I have not yet found time to read Rethinking Japanese History (CJS, UMich, 2012), Amino Yoshihiko’s 1991 book, newly translated into English by Alan Christy and re-published, though I very much hope to next summer. In the meantime, I’ve just finished reading something much more manageable, but similarly important and impactful – a short 1992 article by Amino entitled “Deconstructing ‘Japan’,” translated into English by Gavan McCormack.

There is a general consensus among historians that Japan did not come into existence as a nation-state in the modern sense of the word until the Meiji period. And that up until then, to one extent or another, in one way or another, no Imperial or shogunal government ever really fully controlled the archipelago. Yet, we still think of it as “Japan,” rather than thinking of the territory controlled by “Japan,” in this or that historical period, as being only some subsection of that.

In the course I TAed last term, I tried to talk about “the archipelago,” rather than talking about “Japan,” but, for me, and I imagine for most of them, it seemed more or less a purely semantic matter. Our fundamental assumptions about Japan, and indeed about history, are hard to shake. We can adopt new phrases, and parrot back ideas taught to us, but to truly adopt those ideas, to truly alter our most fundamental assumptions, to change our attitudes or approaches, is difficult.

Amino questions and problematizes those assumptions, highlighting the geographical limits of what people in the center (the Kinai) thought the geographical extents of “Nihon” were at various times, and emphasizing the various polities that existed, at various times, on the edges of, or beyond, those limits. He emphasizes the idea of “Nihon” or “Yamato,” the Emperor, and the Sun Goddess, all belonging to just one of many peoples, many polities which have existed on the archipelago. Though he does not explicitly make the following comparisons, he is essentially saying that like the various Chinese dynasties expanding outwards, like England expanding northwards, like the United States expanding westward, the territory today controlled by Japan is not (was not), historically, inherently, pre-destinedly “Japanese,” and that, at its core, “Japan” was a much smaller cultural/political entity, originating in the Kinai, which expanded and extended its reach, absorbing other territory, peoples, and culture into it.

When we talk in highly abstract terms, in seminar, about Theoretical approaches to history, about Foucault and Marx and Hegel, about paradigms of knowledge, about questioning and problematizing everything, I find it extremely difficult to find any of it interesting, relevant, or applicable. And I rail against the idea that we should be operating on a theoretical level, rather than engaging with actual historical events, conditions, phenomena, etc. “on the ground.” But, ground theoretical arguments, conceptual arguments, in our understandings of and approaches to specific issues in Japanese history, and you’ve got my rapt attention. Questioning, problematizing, reassessing, what we believe about Japanese history, how we approach it, the assumptions we bring to the table, could not be more important. Debating Theory on a purely abstract level, well, that’s a separate matter.

I now all the more look forward to reading Amino’s book. For now, this article is definitely going in my “important articles” folder, right next to the ones by Arano Yasunori where he argues against the use of the term “sakoku,” and against the idea of Japan ever having been “closed to the outside world.”

The Theatre department at the University of Hawaii provides not only programs in learning how to become an actor, or a director, but also for one to pursue a career as a costume designer, stage manager, set designer, sound or lighting designer, playwright, dramaturge or theatre critic, or theatre scholar. And I would imagine (I would sure hope!) that most universities’ theatre departments offer the same. I realize that many of these overlap, and that few people make a living, make a whole lifelong career, out of being solely one of these things.

But, here’s the question: why do more departments (disciplines) not do this? Music departments offer possibilities for performers, for conductors, for composers, and for scholars (musicologists / ethnomusicologists); Art departments offer both Studio Art and Art History paths. But, most departments seem to take this assumption that we are all of us there to become professors. It’s really a nonsense sort of assumption, and really quite frustrating to feel like that decision has been made for me. All these professors who seem to believe that grad school exists only to produce more professors, where do they think that curators and archivists come from? Librarians, gallery owners, heads of lecture programs at various kinds of NPOs? Many of these fields, increasingly, require the PhD. And yet, the PhD does not prepare people for these things – and besides the actual hands-on skills, what’s more frustrating, suffocating even, is the academic culture that discourages, or just ignores, these other possible career paths. Sure, we have certificate and degree programs, or at least courses, in Museum Studies, Information & Library Studies, Gallery Management, whathaveyou. But, the academic disciplines, such as History and Art History, do not work closely enough with these other programs – they don’t let them in – and they don’t take seriously students’ attempts to follow those paths. I wonder how it is in East Asian Languages & Literatures departments – is the assumption that everyone there is there to become a Langs & Lit professor? Or are they more accepting than History or Art History seems to be that one might be specializing in East Asian Langs & Lits in order to go become a librarian, or archivist?

Leonard Cassuto, in a recent article, writes:

“What if we reconceived the guiding assumption that Ph.D.’s are supposed to become professors? Recognizing nonacademic placements as legit communicates a much more positive message about the skills and abilities that are nurtured by graduate education. It affirms the value of the entire enterprise.”

I want to jump up and applaud, and say Yes. Yes. Yes. This.

It frustrates me so much that graduate programs cultivate us to become “researchers”, “scholars”, and don’t even focus on good teaching, let alone on any other career possibilities other than becoming a professor. At a time when museums in particular, and I’m not sure which other paths exactly, demand a PhD, it is absurd, and yes quite frustrating, to have to put up with years and years of being groomed for something else. And, perhaps most of all, to feel like I can’t talk openly, plainly, clearly, with my professors about these questions, because they’re the very ones creating that culture, enforcing those discursive assumptions. I guess the answer is to talk to museum professionals, and others outside of academia, about how to bend the PhD to one’s own needs/desires. But, then, that would also require me to first get to know the curator here… Though, really, we shouldn’t have to do that. The museum, the library, the archive, should not be “outside” academia. They should not be opposed. They should be an integral part of academia.

I’m not saying that I’m 100% dedicated to becoming a museum professional, rather than an academic. To the contrary, I very much would like to be any or all of the above. In my mind, museum professionals, archivists, and the like are all academics too. They’re required to be, by the museums and archives that hire them. And yet, their training comes from an institution (the university, the PhD program) that doesn’t acknowledge that, and only trains us to be one thing, a different thing. We need an academic culture, an academic community, that accepts these other people, these other career paths, and includes them. Just as theatre departments do include programs for both actors and directors, and for stage managers, and for costume/set/light/sound designers, and for dramaturgs, and for theatre critics and scholars, so too should History departments, East Asian Studies departments, and oh for god’s sake, Art History departments especially most of all, need to train people to be not only scholars, but also for careers in museums, if not in the commercial art world. Our undergraduate careers prepare us for a wide range of things, and our graduate careers need to do the same, because where else are we to gain the proper skills and qualifications such that museums, archives, etc. will hire us? The way things are structured right now, there is a terrible disconnect between institutions demanding that potential hires possess qualifications from a university, and the university, which doesn’t acknowledge its role in preparing people for those careers, perpetuating discursive assumptions that the professorial path is the only one that they need to, or ought to, be preparing anyone for.

Upcoming Kabuki Schedules

The old Kabuki-za, as seen in 2008.

Shôchiku has just announced the programs for the first several months of shows at the rebuilt (renovated) Kabuki-za, scheduled to open in April 2013, including, of course, some rather special performances for the occasion. Sadly, I won’t be able to see the shows in April or May, but I am very much hoping to make it out to Tokyo in June or July. In total, there will be a full year of these kokera otoshi performances, celebrating the opening of the new theatre.

The April program opens, appropriately, with a celebratory Crane dance called Kakuju senzai (鶴寿千歳), performed to welcome the new Kabuki-za, and to mark its opening in an auspicious manner. I had the pleasure, in January 2008, of seeing this dance performed by the late Nakamura Jakuemon, then the oldest kabuki actor still-active; he passed away earlier this year at the age of 91.

The program then continues with Omatsuri (lit. “Festival”), a piece often performed in celebration of the return to the stage of an actor who has been long absent due to illness. This April, however, it will be performed in honor, in memory, of the late, great, Nakamura Kanzaburô, who passed away earlier this month.

Other pieces to be performed in April include, among other pieces:
*Kumagai Jin’ya, featuring Tamasaburô, and Kataoka Nizaemon as Yoshitsune
*Benten Kozô (Hamamatsu-ya through riverside scenes, the most common selections), featuring Kikugorô as Benten Kozô and Danjûrô as Nippon Daemon, a one-two punch I have had the pleasure of seeing before.
*Kanjinchô, with Kôshirô as Benkei, Baigyoku as Yoshitsune, and Kikugorô as Togashi

Of course, the sense of which plays are “big name,” or to put it more truthfully, which plays I have personally heard of, is exceedingly subjective. Nevertheless, for what it is worth, the May performances are almost exclusively those with which I am familiar:
*Tsurukame, an auspicious crane & turtle dance.
*The Terakoya scene from Sugawara Denju Tenarai Kagami
*Sannin Kichisa, starring Danjûrô, Kikugorô, and Nizaemon as the three Kichisas.
*Meiboku Sendai Hagi, also known as The Ten Roles of the House of Date (Date no jûyaku), a play featuring the sorcerer Nikki Danjô, and a giant rat. I’ve never seen this play, but have seen it referenced countless times in ukiyo-e prints. Featuring Matsumoto Kôshirô as the sorcerer, and Sakata Tôjûrô as Masaoka. This play is famous for featuring a single actor in ten roles, performing numerous quick-changes between characters, though I am unclear as to which actor will be the one to do this.
*Kuruwa Bunshô, feat. Nizaemon and Tamasaburô
*Dôjôji, a most special opportunity to see the great onnagata Tamasaburô in the leading role

Finally (for now), the June performances, which I just might get to see, include:
*Shunkan, a story based on the 1177 Shishigatani Incident, in which the monk Shunkan is exiled to a remote island.
*and, Sukeroku, one of the most popular plays, and one which I’m really glad to have seen, though it would be wonderful if they were showing a big-name show I have not yet seen in person, such as Ise Ondo.

A 1962 performance of Sukeroku, featuring Ichikawa Danjûrô XI as Sukeroku, and Nakamura Utaemon VI as Agemaki.

Meanwhile, the Kanamaru-za in Kagawa Prefecture, Shikoku – the oldest still-operating kabuki theatre in the world – hosts performances only in April every year. This year, the shows include shûmei performances for Ichikawa Ennosuke IV, formerly Ichikawa Kamejirô, who took on that name roughly six months ago, as Ichikawa Ennosuke III became Ichikawa En’ô. I don’t know if this will be his first performance, his debut, in the role of the fox Tadanobu in Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura, a role for which the former Ennosuke is quite famous, but in any case, debut or not, the afternoon program this coming April at the Kanamaru-za includes scenes from Yoshitsune, with Ennosuke in that role. The evening program includes a formal announcement (kôjô, 口上) of his name-taking (shûmei), along with Kyô ningyô and Ôshû Adachigahara, two pieces with which I am not familiar, though I’m sure they’re great.

After hearing about Theatre of Yugen for so long, I have finally had the pleasure of attending one of their performances. The group, based in San Francisco’s Mission District, is one of the premier groups in the US producing and performing contemporary/fusion pieces grounded in, based on, built around, the aesthetics, techniques, etc. of the Japanese traditional drama forms of Noh and Kyogen.

After watching and enjoying their “A Minor Cycle: Five Little Plays in One Starry Night” (written by the Philadelphia-based Greg Giovanni), I find I have a great deal to say, as usual, but I feel at the same time hesitant. It is one thing to write for a general audience, for whomever should stumble upon this humble blog, and who should be interested in musings of a random individual such as myself; it is quite another to write commenting on, reviewing, something in which a close friend was closely involved, and knowing that members of the troupe may come across this and read it. It is one thing to speak of Theatre of Yugen, letting others know about them, and encouraging them to go see Yugen productions, and to be interested in Japanese(-inspired) theater. It is quite another to write to, for, the troupe themselves, praising or criticizing (even if almost exclusively the former) and otherwise analyzing or simply commenting upon their production.

There is so much to say, and yet I am hesitant to say anything at all. Well, but I suppose I must say something. I must, at least, record my thoughts and impressions, if for no one else, then for myself. And if others, if members of the troupe, should happen to see this, then so be it, I suppose. Shô ga nai.

The Minor Cycle is a series of five short plays, retelling traditional stories such as that of Sir George & the Dragon, or of an episode from CS Lewis’ Prince Caspian, set within the framing device of a series of songs sung by the characters Mr. and Mrs. Darling – the parents of Wendy, John, and Michael Darling, who have flown off with that Pan boy. This sets the tone of a theme of Edwardian England, of traditional children’s stories. Small, brightly colored kids’ chairs, hint at the idea of a nursery, that is, of all five of these stories taking place as just that, stories, within a children’s book.

I could go on to detail numerous aspects of the production, commenting on everything from the choice of this prop to the style of that interpretation, but I think that will just end up getting long, listy, and tedious. To sort of summarize, then, let me just say this – all too often, we see performances which come as a result of a mere dabbling in drawing upon these forms without a true understanding of Noh, or kyogen, of their philosophies, aesthetics, and traditions, and without true skill and experience in the techniques and forms. These pieces end up feeling too experimental, and more to the point, the sense of a lack, of a failing, is palpable. Such is not at all the case with Theatre of Yugen. The expertise, the authenticity of the knowledge, technique, talent, of all involved is clear throughout the production, in everything from voice and movement, to costume, props, and set pieces, to the structure and themes of each piece. From the makeup and costumes, to voice and movement, nothing feels like they “got it wrong.” Nothing here is Chinese or Korean or just plain mistaken – everything comes across as a well-informed, expert choice, whether it’s in Edwardian-esque costuming that perfectly recalls the silhouette or form otherwise of traditional Noh/kyogen/kabuki kimono; in the reference to the subjectivity of time – a moth lives but one season, but for the moth, that one season is an entire lifetime; in the careful, expert position of the performer’s hands, and motion of their feet, as they cross the stage in precisely authentic Noh fashion, regardless of the Western storybook character they are playing; or in the lilting tones of the performers’ chants, recited in English, and telling an English tale, but reproducing quite well the distinctive sounds of Noh, kyogen, or kabuki, conveying to the audience the specific aesthetic of each of these forms, not as a blending or a mish-mash, but authentically. The first piece, in particular, relating an encounter between Queen Lucy of Narnia and a magician on an isle of invisible creatures, feels less like a modern/contemporary piece concocted by American performers experimenting with Japanese forms, and more like a genuine, authentic Kyogen that might have existed if the traditional repertoire included classic stories of British children’s literature. For the uninitiated spectator, it most likely feels quite experimental, bizarre, and “modern” or “artsy”, but it is initiating them not into wacky, bizarre, experimental theatre so much as it is providing an initiation into elements of traditional Japanese theatre. It may seem wacky, bizarre, and experimental to some, but to those more familiar with Japanese theatre, there is an element of authenticity, of genuineness in not only technique or style, but in theme and philosophy as well, that comes through quite clearly, and personally, though it may perhaps be an odd priority to have, for me, this makes all the difference, and is the crucial foundation for an enjoyable, meaningful, piece.

Also, though I feel I am having some trouble articulating it, there is something important in this in that the main thrust is in the story, and in the style/technique/form/mode itself, and not the act, the experiment, of the fusion, the creation, the invention. For modern(ist) artists, it is not the end result that is the key to their art, but the concept behind it, the act of defiance, of experiment. For Magritte or Duchamp, it is not the final result, the painting of the pipe labeled “This is Not a Pipe,” or the porcelain urinal labeled “Fountain,” in its color or texture, in its aesthetics – least of all in the fine craftsmanship and technique of its production – that matters, but instead, the focus is in this question of ‘what is art’? This may seem quite deep, deeper conceptually than a Rembrandt, but in its effort to be conceptual, experimental, a-traditional, or anti-traditional, it is actually quite frivolous and superficial, even nonsensical. It lacks the depth of tradition, of skill, of refined technique, of deep, strong connection to a traditional historical cultural context, possessed by someone like Rembrandt, or better yet, someone like Wen Zhengming or Zhao Mengfu, emulating the ancients. For traditional Noh and kyogen performers, for professional kabuki actors, the myriad of elements of style, technique, and form of traditional theatre is not an experiment; it is not something cherry-picked or dabbled in, played around with, gamed, but rather something one devotes oneself to, practicing and refining one’s connection to a deep and strong tradition. The same, it seems, goes for Theatre of Yugen as well. The Noh or kyogen elements in Theatre of Yugen do not seem tacked on, or mixed-in, but are fundamental. While many other contemporary theatre companies are like Robert Rauschenberg, picking up all sorts of things and throwing them together to create a thoroughly modernist, experimental, assemblage, Yugen is more like Xu Bing, someone deeply and thoroughly trained in, expert in, and philosophically devoted to, an artistic tradition, drawing upon that tradition to create something decidedly new and untraditional, but which nevertheless does not stand opposed to, nor is in any way disrespectful to or dismissive of, that tradition.

All that said, I find it interesting that the Theatre of Yugen (best as I gather) produces/performs not traditional pieces, but chiefly new compositions, and quite often, Western/fusion pieces. How does one practice Noh or kyogen truly, authentically, without practicing and performing traditional pieces in the traditional manner? How does one maintain the authentic technique of someone skilled, experienced, well-practiced in the traditional form, without it transforming into something very different, some Theatre of Yugen style that rings untrue? A formal certificate hanging in the lobby and signed by the Minister of Foreign Affairs supports the idea that they are doing something right, that what they are doing is authentic and traditional to some significant degree, and some, if not all, members of the company do have experience practicing, training, with genuine traditional masters in Japan. But, still, I wonder.

If the following goes against the intentions, philosophy, or desires of the founders/leaders of Yugen, my sincere apologies, but what a thing it would be, to see them perform not in a black box theatre, reminiscent of the experimental and modernist, but on a proper Noh stage, possibly welcoming masters from Japan, doing training workshops, practices, and performances of traditional pieces, in addition to the occasional contemporary American creation. How I would love to see something like that, and, even, to become involved and to take part.

I have gotten off-topic here, towards the end, but I suppose, by way of a conclusion, “A Minor Cycle” was powerful, beautiful, fun but also intellectually stimulating, and managed to incorporate Edwardian English stories into something that nevertheless rings true as, on some level, genuine and authentic to the traditions, aesthetics, techniques, philosophies, of Noh, kyôgen, and kabuki. I regret that I do not currently live in a city where I can be surrounded by, let alone more directly involved in / connected with, such cultural activity, more regularly, and I eagerly look forward to seeing the Theatre of Yugen again.

Lost in the Wilderness

Illustration from H.M. Stanley’s book In Deepest Africa, used here as an image of the metaphorical wilderness. No further implication of African, colonialist, etc. contexts is intended or desired.

Post-modern theory tells us that, either, there is no Truth out there to be discovered, or that it is out there, but it is simply unattainable. Everything is reflections and representations. Everything is subjective. Nothing is sure.

This exchange from West Wing (ep 1×03), taken completely out of context, expresses I think my feelings on trying to do history in a world governed by such attitudes.

Pres. Bartlet: “what the hell are we doing here?!”
Leo: “Of course, it’s not good. There is no good. It’s what there is. … It’s what our fathers taught us.”

There was a time not that long ago when we thought we knew so much. And now, we believe we know nothing. All is in doubt. Everything is in question. Nothing is true. And, so, what can we do? What can we do, but to just keep moving, keep doing history like our fathers taught us. Post-modern critique tells us there is no good history, there is no good scholarship. There is only what there is. We do what we can.

One of my professors calls doing history in the wake of post-modern discourse “pitching a tent in the wilderness.” And wilderness it is, indeed.

In a sense, I feel we have come full circle. In the early days of the historians’ profession, there was so much left unknown. So much to be learned. Even as we began to meticulously record, or narrate, the details of our own histories – for US & UK historians, the American Revolution, the Civil War, the Tudor and Stuart Dynasties, the Norman Invasion – massive fields went untouched. In those early days, there was so much yet unwritten (in European languages, at least) about China, Japan, Korea, India, and the Middle East, not to mention about Latin America, the Pacific, and sub-Saharan Africa. A wide open wilderness, it was. Documents yet to be read, entire histories yet to be told (in European languages). … Our supposed “knowledge” eventually expanded to encompass many of these histories, though, of course, there was always more out there to be uncovered. … And then it all came crashing down. So, today, with everything in doubt, with nothing known for sure, have we not, in a sense, returned to where we began, knowing nothing? The key difference, of course, is that where before we thought we had solid ground to walk on, today, the wilderness is made entirely of quicksand.

I think my tent is sinking.

The world of kabuki lost one of its greatest stars yesterday. Nakamura Kanzaburô, who had been fighting esophageal cancer, died in a Tokyo hospital yesterday at the age of 57.

I am not sure what I can say that wouldn’t just be a repetition or rehashing of what I have just read in the Japan Times, and in the Mainichi Shimbun. I am tempted to want to write a much longer blog post, in honor of this great man, but I suppose I will leave it to the newspapers to do what they do.

I had the pleasure, the privilege, of seeing Kanzaburô perform on a number of occasions, both in Tokyo, and once in Washington DC. The last time I saw him perform, it was back in 2008, at the old Kabuki-za. The play Ukare Shinjû, a relatively new play not in the traditional repertoire, which Kanzaburô wrote and starred in, ends with his character flying out over the audience, passing into the afterlife atop a giant mouse, shouting (something to the effect of), “This is the real chûnori!”1 I suppose I shall always remember him in that moment.

Kanzaburô was a dedicated and masterful actor, but a creative one too, often creating new projects such as the Heisei Nakamura-za touring company, and Cocoon Kabuki, aimed at making kabuki more appealing to a younger / more modern audience; he played a role as well in creating new plays, such as Ukare Shinjû, and the zombie kabuki Ô-Edo no Living Dead. He leaves behind two sons, Nakamura Kankurô and Shichinosuke, both extremely accomplished actors in their own rights. I imagine that one of them will soon take on the Kanzaburô name.

In the meantime, today is truly a sad day for kabuki, for its fans, and of course, especially, for Kanzaburô’s family. My heart goes out to them.

(1) Chûnori 宙乗, lit. “riding the sky,” is the name of a special effects technique (keren) in kabuki, in which an actor flies up over the audience on wires, usually making his exit in this manner up over the audience, and out the back of the theater. The joke in Ukare Shinjû is that he is riding a mouse, which, in Japanese, rather than “squeak-squeak,” says “chû-chû” – thus, the pun of “the real chûnori/riding-the-sky” as “this is the true riding-a-mouse!”

A week or so ago, a colleague pointed out to me a new journal article by theatre scholar Steve Tillis, entitled “The Case Against World Theatre History.”1 Don’t be fooled – the article really should be called something like “On the Case against World Theatre History,” or “Against the Case against World Theatre History,” as this is precisely what Tillis argues. In the article, he lays out a number of the most common arguments made against “World Theatre History” as a subject for scholarly study, and then rebuts each of them. There is great relevance to this discussion for anyone thinking about “world art history,” “world music history,” or “world history” in general. Why is it that we study history on the global scale, and is it a valid, relevant, and useful pursuit?

This is a fascinating issue, far more intriguing and engaging – and far more relevant to my own interests – than the needlessly dense Theory essays I’m reading right now for my mandatory Historiography seminar. In crafting my response/review for this article, I couldn’t help but to write quite a few pages before I decided I ought to scale it back and focus in, rather than posting pages and pages here on the blog. For that reason – i.e. for the sake of length – I have omitted discussion of “world theatre history” or “world art history” as a subject of undergraduate courses, i.e. as a mode of organizing teaching the subject. Perhaps I will consolidate my thoughts on that matter into another blog post. In the meantime, this post has still ended up quite long, and for that I sincerely apologize. After sitting on it for roughly a week, I figured it was better to just get it out there than to put it off until I felt like refining it down – it might have gotten left for a pretty considerable amount of time had I done that.

So, please try to bear with me as I try to summarize the arguments & rebuttals in this paper, along with my thoughts, regarding “world theatre history” as a subject of research and study.

The stage set for a jingju, or Beijing opera, “The White Snake,” at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, Winter 2010.

First, we have to see what it is Tillis means by “world theatre history.” According to him, it is not simply a matter of describing theatrical traditions in a variety of places around the world. Rather, “world theatre history” in his eyes is about considering the cultural exchanges and connections between traditions from around the world, as well as the slightly more abstract or theoretical-level underlying phenomena of how “theatre,” regardless of culture, functions. In his own words,

["World theatre history"] seeks to investigate and explore the linkages between theatre forms of different world regions … and it seeks to understand how those linkages reveal structures that might have had a widespread effect on theatre: the relationship between theatre forms across the breadth of Eurasia, for example, or the widespread propensity to make use of meta-dramatic figures to supplement the dramatic characters themselves. And it seeks, finally, to analyze whatever interregional trends might be discovered in those links, such as the rising importance of urban forms of theatre (p381).

With this as his working concept, Tillis addresses seven arguments against “world theatre history” – three practical, and four ideological. As you will see, (spoilers!), I agree with Tillis on some of these, and disagree with him on others – as to what constitutes a problem, and as to the solutions or rebuttals he proposes.

(1) The problem of manageability – World history, as the argument goes, is simply not manageable – to address every period in every culture would result in a complete chaos of dissimilar, disconnected, cases and narratives.

Of course, this is not what Tillis is really talking about. Yes, in an undergraduate survey course, one could get into problems of how to fairly cover everything, and to do it in a cohesive way. But, for scholars trying to examine “what is theatre?” from a global perspective, I don’t think this idea of “completeness” or manageability is the problem. The problem comes in how you generalize, something we’ll get to with some of the later arguments.

(2) The second argument that Tillis addresses is the problem of detail. How do we cover all of the history of the theatre of the world without inevitably skipping over really big name individuals or events? Or, rather, how do we skip over subjects generally seen as of extreme significance and get away with it, justifying such omissions in pursuit of the study of the whole?

By way of solution, Tillis offers simply that every level of scale has its merits, that the global scale has its merits too, and that all of that lost detail is still there – to be addressed by other scholars, in other works. It’s not lost. It hasn’t gone anywhere. Still, there are serious dangers in generalizing too broadly, in essentializing cultures, and in ignoring significant counter-examples.

Reading this article, I find myself also thinking about the inevitable choice I will have to make as to my ‘fields’ of study for my PhD qualifying exams. There is a lot of pressure to do “world history,” but, if that “world history” is the same as that which Tillis is talking about here – focusing on the interconnections and broader themes – then that is decidedly not the type of history I am interested in, personally. In theatre, as in art and in history in general – I am interested in color, sound, movement, and stories. I am interested in the vivid ‘world’ of a specific time and place, such as the cities and post-towns of early modern Japan, as composed of the architecture, clothing, systems of social classes, logistics of travel and urban planning, elements of elite and popular culture, and the countless other aspects of that time and place that, when taken altogether, combine to provide some semblance, some hint, of the feeling of actually being there and experiencing it. I am not interested in how “societies” (in general) work, how “regimes” (in general) rise and fall, or how “art” or “theatre” function in some universal, pan-cultural, human sociological or psychological fashion; and I am most certainly not interested in taking historical events or cases as mere examples in arguing some broader point. I’m interested in the specifics, and in putting the specifics first, as interesting and worthy of attention in their own right. So, I think I need to talk to my professors about what exactly a study field in “World History” means, and whether I would be better or worse to focus on something that more specifically, directly, interests me, such as “Early Modern Britain & the Netherlands.”

The Noh stage at the Ôe Nôgakudô in Kyoto.

(3) Tillis’ third argument addresses the supposed problem of the world historian’s reliance on secondary sources, but, frankly, I see no problem with this. Operating on that scale requires one to understand (or at least claim to understand) a very wide range of cultures, events, trends, structures – in the case of theatre and art history, perhaps the most relevant word is “traditions” – and so, of course, one would have to rely on the syntheses produced by other scholars. No one can know enough about every culture, about the complexities of the cultural context in every historical period, nor possess sufficient language skills, to do sufficient research from scratch to understand each of these different traditions well enough to talk about them in a comparative mode – not to mention the inconceivable amount of time it would take. Besides, what use is it, really, to be examining a 17th century playbill or translating an 18th century play, word by word, when your argument concerns kabuki (or jingjiu or Randai) as a whole? The idea that the reliance on secondary sources is problematic seems, to put it plainly, stupid.

The trick is, simply, that the scholar does need to be relying on reliable sources, and to have a good idea what she is talking about. The danger in using secondary sources is that one can get an incomplete or misguided understanding of the subject – but, so long as one reaches out sufficiently to his colleagues, experts in those respective theatre forms, to help guide her to the right sources and the right understandings, the reliance on secondary sources should not be seen as such a problem. Moving on.

At Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, as reconstructed in London today.

Thus, we finish with the practical problems, and move ahead to the ideological ones.

(4) The next issue Tillis presents is the argument of Western dominance – that is, the argument that it is only natural that a treatment of “world history” (or “world theatre history”) would focus chiefly on the European path.

The first ideological argument seeks to justify a Eurocentric approach by appeal to what it takes to be historical fact. Europe, it argues, has been at the centre of history for many centuries – in theatre history and general history alike. To deny this centrality is to deny the facts of history. We can call it the argument of Western dominance. … For many centuries, the argument contends, only the West experienced historical progress. (p384)

Wow. I couldn’t say this more boldly or directly if I tried.

For anyone who has studied (anti-)Orientalist theory, in the vein of Edward Said, the above statement that only the West has history or progress is not only patently absurd, but downright offensive.

I am sorely tempted to hold onto this article to assign to my eventual future students. Sure, the overall argument of the paper – the topic of whether or not we should consider ‘world history’ a valid field of study – along with the theatre focus, might not be perfectly relevant to, for example, a general course in Historiography. But, the paper is decidedly historiographical in its approach, and addresses numerous important points, addressing and refuting arguments for a Eurocentric or Westcentric approach to history, and introducing the reader to the basic concept of Whig History, as well as to the Orientalist idea that only the West has history while the non-West is unchanging, and saying it all boldly, clearly, and directly.

Tillis goes on in this section to talk about the argument that since non-Western art forms tend to remain fairly constant, like animated museum pieces (as we do see, admittedly, to varying extents in Noh, kabuki, etc.), these cannot be so relevant to a history of the evolution/development of theatre. In other words, if Noh and kabuki are relatively unchanging, then all innovation and progress is to be found in the West. This is an argument that we very often see argued, as well, in regard to Modern Art. We can see this at play in Wikipedia’s article on Modern Art. Twentieth-century developments in the non-West (e.g. Nihonga, Guohua, not to mention the countless prominent non-Western modern and postmodern artists, from, for Japan, High Red Center and Gutai, to Murakami Takashi) are ignored at the “global art history” scale to instead devote attention almost exclusively to Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, up through Fluxxus, Warhol, Pollock, Mondrian and the like. A Westcentric mindset as to what constitutes progress, or what is to be defined as “modern art,” imposes itself upon the choice of which artists, artworks, and movements to discuss.

This idea is supported by the assertion that since Western theatre (or art) has been so influential all around the world, and so widely adopted, this justifies focusing on it. Tillis rebuts this, saying that “the notion that we should study Western theatre history because of its current global status is … both politically motivated and breathtakingly teleological. Because it looks at history only as a pathway to the present, it cannot help but offer a deeply skewed vision of the past” (p385). Tillis rejects, of course, these assertions, saying that in fact Western theatre has remained extremely conservative in certain respects as well – note the proscenium stage; the architectural form of the theatres we build and use follows much the same form throughout the Western world that it has for at least 100 years. And opera, to name one example of a Western theatrical form, hasn’t changed much either.

Preview/excerpts from a University of Hawaii performance of Randai, a Sumatran theatre form combining dance and martial arts with dialogue and plot.

(5) The Argument of Western Relevance – A similar, but less biased, argument, argues that we should focus on the West not because it’s inherently better or more important, but because it is more relevant to what the students (whether as performers or as audience) will encounter and experience. Nationalism plays a part in this argument as well, as it is felt there is a need to devote considerable time/attention to American theatre history when teaching in the US, or to British history in Britain, French art history in France, etc.

Tillis rebuts this one quite nicely, as well, writing that even putting aside other arguments as to the relevance, importance, or simple appropriationability of other traditions in developing one’s own art, at the very least, the global perspective is important in allowing performers within the Western tradition to see that tradition from an outside perspective. To not take things for granted, but to recognize and be aware of the artificiality of our assumptions. Assumptions about the shape a stage should take, the structure of a play or of a cast (i.e. how many lead actors, what it means to be lead), about the way the audience ought to behave, and about the way the actors ought to interact with (or ignore) the audience. Rethinking our assumptions helps us understand our own culture in much fuller, more complex, more nuanced ways, and thus helps us to be creative, innovative, inventive with it.

(6) The Argument of Western Inevitability – In short, the argument that all the world has come to perform theatre in a Western way, and that therefore, it’s okay to use Western definitions/conceptions of “theatre.”

It is true that “world theatre history,” like “world art history,” like “world history” in general, all too often rest on Eurocentric definitions of what does and does not count as “theatre” or as “drama” (or as “art”, or countless other descriptors). This results in statements like: “With a few possible exceptions, there is no tradition in Africa of artistic performances which include all the elements which might be demanded in a strict definition of drama – or at least not with the emphases to which we are accustomed” (387).

This makes me wonder if even Western theatre necessarily always contains all the elements which might be demanded of such a strict definition. What is necessary? There is not always music. There is not always a set, or props. Sometimes there aren’t even costumes – see: Naked Boys Singing. (Better yet, don’t.) There is not always a stage. There is not always a curtain. I suppose there must always be performers. But, there need not necessarily be dialogue. There need not necessarily be a plot or narrative.

On page 388 we find another of Tillis’ brilliantly bold and direct statements – a wonderful rewriting of the typical Eurocentric discourse: “At least until recently, [Europe] has been a dependent part of the general development of civilization. Rather than standing astride history like some Colossus, Europe spent numerous centuries playing catch-up with the rest of Eurasia.”

The first part of the Kumi Udui play Nidô Tichiuchi, a theatrical form from Okinawa.

(7) The Argument of the Metanarrative – Tillis ends with the argument against “world theatre history” that

Any totalizing metanarrative [e.g. some attempt to explain or to investigate “theatre” as a whole, regardless of when or where it occurs] will advance one or more particular ideological positions, and in doing so, will distort history to an unacceptable degree. … Such [master or grand] narratives offer totalized versions of history that use a homogenizing process in which a dominant ideology is imposed on any text … thereby eliding its diverse elements. (388)

Tillis concludes by arguing against this idea, that is, arguing for metanarratives, saying they are essential towards avoiding the chaos of disconnected mini-narratives. Of course, this is true. And there is, certainly, some merit to the kinds of investigations that question the effect of an actor on an audience, or what (in general) it means to “perform,” or any number of other, similar, fundamental or basic “performance studies” types of questions. However, in the end, I do believe that the argument about ideological impositions being inevitable is a valid one, and that we must either learn to live with that and be okay with it (as we do in all of our scholarship), or acknowledge the serious flaws with any sort of meta-narrative that claims to understand everything from Shakespeare to Broadway to kathakali to manzai, taishû engeki, and kagura, to Native Hawaiian forms of storytelling, well enough to draw conclusions valid to all of these traditions.

What do I have to say myself, in conclusion? I don’t know. There’s just so much here. I think that shifting both the academic discourse and the content of what we teach away from a Westcentric-perspective is of profound importance.

Personally, I am far more interested in the specific case – in kabuki, or Noh, for those things that make those particular artforms particularly interesting. My own scholarship will never address the “big questions” on a global scale, nor those that operate on a particularly fundamental level, nor those on a theoretical one. Some of these questions, many of these questions, are quite valid and of great importance. But I also am very hesitant about arguments that claim to speak for all traditions, all cultures, overlooking the possibility of counter-examples, of difference.

I guess I still stumble, or quibble, on the point of it being world “theatre” history. Sure, if you’re going to restrict your comparative studies to those art forms that match certain criteria – the focus on entertaining an audience, and lack of religious ritual purpose being a key one to my mind – then I suppose you could go and call it “theatre” history. Otherwise, if you’re going to include all sorts of ritual dances, then perhaps you’d be better off calling it “world performance history.” Yet, this still produces problems. Noh, for example, is very widely accepted as a form of “theatre” or “drama,” but is highly ritualistic, with a powerful spiritual component, and even in kabuki, which is absolutely a popular entertainment form, there are many ritual or ceremonial performances, which once may have been thought of as truly being performed ‘for the gods’ yet which are still today associated with bringing good luck, good fortune. And perhaps most problematic, ironically, is modern (Western) experimental theatre and the like. No one would argue that this is not theatre. And yet, it often disturbs, confuses, or thought-provokes rather than entertains, and often lacks discernable plot or characters, as well as, perhaps, costumes or sets. If we are to include this in our definition of “theatre,” but exclude cham dances or kagura performances not meant to be performed in secular contexts, on a stage, for an audience, then how do we define theatre? I guess I’ve set it up for the religious/ritual element, and/or the presence of an audience, to be the key deciding factor. But is this the case? Is this something we can agree upon? How do we define “theatre” in a non-Eurocentric, and culturally sensitive way? How do we approach and study theatre in a globally-minded way, guided not by Eurocentric assumptions? Or, do we not care that we are working based on Western assumptions?

Reading this article has gotten me quite curious, and interested, to go out and read more about contemporary historiographical debates on these subjects. How do we address “theatre history” or “art history”? How do we address “world history”? How should we maybe be doing it better? There are, I am sure, pages and pages and pages of journal articles on these subjects… Perhaps the 2004 issue of Theatre Survey, a special issue focusing on historiography, might prove a good place to start.

1) Tillis, Steve. “The Case against World Theatre History.” New Theatre Quarterly 28:4 (2012). pp379-391.


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