Kyōgen, along with noh theatre, developed out of an earlier type of performance called sarugaku. Sarugaku noh began to be patronized by the rising warrior class in the mid-1300s. The term “kyōgen” also appears from around this time. While the two develop separate identities, they are inseparable in performance, with comic kyogen plays being performed in between the more serious noh plays, kyōgen interludes in two-part noh plays, and even some noh plays with a commoner character played by a kyōgen performer. Patronage of noh and kyōgen (collectively referred to as nōgaku) by the warrior class continued into the Edo period (1603-1868), during which time the families, schools, scripts, and performance styles of kyōgen became more formalized, and the relationship to noh more rigidly defined.
The Meiji Era saw a decline in kyōgen, as troupes that had relied on the support of the warrior class struggled to continue their activities. However, dedicated artists refused to let the art die and sustained the performance tradition throughout the first half of the 20th century. The post-WWII era saw a “kyōgen boom.” Kyōgen as a form was embraced as an art celebrating the “commoner,” and kyōgen artists broke genre boundaries to create new work together with artists of other traditions. Since then, kyōgen has gained popularity both domestically and internationally; and professional kyōgen actors today, while committed to maintaining the “tradition,” are also involved in a wide range of creative and entertainment projects – informing the current cultural scene with their traditionally trained bodies and minds, and bringing fresh perspectives back into the traditional arts.
Nara Period (710-784)
Heian Period (784-1186)
The term sarugaku (lit. “monkey music”) replaces sangaku. Sarugaku begins to change from circus-like spectacle performances to comic sketches.
Kamakura Period (1186-1333)
Sarugaku troupes begin to form. Each troupe is associated with a particular shrine or temple.
Muromachi Period (1333-1568)
Sarugaku nō is patronized by the Ashikaga Shogunate. Interlude kyōgen (ai-kyōgen) is performed in between noh performances and independent comic performances (hon-kyōgen) are also developed. The term “kyōgen” is first used in 1352.
Azuchi-Momoyama Period (1568-1603)
Kyōgen lineages begin to form and the earliest extant documentation of kyōgen skits is written (Tensho-bon, 1578). This work summarizes the plot outlines using stock characters but does not include complete scripts.
Edo Period (1603-1868)
Kyōgen is deemed an official art of the Tokugawa Shogunate and becomes more formalized. Families of kyōgen performers are consolidated into into three schools: Ōkura, Izumi, and Sagi. Shogunal requirement result in scripts being documented. The first full performances scripts (Ōkura Tora’akira-bon, 1642) and theoretical writing on kyōgen (Waranbe-gusa, 1651), are written by Ōkura Tora’aki(ra).
Meiji and Taishō Eras (1868-1926)
Noh and kyōgen actors struggled to stay afloat after losing the support of the warrior elite due to the fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Sagi school kyōgen ceased to be performed professionally, surviving in Yamaguchi Prefecture and Sado Island as amateur traditions.
Shōwa Era (1926-1989)
Kyōgen actors began to look at non-kyōgen traditions for inspiration and collaboration. The popularity of kyōgen spiked in the first “kyōgen boom” in the 1950s, while international tours—including to Hawai’i—began in the mid-1960s.
Heisei Era (1989-2019)
A second “kyōgen boom” in the 1990s was largely inspired by the children of the first boom generation actors, who became household names via movie and television appearances, which in turn brought audiences to see them on their “home stage” of kyōgen. Kyōgen actors continue to transmit the classical traditions while simultaneously getting more involved in new media such as TV, movies, and contemporary stage performances. Cross-cultural, new work, and bilingual productions widen the boundaries of the kyōgen genre.
Reiwa Era (2019-Present)
The COVID-19 pandemic forces kyōgen actors to find new creative avenues, exploring how kyōgen interacts with the digital world.