- Shakespeare, Brecht, and the Intercultural Sign
Anthony Tatlow, former president of the International Brecht Society, and previously the author of The Mask of Evil: Brecht's Response to the Poetry, Theatre, and Thought of China and Japan, a descriptive, critical, and comparative analysis of Brecht's reception of, response to, and appropriation of East Asian culture, and the co-editor (with Tak-Wai Wong) of Brecht and East Asian Theatre, a collection of essays dealing primarily with productions of Brecht's plays and the understanding and appropriation of Brecht's theories in East Asia, has returned to the field of Brecht and intercultural theatre in East Asia with Shakespeare, Brecht and the Intercultural Sign.
Relying upon psychoanalysis, semiotics, Brecht's theories (and East Asian interpretations of them), and "textual anthropology" ("Observing others and wrestling with ourselves in a self-distancing practice of interpretation" [End Page 113] [2-3]), among other methodologies, Tatlow considers the plays of Shakespeare (and Plautus, and Brecht) from a postmodern, post-Marxist position in order to better understand the dialectics of acculturation—the practice whereby cultures "absorb, transform, [and] retransmit" texts from other cultures (47).
Tatlow purports to explore the "problematic triangulation between aesthetic satisfactions, or disappointments, social and expressive desiderata, and intercultural possibilities, which on some level implies a reading of the cultural unconscious" (34). Following Brecht, Tatlow denies the timelessness and universality of the Shakespearean canon, and instead "puts it back into history" (43). In the West, he argues, correctly, the mimetic convention reigns, whereas in Asia most traditional theatres rely upon a presentational style. Tatlow then analyses several significant productions of Shakespeare in East Asia and the West, noting that both cultures tend to rely upon Western text and traditional Asian performance conventions to create intercultural theatre—rarely does the inverse occur. In considering these productions Tatlow concludes that French director Ariane Mnouchkine, for example, relies upon the same techniques and performs the same action as Japanese directors Ninagawa Yukio and Suzuki Tadashi do—they make the familiar into the unfamiliar.
Tatlow argues that the "intercultural sign, at its most suggestive, is a function of the unconscious" (77). After surveying the existent literature on psychoanalysis of Shakespearean comedy, and considering the various strengths and weaknesses of each, he argues that the "unconscious of the text" is constructed by the writer and the reader" (83). Tatlow then performs an extended reading of A Midsummer Night's Dream. It is here that we see an example of one of the minor flaws in Tatlow's study: he occasionally misses a detail that makes a difference in his analysis. He mistakenly states Puck anoints "Lysander instead of Demetrius," yet in the play Puck anoints both (110). A minor detail, admittedly, but when one is discussing character transformation and changes in sexual energy, it seems fairly significant that both are changed, not just one. Tatlow concludes his analysis of the comedies noting, "These plays voice the female and social unconscious, what gets repressed and silenced but still resists within the social game of power" (115).
The following chapter offers a comparative psychoanalysis of The Comedy of Errors and the Plautine plays upon which it is based. Tatlow argues that Plautus' text, usually rejected as more simple and inferior to Shake-speare's, is actually the more "radical" and "modern" of the two (148). Both [End Page 114] texts question identity, but Shakespeare's play ends in unity and resolution, whereas Menachemi is open-ended, unresolved, and maintains its questioning of identity. Plautus' play also demonstrates the historic gender and economic issues that shaped its formation.
Chapter five is an extended analysis of Brecht's adaptation of Coriolanus, which Tatlow believes, "shows definitely why we must historicize the intercultural sign" (151). Shakespeare's play was about "daily life on the streets of London in 1608," as Brecht's adaptation was about daily life in East Germany in the late fifties (164). Brecht's text "replaces" Shakespeare's "with another reading of the Shakespearean text." Tatlow then considers...