Thank you Jon Lackman at Slate! Just because kabuki rhymes with kooky doesn’t mean you have to do a “Giuliani to 9/11″ on it.
Pundits use Kabuki as a synonym for “posturing.” The New Republic’s Michael Crowley, for example, has defined it as a “performance, in which nothing substantive is done.” But there’s nothing “kabuki” about the real Kabuki. Kabuki, I’ll have you know, is one of UNESCO’s Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity! And it’s nothing like politics. It does indeed use stylized gestures, expressions, and intonations, but it’s far from empty and monotonous. As the scholar A.C. Scott has written, a great Kabuki actor’s performance will “contain an individuality beneath the unchanging conventions, his symbolism must be something more than imitative repetition.” Unlike a Dick Durbin stemwinder, the quintessential Kabuki moment (known as a kata) is colorful and ruthlessly concise, packing meaning into a single gesture. It is synecdoche, synopsis, and metaphor rolled togetherâ€”as when, in one Kabuki play, a gardener expecting a visit from the emperor cuts down all his chrysanthemums except one, the perfect one.