The Little Elephant Is Dead (La MaMa, May 1979)

In spring 1979, cities across the United States celebrated “Japan Today,” an international symposium on Japanese culture organized by The Japan Society with grants from the National Endowment for Humanities and the Japan Foundation, among other organizations with an interest in cultural exchange between the US and Japan.  The Japan Society coordinated the events held in New York, which included panels, film screenings, exhibitions of Japanese art, courses on traditional Japanese art, and performances of Japanese plays, dance, and music. These events included a production at La MaMa—the Abe Studio’s (listed as “The Kobo Abe Theater Troupe” in “Japan Today’s” promotional materials) An Exhibition of Images: The Little Elephant Is Dead from May 14th to 18th.  (New York Times C24)


Both sides of a flyer advertising The Little Elephant Is Dead. Courtesy of La MaMa Archives (OBJ.1979.0103).

Given La MaMa’s history of showcasing Japanese directors, the venue was a natural fit for the Abe Studio. La MaMa hosted about one experimental Japanese play every year throughout the 1970s, beginning in 1970 with The Golden Bat (by Higashi Yutaka) and La Marie Vision (by Terayama Shūji). Little Elephant was performed at the John F. Kennedy Performing Arts Center (May 8th-12th) before relocating to La MaMa for the next week of performances.


Uncredited production photograph. Courtesy of La MaMa Archives (OBJ.1979.0105).

The “Japan Today” celebration tour of Little Elephant marked a shift in how Abe was understood as a writer and artist in the States. Following the translation of his novel The Woman in the Dunes to English in 1964 and the success of its film adaptation directed by Teshigahara Hiroshi, Western readers and critics quickly recognized Abe’s significance in contemporary Japanese literature. The Little Elephant Is Dead, however, marked the first performances of Abe’s theatre in America. Visiting six cities that were a part of the “Japan Today” celebration, the Abe Studio introduced American audiences to the theatrical method Abe had been honing since his playwriting debut The Uniform (New York Times Magazine 33). Perhaps conscious of audiences’ expectation of complex characterizations and dialogue from reading his novels, the press materials for The Little Elephant Is Dead seem to dispel these expectations and preface Abe’s theatre as an entirely different genre of work. A press release written on behalf of “Japan Today” from March 12, 1979 sells the performance on its dream-like images rather than emphasizing Abe’s literary prowess:

In the play, Abe fully uses the bodies and language of his actors, which together with his own synthesized music and projections makes for a satisfying expression of unique art form…The accompanying dialogue, which is sparse, also suggests a series of merging and dissolving images through the poetic association of one phrase with the next. The ultimate effect is one of a dream which communicates intense vitality.

Abe’s first play to tour in the US was also the last of his playwriting career. Without knowledge of how Abe’s playwriting had evolved in the decades prior to Little Elephant, the contrast between Abe’s literature and his theatre must have been shocking to his American fans. While his novels frequently use dream-like imagery to immerse the reader in the bizarre and nightmarish situations his protagonists face, the imagery of his plays occupied a much more important role in the work in lieu of a traditional narrative to drive the performance. Accordingly, in the press lead-up to Little Elephant‘s NYC run, Abe presented the play as a focused exercise in image creation. “My intention is that the play’s dream images—like the image of the little elephant in the play–remain mysterious and unexplained,” Abe told the New York Times Magazine in an article published two weeks to the La MaMa performances (New York Times Magazine 84).


Men carry “the dream” onto the stage. Uncredited photograph. Courtesy of La MaMa Archives (OBJ.1979.0105).

To create the images of Little Elephant, the Abe Studio primarily used fabric to create dynamic set pieces and characters. In the opening scene, a large cloth spread across the stage rises and undulates. The exact mechanisms of this movement are unclear due to Abe’s commitment to describe images in his script rather than explain how they were to be made. Because of his writing style, imagining the stage using the script and limited photograph documentation is a considerable task. Abe’s script, translated by Hideo Levy, provides insight into how Abe might have intended audiences to understand his cloth creations. As much as the script is an instruction on how to perform Little Elephant, it is also a document of Abe’s process. Rather than an object of physical manipulation by actors, Abe describes the cloth is a living being:

The cloth dreams. Lifting an orange-gleaming face, it rises and, panting, grows supporting pillars and turns into a great curtain. The curtain breathes, giving off a flourescent [sic] light, and dreams of the shadows cast by the many lives which have passed before it. Yes, it dreams of the many visions seen inside it.

As the play progresses, both anthropomorphic and cloth-like characters converse about the nature of dreams while the clothed-over stage shifts around them. Elephants and dreams of elephants are repeatedly mentioned and analyzed by the play’s characters as they confront tangential obstacles and enigmas. These scenes include a hunt for a suitcase filled with light, a plant called shellweed that makes you dream of fish, a “pseudo-fish” dying and coming back to life, and a wrestling match that results in the wrestlers losing their desire to fight and revolting against their referee. Each individual scene introduces new combinations of characters working toward reaching an abstract philosophical conclusion about the situations they face. In the last few scenes which take place in a mock court, the motif of the little elephant becomes the center of conversation:

Cloth E: Something like that could only be an illusion! It would never be in Japan in the first place.

Cloth F: But elephant fossils have been found in Japan too.

The dream: Three to six!

Cloth E: It was extinct before man ever lived here. It’s none of our responsibility.

The dream: Seven to eight!

Cloth F: But the elephant as an idea arrived in Japan along with Buddhism.

Cloth E: So you’re telling me you recognize it—the way it hangs about like that?

Cloth F: I don’t recognize it, but I can’t ignore it either.

Cloth E: It’s started to rot.

Notably, this exchange is the only scene in which Abe attempts to connect our reality to the dream world that his characters inhabit. While the play is filled with allusions to earthly animals, it is devoid of proper nouns and places. As far as I can tell the events of Abe’s dreamworld do not serve as an allegory for a real world crisis. In my opinion this is one of the text’s greatest strengths. Because the play lacks a coherent message, the bizarre turns of the script do not read as forced. Instead, Little Elephant uses these turns to thoroughly explore the slipperiness of dreams and human concepts for its own sake. Abe comes closest to expressing an explicit message in the penultimate scene, when the words “DON’T FEED THE ANIMAL” are projected upon the ground-cloth (this time inflated into a spherical bulge).


The ground-cloth swells. Uncredited photograph. Courtesy of La MaMa Archives (OBJ.1979.0105).

Reading the script for The Little Elephant Is Dead, I wondered about Abe’s process and how he put together such an eclectic set of images. Thankfully, I discovered an interview that answered some of my questions. A year before the “Japan Today” festival, the Japan Society asked Donald Keene, one of the world’s most prolific scholars and translators of Japanese literature, to interview Abe Kōbō for their newsletter. They met at the Keiō Plaza Hotel in Tokyo, where Keene observed “not only the sound of Abe munching peanuts but the celestial strains of a harp being played in the distance, a feature of the elegant club.” (Keene 190) The transcript of the interview was later reprinted in Keene’s anthology, The Blue-eyed Tarōkaja. Keene opened the conversation by asking Abe what led Abe to start writing plays, to which Abe replied “it was an accident” (190). His first play The Uniform was written the night before the deadline for a short story requested by a magazine. Desperate to complete the story, Abe admits,”it occurred to me that it might be easier to work out something if all I had to do was write dialogue, and I didn’t have to go to the trouble of writing descriptions and the rest.” (190)

As Abe became more comfortable writing for the stage he began to focus on the images he presented on stage rather than dialogue: “Basically I had come to feel that writing a play and staging it were almost the same thing.” (191) By the time Abe started writing plays, he had already published several novels and a number of short stories. Experimenting in this new format, Abe desired to present experiences that he could not express effectively in prose. In my view, his desire to experiment with wordlessness and breathtaking images is directly related to his familiarity with words and how to use them effectively to produce emotions. The scarceness of words in his later plays can be understood as a reaction to the strength and volume of his literary work. He told Keene:

The dialogue of a play is also a kind of action and movement. Words that are not movement I can employ in my novels, and there is no special need for them on the stage. I don’t like plays, whether by myself or by other people, the meaning of which can be communicated in the form of fiction. Novels do that sort of thing much better. The dialogue of a play must be related to the action, and within the words themselves there must be action. The words must be part of the action. Words without an element of action have no place in the theater. (193)

Abe’s commentary on dialogue in plays brings into question whether or not Little Elephant should be categorized as a work of experimental theatre. In comparison to the Western theatrical canon with which his New York audience was most likely familiar, the prioritization of image over dialogue was definitely shocking. From Abe’s perspective, however, his process is the Occam’s Razor approach to eliciting reactions from an audience: Among competing hypotheses, he seems to be telling his audience, select the one that relies on the fewest assumptions.  By employing non-human characters, Abe cuts out the responsibility of characters to establish connections with the audience and embraces the simpler and more immediate approach of using them as aesthetically compelling creatures.  As Abe contextualized Little Elephant, “Some people may feel on first seeing this play as if it is rather far removed from theater, but I believe that structurally it consists of a groping for the very origins of theater.” (193)

In press reviews of The Little Elephant Is Dead, critics of New York generally praised its visual spectacle while acknowledging the lack of cohesion inherent to its format. Comparing Little Elephant‘s use of visual imagery to Tadeusz Kantor’s Dead Class (which ran at La MaMa earlier that season) Mel Gussow of the New York Times applauded Abe for the play’s ambition and scale:

The Little Elephant is Dead…has a script–one that is poetically descriptive, but not fully suggestive of the sweep of the experience. In the case of Mr. Abe, the play is the performance… a sequence of impressions, both visual and aural. The world is illusory; watching it, we enter Mr. Abe’s fantasy. In a sense, the author is like an action painter, drawing from a palette of light, sound, film, props and actors…this is experimental theater with a sense of humor… (New York Times C24).

Some critics were understandably frustrated with the way Little Elephant’s blunt, conceptual dialogue worked against its strong images. While Abe’s dialogue is entertaining when read on the page, I can imagine that some audience members might have disliked the play’s attempt to provide commentary on a visual spectacle that speaks for itself. Eileen Blumenthal of the Village Voice succinctly expressed this frustration, writing that “while the work suffers from both expressed lack of and pretensions toward ‘meaning,’ its individual images range from funny to unnerving to exquisite…” (Village Voice 89)


Promotional photograph of Abe by Thomas Haar. Courtesy of La MaMa Archives (OBJ.1979.0105)

The Little Elephant Is Dead encapsulates Abe’s unique contribution to Japanese theatre.  He crafted his plays with an utmost respect for the visual and performative components of theatre that distinguish it from the novel. Theatre provided Abe a way to painstakingly recreate the dreamy images that inspired the prose of his greatest written works. In selecting Abe’s piece for the “Japan Today” celebration, the Japan Society deliberately offered American audiences a work with an unabashedly modern theatrical vision to compliment their plurality of traditional performances. By providing a venue for The Little Elephant Is Dead, La MaMa continued its legacy of showcasing works by Japanese artists that expanded on the limited representations of Japanese theatre in America, which exposed audiences to a great deal of and kabuki while largely excluding contemporary Japanese artists. The American tour of The Little Elephant Is Dead was a significant theatrical event that contributed to the international recognition of Abe as a playwright in addition to the diversification of representations of Japanese art in America.

—Jameson Creager


Published Works Cited

Blumenthal, Eileen. “Animal Dreams.” The Village Voice [New York] 28 May 1979: 89. Print.

Gussow, Mel. “Stage: ‘Little Elephant Is Dead,’ a Japanese Play; Action and Imagery.” New York Times [New York] 16 May 1979, The Living Section sec.: C24. Print.

Scott-Stokes, Henry. “JAPAN’S KAFKA GOES ON THE ROAD.” New York Times Magazine [New York] 29 Apr. 1979: 33, 84. Print.

Keene, Donald, and J. Thomas. Rimer. The Blue-eyed Tarōkaja: A Donald Keene Anthology. New York: Columbia UP, 1996. Print.

Archival Objects (from La MaMa Archives) Cited

Program: “The Little Elephant Is Dead” (1979) (OBJ.1979.0102)

Promotional Flyer: “The Little Elephant is Dead” (1979) (OBJ.1979.0103)

Press: “The Little Elephant is Dead” (1979) (OBJ.1979.0104)

Production Photographs: “The Little Elephant is Dead” (1979) (OBJ.1979.0105)

Booklets about “The Little Elephant is Dead” (1979) (OBJ.1979.0107)

Promotional Material: “The Little Elephant is Dead” (1979) (OBJ.1979.0201)