The Gaiety Theatre, Yokohama (1870-1923)

Extracted from Masumoto Masahiko, 'Yokohama Geite-za' (Yokohama, 1986)

As the so-called Ansei Commercial Treaties were concluded between the Tokugawa Shogunate and the United States, the Netherlands, Russia, Great Britain and France in 1858, foreign settlements were soon built in Hakodate, Niigata, Tokyo, Yokohama, Osaka, Kobe, and Nagasaki. Each settlement probably had its own recreation facilities for its residents, whilst some had public halls and theatres for various entertainments. As early as in 1863, concerts and dramatic entertainment had already been provided for the residents in Yokohama, and the Gaiety Theatre at Hon'machi Street was built in 1870 to accommodate dramatic productions by touring companies as well as by amateur players.1  As the chronology of A Midsummer Night's Dream productions shows, not a few plays by Shakespeare and other European playwrights were mounted by either amateur or professional players.

Although they were produced chiefly for the foreign residents in Yokohama, Japanese scholars and men of letters as well as Shingeki practitioners in Tokyo went to see them. However, considering that the performances started at nine in the evening and lasted for more than three hours and that all the plays were mounted in English, only a limited number of Japanese spectators could attend and appreciate the theatrical productions there.

Amongst Shakespeare productions at the Gaiety were those mounted by George C. Miln's company in May and June 1891.2  Although there had already been several partial productions of Shakespeare before, this American company staged a whole Hamlet and some other Shakespeare plays for the first time in Japan.3   It is almost impossible today to discuss their performances because so little information is available on them, yet the significance of Miln's Shakespeare for the Japanese can be surmised from a short essay written by Tsubouchi Shouyou who saw Shakespeare performed by Western actors for the first time. In his essay Tsubouchi writes:. . . I saw only Hamlet and The Merchant of Venice. As they were presented under rather an old direction, a few performances were enough for me to imagine how other dozens of Shakespeare plays would be presented. They were useful not only when I read the Bard's plays but also when I later produced Hamlet and The Merchant of Venice with my students Doi, Tougi and Minaguchi under my direction.4   Tsubouchi Shouyou, a professor of English at Waseda University, studied Shakespeare performance primarily through books and records, yet it must be noted that he gained firsthand knowledge of Shakespeare in performance at the Gaiety Theatre. More important is the fact that his experience there helped him direct Shakespeare with his theatre company Bungei Kyoukai [Literary Society], although in directing Shakespeare he did not try to imitate Western productions of Shakespeare which he actually saw or read about. Tsubouchi, who had also seen Janet Waldorf's presentation of the scenes taken from Shakespeare plays at a hotel in Tokyo, continues to write:I learnt the difference in gestures, facial expressions and elocution between the Japanese theatre and its Western counterpart.

Particularly I became clearly aware for the first time that there was a great difference between naturalistic and artistic expressions of laughter and sighs. Of course, I had already read foreign books and records extensively on drama and learnt how leading British and American actors performed Shakespeare in preparation for my lectures, yet, as far as artistic details went, I found seeing is believing.5 

The experience of Western Shakespeare, whether at the Gaiety or not, certainly served him to concretise the knowledge he acquired from books and records about Shakespeare in performance.

Yet it is also noteworthy that Tsubouchi did not blindly admire the Western productions, and this distinguishes him from other Shingeki practitioners in the following years, as will be shown in the section on Tsubouchi's Literary Society. For example, he also attended the performances of the Allan Wilkie Company, an important British troupe, which presented Shakespeare as well as Shaw and Wilde. He mentions Wilkie's Shakespeare performances (1912) in the same essay, remarking that "Wilkie's productions of Shakespeare were as complacent and poorly-constructed as those mounted by Shingeki companies in Japanese translation."6   Although there is no telling whether his criticism was valid or not, it is at least certain that Tsubouchi had already acquired his own aesthetic judgement about Shakespearean performances, probably through books on Shakespeare productions as well as from his experience at the Gaiety Theatre.

As Tsubouchi and a few other intellectuals had already been familiar with Shakespeare on stage as well as on page in either English or Japanese as early as in 1891, it was natural for them to be disappointed with Kawakami Otojirou's "Seigeki Shakespeare" and other Shimpa Shakespeare. The Gaiety Theatre had not inconsiderable significance in that it presented Western theatre that was wholly different from any Japanese theatrical genre available at that time. 7


1 The description of The Gaiety Theatre here owes to Masumoto Masahiko's Yokohama Geite-za, 2nd edition (1986, Yokohama). There were two Gaiety Theatres; one was the small theatre built on Hon'machi Street in 1870 and the other was originally a public hall built in 1885 and later renamed as the Yamanote Gaiety Theatre. The second Gaiety Theatre replaced the first one because it had become too small to accommodate the audience. As this section merely aims to demonstrate the fact that Shakespearean performances in the Yokohama settlement exerted a significant influence upon the Shingeki Movement, the two theatres are not differentiated in referring to to performances. Yet, by way of precaution, the performance date will help to find the venue: performances from December 1870 to early June 1885 were given at the Hon'machi Gaiety Theatre, those from June 1885 to July 1908 were at the Public Hall, and all the performances from November 1908 until August 1923 were given at the Yamanote Gaiety Theatre.

2 George C. Miln was a British actor who formed his own touring company in the United States.

3 They mounted Hamlet, The Merchant of Venice, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Othello, Julius Caesar and Richard the Third during their two weeks' stay in Yokohama. Along with scholars and men of letters, some students of English at Tokyo Imperial University also attended a production of Macbeth, because James M. Dixon, a lecturer of English at the University, recommended them to go to the Gaiety.

4 "Naichi de Hajimete Mita Gaikoku Haiyuu no Shakespeare-geki no Inshou" [Impressions of foreign actors' Shakespeare productions that I have seen in Japan], in Shouyou Senshuu [Collected Works of Tsuouchi Shouyou] (Tokyo, 1987), 15 vols, XII pp.375-78 and 376.

5 Ibid. Ms Waldorf also gave a similar Shakespeare performance at the Gaiety probably before the performance in Tokyo.

6 Ibid. p. 377. Tsubouchi, on the other hand, praises Wilkie's productions of Shaw's and Wilde's plays.

7 Osanai Kaoru was another important figure who experienced benefit from the variety of performances at the Gaiety Theatre. From May 1907 to December 1912 when he went to Europe to study Western drama, he was a regular visitor to this Western-style theatre, where he learnt about contemporary Western plays.