The use of Kabuki Elements in a Performance of Bertolt Brehts The Caucasian Chalk Circle Essay


Kabuki is a traditional, yet rather unique style of Japanese theatre originating in the Edo period[2] of Feudal Japan. Kabuki is a theatre style made up of parts including: song, dance and skill.

There are various techniques of Kabuki which make it a unique theatre style. Since the 1960s, these Kabuki techniques have been slowly incorporated into western theatre styles. At its core, the art of Kabuki lies in artifice and beauty.

It is the beauty of Kabuki theatre I believe could revive a performance of Bertolt Brecht’s “The Caucasian Chalk Circle”, which is why I believe this topic is worthy of study. It is because of my strong interest in theatre arts, particularly the theatre styles of other countries such as Japan, which I believe should be understood, developed and shared so others may have a greater appreciation of theatre.

While answering the research question I will attempt to identify and explain various types of Kabuki acting techniques, actor’s expressions, actors aesthetics, stage and effects and outline Bertolt Brecht’s “The Caucasian Chalk Circle”. Because of the large scope of Kabuki theatre, this essay will focus more on the elements of acting and staging. There are elements that can be used in epic theatre productions which have been omitted from this research.

So effective is Kabuki theatre that elements of it have previously been incorporated into some western plays. Brecht in particular often used Kabuki and other Japanese styles in order to enhance his plays.

For many people going to the theatre is not an activity they actively pursue and numbers have been slowly declining. Victor Turne’s famous words: “A performance is declarative of our shared humanity, yet it utters the uniqueness of particular cultures.” If this is the intended results of theatre, then the messages within are important to humanity.

I am motivated to understand theatre and ways in which others can gain as much enjoyment from it as I do. It is for this reason the research answers the question: How would the application of Kabuki production elements contribute to a performance of Bertolt Brecht’s “The Caucasian Chalk Circle” to enhance the tale?

Explanation of Kabuki Theatre

Kabuki theatre originated during the Edo[3] period in Japan and was part of an attempt to break away from the traditional styles of Noh and Bunraku. In this period, hair styles, clothing, speech, mannerisms and tools people use established sex, social status, age, job and social situation.[4] The art of Kabuki lies in artifice, where it originated as an entertainment for the common people.[5]

Wilson and Goldfarb highlight how Kabuki theatre is traditionally:

1. sung, chanted, danced and mimed;

2. more visual and sensual than literary or intellectual;

3. loosely plotted where there is a strong emphasis on storytelling;

4. highly stylized; and

5. deeply traditional.

Kabuki conveys the characteristics of each role using:

1. rhythmic grace of the actors’ motions;

2. physical virtuosity of its actors;

3. colourful makeup;

4. exaggerated and stylised costumes; and

5. dance

While the overall performance is enhanced using:

1. highly stylised stage decor;

2. stage techniques;

3. melodrama and depiction of outlandish events;

4. dance; and

5. complex use of music and sound effects.

Every actor’s movement and effect in a kabuki play has a specific meaning, and Kabuki is often thought of as “the actor’s theatre” as the productions focus on the performance and visual stagecraft rather than on dialogue.

Discussion of Kabuki techniques

Acting Techniques

In Kabuki, the primary importance has been placed on the actor rather than on other aspects of the art, such as the literary value of a play.

Kabuki actors make no attempt to hide the fact that they are performing. They’re aware that they’re performing, and the audience isn’t there to get “lost in the moment.” Everything; actors, costumes, dialogue, is larger than life. Realism is less emphasized, the form generally favoring what is referred to as “formalized beauty.”

There are three (3) main acting styles of Kabuki actors:

1. Onnagata;

2. Wagoto; and

3. Aragoto

Onnagata: One of the most significant details about Kabuki theatre is that there are no actresses[6], male impersonators play all female parts. By emphasizing and stylizing feminine movements and gestures, they are able to create a larger-than-life femininity. Onnagata speak in falsetto and they stand with the knees and back slightly bent so as to look smaller.

Aragoto: These characters are performed with a broad and pretentious style. They are typically harder more aggressive and the acting style suits characters such as villains and soldiers. The notable acting style of heroic figures is expressed through exaggerated costumes and bold red and black face make-up.

Wagoto: It is a term used to describe male characters played with a feminine acting style such as romantic leads. These roles are softer and more effeminate and are used for softer scenes between lovers. The wagoto characters have a narrower stance than the aragoto characters and their movement is more fluid in comparison.

Actors Expressions

Mie: A Mie is a highly dramatized, picturesque posed used often by the main characters during moments of emotional intensity. The actor freezes in a pose and crosses one or both eyes which are often preceded by a head roll. Actors characteristically freeze in a Mie at emotional climaxes, causing intensification and prolonging of moments of dramatic tension.

Tachimawari: A series of stylized flowing movements, carried out in scenes of fighting, are performed in synchronization with backstage music, and the main character does a Mie at important points.

Roppo: Roppo is the dramatic technique that symbolically expresses the character’s walking or running by exaggerating the movements of the hands and feet. Roppo is mainly done by aragoto characters, giving a strong impression of the power and roughness, exiting on the hanamichi[7].

Dance: Actors of onnagata roles display their charm and skill through solo dances that are worked into plays of all types.

Actors Aesthetics

Costume: The costumes for aragoto characters are exaggerated and stylized to reveal their characters at a glance and the distinctive features of costumes do not always reflect the clothing of the periods in which the plays are set.

Costumes consist of multiple parts and are often changed on stage in an instantaneous action. This is a visual way of expressing a character’s sudden emotional or situational change. The various pieces of the costume are put together in such a way that at the appropriate moment, a stage assistant can pull on a string and cause the top layers to almost literally melt away.

Kesho: Kesho is the kabuki makeup which provides an element of style and allows those unfamiliar with Kabuki the ability to easily recognise characters. The color of the makeup is an expression of the character’s nature: [8]

1. red lines – passion, heroism, righteousness, and other positive traits;

2. blue or black lines – villainy, jealousy, and other negative traits;

3. green lines the supernatural; and

4. purple – nobility.

In the kabuki theatre, a character’s makeup is an indication of his or her position in society, for example:[9]

1. commoners, the face is done in natural browns,

2. females, handsome young lovers and upper class characters the face is done in white;

3. Soldiers and villians are painted with shades of red;

4. Aragoto characters are painted deliberately to enhance the facial muscles.

Kurogo: An actor’s onstage assistant who appears on stage with their entire body concealed by a black costume.[10] Kurogo perform various tasks for actors to play their roles.

Stage and Set Effects

Hayagawari: A technique used to effect quick changes of costume for an actor while he remains on stage. Hayagawari, as well as other reasons, are used for characters who remove disguises to reveal their true identity.

Honmizu: This technique refers to a number of different special effects involving water.

Seri: Refers to the stage traps used to raise and lower actors or sets to the stage. This technique is often used for dramatic effect of having an entire scene rise up to appear onstage.

Dogumaku are stage set curtains on which actual scenery is painted. Representatives of these curtains are:

1. “Namimaku” (wave curtain);

2. “Yamamaku” (mountain curtain) and

3. “Ajiromaku” (wall curtain).

Many of these curtains are used to draw the attention of the audience while the stage is set for the next scene.

Hanamichi[11]: These are long, raised platform that run from the back of the theater through the audience to connect with the main stage. Generally it is used for characters’ entrances and exits, though it can also be used for asides or scenes taking place apart from the main action.

Mawari-butai: Also referred to as the revolving stage makes rapid changes of scene possible without interrupting the sequence of the plot. The effect, as Ernst notes, “is much the same as that produced by the fade-out and fade-in of film technique”.[12]

Explanation of Epic Theatre and Bertolt Brecht

Brecht’s Epic theatre

Epic theatre is a theatrical movement commonly attributed to Bertolt Brecht (Brecht). Epic theatre was too formal a concept to be used with the epic theatre Brecht had developed throughout his career, and therefore epic theatre written by Becht is commonly referred to as dialectical theatre.

The alienation effect is the central idea to Brecht’s dramatic theory. It uses techniques to distance the audience from the emotional involvement by reminding the audience that they are watching a theatrical performance.

The opposite effect was realism and Brecht was opposed to realism, he wanted to educate the audience on an issue instead of relaying a story to them simply as a parable.

Historification is Brecht’s technique of incorporating events from history onto part of the stage to make the audience more critical of a time other than the current time and to show Brecht‘s plays are always relevant.

Epic theatre uses a montage of techniques like fragmentation, contract and contradiction and interruptions and when required takes other techniques, like narration, puppetry, projection, comedy and audio visual, from other theatres for each individual production.

Bertolt Brecht

Brecht instructed his actors to keep a distance between themselves and the characters they portrayed. He is famous for his 1930 table itemising axes of distinction between dramatic and epic theatre climaxes in feelings and reason on theatrical emotion.[13] When staging his plays, Brecht instructed his actors to place an emphasis on stylised external signs and gestures to show the social relationships between characters rather than feelings.

“We are not supposed to watch Brecht with the idea of identifying ourselves with the characters”.[14]

Brecht’s views holds that the audience is a collection of individuals, capable of thinking and of reasoning, of making judgments even in the theatre. He further asserts that the empathetic identification of spectators with a hero concentrates their collective emotion in a single direction, ensnaring them in a somatic, uncritical experience; [15] his theatre was intended to allow the spectators to rationally conclude the outcome though personal experience.

Brecht wanted to make the spectator into an actor who would complete the unfinished play, but in real life”[16] as Brecht put it in a posthumously published note, “If a feeling is to be an effective one, it must be acquired not merely impulsively but through the understanding”[17]

The Caucasian Chalk Circle

Instinctive compassion is a major subject of Brecht’s “The Caucasian Chalk Circle”(the CCC). This play concerns a young servant girl, Grushia, who saves the deserted infant child of the Prince during a revolution. The revolution is motivated by greed and is waged primarily for profit through corruption; the politicians prosper and the common people suffer.[18]

Brecht departed significantly from his normal mode of play writing in order to accommodate the tastes of an American audience.[19] These concessions to American viewers make the CCC unique as is the only one of Brechts plays that comes to a complete dramatic and happy close which are features unique to the CCC [20] and does exactly what Brecht did not want his epic theatre to do – it keeps the audience in suspense.[21] In order to prevent the audience from being in suspense a theatrical performance of the CCC should be accompanied by a series of subtle mental hints from the performers to give clues to the story.

The CCC deviates from traditional Brechian theatre on several levels. Love scenes are rare in Brecht’s plays and do not occur anywhere else in his work.[22] It is the way these changes have been integrated into the play which makes further changes reasonable.

Similarities of Brecht’s Epic Theatre and Kabuki

Although the theatrical art forms have been separated by hundreds of years of development, Brecht’s Epic Theatre and Kabuki share many similarities.

In both art forms there is the distinct intent not to be realistic but to display their message artistically. With Kabuki the message was a tale, a story handed down generation after generation, while Brecht wanted to allow the audience to draw likenesses between historical events and the circumstances in the current era. The acting style was focused on conveying the meaning rather than telling the story, realism.

Both Brecht’s theatre and Kabuki have an emphasis on stylization of the characters. Both intend for the characters not being relatable to the audience, but use movement in a way to portray their character.

Although there are similarities, there are differences in Brecht’s Theatre and Kabuki, and some of these differences would enhance a production of the CCC.

Kabuki techniques Applied to The Caucasian Chalk Circle

In addition to the Kabuki techniques which already overlap with Brecht’s theatre productions of the CCC there are acting techniques, actor’s expressions, actors aesthetics and stage and effects which would aid a production of the CCC.

Acting Styles Applied To Characters

Onnagata: The feminine quality displayed by Simon, particularly in the love scenes with Grusha, portrays a gentleness in which the audience can connect with. While the feminine quality displayed by Lavrenti, Grusha’s brother, portrays a comical character that is submissive to his wife, Aniko.

Aragoto: The aggressive and dominate characters; Sergeant, Soldiers, Fat Prince and Azdak, the Aragoto style would suit their portrayal.

Azdak’s would also work with the aragoto style because he takes the focus of each scene in a strong way, but is not aggressive. The aragoto style could enhance the character as it is often rude and brash and arrogant which is similar to Azdak’s characteristics.

The Fat Prince, as a major antagonist/villain, in the play would be an appropriate character to apply the aragoto style to. In scenes the Fat Prince commands the focus as well as being capable of drawing focus from his moment of entry. The application of aragoto style to the Fat Prince would greatly enhance the strength of his character.

Wagoto: Uniquely Kabuki theatre does not have female actresses; however there is no suggestion that only actors should play roles in the CCC. Due to the extensive training and development of the Wagoto technique there are over stylised feminine movements and gestures which create a larger than life femininity and benefit characters like Natella, the Governors wife and Ludovica.

Actors Expressions Applied To Characters

Mie: A particular example of where a Mie can be applied is when Grusha has to flee from the peasant cottage with Michael from the Sergeant and other soldiers. Grusha can strike the Sergeant with a stick, freeze mid-frame for a few seconds for dramatic effect and then flee with Michael.

Another point where a Mie can be applied is at the end of the funeral scene, people can come on stage while the narrator is speaking and pause at a specific point for a few seconds.

Tachimawari: There are two fighting scenes in the CCC which one of these scenes would benefit from this theatre style. This is not likely to appear in specific scenes in the play but can be applied whenever the soldiers do something in ensemble, such as a series of flowing movements performed in synchronization with backstage music, and the main character, Sergeant of the new regime, does a Mie at each important point.

Roppo: There are numerous scenes in the play which involve characters entering and exiting; however roppo would not suit every instance. The main scene in which roppo is appropriate is when the Grusha is running from the Ironshirts. The exaggerated running and contrasting music between the Grusha and the Ironshirts would give effective illustration of the chase.

Actors can enter and exit with a large amount of stylistic expression in a serious attempt to establish their characters early so the audience can focus more on the meaning of the character’s actions. This can be used to assist the alienation process used by Brecht to separate the audience emotionally from the action.

Dance: Dance portrays excitement and positive energy in plays. Limited use of Kabuki dance can represent feelings in which dialogue cannot. A focus on the small and large gestures and expressions of Kabuki dance is the aim.

There are points in the play which are conducive to dance, particularly in the scenes where groups of people are fleeing where dance can choreograph one scene to the next. The other instance where dance can be used is at the end of the play to celebrate the just outcomes of the child being returned to Grusha and being able to marry Simon.

Actors Aesthetics Applied To Characters

Costume: The costumes worn by the characters can assist the audience to quickly identify with the character based on their own experiences, and they should stylistically represent the moods, behaviours and the motivations of the characters. For example Natella who should be adorned with bright colours and jewels to represent her wealth and status. The technique of allowing the audience to form their own impressions from their past experiences is established in Brecht’s work, however the Kabuki art of extreme exaggeration in costume will bring make this characterisation obvious.

Grusha’s costume might display colours representing innocence while the Natella’s costume might have colours representing arrogance.

The costumes for the wealthy characters should be exaggerated beyond what would have been worn normally while in contrast the costumes of the poor people should be such a contrast to make the distinction between the classes easy for the audience to relate to.

Kesho: Make up is an essential part of characterisation in theatre. The use of exaggerated make up can portray quickly if a character is rich, evil, gentle or poor. The use of white base on the wealthier characters, in conjunction with the use of purple on the faces of nobility and black or blue on the faces of the villains like the Sergeant and the Duke.

Kurogo: On stage assistants are not uncommon in western theatre, however they are typically seen to move stage sets around. kurogo at many stages are seen to perform with the main character.

The use of kurogo would be beneficial, in conjunction with hayagawari (detailed below) when characters, like Natella and Aztak strip off their outer layer costumes to reveal their real character.

Another use of kurogo would be the slow movement of props and the stage set so as to not disrupt the flow of the play to change sets. The kurogo could slowly rearrange the set, so that the changes are not automatically identified by the audience, in the background.

Stage and Set Effects Applied to the Stage

Hayagawari: Costumes portray a strong visual message to the audience. This technique of a quick costume change on set would visually illustrate to the audience Natella and Azdak’s real characters if their costumes were to quickly drop away, with the assistance of the Kurogo, during the trial scenes at the end of the production. For example Natella’s costume could drop away to reveal an ugly beast, and Azdak’s costume could drop away to reveal a prince to portray their true characters.

Honmizu: The use of water occurs at different times during the play. There are two scenes which could benefit from the creative use of water sound and visual effects. The first is the scene where Grusha is washing her clothes in the stream before Simon goes off to war. The second is when Simon returns from war and Grusha informs him that she has married in his absence. The use of spectacular water visualization and sound effects will allow the audience to immerse themselves in memories of water to appreciate the scene.

Dogumaku: In the play the scenes vary from the palace, township, farm, river and courthouse. By the use of dogumaku the audience will not be required to think or visualise the settings as these can be provided on a series of drop down sheets. The drop down sheets can systematically be dropped according to the scenes.

Hanamichi: The stage in Kabuki that protrudes into the audience would enable the tale to be brought to the audience. The particular scene which I believe would be performed on the hanamichi stage is the scene where the soldiers are chasing Grusha and Michael. The stage could be secured by wires which when they are on the stage is raised above the stage and several rows of the audience. Grusha and the soldiers can run, using rappo theatrical style across the “bridge” into the audience. The audience will get the real sense that they are being pursued by the soldiers. Another scene to benefit the use of the hanamichi stage is in the initial scenes when the Ironshirts overrun the Governors house, the soldiers can come running in through the hanamichi stage using roppo theatrical style.

Mawari-butai: There are scene changes which the Korogo are unable to perform resulting in the set change being noticed by the audience. For example, the hanging scene of the Governor where the apparatus for hanging the Governor is wheeled in and then out again and the scene where the Jussup, Grusha’s husband is in the bath. These scenes, if the play budget and infrastructure allowed would benefit from the stage set being assembled below the stage and when required to rise to the main stage, as illustrated in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Mawari-butai stage


It is ambitious to believe Kabuki techniques, which have been around for hundreds of years, could bring new life to Bertolt Brecht’s “The Caucasian Chalk Circle”. It may be seen from the above information that Kabuki is quite a theatrical art form which has historically entertained generations of Japanese.

Brecht likes to make his audience think and compare the play to their experiences. By using subtle subconscious clues in the props and set will take away a portion of the thinking required by the audience, and therefore allow them to enjoy the detail in the tale more.

The suggestions made in this research are not an attempt to change Brecht’s style entirely, but to add theatrical techniques from Kabuki theatre to illustrate both comically and unrealistically the scene in a way which the current generation of theatre goers can appreciate.

Westerners enjoy the colour and spectacle of Kabuki theatre and the Kabuki influence in The Caucasian Chalk Circle can bring a dimension to the play which can be enjoyed by diverse groups of people.

By introducing various types of Kabuki acting techniques, actor’s expressions, actors aesthetics, stage and effects to the CCC the audience will reduce a large portion of Brecht’s traditional view of “Allow the audience to think” enabling the audience to be entertained while still be able to enjoy the tale.

The Caucasian Chalk Circle is one example of Bertolt Brecht’s plays which has already been modified to suit the audience of the time. It is therefore not unreasonable that further modifications to suit the modern audience would benefit the numbers of spectators coming to see the production.

It remains an unanswered question if the general population would share these views, however a future production of Bertolt Brecht’s “The Caucasian Chalk Circle” should resolve the acceptance of the different cultural techniques used in traditional theatre.


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Resources researched by not referenced in the research

Bowers, F. (1993). Theatre in the East. New York: Grove Press, Inc.

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Lyons, C. R. (1968). Bertolt Brecht: The Despair and the Polemic. London: Southern Illinois University Press.

Mackerras, C. (1975). The Japanese Theatre in Modern Times. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.Willett, J. (1965) Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic. London: Methuen ; Co Ltd.