Dialogue: Erika Fischer-Lichte and Rustom Bharucha

To welcome the new Fellows to the International Research Centre “Interweaving Performance Cultures”, Erika Fischer-Lichte and Christel Weiler convened a meeting at the beginning of the academic year 2010/11 to discuss the Centre’s programme and concepts. The following conversation between Erika Fischer-Lichte and Rustom Bharucha about “interweaving” versus “intercultural” took place on this occasion.

Erika Fischer-Lichte: We thought – and when I say “we”, it’s usually Christel Weiler and I – we thought it would be appropriate to start this year with a workshop on the terms “interweaving” and “intercultural.” Why did we decide not to use the term “intercultural”, but chose “interweaving” instead? This is the question I would like to address. First I will go into the history and explain our choice of terminology, and then Rustom Bharucha will take it from there. I think that’s very important because from the Indian perspective some things might look very different than from ours.

So let me start with some history. The term “intercultural theatre” – maybe there are some forerunners – was introduced to theatre studies sometime around the 1980s. That was the peak of Peter Brook’s productions. He had already started in the 1970s with some pieces – Orghast (1971) in the ruins of Persepolis; Les Iks (1975); The Conference of the Birds (1977) – and then, in 1985, he did The Mahabharata, which launched a big discussion. Ariane Mnouchkine with her Shakespeare productions in France – Richard II, Twelfth Night, and Henry IV, Part 1, which she did between 1981 and 1984 -, and Robert Wilson with his Knee-Plays, for instance, were also doing “intercultural theatre.” And in Japan, it was mostly Tadashi Suzuki and Yukio Ninagawa who were identified with it. Later on, some African productions based on Greek tragedy or Shakespeare were called “intercultural.” And then, of course, in China, in the 1980s, the traditional Chinese opera forms were in a way revived through adaptations of Shakespeare, or Brecht, or Ibsen. In these contexts, it was not just the dramatic text that changed according to new performative conventions, but the conventions themselves also changed. So, almost everywhere, something was going on at an “intercultural” level.

Was this so completely new? First, if we go deep into history, we find that exchanges between the theatrical forms of neighbouring cultures happened wherever we have some evidence of theatre. In Europe, of course – just to look at German theatre: professional German theatre came into being more or less with the wandering troupes from England, or the commedia dell’arte that toured, or the French companies, all of which mixed. So one could say that the German theatre in the 17th century was a truly “intercultural” theatre. In France as well, when Molière reworked the farce, he introduced elements from the commedia dell’arte, so all over Europe exchanges were taking place between neighbouring cultures with respect to theatre. And, as I’ve been told, in the Far East it was something similar; for instance, a lot of exchanges took place between Korea, China and Japan in the 8th or 9th centuries.

Long-distance “intercultural” exchanges, on the other hand, were an exception rather than the rule. For instance, we know that Izumo no Okuni, when she founded Kabuki, drew heavily on sources provided by European missionaries and on Jesuit plays. On many pictures, she appears wearing a crucifix and a rosary around her neck; on others, she appears holding a samurai sword in her raised hand. So she indicated her sources of inspiration. On the other side of the globe, when Voltaire wrote his L’Orphelin de la Chine, which was based on Ji Junxiang’s Chinese opera Zhaoshi gu’er (The Orphan from the House of Zhao), we know that around this time a big collection of Chinese opera pieces from the 11th and the 14th centuries had just been translated into French. So Voltaire drew on this repertoire, and his play was already being staged at the Comédie Française by the middle of the 18th century. So we can say that some “intercultural” exchanges did take place across large distances.

By the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, long-distance exchanges became the rule rather than the exception. Let us consider two examples: Western avant-garde theatre and the shingeki in Japan, and the Spring Willow movement in China. In the West, on the one hand, all those translations of plays from non-Western cultures suddenly became available. Now, these plays were also staged and directed by famous directors. Be it by Antoine or Reinhardt – they staged Japanese plays and liked their local colour. So, this was the first way: staging plays of foreign texts.

But, equally important, if not more so, was the transfer of stage devices from other theatrical forms – for instance, the hanamichi. As we know, Max Reinhardt used the hanamichi in 1910 in his pantomime Sumurun. Well, of course, he knew about it from the stage designers who had been to Japan and who had described it to him in great detail. But he used it very differently from Kabuki, in so far as he let the scenes play out on the hanamichi and on the stage simultaneously. This way, he put the spectators in a situation where they had to make a decision about where to look. And wherever they looked, they knew they would be missing something, which the person sitting next to them would maybe see. So, it was a completely new way of perceiving the theatre that he introduced.

This new way of seeing can be linked to the growth of cities and automobiles, to the new phenomenon of traffic, in addition to the emergence of big department stores. This was no longer a focused perception, but a perception that could go here, there, and everywhere. It always meant that something would be missed. This is the idea that Reinhardt adopted and tried to communicate to his audience.

Inevitably, the audience also had to get used to a new way of looking at the body, which was no longer just in front of them like a picture on stage, but amongst the spectators, to be seen from all sides. As for Meyerhold, he experimented in this way in the 1920s in his production of Sergei Mikhailovich Tretyakov’s Earth Rampant when he used a very wide hanamichi, on which lorries could pass onto the stage. With the means of “agit-prop” theatre, he wanted to get his audiences acquainted with the technological revolution, the revolution that new technologies were assumed to bring about. But his spectators did not really respond in the way they were expected to. They were shocked, and some finally left the theatre because they were afraid that the lorry would swerve from its path directly into the auditorium.

Along with the hanamichi, Meyerhold also used the kurogo – the stage assistant – from the Japanese theatre tradition. And these conventions, I’m sure, were not used in order to make audiences familiar with the Chinese or Japanese or Indian theatres, but were taken up in order to transform Western theatre from the psychological-realistic box stage to a theatre that could serve quite different purposes. They provided wonderful means by which the directors could bring about a kind of re-theatricalization by which they could realize their dream—namely, that theatre is able to constitute a reality of its own and no longer has to imitate or to represent a reality that already exists in other places.

On the other hand, when we look to Japan and China, what innovations do we find? In Japan, the shingeki – the “new drama” – introduced the spoken theatre and the realistic, psychological acting that did not yet exist with a training school of its own. Later Tsubouchi Shōyō founded such a school, the Bungei-kyokai, where they experimented with Shakespeare and Schiller in Kabuki style. Even Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman, the first Ibsen play to be staged in Japan, was done in Kabuki style by Osanai Kaoru with Ichikawa Sadanji II playing the lead role. With other productions he later toured Russia. Eisenstein saw them and wrote about the special relationship between devices from Kabuki and the art of montage in his essay Behind the Scenes. But with A Doll’s House in 1911, the new shingeki really started.

Around that time the Spring Willow movement in China also started: In 1914, the friends of the New Theatre opened the Spring Willow Theatre in Shanghai. The troupe did Uncle Tom’s Cabin – I think that was one of their first productions. So they did quite a different repertoire, which aimed to also introduce spoken theatre to China. So we can say that employing elements from the theatre of other cultures was in both cases something which was needed at that point in time. They were used in order to transform one’s own theatre according to the needs that arose with a particular stage of modernization in which the respective culture was located.