After Appropriation
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After Appropriation

We tend to think of “intercultural transfer” or “artistic borrowing” primarily as a one-way phenomenon, something done “by” the West “to” other cultures.1 Much of the critical rhetoric surrounding this phenomenon has (at least in theatre criticism) an accusatory tone, with Western popular culture pictured as a sort of juggernaut, rolling over helpless local cultures, taking what it wants and in the process ruining fragile indigenous art forms and homogenizing all culture, turning the world into a lowbrow combination of Baywatch and Disney. In this view, Western culture (elaborating upon Edward Said’s [1978] famous construction of Orientalism) is inevitably depicted as crass and unstoppable, while Eastern cultures are represented as refined, delicate, passive, exotic, and spiritually superior to the West. The favored terminology is military, with the West painted as a bellicose male (plundering, pillaging, and raping) and Asia represented as a defenseless (and, by implication, female) victim. Thus, the dynamic of colonialism must necessarily be played out in any interaction between Western artists and Eastern forms, and the “traffic” in culture is represented as irrevocably one-way. In this article I examine the representation of intercultural transfer in current theatre criticism, and advocate a different, more flexible, and locally based model.

One example of criticism based in the binary opposition of Western and Asian cultures is John Russell Brown’s (1998) article “Theatrical Pillage in Asia: Redirecting the Intercultural Traffic.” Brown likens directors Peter Brook and Ariane Mnouchkine (two of the past decade’s most visible practitioners of intercultural transfer) to “raiders across a frontier,” remarking that “they bring back strange clothes as their loot and try to wear them as if to the manner born” (1998:9). The author decries the use of artistic forms from other cultures on two levels: he feels that “foreign” forms cannot express the realities of contemporary Western society; and, the presence of Westerners in other cultures inevitably ruins the forms they desire to explore—they “leave wreckage behind them as they spread knowledge of ancient theatres among journalists and tour promoters” (11). In describing the dynamic of intercultural borrowing, Brown repeatedly employs the language of war and violation, characterizing intercultural experimentation as “looting,” as if non-Western performance genres were one-of-a-kind objects, too fragile to be played with, adapted, or otherwise handled by outsiders. He portrays Asian theatres as “defenceless against predators from another society,” and denies the very possibility of exchange, saying that it “cannot work equitably in two directions between two very different societies and theatres: West and East, modern and [End Page 44] ancient, economically advantaged and disadvantaged” (12). In other words, if artistic borrowing between cultures cannot be accomplished “equitably” it shouldn’t happen at all.

Brown’s solution to cultural pillage is to advocate the borrowing of only the less visible elements of non-Western performance, such as audience-stage relationships, or acting styles (for example, the use of improvisation during performance). Such borrowings, he feels, are the “most practical and [will] do the least harm” to the “target” cultures. Yet Brown does not seem to recognize that these formal elements are as much expressions of a distinct sensibility as any other aspect of a theatrical form: to condemn the borrowing of certain aspects of non-Western performance while permitting others places him in the position of cultural gatekeeper, deciding which elements are appropriate for artistic experimentation by foreigners and which must be left alone for the “natives” to practice undisturbed.

Yet it is not even Brown’s argument so much as his method of representing intercultural transfer that is so troubling. His is the latest in a long string of remarkably similar-sounding articles which have appeared over the past decade, including those by Rustom Bharucha, Patrice Pavis, Carl Weber, Gautam Dasgupta, and many others. These writers all foreground and perpetuate images of inequality and victimization in interculturalism, centering on the perceived politics of the phenomenon to the near exclusion of any other considerations. One can include here such representations as Pavis’s (1996:13) description of Western culture as “Disneyland culture” (as opposed to non-Western “cultures of identity”) and Weber’s (1991:28...


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