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From Dream to Machine: Peter Brook, Robert Lepage, and the Contemporary Shakespearean Director as (Post) Modernist

From: Theatre Journal
Volume 50, Number 2, May 1998
pp. 189-206 | 10.1353/tj.1998.0045

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Theatre Journal 50.2 (1998) 189-206

This essay considers the cultural work done by the role of the Shakespearean director, locates the discourses and practices of contemporary Shakespearean directing within the appropriative discourses and practices of high modernist formalism, and traces continuities between modernist and postmodernist manifestations of the directing of Shakespeare, focusing on Peter Brook and his 1970 production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, and on two Shakespearean productions by Quebec's Robert Lepage. It begins with a story.

In the weeks leading up to the last referendum on Quebec sovereignty (30 October 1995) there was a campaign across Canada involving bumper stickers that read, in French or English, "My Canada includes Quebec." In the French version, "include" was rendered "comprend"--which of course also means "understands." The campaign was mounted by well-meaning, liberal-minded Canadians who wished to distance themselves from the anti-Quebec sentiments of many Anglophone Canadians. Few among the Anglophone federalists, it seems, considered the implied positionings of one group's claims to "include" and "understand" another, particularly an "other" within the differential power relationships that obtain historically and currently within the Canadian confederation.

I tell this story not only because it locates my essay within contemporary Canada and Quebec, framing an argument that culminates in a discussion of the work of a Quebec director who is at the same time positioned among the internationalist avant-garde, but also in order to clarify the ways in which I understand the workings of modernist and postmodernist appropriations of various kinds of otherness. These appropriations circulate, I suggest, not merely around audience reading or around a supposedly communicative and enfranchising postmodern globalism. Rather they involve a number of related strategies of assimilation, of "understanding," and of inclusion: my west includes your east; my masculine includes your feminine; my high culture your mass culture; my psychological and individualist your social; my capital your labour; my civilization your primitivism; my imperial centre your colonial margin; my modern your Early Modern. Ultimately, my formalist, inscrutable, unchanging work of art includes--comprend--your messy, fluid, corporal, feminized, social, and otherwise threatening life: my shaping understanding kills you into art.

And that art involves a particularly modernist form of closure, in which form is not considered to be a social or public forum, but a structuralist end in itself. For the high modernist artist and critic, art is non-referential, functioning within its own separate realm and satisfying internal standards of clarity, integrity and autonomy. Canadian structuralist critic Northrop Frye has famously asserted, of course, that Shakespeare, as transhistorical and transcultural exemplar of the artist, "has no values, no philosophy, no principles of anything except dramatic form." The modernist work of art, then, exists and must be read as a product, a kind of "in-itself," that creates a realm of experience either indifferent to life, or a substitute for it, but in either case self-contained and, by external standards, inscrutable. The modernist artist as visionary individual struggles heroically to achieve and maintain oedipal resolutions that are constitutive of unified dramatic form (not to mention masculinity) by containing the threat, sweat, subjectivity and du- or multi-plicities of a slippery pre- or a-symbolic "other" (typically gendered female), or of an unruly and disruptively upstart collectivity (or "mob"), within the unchanging realm of pure (spatial, and therefore timeless) form. But, as Leonard Cohen reminds us, "there is a crack in everything"--or in Terry Eagleton's version, "the body can never be fully present in discourse"--including, I suggest the embodied discourses of the theatre. And there, for the modernist, is the rub.

In terms of the cultural work it performs, the retreat from application and social reference -- together with the retreat from theatre as collaborative work, in the social and historical realms, into the individualist/universalist realm of the director as auteur and controlling consciousness -- can be seen as a retreat from artistic responsibility into the realm of "pure" aesthetics, where the work is potentially dehumanized and left open to appropriation by other ideologies of purity and social control, including, in their extreme form, fascism. In this sense, the modernist artist, including the director of Shakespeare, can...

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