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Asian Theatre Journal 1.1 (2002) 231-233

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East Asia And America: Encounters In Drama And Theatre. By Sang Kyong Lee. University of Sydney World Literature Series, no. 3. Sydney: Wild Peony, 2000.

This is a strange, worthwhile, but frustratingly incomplete book. Its dense 158 pages contain in reality two books. One is an almost encyclopedic listing of people, plays, and theatre groups that have translated, been influenced by, or themselves influenced Japanese, Chinese, and Korean theatre. The second is a focused assessment of the work of germinal artists influenced deeply by Chinese and Japanese theatre: Ezra Pound, Thornton Wilder, Eugene O'Neill, Robert Wilson, and Steven Sondheim. This is ambitious and important research, yet a lack of cross-referencing and glaring omissions make for an ultimately confusing and arbitrary perspective on a broad and deep subject.

The breezy first chapters offer an ambitious whirlwind tour of historical contact between Asia and the West. Beginning with Marco Polo's visit to China (1275-1291) and the influence of Taoist philosophy in Europe, mostly Germany, Lee surveys Eastern influence on drama, poetry, philosophy, art, and music. The next section reviews China and especially Japan's well-documented influence: on Ezra Pound, W. B. Yeats, Benjamin Britten, and Samuel Beckett in Ireland and Britain; on Jacques Copeau, Paul Claudel, and Jean-Louis Barrault in France; on Max Reinhardt and Bertolt Brecht in Germany; and on Vsevelod Meyerhold and Sergei Eisenstein in Russia. Interspersed among these broad sketches are fascinating details: experiments in no and kabuki technique by Gabriel Cousin; Eisenstein's infatuation with Chinese [End Page 231] ideograms and woodblock prints, contributing to his theories of film montage; Tennessee Williams's no experiment. A remarkable instance of reverse influence is noted here: the visit of Ichikawa Sadanji II to Russia in 1928 led to Eisenstein's 1929 writings on Japanese cinema, which in turn influenced Japanese filmmakers including Akira Kurosawa (p. 28).

Having outlined Asia's influence on Europe, Lee proceeds to recount Japan's influence on Americans: the writers Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Lowell, Hearn, and Wallace Stevens, for example, and the painters Whistler and Cassat. These diverse influences are prologue to Section Two, detailed case studies of East Asian theatrical influence on the artistic development of Pound, Eliot, and O'Neill. Analyses of their major works is followed by a brief discussion of their reverse influence when exported to China and Japan.

Lee navigates the difficult liminality that Pound demands as a Europeanized American poet, translator, and editor as well as Chinese and Japanese philosophy and poetry enthusiast. Curiously omitted from this dense thirteen pages, though, is reference to the no-based plays Pound himself wrote, which were rediscovered and published in 1987. T. S. Eliot's contact with Indian philosophy, with Pound and Yeats, and his essays on no and symbolism are prelude to Lee's analysis of Eliot's lyric play Murder in the Cathedral and his poetry. Here Lee notes the synthesis of various influences: the use of the chorus, real and imagined ghostly spirits, metaphysical symbolism, and Buddhist philosophy.

Eugene O'Neill's influence from China and Japan--his use of the chorus and Tao principles of opposition--is enlightening. The no-like poetry of the play Marco Millions was a revelation, as was O'Neill's employment of masks for numerous characters and kinds of plays, extolling the mask as "dramatic in itself . . . a power weapon of attack. At its best, it is more subtly, imaginatively, suggestively dramatic than any actor's face can ever be" (p. 80).

The section on Thornton Wilder recounts his introduction to Chinese and Japanese theatre while traveling, then secondhand study of them while in Europe. Wilder's bare stage, symbolic properties and gestures, use of the Stage Manager and time travel as dramatic devices are traced to his deep appreciation for Eastern theatricality. Lee's analysis of Our Town is followed by a somewhat inflated assessment of Wilder as a vanguard artist of American epic theatre as well as a precursor to the absurdist plays of Edward Albee.

It is in the next two chapters...


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