enpaku 早稲田大学演劇博物館

Online Exhibition

Lost in Pandemic―Theatre Adrift, Expression's New Horizons

Theatre and Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic is not the first epidemic experienced by Japanese people. There have been epidemics caused by smallpox, measles, cholera, tuberculosis, and various types of influenza. Epidemics occurred from time to time as disease spread from person to person. These disasters were an inevitable part of living in society until vaccines were brought to Japan.
Epidemics have brought death and tragedy to society and the people who live in it. They were depicted as tragedies as in the case of Hototogisu (little cuckoo) (『不如帰』), the representative work of the Shinpa theatre company. There are also plays that deal with a critical turning point in life caused by epidemics and diseases, as well as the absurdities of economic crisis brought on by a pandemic. Meanwhile, people who lived in or prior to the Edo period personified the invisible plagues as the plague gods and demons, and they tried to deal with them through folk beliefs, magic spells, dietary cures, and so on. This can be partly seen in Gannin Bozu, Shiki no Nagame Yosete Mitsu Dai (the street performer who offers prayer in the place of others) (『願人坊主 [四季詠寄三大字]』), a kabuki dance play that features solicitations to the plague god. The paintings of smallpox and measles that depict the actors indicate the fusion of epidemics with the theatrical culture.
People did not just fear epidemics; they also tried to overcome fear by joking and laughing about them. Michiyuki Mirai e Korori Ne (sleeping on the road to the future) (『道行未来へころり寝』), as well as Osomekaze Hisamatsu Rusu (Osome cold, Hisamatsu is not here) (『お染風久松留守』), which is based on the flu that spread throughout Japan in the 20s of Meiji era, indicate how laughter, epidemics, and plays interacted with one another. People have a supple spirit to turn a miserable situation into laughter.
What did theatre lose in the past pandemics and what did it find? This exhibition introduces the past epidemics as depicted by theatrical performances through the materials owned by the museum.

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