japan, and beyond; in its incredible popularity with Japanese audiences, the revue celebrates hybridity as essential to Japanese identity while also demonstrating practically the power of embodied repertoires to reconfigure completely the historical genres (Hollywood musical melodrama, stock kabuki narrative) on which Takarazuka’s very currency relies.

Dancing Bodies

The eclecticism of national bodies seen in Takarazuka is also echoed in the codification of the Irish dance costume that emerged as a hybrid form in the early twentieth century. Unlike the costumes of Takarazuka, however, modern Irish dance costume was presented as if it were untouched by modernity. With the formation of the nationalist Gaelic League in Ireland in 1893, a growing interest in reclaiming Irish identity was expressed through the desire to ‘purify’ the Irish dance form’s techniques, codes, and dress. As Nellie O’Brien put it: ‘the man who has the Irish language on his lips will wish also to have Irish clothes on his back’.[24] Dance costumes were envisioned as not just a form of national dress – Irishness as something to be worn and performed, particularly by women – but as an embodiment of the new, independent, post-colonial nation more broadly. By 1901, the Gaelic League ‘directed that no prize be awarded to a competitor in an Oireachtas (an Irish cultural festival) unless the competitor was dressed in clothes of Irish manufacture’.[25]

The first national dance dresses were inspired by the genre of Stage-Irishness and named ‘colleen bawns’ (due to the red skirts and white petticoats that resembled those of Boucicault’s peasant women); this design was soon replaced, however, by a style of dress drawn from Eugene O’Curry’s 1873 book, On the Manners and Customs of the Ancient Irish. The style was based on ancient Celtic designs, but it was also influenced by the Arts and Crafts aesthetic, designed as supposedly Celtic tunics but imagined along neo-classical lines, embroidered with motifs drawn from the medieval manuscript the Book of Kells and decorated with Tara brooches. Over time, these ‘nationalist’ costumes absorbed transnational influences, codifying the national Irish body as theatrical and hyperbolically feminine. By the 1980s, influenced by North American beauty pageant culture, the costume featured day-glo colours, lurid embroidery, and enormous curly wigs.

Then, in 1994, a ten-minute segment of the Eurovision Song Contest (a pan-European competition broadcast live on television and hosted in Dublin that year) changed the face (and body) of Stage-Irishness once more. Riverdance was choreographed and performed by the Chicago-born Michael Flatley, along with the New York-born Jean Butler and a chorus of Irish dancers. The piece radically transformed the ways in which the Irish national body was understood in Ireland and globally. Emerging as a two-hour stage show in the following year, the production has since toured to forty countries in four continents, and has been seen live by 20 million spectators (Figure 8.3).

Riverdance is notable for the way it transformed the visual and embodied vocabularies of the Irish dancing body, and this transformation was accomplished primarily through costume. Like Yeats, Synge, Gregory, and the other Irish nationalist playwrights we discuss above, Riverdance borrowed from older generic codes in order to renew them for a postmodern moment. Riverdance drew on an imagined, ancient Irish past, but mixed it deliberately with a globalized cosmopolitanism in order to invent a post-national Irish body.

Figure 8.3. Jean Butler and Colin Dunne in Riverdance, 1996. Photograph by Jack Hartin, by kind permission of Abhann Productions.

In Riverdance female performers wore dresses that retained the silhouette of traditional Irish dance dress but were entirely black, with matte embroidery; the female dancers also wore their hair straight rather than curly. Flatley, as the lead virtuoso, marked his star status by donning a blue silk matador shirt, which reorganized his dance vocabulary: the shirt allowed him to move his arms, breaking the Irish dance convention of a rigid upper torso. Flatley’s virtuosity was further established through his mastery of the vocabularies of other dance styles: even as his feet engaged in the steps of Irish dancing, he drew from Flamenco by elevating his torso and arms, from Salsa in the mobility of his hips, and he invoked the Broadway musical in his smile. Flatley and Riverdance therefore presented a theatricalized ‘Irishness’ as the organizing genre for a diasporic repertoire of dance forms. (This became most evident in the two-hour stage version of the show, which featured dancers from Spain, Russia, and the US, who performed their ‘authentic’ forms of folk dance as part of the spectacle.) Riverdance sold ‘Irishness’ as at once pure and globalized by styling Irish dance as rooted in local authenticity and yet fully internationalized, available for the enjoyment of audiences worldwide.

In the cultural reception of Riverdance the earlier, nationalist project of Yeats and Synge was framed as both exhausted and inauthentic. Riverdance continues to seek to restore the Irish body to its pre-State vitality, liberating it from the framework of the nationalist project through a modern form of dress and a global movement vocabulary. Yet, even as Riverdance lays claim to inventing a new, (post)modern Irish body through new versions of costume and bodily conduct, it relies on similar approaches to those employed by the Abbey artists: it essentializes other dance forms and performers as ‘authentic’ with the ultimate aim of revitalizing and re-inventing Irish dance for contemporary audiences.

Orientalist Crossings: Irish Noh

We have seen how the conditions of globalization that gathered steam throughout the twentieth century produced modern national bodies in both Ireland and Japan; in each case, the invention and re-invention of the genres of ‘national’ costume on stage supported the development of new, modern bodily repertoires in the theatre and beyond. Two contrasting strategies supported this process: Westernized modernization in Japan, and the ‘invention’ of tradition in Ireland. However, both strategies relied heavily for their potency on European orientalism – a transnational aesthetic practice that played a major role in the development of theatrical modernism worldwide. In this section, we consider an example of how the Irish re-invention of national dress drew on a fantasy of an ancient Japanese culture that was simultaneously being renegotiated and revalued in Japan itself.

At the same time that Japanese shimpa and shingeki artists were imitating Western stage realism in concert with the policy of bunmei kaika and Kobayashi was mining Parisian musical revues to turn Takarazuka into a theatrical mecca, European avant-garde artists were looking to Asia for artistic inspirations in order to re-invigorate and revolutionize their practices. Antonin Artaud, for example, praised the Balinese dancers he saw at the Paris Colonial Exhibition in 1931 for seeming to him like ‘animated hieroglyphs’,[26] while Bertolt Brecht was inspired to model his epic acting techniques after the stylized, estranging performances of Mei Lan Fang, the Chinese opera star. As these examples suggest, many artists calling upon Asian forms were doing so to find ways of breaking with realist genres – just at the moment when avant-garde shingeki artists were advocating for Japanese theatre to adopt the tenets of realism. It is important to emphasize that these alternating currents of transnational ‘borrowing’ operated within very different political contexts – this was not an equal exchange. The revolutionizing of Japanese through realism was not simply something that Japanese theatre makers wanted to do; after decades of the bunmei kaika policy, they were operating in a society that had collectively agreed to believe that Western models were better and more civilized than Japanese ones, and that try as they might to invent new forms, indigenous ones would never measure up. By contrast, European artists’ appropriation of Asian repertoires was characterized by their freedom to pick and choose, freely altering and re-imagining their sources to suit their artistic purposes. This privilege – to borrow from within a national repertoire, rather than being pressed to adopt the tenets of an entire stage genre – can be characterized by Edward Said’s term ‘orientalism’, a powerful example of which emerges in a play written by W.B. Yeats and first performed in 1916.

Based on a noh play by Zeami, At The Hawk’s Well concerns the mythical Irish warrior Cuchulain, who seeks to drink from the waters of an ancient well, having learned of its promises of immortality. Cuchulain is seduced by the mesmerizing dance of the female hawk spirit, who lures him into a confrontation with his enemy, the warrior queen, Aoife. Yeats collaborated on the production with the Japanese dancer Michio Ito, who choreographed the performance and also played the female hawk spirit, wearing a stylized costume designed by the French illustrator Edmund Dulac (Figure 8.4). From the beginning, then, the performance was a highly cosmopolitan affair, heightened by the fact that, as Aoife McGrath points out, Ito’s dance practice was in turn strongly influenced by the techniques of modern artists such as Vaslav Nijinsky in Russia, Isadora Duncan in America, and Émile Jaques-Dalcroze in France.[27]

Figure 8.4. Michio Ito in costume as the Hawk Spirit in At The Hawk’s Well, 1916. Digital positive from nitrate roll film negative. Image courtesy of the Coburn collection at the George Eastman House.

Despite the fact that he had had extensive European modern dance training in a range of forms and little if any training in noh – a form that performers are usually born into and trained in from childhood – Ito was cast by Yeats as the embodiment of ancient Japanese dance and culture. Ito complained: ‘because I was billed as the Japanese Dancer, I had to create a Japanese atmosphere . . . My dancing is not Japanese’.[28] In Ito’s frustrations we can hear some of the tensions that undergirded the project of inventing new bodily repertoires for the modern stage. In their hunger to revitalize the modern body and overthrow the exhausted practices of the nineteenth century, artists like Yeats sought out forms of performance that were imagined to predate their immediate European inheritance, reaching for models drawn from ancient cultures and rituals – Ancient Greece, mythical Ireland, and traditional Japanese performance, among others. In the process, Yeats essentialized and decontextualized those other practices, presenting Ito to audiences as an ‘authentic’ Japanese performer – as if authenticity could only be located in the past or in the east, guaranteed not by training or experience, but by Ito’s Japanese body itself.

In his codification of the performer’s body through stylised masks and ritualized costume, Yeats attempted in At the Hawk’s Well to shape a revitalized, timeless Irish body. Like many other modernist experimenters, Yeats sought to counteract inherited and simplistic theatrical stereotypes of Stage-Irishness by offering a richly complex model of Irish identity through a renewed theatrical vocabulary, borrowed from abroad. And yet, even as Yeats did so, his orientalism also served, paradoxically, to oversimplify the identity of the Japanese dancer who performed in his plays, and the Japanese cultural practices that he had borrowed to restore his own Irish ones.


Our examples of experimentation with costume from Ireland and Japan show how theatres in an increasingly globalizing world nevertheless continued to emphasize the importance of national identity and the harnessing of citizens’ bodies to the great work of embodying the nation, ideologies that would be carried to their most terrifying extreme in the Second World War. Our case studies in this chapter have come from Japan and Ireland, but the combination of striving towards a global modern future and borrowing from an imagined past has informed theatrical projects around the world throughout the twentieth century. In Soviet Russia, Futurist artists such as Vladimir Mayakovsky and Vsevolod Meyerhold intertwined popular and folk performance forms with a technologically utopian vision of a liberated worker’s body clad in overalls and working like a machine. (See Chapter 6 for more on Mayakovsky and Meyerhold.) In the 1930s and 1940s, the Nazi German nationalist fervour that fuelled the Second World War was fed by mythologizing about folk culture in tandem with the drive to eugenically purify the national body. By contrast, since the 1970s feminist artists like Sandra Ogel, Bobby Baker, and Lois Weaver have turned to traditional craft and feminine folkways in order to re-imagine and revalue domestic work, developing a politicized repertoire of feminist performances in the process. Meanwhile, even as modern theatre forms such as those we have surveyed here depended increasingly on borrowed practices, actors travelled the globe with both costumes and their repertoires in tow, carrying new fashions with them – and with those fashions new models for embodying modern subjectivity on the streets of emerging global centres.[29]

Costume inserts the body into its social and cultural contexts – as we have seen in Japan and Ireland, the challenges of creating a ‘national’ body in a rapidly globalizing world have been persistently worked out through theatre and performance costume practices throughout the twentieth century. Repertoires of costume establish and refine how national identities appear, or are believed to appear, as genre both on stage and in the world beyond the theatre; even as these repertoires were increasingly constituted through intercultural exchange during the twentieth century, national identity remained an overriding preoccupation of the age. In pointing out the theatrical fantasies required to establish any identity as pure or authentic, we begin to realize that national identity may be a fiction that can only ever be realized within the frame of performance. This realization, too, is a legacy of the generic evolutions and revolutions of the modern age.