By John Dillon
One year, the legendary 16th century tea master Sen no Rikyu planted morning glories in his Kyoto garden. The all-powerful regent and second unifier of Japan who brought to an end the Warring States period, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, heard of the beauty of the blooms and announced he would visit Rikyu's residence to view the flowers. But when he arrives, all the morning glories have been cut down and removed, roots and all. Not a single blossom remains. Angry at the affront, he enters the tea house . . .
Before I tell you what happens next, let me tell you a bit about why this story interests me. I’m a theater artist and I was born and raised in Oregon. As soon as I finished my sixteen-year stint as the artistic director of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, my wife and I headed to the Pacific Northwest for the next chapter in our life. One of the things that pulls me so strongly to our region are its vivid contrasts. I remember recently hustling back from a hike in the Cascades and zipping out of my soiled mountain togs so that I could make the curtain of an urbane English comedy at a downtown theater. And on that same drive back to Seattle, I remember making a note to change the dates of our rodeo tickets in Ellensburg so that I could participate in a special tea ceremony to be held in the Arboretum. Life is more vivid here (despite the more than occasional gray skies) because the contrasts are so striking. And that makes me think of the story of Rikyu and the morning glories, with its humble Zen priest and angry Shogun, of the royal retinue and the fragile teahouse. And then, of course, there’s the mystery of the missing flowers . . .
As Hideyoshi enters the tearoom he finds one perfect morning glory, the glorious flower shining with dew and arranged simply in a bamboo container in the small room’s alcove. As Hideyoshi begins to grasp the meaning of Rikyu’s gesture, a side panel slides open and Rikyu enters to start the tea ceremony.
Without even articulating the story’s meaning, there is something I find dramatically satisfying in the simple tale. To begin, of course, are the contrasts already mentioned. Such conflicts/contrasts are the heart of theater. Next emerge three principles I find vital in drama: selection, context and danger. Rikyu chose one flower to represent the many. A playwright chooses only one character to represent a myriad and he or she chooses only a few events to reveal the meaning of a full and complex life. Next, Rikyu took this one flower he felt represented the multitude in his garden and moved it indoors and placed it in a carefully chosen container. Likewise, we can sometimes see our lives better by viewing another life in the openly artificial context of an art form like the theater. Even the most realistic play has a missing wall through which we view the action to say nothing of the stage lights that grow and dim and the proscenium arch that frames the action. Somehow, viewing the private act publicly allows us to see it better. Selection and context are vital tools in helping us see meanings in the life around us.
Finally, there’s danger. Hideyoshi’s power over life and death was absolute. Rikyu risked his life to make his unspoken point. If you doubt that, you should know that some years later (1591 to be exact), the Shogun sent word to Rikyu that he was displeased with the tea master and that Rikyu was to commit ritual suicide (seppuku). Although the reason for Hideyoshi’s displeasure was never revealed, Rikyu complied. And out of respect for Rikyu, morning glories haven’t been used in the tearoom since.
All of us in the theater live in danger, even if it falls short of the extreme danger that a determined 16th century Zen tea master faced. Each time we decide which play to put on (selection) and in what style to produce it (context), all of us know the result may be disaster. The wrong play, the wrong time or the wrong approach and you harvest angry audiences.
During my years of running the Milwaukee Rep, I never saw anything speed by so fast as a successful production. Full houses and happy actors made the days rush by too quickly to fully savor. By contrast, time never crawled by so slowly as a bomb. Sullen audiences in a half-full auditorium and the dispirited faces of the actors as they left the theater made the weeks of a run feel like years. As much as grants and endowments cushion us from the economic uncertainty of the box office, as theaters and theater artists we live or die by an audience’s financial and spiritual approval.
The world of the visual arts and music are full of stories of the misunderstood genius whose work only gathers a wider audience after their death (the Vincent Van Gogh’s and Charles Ives’) but such stories don’t exist in the theater. We succeed in our lifetime, in front of contemporary audiences, or not at all. The only exception I know of is a minor 19th century German playwright whose very obscurity helps make the point.
So, any time a theater artist is at work, making choices, they are selecting and arranging the flowers, as it were, that will soon be put on display. It’s a nerve-wracking process, you see, and we’re always a bit on edge because the shogun might show up to see the results . . .