[Note: since this will be my last post on The Consecrated Eminence, I feel no need to apologize for opening with such a horrible pun.]

The Howard B. Hamilton Japanese Theater Papers will be an extraordinary resource for the study of both Japanese culture and theater performance. It documents the frankly amazing avocational activity of an American medical researcher in post-World War II Japan who, over the course of 30 years, went on to become one of the leading performers on the noh stage – quite unusual for any non-Japanese.

Howard B. Hamilton, MD (1918-2007)

Hamilton’s papers, consisting chiefly of photographic images, programs, albums, film, video, and printed matter, were acquired as a gift five years ago and are now being arranged, described and prepared for research use. Work on the collection has been challenging and time-consuming, since none of us here professes any expert knowledge in Japanese noh theater. (Archival processing always has an educational element.)

How Hamilton, an American-born, Yale-trained physician and medical researcher, found his artistic calling in the esoteric realm of Japanese noh theater is hard to fathom, but one is inclined to behold his work as a genuine example of cosmically cross-cultural aesthetic affinity. Aside from some basic facts, we know little about Dr. Hamilton: undergraduate degree from the University of Rochester, Yale Medical School, wartime service in the U.S. Navy, biochemistry research after the war at Mass General and Harvard; then, in 1956, a move to Hiroshima, Japan, to research the effects of radiation on atomic bomb survivors as Chief of Clinical Laboratories for the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission (1956-1975) and later the Radiation Effects Research Foundation (1975-1984). Though his medical research was important (well documented in his medical papers at the Houston Academy of Medicine), it was in Japan that Dr. Hamilton discovered his passion, Japanese theater, and noh in particular.

The noh stage at the Itsukushima shrine, built on the beach of Miyajima Island and often surrounded by shallow water. Hamilton performed here annually for many years.

The oldest extant theater tradition in the world, noh is a highly symbolic, aesthetic, non-realistic, poetic monodrama with origins in dance and religious ceremony in Japan and China. It was perfected to its present form in the 14th century. Noh’s three elements are song, dance and drama. It is performed by elegantly costumed and often masked actor-dancers on an uncluttered stage devoid of realistic scenery or props. The highlight of noh drama is the dance section, consisting of abstract movement and gesture in a symbolic pantomime of verses chanted by a chorus. Noh is a “monodrama” in the sense that it is completely dominated by the leading role: as Paul Claudel has observed, “In western drama, something happens; in noh, someone appears.” Song is always present; dance and drama only sometimes. Its effect is sculptural (a square stage viewed from the front and sides) rather than pictorial, as in traditional western theater.

Shortly after his arrival in Hiroshima, Hamilton met IZUMO Tsunekazu, a professional actor in the Kita Noh school. He began taking weekly lessons in September 1956. He soon performed various shimai in Hiroshima. (A shimai is a simplified version of noh performed by the shite, or lead role, wearing a crest-adorned kimono and Japanese-style trousers; it generally involves no masks, costumes or props, with the exception of a long sword or cane.)

Hamilton being dressed for a performance of Kurozuka at the Miyajima noh stage, 1965.
Kurozuka, 1965

In 1959 Dr. Hamilton was involved in his first public noh performance as the shite in Chikubushima. His first performance on a true noh stage was in Miyajima, the ancient stage at Itsukushima Shrine, as part of its annual Tokasai Festival. He generally performed twice a year: once on temporary stages in Hiroshima, and again at Miyajima. Eventually he also performed at the Kita Noh stage in Tokyo and elsewhere. For the benefit of English-speaking attendees at Miyajima, Dr. Hamilton prepared summaries of the plays in English, and translations of the play in which he performed.

Hamilton’s English translation of Yorimasa, ca. 1980), mounted in a beautiful album with photographs, as he did for all the noh plays in which he acted.
Kurozuka, 1965

In processing the Hamilton Papers, I have discovered how impossible it is to appreciate noh except by experiencing it in performance. (There are many videos on YouTube that impart a sense of it, but even these I have found wanting.)

Describing the “action” of a noh performance is a rather superficial exercise. For example, a synopsis of Kazuraki goes something like this: “Three priests who have journeyed to Mt. Kazuraki are given shelter from the snow by a woman. Later, she asks them to pray for her to relieve her suffering. When questioned, she reveals that she is the goddess of the mountain and is being punished for having failed in her duty once in the past. Later, she reappears in her true form and, having been saved from further punishment by the prayers of the priests, performs a dance for them in gratitude.”

Hamilton portraying the old woman in Kazuraki, 1969. Laying down a sprig of leaves before the priests as she prepares a fire for them, the chorus intones words that speak of the evanescence of life – like lightning, morning dew, or the sparks that issue from her flint as she lights the fire.
Hamilton’s English summary from the Kazuraki album.

The Howard B. Hamilton Japanese Theater Papers include much information about noh based on the extensive research he did for his slide lecture-demonstrations, which he gave many times a year in Japan and the U.S. – even at medical conferences. He became a collector of costumes, masks and props, some of which are held at Amherst’s Mead Art Museum.

Contact sheet of Dr.  Hamilton’s extensive collection of slides depicting noh masks.
Noh mask called “Manbi.”

Aside from Hamilton’s subject files, the albums, containing English summaries and images from noh performances, make up the most useful part of the collection for researchers who are new to this ancient theatrical art form. In addition, thousands of color slides, photographic prints and and film and video footage will make this a very rich resource.


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