Shakespeare, Brecht, and the Intercultural Sign (review)
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Theatre Journal 54.4 (2002) 661-662



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Shakespeare, Brecht, and the Intercultural Sign. By Anthony Tatlow. Durham: Duke University Press, 2001; pp. 297. $59.95, cloth, $19.95 paper.

The distinctive contribution of Anthony Tatlow's Shakespeare, Brecht, and the Intercultural Sign is the equation of the cultural and the historical, and, therefore, of the intercultural with the interhistorical. The book opens with a bow to L. P. Hartley's famous start to The Go-Between: "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there." Tatlow, himself a sort of cultural go-between, puts a gloss on that memorable aphorism: "Every engagement with a Shakespearean text is necessarily intercultural. The past really is another culture, its remoteness disguised by language that can occasionally appear as familiar as we seem to ourselves, whom we understand so imperfectly. In considering Brecht's intercultural practices, whose innovations are not fully appreciated, I focus less on what happens to 'Shakespeare,' than on how such intercultural reading reshapes the conventions of performance and interpretation" (5). I confess that I prefer the original, with its implication of an achingly inaccessible past ungraspable by even the most vivid personal memories, let alone by secondhand accounts. But Tatlow sets himself the task of theorizing how this gulf can be bridged by those whose stock-in-trade it is to do so, be they critics, scholars, academics, or theatre practitioners.

His argument is intricate, to say nothing of ambitious. In making the equation between culture and history, Tatlow proceeds along at least two intersecting trajectories. One is the intercultural: Asian influences on Brecht and Asian performances that borrow from the West. Another is the interhistorical, particularly as seen in Brecht's Shakespearean adaptations, but also in Shakespeare's reworking of Plautus. At the point of intersection, there is—with apologies to Polonius—the intercultural-interhistorical: Mnouchkine's Asian-influenced Shakespeare productions or a Chinese kunju Macbeth, looking both Westward and backward.

Tatlow dubs this approach "textual anthropology"—looking at historical periods as one would at unfamiliar cultures, and an intercultural performance as historicized text. This is accurate enough, but "texual psychoanalysis" might be more precise. Tatlow's analysis is alternately Lacanian, traditionally Freudian, or, his preferred mode, Erich Frommian; he finds much that is meaningful in each. What is basic to his theorization is his belief in a repressed social unconscious that an analytical [End Page 661] criticism, or critical style of performance, brings to the surface, as when he writes that "access to the repressed will often come as a passage through the cultural Other, discerned through a process that is perhaps initially unconscious—the full implications must certainly remain to a degree opaque—but that occurs because it fulfills a need" (153). The intercultural, the Brechtian, and the semiotic, with all the layers of meaning implied, facilitate the transference.

Tatlow is refreshingly resistant to oversimplified diagnoses of his analysands: of Brecht as a totalizing Marxist, of the Shakespeare who wrote The Comedy of Errors as an unvarnished improver upon a mediocre Plautus, of intercultural borrowing as Orientalist appropriation per se. Rather, he sees intercultural signs as serendipitous Verfremdungseffekt; unfamiliar conventions are inherently strange-making, be they intercultural or historical. Thus, Brecht found in Asian stage technique a template for the A-effect and Asian practitioners find in Shakespeare a revelation of their own social unconscious. Reading Shakespeare through Plautus, and vice versa, exposes the repressions of the Roman and Elizabethan periods.

Tatlow's Plautine excursion seems, when one gets to it in the fourth chapter, to be somewhat out of place. My first impression was that he was finding a way to fit this accomplished problematization of The Menaechmi's relationship to The Comedy of Errors into a book for which he anticipates a wide readership. He argues that the source play is actually the more revealing work, exposing a Roman social unconscious that embraced certain prerogatives of female power, with an ambiguous ending that acknowledges the psychic discomfort that such power, once granted, provokes in a male-dominant society. Shakespeare, on the other hand, wraps up the...