- Othello and Beijing OperaAppropriation As a Two-Way Street
Two diametrically different theatre projects of cross-cultural appropriation involving Shakespeare's Othello and Beijing opera-1983 production in China and a 1994 workshop at Tufts University-demonstrate the give-and-take and the complexities of intercultural appropriation.
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Two diametrically different theatre projects were both produced through cross-cultural appropriation involving Shakespeare's Othello and Beijing opera. The 1983 production took place in Beijing and used Shakespeare's text for Chinese theatre. The 1994 project in Boston used Chinese theatre aesthetics for Western actors in Shakespearean productions. Although the appropriation came from opposite directions, both projects are examples of intercultural theatre concerning appropriation across cultural lines.
In the Western discourse about intercultural theatre, the focus is usually on Western artists' encounters with the cultural other, as represented in the works of Bertolt Brecht, Jerzy Grotowski, Peter Brook, Richard Schechner, Eugenio Barba, and others. Thus a common criticism, in the wake of Edward Said's seminal 1978 book Orientalism, is that cross-cultural appropriations reflect colonialist and postcolonialist power configurations, and often take advantage of non-Western cultures. Following Said, Rustom Bharucha writes:
I also see the fascination for "other" cultures by western interculturalists-and "fascination" is a key word-emerging from a fundamental dissatisfaction with their own cultural resources. Indeed, one could argue that interculturalism was born out of a certain ennui, a reaction to aridity and the subsequent search for new sources of energy, vitality and sensuality through the importation of "rejuvenating materials." We need to question the implication of this importation for the "other" (non-western) cultures themselves. It is all very well to be rejuvenated, but at what cost? And at whose expense?(1996:207)
Here Bharucha criticizes Western interculturalists' appropriation of the materials as well as the styles of non-Western cultures. Yet his analysis in the first half of the quote can also be applied to the Chinese practice of appropriating Western materials, specifically when Chinese theatre people used Shakespeare's stories and characters to help rejuvenate their own theatre in the 20th century. Bharucha might argue that Asians' use of Western texts and styles should not be called "appropriation," because in many cases throughout the history of colonialism, various Western cultural products, from the Bible to Shakespeare to Hollywood movies, were imposed on non-Western peoples. But in China things are at least slightly different: China was not colonized in the way that India was, and oftentimes modernizing Chinese have actively reached out to procure Western cultural products they deemed useful. Their goals: to learn Western ways and make China competitive against Western powers, as well as to enrich the cultural life of the Chinese people. The appropriation of Shakespearean plays by Chinese theatre people is just one of many such examples in the 20th century. The 1983 Beijing production of Othello was the first in a series of contemporary Chinese theatre experiments involving the appropriation of Shakespearean texts.
On the other hand, the Chinese are often happy to have Westerners appropriate their cultural products because they see this as a way to promote China's national glory abroad. Mei Lanfang's self-initiated and well-prepared tours to Japan in 1919 and 1924; to the U.S. in 1930; and to Russia in 1935 are salient examples. Unfortunately, while Mei was almost unanimously acclaimed everywhere he visited, his type of theatre was rarely "appropriated" by Western theatre actors or directors-with Brecht being a notable exception, although Brecht misconstrued Mei's acting in order to fit it into his own theory of Verfremdungseffekt. It was not until long after Mei's death in 1961 that more substantial cultural exchanges between Chinese theatre artists and their Western counterparts were initiated. The Boston project, which appropriated Beijing opera style for a performance of Othello, is an example.
In a recently published article titled "Foreign Asia/Foreign...