The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Artist Interview
The unending quest of Minoru Betsuyaku, the playwright who has laid the foundation of Japanese drama of the absurd
I Am Alice
Premiere: 1970
In a country where a republican government and a monarchy exist simultaneously in a confused national state, Alice is accused one day by both the republic and the monarchy of conspiring to rebellion and given double sentences of exile. In exile, Alice re-discovers her identity as Alice again and sends to the world a telegram pronouncing, ”I am Alice. ” In a children’s story style, this work tells us that in a regimented society, [the artist] must throw out his/her name once and find their true self once again before true identity can be gained.

Suji de Kakareta Monogatari – “Shinou Dan” Tenmatsuki (a story told in numbers – the end of the “let’s die group”)
Premiere: 1974 Seven men and women have gathered under large framed words in calligraphy that read “Rite of Death by Starvation. ” They have isolated themselves this retreat with the intention of dying, but they must spend the time it takes to starve as a group of seven. What started out as something small gradually escalates, what may have started in jest grows into a life and death proposition. They count endlessly, “one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten … ” on the way to an uncertain goal.
Suji de Kakareta Monogatari
Suji de Kakareta Monogatari
Suji de Kakareta Monogatari
The studio performance series of the Bungaku-za
Suji de Kakareta Monogatari – “Shinou Dan” Tenmatsuki
(June, 15 - July, 5 at Bungaku-za atelier)
Directed by Hisao Takase
Photo: Kenki Iida

Nishi Muku Samurai (samurai facing the west)
Premiere: 1977 This is a story of two couples and a homeless pauper. One day the two husbands just stop going to work. They make up stories, like saying that they are going to become inventors, but in fact they spend their time doing mostly nothing. Their wives are now anxious for a clear decision by their husbands about they intend to do, but all they get is double-talk. Saying that there is nothing else they can do, the wives start up the lethal “Pauper Hunting Machine” that their husbands have invented.
After leaving the Waseda Small Theater you wrote works based on children’s stories like Alice in Wonderland that were allegorical and rich in story narrative.
This was the result of the fact that the further I pursued the Beckett methodology the more autistic that work process became, to the point where I felt that the resulting theater was no longer theater and I decided to deliberately separate myself from the Beckett influence. I felt that it was not good to be involved in a creative process that of necessity drove me deeper and deeper in my own consciousness and internal questions. I have a sense of the potential of theater in a traditional definition that it should not be something introverted but something extroverted and appealing as a celebration of things external. That is why I have been able to enjoy it and why it has been liberating for me. This was theater’s appeal for me. And, I believe that is why I brought in story narrative and had the plays develop structurally around it.
Another thing is that the style of my scripts until that time was made up of monologues of self-examination. I came to dislike that. The lines reflected my own personal thoughts and emotions too much, and it came to the point where I would read over what I had written the day before and feel repulsed at it. When I could no longer write in a monologue style and changed to a dialogue style, my plays themselves changed in nature. It was no longer a matter of what the solitary main character did. It had become a “theater of relationships” or “relationship drama.” In other words the “relationship” became what you might call the main character [of the plays]. Needless to say, the nature of relationships changes with the times, so I had begun to use “contemporary relationships” rather than “contemporary people” as my focus and source of clues for pursuing contemporary-ness.

The play Nishi Muku Samurai (samurai looking to the west) that you did for the studio performance series of the Bungaku-za involved the strange scene of a family that has spread straw mats right beneath a telephone pole and moved a full set of furniture there so they can sit there to talk. From around the time of this work I feel the blossoming of a truly Betsuyaku theater that connects to all your works to this day.
The at-home real-life feeling of the performing style of the Bungaku-za actors and the way they did plays with real-life settings seemed to fit my intentions perfectly. Since I thought the plays I was writing were rather abstract and ideological in nature, was worried that bringing a real-life hominess or grittiness to my previously mentioned “Beckett Space” would not work. But, on the contrary, I found that bringing more and heavier real-life aspects into the play actually succeeded in strengthening the sense of the world that lies in the background beyond the stage. I realized that through the real-life style of the Bungaku-za actors, the theatrical farce that I had originally intended to employ in “Godot” was transformed into something completely Japanese thanks to that style, which might be considered a kind of “genre” theater about real-life events [such as the “sewamono” plays of Kabuki and Bunraku].

It is true with Nishi Muku Samurai and with your works from the early 1970s that you often used the “bare stage with a single telephone pole” stage setting.
The telephone pole is an invocation of the single tree in Waiting for Godot. In its original form, the European theater stage is deeper [front-rear] than it is wide, creating what you could call a cylindrical space that gives the stage and the action taking place there a more 3-dimensional aspect and greater depth perception. This creates an environment that cultivates interest in things like the universe or the void. I believe that a work like Godot can only be verified in that kind of space, but the space of the Japanese theater is a “horizontal” one, as typified by Kabuki theater. The drama unfolds on a horizontal plane and all the movement is to the right and left. To balance that horizontal axis, and “vertical axis” becomes necessary, and that is why I used the telephone pole. But for a Japanese audience with their lack of sensitivity to the vertical axis, simply erecting a pole is not enough to create a sense of the vertical. It seems that doing something like placing a street lamp on it or tying a rope part way up and hanging a string of flags of the nations is necessary in order to get some degree of consciousness of the vertical axis. So the plan then becomes to give the pole a sense of reality by doing something like having it pasted with leaflets that are half pealing off to give a sense of real-life grittiness. Then that real-life touch becomes a point that connects to the world at large and creates the feeling of a real world.
I call this kind of space “localized space.” It is neither the type of “typical place” of the kind used in realism theater, like an anonymous room that could be anyone’s room, nor is it a “symbolic place” like the edge of a cliff, nor a “codified place” of the kind that appears in abstract expressionism or a “random place” of the kind that I liken to a leg of an insect in a miniature painting—neither gathering several of them together or expanding it in size will ever make a whole insect. But, if you proceed to paint that leg with great detail, you find that at some point it begins to give you a sense of what the entire insect would be like. In the same way, the space that gives you a sense of the world at large or the universe that lies beyond that space is what I call the “localized space,” and I believe this is a very important for a place where theater tales place. And I feel that this is the way the spaces that Beckett created also functioned.

Nishi Muku Samurai, as a family drama that takes place under a telephone pole, was originally reviewed as “a play that dealt with lives of the [middle class] commoners” (sho-shimin in Japanese from the French petit bourgeois).
At the time, critics wrote that it was ridiculing or negating the common people, but in fact I believe that it is the common people who supported Japan’s “economic miracle” [high economic growth rate] after World War II. The common middle class was the reality, the actual state of Japan. If I were to compare the healthy mental/spiritual state of the common people of Japan at that time with something, it would be lower ranked samurai of an earlier age with their extreme seriousness, honest to a fault, unbending in their ideals, hardworking nature. Nonetheless, the expression sho-shimin (middle class common people) eventually came to be used mocking, and that was because of the eventual collapse of a state that could be called middle class. And that collapse of the middle class came at about the same time as the collapse of the family in Japanese society. So, today the taproot of Japanese society that was previously made solid by the middle class and the family became empty and without substance, and I feel that has led to a hollowing out of the Japanese nation.
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