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Oral Tradition 20.2 (2005) 161-163

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Performance Literature and the Written World:

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This number contains the second group of articles on Performance Literature that constitute volume 20 of Oral Tradition, and that began life as papers for the workshops on Literature and Performance in the School of African and Asian Studies (SOAS), London University, part of the larger AHRB (Arts and Humanities Research Board) Centre for African and Asian Literature.

As outlined in the Special Editor's Column in volume 20, no.1, the workshops explored the phenomenon of literature in performance and performance literature, defined as literature written, created, or composed to be experienced in performance. It involved a large group of specialists in literatures and cultures from African and Asian as well as European societies.1

Papers, discussants, questions, and successive workshops generated further research questions, and the selection of articles here, as in the previous number, is informed by those discussions, as well as reflecting the same spirit of interdisciplinary research.

The core questions surround the relation of the various types of written text to the performance, or the performance to the various attempts to record or memorialize that performance, and the social or cultural context of that relationship. One of the most striking features that emerges in this collection of studies is the richness and variety of links and relations between a "text" and the performance, the different levels and types of textuality and of their relations to any performance. Studies examine how oral performance might generate written texts of several different registers (see especially Idema, Shirane, and Gerstle in this number), and the written texts themselves have a variety of roles in relation to the live performance (part memorial, "complete" articulation, deliberately partial rendition, edited [End Page 161] and partial release, and more). These differences are not so much a function of the general characteristics of oral performance or of the written word that might be read across cultures, as of the far wider social or professional standing of the performers (see, e.g., du Perron and Magriel in no.1, Gerstle in this issue), or the artistic and cultural preoccupations and workings of the society in question. As Karin Barber puts it (below), often texts depend on performance, and performance on text, and both are cultural artifacts.

Ruth Finnegan's paper begins by discussing the multisensory techniques and effects of performance, the kaleidoscope of impressions generated by any one performance, emphasizing the elements that cannot simply be preserved on the written page, and she suggests that crosscultural comparison undermines any two-fold division between any of the categories invoked. James Burns offers an excellent case study of performance in its cultural context, that of funeral drum music and its current development poised between tradition and modernity. C. Andrew Gerstle's paper on kabuki and the production of texts stresses the deliberate limitation on full written texts, but the proliferation of vivid visual and part written, part artistic "mementos" that were just as important in contemporary Japanese culture as a "bare" written text and indeed became a genre by themselves. So too, the complex and various types of textuality, and of textual relation to the performance, are examined in Japanese poetry by Haruo Shirane. The implications are striking for any scholars working on texts in other cultures where there are both long literary (and highly literate) traditions and a complex performance culture. Similarly, Wilt L. Idema examines the extraordinary variety of texts with different functions and the gradual creation of the "literary text" for medieval Chinese plays. The various textual representations of Chinese drama are also analyzed by Andrew Lo.

With the article by John Miles Foley, we return to the anthropological question of how a modern scholarly edition should or can represent the performance of poetry that was orally composed and recorded in performance (cf. also Schieffelin in no.1). A keen debate has surrounded the composition of oral epic poetry, propelled by the research on the South Slavic poetry by Milman Parry and Albert Lord, and the acoustic recordings deposited...


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