From Sea to Sea, by Rudyard Kipling

No. 13

The Japanese Theatre and the Story of the Thunder Cat. Treating also of the Quiet Places and the Dead Man in the Street

TO the theatre we went, through the mud and much rain. Internally it was nearly dark, for the deep blue of the audience’s dress soaked up the scanty light of the kerosene lamps. There was no standing room anywhere except next to the Japanese policeman, who in the cause of morals and the Lord Chamberlain had a corner in the gallery and three chairs all to himself. He was quite four feet eight inches high, and Napoleon at St. Helena could not have folded his arms more dramatically. After some grunting — I fear we were upsetting the principles of the Constitution — he consented to give us one chair, receiving in return a Burma cheroot which I have every reason to believe blew his little head off. A pit containing fifty rows of fifty people and a bonding-layer of babies, with a gallery which might have held twelve hundred, made up the house. The building was as delicate a piece of cabinet work as any of the houses; roof, floor, beams, props, verandahs, and partitions were of naked wood, and every other person in the house was smoking a tiny pipe and knocking out the ashes every two minutes. Then I wished to fly; death by the auto-da-fe not being anywhere paid for in the tour; but there was no escape by the one little door where pickled fish was being sold between the acts.

‘Yes, it’s not exactly safe,’ said the Professor, as the matches winked and sputtered all round and below. ‘But if that curtain catches that naked light on the stage, or you see this matchwood gallery begin to blaze, I’ll kick out the back of the refreshment-buffet, and we can walk home.’

With this warm comfort the drama began. The green curtain dropped from above and was whisked away, and three gentlemen and a lady opened the ball by a dialogue conducted in tones between a ‘burble’ and a falsetto whisper. If you wish to know their costumes, look at the nearest Japanese fan. Real Japs of course are like men and women, but stage Japs in their stiff brocades are line for line as Japs are drawn. When the four sat down, a little boy ran among them and settled their draperies, pulling out a sash bow here, displaying a skirt-fold there. The costumes were as gorgeous as the plot was incomprehensible. But we will call the play ‘The Thunder Cat, or Harlequin Bag o’ Bones and the Amazing Old Woman, or The Mammoth Radish, or The Superfluous Badger and the Swinging Lights.’

A two-sworded man in the black and gold brocade rose up and imitated the gait of an obscure actor called Henry Irving, whereat, not knowing that he was serious, I cackled aloud till the Japanese policeman looked at me austerely. Then the two-sworded man wooed the Japanese-fan lady, the other characters commenting on his proceedings like a Greek chorus till something — perhaps a misplaced accent — provoked trouble, and the two-sworded man and a vermilion splendour enjoyed a Vincent Crummles fight to the music of all the orchestra — one guitar and something that clicked — not castanets. The small boy removed their weapons when the men had sufficiently warred, and, conceiving that the piece wanted light, fetched a ten-foot bamboo with a naked candle at the end, and held this implement about a foot from the face of the two-sworded man, following his every movement with the anxious eye of a child intrusted with a typewriter. Then the Japanese-fan girl consented to the wooing of the two-sworded man, and with a scream of eldritch laughter turned into a hideous old woman — a boy took off her hair, but she did the rest herself. At this terrible moment a gilded Thunder Cat, which is a cat issuing from a cloud, ran on wires from the flies to the centre of the gallery, and a boy with a badger’s tail mocked at the two-sworded man. Then I knew that the two-sworded man had offended a Cat and a Badger, and would have a very bad time of it, for these two animals and the Fox are to this day black sorcerers. Fearful things followed, and the scenery was changed once every five minutes. The prettiest effect was secured by a double row of candles hung on strings behind a green gauze far up the stage and set swinging with opposite motions. This, besides giving a fine idea of uncanniness, made one member of the audience seasick.

But the two-sworded man was far more miserable than I. The bad Thunder Cat cast such spells upon him that I gave up trying to find out what he meant to be. He was a fat-faced low comedian King of the Rats, assisted by other rats, and he ate a magic radish with side-splitting pantomime till he became a man once more. Then all his bones were taken away — still by the Thunder Cat — and he fell into a horrid heap, illuminated by the small boy with the candle — and would not recover himself till somebody spoke to a magic parrot, and a huge hairy villain and several coolies had walked over him. Then he was a girl, but, hiding behind a parasol, resumed his shape, and then the curtain came down and the audience ran about the stage and circulated generally. One small boy took it into his head that he could turn head-over-heels from the Prompt side across. With great gravity, before the unregarding house, he set to work, but rolled over sideways with a flourish of chubby legs. Nobody cared, and the polite people in the gallery could not understand why the Professor and I were helpless with laughter when the child, with a clog for a sword, imitated the strut of the two-sworded man. The actors changed in public, and any one who liked might help shift scenes. Why should not a baby enjoy himself if he liked?

A little later we left. The Thunder Cat was still working her wicked will on the two-sworded man, but all would be set right next day. There was a good deal to be done, but Justice was at the end of it. The man who sold pickled fish and tickets said so.

‘Good school for a young actor,’ said the Professor. ‘He’d see what unpruned eccentricities naturally develop into. There’s every trick and mannerism of the English stage in that place, magnified thirty diameters, but perfectly recognisable. How do you intend to describe it?’

‘The Japanese comic opera of the future has yet to be written,’ I responded grandiloquently. ‘Yet to be written in spite of the Mikado. The badger has not yet appeared on an English stage, and the artistic mask as an accessory to the legitimate drama has never been utilised. Just imagine The Thunder Cat as a title for a serio-comic opera? Begin with a domestic cat possessed of magic powers, living in the house of a London tea-merchant who kicks her. Consider ——’

‘The lateness of the hour,’ was the icy answer. ‘To-morrow we will go and write operas in the temple close to this place.’

. . . . .

. . . . .

To-morrow brought fine drizzling rain. The sun, by the way, has been hidden now for more than three weeks. They took us to what must be the chief temple of Kobé and gave it a name which I do not remember. It is an exasperating thing to stand at the altars of a faith that you know nothing about. There be rites and ceremonies of the Hindu creed that all have read of and must have witnessed, but in what manner do they pray here who look to Buddha, and what worship is paid at the Shinto shrines? The books say one thing; the eyes, another.

The temple would seem to be also a monastery and a place of great peace disturbed only by the babble of scores of little children. It stood back from the road behind a sturdy wall, an irregular mass of steep-pitched roofs bound fantastically at the crown, copper-green where the thatch had ripened under the touch of time, and dull greyblack where the tiles ran. Under the eaves a man who believed in his God, and so could do good work, had carved his heart into wood till it blossomed and broke into waves or curled with the ripple of live flames. Somewhere on the outskirts of Lahore city stands a mazy gathering of tombs and cloister walks called Chajju Bhagat’s Chubara, built no one knows when and decaying no one cares how soon. Though this temple was large and spotlessly clean within and without, the silence and rest of the place were those of the courtyards in the far-off Punjab. The priests had made many gardens in corners of the wall — gardens perhaps forty feet long by twenty wide, and each, though different from its neighbour, containing a little pond with goldfish, a stone lantern or two, hummocks of rock, flat stones carved with inscriptions, and a cherry or peach tree all blossom.

Stone-paved paths ran across the courtyard and connected building with building. In an inner enclosure, where lay the prettiest garden of all, was a golden tablet ten or twelve feet high, against which stood in high relief of hammered bronze the figure of a goddess in flowing robes. The space between the paved paths here was strewn with snowy-white pebbles, and in white pebbles on red they had written on the ground, ‘How happy.’ You might take them as you pleased — for the sigh of contentment or the question of despair.

The temple itself, reached by a wooden bridge, was nearly dark, but there was light enough to show a hundred subdued splendours of brown and gold, of silk and faithfully painted screen. If you have ever seen a Buddhist altar where the Waster of the Law sits among golden bells, ancient bronzes, flowers in vases, and banners of tapestry, you will begin to understand why the Roman Catholic Church once prospered so mightily in this country, and will prosper in all lands where it finds an elaborate ritual already existing. An art-loving folk will have a God who is to be propitiated with pretty things as surely as a race bred among rocks and moors and driving clouds will enshrine their deity in the storm, and make him the austere recipient of the sacrifice of the rebellious human spirit. Do you remember the story of the Bad People of Iquique? The man who told me that yarn told me another — of the Good People of Somewhere Else. They also were simple South Americans with nothing to wear, and had been conducting a service of their own in honour of their God before a black-jowled Jesuit father. At a critical moment some one forgot the ritual, or a monkey invaded the sanctity of that forest shrine and stole the priest’s only garment. Anyhow, an absurdity happened, and the Good People burst into shouts of laughter and broke off to play for a while.

‘But what will your God say? ‘asked the Jesuit, scandalised at the levity.

‘Oh! he knows everything. He knows that we forget, and can’t attend, and do it all wrong, but he is very wise and very strong,’ was the reply.

‘Well, that doesn’t excuse you.’

‘Of course it does. He just lies back and laughs,’ said the Good People of Somewhere Else, and fell to pelting each other with blossoms.

I forget what is the precise bearing of this anecdote. But to return to the temple. Hidden away behind a mass of variegated gorgeousness was a row of very familiar figures with gold crowns on their heads. One does not expect to meet Krishna the Butter Thief and Kali the husband-beater so far east as Japan.

‘What are these?’

‘They are other gods,’ said a young priest, who giggled deprecatingly at his own creed every time he was questioned about it. ‘They are very old. They came from India in the past. I think they are Indian gods, but I do not know why they are here.’

I hate a man who is ashamed of his faith. There was a story connected with those gods, and the priest would not tell it to me. So I sniffed at him scornfully, and went my way. It led me from the temple straight into the monastery, which was all made of delicate screens, polished floors, and brown wood ceilings. Except for my tread on the boards there was no sound in the place till I heard some one breathing heavily behind a screen. The priest slid back what had appeared to me a dead wall, and we found a very old priest half-asleep over his charcoal handwarmer. This was the picture. The priest in olive-green, his bald head, pure silver, bowed down before a sliding screen of white oiled paper which let in dull silver light. To his right a battered black lacquer stand containing the Indian ink and brushes with which he feigned to work. To the right of these, again, a pale yellow bamboo table holding a vase of olive-green crackle, and a sprig of almost black pine There were no blossoms in this place. The priest was too old. Behind the sombre picture stood a gorgeous little Buddhist shrine — gold and vermilion.

‘He makes a fresh picture for the little screen here every day,’ said the young priest, pointing first to his senior, and then to a blank little tablet on the wall. The old man laughed pitifully, rubbed his head, and handed me his picture for the day. It represented a flood over rocky ground; two men in a boat were helping two others on a tree half-submerged by the water. Even I could tell that the power had gone from him. He must have drawn well in his manhood, for one figure in the boat had action and purpose as it leaned over the gunwale; but the rest was blurred, and the lines had wandered astray as the poor old hand had quavered across the paper. I had no time to wish the artist a pleasant old age, and an easy death in the great peace that surrounded him, before the young man drew me away to the back of the shrine, and showed me a second smaller altar facing shelves on shelves of little gold and lacquer tablets covered with Japanese characters.

‘These are memorial tablets of the dead,’ he giggled. ‘Once and again the priest he prays here — for those who are dead, you understand?’

‘Perfectly. They call ’em masses where I come from. I want to go away and think about things. You shouldn’t laugh, though, when you show off your creed.’

‘Ha, ha! ‘said the young priest, and I ran away down the dark polished passages with the faded screens on either hand, and got into the main courtyard facing the street, while the Professor was trying to catch temple fronts with his camera.

A procession passed, four abreast tramping through the sloshy mud. They did not laugh, which was strange, till I saw and heard a company of women in white walking in front of a little wooden palanquin carried on the shoulders of four bearers and suspiciously light. They sang a song, half under their breaths — a wailing, moaning song that I had only heard once before, from the lips of a native far away in the north of India, who had been clawed past hope of cure by a bear, and was singing his own death-song as his friends bore him along.

‘Have makee die,’ said my ’rickshaw coolie. ‘Few-yu-ne-ral.’

I was aware of the fact. Men, women, and little children poured along the streets, and when the death-song died down, helped, it forward. The half-mourners wore only pieces of white cloth about their shoulders. The immediate relatives of the dead were in white from head to foot. ‘Aho! Ahaa! Aho!’ they wailed very softly, for fear of breaking the cadence of the falling rain, and they disappeared. All except one old woman, who could not keep pace with the procession, and so came along alone, crooning softly to herself. ‘Aho! Ahaa! Aho!’she whispered.

The little children in the courtyard were clustered round the Professor’s camera. But one child had a very bad skin disease on his innocent head — so bad that none of the others would play with him — and he stood in a corner and sobbed and sobbed as though his heart would break. Poor little Gehazi!

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38