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.