Book Review: ‘Modern Asian Theatre and Performance 1900-2000’

by Kevin J. Wetmore, Jr., Siyuan Liu and Erin B. Mee

I remember being taught about Japanese, Chinese and Indian theatre in my first term at university; after looking at Ancient Greek theatrical customs, we moved on to the likes of Noh, Kabuki and Kathakali to give us an “overview” of world theatre, and due to my lack of reading believed these theatres to be the dominant forms in their respective countries. This isn’t the case, of course – as the writers of Modern Asian Theatre and Performance 1900-2000 point out in detail over 250 pages, the countries of Asia have just as rich a history of modern text drama as the leading theatrical nations of the West.

The title of “Asian Theatre” is, admittedly, a bit of a misnomer; the countries situated in West and North Asia are left out for the likes  of East and Southeast Asia. We thus get two chapters each on Japan, China and India, accompanied by single chapters on Korea, Taiwan & Hong Kong and Southeast Asia. The one-hundred year period discussed is also, as is pointed out in the introduction, rather arbitrary, but nonetheless allows the three writers (with each taking a specific region to discuss) to provide a broad overview which tracks far-reaching and important developments.

At a basic level, Modern Asian Theatre and Performance charts the rise and popularity of spoken – or ‘text-based’ – drama in the countries discussed. From shimpa and shingeki in Japan to shingūk in Korea, xinju and Huaju in China to kịch nói in Vietnam, the three writers give us a detailed account of the developments made over the past century or so in Asian theatre, focussing on important directors and writers along the way.

There are two fascinating things which strike me about this story – or this story as Wetmore, Liu and Mee have told it – and that’s the importance of hybridity and the similarities with out own theatrical ecology.

The importance of hybridity in modern Asian theatre is laid out as early as the introduction, and it is an idea to which we return time and time again throughout the study. Though all theatre is to some extent hybrid, the writers make clear that this is especially true of modern Asian theatre, which frequently takes its traditional forms and merges them with Western ideas which made their way across as a result of colonialism. The teachings of Stanislavski and late-nineteenth century European realism thus find themselves as a frequent starting point for many of these narratives, with those working in various Asian theatre cultures finding in realism a useful way of breaking down traditional forms and critiquing political dogmas. Following that period (which varies from country to country), the likes of Beckett and Ionesco are names which regularly pop up, again allowing theatre-makers to fuse their own culture with absurdism in order to satirise dictatorial regimes.

These ideas of hybridity  also feed into the startling realisation of the effects of colonialism, with many of the influences that appear throughout coming from the West. Ibsen, Chekhov, Stanislavski, Beckett and most of all Shakespeare constantly crop up in modern Asian theatre as names of repute and influence, most likely as a result of European imperial endeavours. What’s more intriguing, however, is that even once the shackles of empire have been thrown off and independence has been reached, the contours of theatrical progress follow similar paths to our own. One group responds to a perceived conservatism by championing realism, which is subsequently challenged by another group championing absurdism, which is subsequently challenged by another group championing expressionism, which is subsequently challenged by another group championing heightened realism, and so on. Theatrical narratives the world over are constantly rejuvenating themselves as they respond to particular world and national events.

Though some of the writing in this volume borders on the overly descriptive, and critical analysis in some places feels a little thin on the ground, Wetmore, Liu and Mee manage to capture the ‘headline’ events and comprehensively record the ways in which the theatre in each country progressed. Many of the connections between cultures (both continental and international) are left for the reader to discover and unpick themselves, thus allowing the focus to remain on the figures who have shaped modern Asian theatre and performance over the past hundred years. Though this study is by no means a complete one, it deconstructions many preconceptions and provides a solid groundwork for further reading.

Published as a companion to Modern Asian Theatre and Performance is Methuen’s Drama Anthology of Modern Asian Plays, which features work by a number of playwrights discussed in the critical volume (some with better translations than others), giving a more tangible idea of the modern theatre of these cultures. The likes of Rabindranath Tagore, O Tae-sok and W. S. Rendra give insight how the theatres of India, South Korea and Indonesia respectively responded to contemporary events using a hybrid of traditional and Western theatre, with the latter especially finding a glorious balance between Brechtian episodes and Southeast Asian storytelling in The Struggle of the Naga Tribe.

Two plays stick out, however. Firstly, Okada Toshiki’s Hot Pepper, Air Conditioner and the Farewell Speech (2009, pictured above) considers unemployment and alienation in the face of the global financial crisis. First presented by Okada’s chelfitsch theatre company, it takes the form of three separate-but-related segments focussing on temps, full-time workers and a ‘freeter’ respectively, talking about their problems without ever really getting to the core of the issues they are discussing. Everyone remains supremely unaware of those around them, and frequently repeat whole sentences throughout their hyper-realistic speeches, demonstrating the alienating and repetitive nature of modern capitalism in a setting which is highly theatrical. Though Okada has described his plays as “uniquely Japanese”, this sort work would not struggle to find an audience or meaning in the UK, and speaks to a global young generation disaffected by the decisions made by those who have come before.

The second gem is I Love XXX, collaboratively written by Meng Jinghui, Huang Jingang, Wang Xiaoli and Shi Hang and originally staged in 1994. It’s one of those plays you read once in a blue moon which knocks you sideways with its originality and flair, and which offers limitless possibilities for staging. Every single line in this twenty-page piece begins with the words “I love”, and it charts everything from popular culture to human desire to Tienanmen Square. As a reader, you find yourself being subsumed by the poetry and rhythms; as a theatre-maker, your mind buzzes with idea for staging. It possesses within it an extraordinarily primal response to political and cultural struggles, and though its original context was very specific, its formal inventiveness makes it resonate far wider than that original setting.

I’ll finish with an extract from I Love XXX, which sort of encompasses the ideas of hybridity in these two books and offers a brilliantly poetic rendering of the relentless onward march of both history and theatre:

I love knowledge, but I love isms more
I love realism
I love neorealism
I love socialist realism
I love magical realism
I love surrealism
I love the fusion of modernism and realism
I love the fusion of postmodernism and realism
I love the fusion of classicism and realism
I love the fusion of neoclassicism and realism
I love the fusion of romanticism and realism
I love the fusion of expressionism and realism
I love the fusion of neo-expressionism and realism
I love the fusion of symbolism and realism
I love the fusion of existentialism and realism
I love the fusion of primitivism and realism
I love the fusion of Dadaism and realism
I love the fusion of nihilism and realism
I love the fusion of pragmatism and realism
I love the fusion of futurism and realism
I love the fusion of impressionism and realism
I love the fusion of naturalism and realism
I love the fusion of structuralism and realism
I love the fusion of formalism and realism


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