One of the Grass-Cutters

Contributed by Kevin Salfen, Assistant Professor of Music History, University of the Incarnate Word (Secretary, Theatre Nohgaku)

Kevin Salfen

I have a relatively modest part to play in the Noh Training Project’s production of Atsumori. I will be the tsure—that is, the “companion”—of the title character. I don’t spend much time on stage: a slow entrance, a bit of singing, turning and moving and turning, leaving again. But this limited activity is precisely what brings Atsumori (the shite) back into the world of the waki.

If you’ve been reading the TN Blog or know the story of Atsumori, you’ll already know that the monk Renshô (the waki) hears the sound of a flute and then sees grass-cutters approaching—several of them. One of these figures will eventually reveal himself as the spirit of the warrior Atsumori, whom Renshô had killed in the Heike-Genji civil war (also called the Genpei War).

In the NTP production, we’ll only have the one grass-cutter. (Three is the usual number.) But whether it’s one or several, what is fascinating to me is that the presence of these grass-cutters is what makes the possibility that the shite is not Atsumori, but merely a laborer, more believable. After all, Renshô had killed an abandoned Atsumori on the beach, not one accompanied by other warriors. Who, then, are the tsure? In other words, if the shite is equivalent to a real Atsumori, to whom are the tsure equivalent?

Maybe the tsure are other fallen warriors of the Heike clan, the cut grass that they carry a symbol for how they were cut down by the Genji. Or possibly they are grass-cutters—real ones—who enable a transition from the real world to the spirit world. They don’t, after all, wear masks.

The tsure share most of their lines with the shite, and in some versions of the play, the tsure have no independent lines. Either way, the result is that the shite’s voice is at first surrounded by other voices and is only gradually allowed to attain vocal independence.

For Renshô, who has traveled far to revisit the place where he killed a young flute-playing warrior, the past is reborn from the present. Memories emerge. The sound of the grass-cutter’s flute reminds him of the flute that Atsumori came back to retrieve—a decision that proved fatal. The thankless labor of mowing grass, which the shite and tsure sing about, resonates with Renshô’s own thankless toil: the slaying of this boy, required by the warrior’s code he would later revoke.

Because this is noh, these things aren’t spelled out, but more beauty and profundity occur to me with every passing rehearsal. The play works on me like the lonely beach worked on Renshô, and my experience of it becomes ever more finely textured. I can’t help but wonder who the tsure will have become for me by August 3.

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About Theatre Nohgaku

Noh, one of the oldest continuing stage arts, combines highly stylized dance, chant, music, mask and costume with intense inner concentration and physical discipline, creating a uniquely powerful theatrical experience. Theatre Nohgaku’s mission is to share noh’s beauty and power with English speaking audiences and performers. We have found that this traditional form retains its dramatic effectiveness in languages other than Japanese. We believe noh techniques hold a powerful means of expression in the context of contemporary English language theatre.
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