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  • Remapping Theatre History
  • Steve Tillis (bio)


In the last years of the sixteenth century, the Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci undertook an extraordinary mission to China, to which he brought a map of the world incorporating the most recent "discoveries" in the Americas. The Chinese, though curious about the Americas, were appalled by the map because it placed Europe in the middle of the world and therefore relegated China to its far right-hand margin. As everyone in China knew, however, China was the "Middle Kingdom." Father Ricci, diplomat that he was, immediately drew up a new map. This version, no more nor less an accurate representation of the world than the first, placed China very near the middle. According to Father Ricci, the new map gave the Chinese "a great deal of pleasure and satisfaction": this was the way the world looked to them (Boorstin 57).

It is easy to be amused by the Sinocentrism of the Chinese: why, after all, must China be placed in the middle of the world? But let us go back a step to Father Ricci's original map, the map that placed Europe in the middle of the world, as do most world maps we see to this very day. Are we also amused by this Eurocentrism, or have we grown so accustomed to it that we take for granted that world maps will center themselves on Europe—and not only on the East–West axis, but on the North–South axis as well, thanks to the misleading magic of the Mercator projection?1

Four hundred years later, we in the field of theatre studies are still heirs to the Eurocentrism of Father Ricci's original map. Four hundred years of explorations, immigrations, and cross-cultural relations have still not led us to act upon the simple fact that Europe—and, more lately, Euro-America—is not necessarily in the middle of the theatrical world. Indeed, the field of theatre studies has arguably taken a step backwards, for our "maps" of theatre history are, on the whole, not just Eurocentric, but parochial in nature—"parochial," that is, in the sense defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as "relating or confined to a narrow area or region, as if within the borders of one's own parish; limited or provincial in outlook or scope." For whereas Father Ricci took pains to draw fair representations of the entire known world, we have all too often acted as if vast portions of the theatrical world scarcely exist.

Historical thinking, like map-making, involves focus, selection, and emphasis; it involves, in short, adopting a perspective, but always with the goal of being at least "convergent on the truth," as historian Michael Stanford suggests (131). When a particular perspective is known to diverge from the truth, but is maintained nonetheless, it must be considered an intellectual fallacy. Once upon a time, Europeans and Americans might have been oblivious to the theatre of the wider world and might therefore be excused for adopting a perspective that placed everything but their own theatre on the margins of their theatre histories. Such a narrow-minded perspective is inexcusable today, when information about the theatrical traditions of the rest of the world is readily available. But the fallacy of parochialism is still predominant in undergraduate theatre history studies primarily because we have become habituated to thinking in terms of an antiquated yet still powerful thesis regarding Western progress that has seemed to justify our Eurocentrism. The result has been codified [End Page 1] in what I call the "Standard Western Approach," which broadly visualizes theatre history as having undergone a rise from "ritual to realism"—effectively centralizing Western theatre in a "progressive" theatre history while marginalizing (or even erasing) the theatre of the rest of the world.

My main concern in this essay will be to analyze the historiography that undergirds the vast majority of undergraduate theatre history survey courses taught in American colleges—that is, the historiography of the Standard Western Approach. I will look at the parochialism of theatre survey courses and of their inevitable adjuncts, theatre history textbooks and play anthologies, then step back in time and review the...


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