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Asian Theatre Journal 20.1 (2003) 91-93

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Shakespeare, Brecht, and the Intercultural Sign. By Anthony Tatlow. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2001. 297 pp. $59.95

In some respects, Anthony Tatlow's new book draws on the sum total of his previous work. Since the early 1970s he has written extensively on Brecht's response to the poetry, theatre, and philosophy of China and Japan; on Shakespeare (or, more precisely, a comparative reading of Shakespeare); on practices of reading and in particular a method that Tatlow labels textual anthropology; as well as on literature and theatre from the perspective of social theory. The insights Tatlow has gained in this research form the basis from which he proceeds to take several steps further. His aim is none other than to develop the outline of a theory of the aesthetics of intercultural theatre. This is a daring enterprise. For intercultural theatre seems to be at its peak, unfolding all over the world, and new forms are constantly being created. Yet efforts to deal with the phenomenon of intercultural theatre or to come to grips with [End Page 91] it theoretically have been far from satisfactory. Thus we are currently facing a situation that makes any approach to this problem very risky. To come to the point: Tatlow's study not only meets the challenge but brilliantly lays the groundwork for any future theory of the aesthetics of intercultural theory.

Tatlow proceeds from the striking hypothesis that we respond to intercultural theatre because it gives us access to that which is culturally repressed —to the cultural and social unconscious, to the unconscious of our own episteme. In the first chapter he unfolds and explains this hypothesis by taking recourse to the figure of the trickster and shaman in Brecht's Caucasian Chalk Circle and Shakespeare's Tempest as well as corresponding theories by Nietzsche, Lévi-Strauss, and Derrida. In the two following chapters he clarifies his heuristic tools. The concepts of intercultural sign and the social and cultural unconscious are defined. Through a critical encounter with Pavis's theory of interculturalism and Miner's opposition of Western poetics as mimetic and East Asian poetics as affective-expressive, Tatlow takes up the question of the aesthetic pleasure created by antimimetic writing as it denies a secure position for the interpreting subject. This he takes as a starting point for unfolding his idea of a dialectic of acculturation that, he states, can be accomplished through the intercultural sign. By drawing on the examples of Ariane Mnouchkine's Shakespeare productions, Brecht's remarks on Chinese paintings, and the Shakespeare productions mounted by the Japanese stage directors Ninagawa and Suzuki, he explains that intercultural hermeneutics must constantly look for models that question domestic "normality" and, moreover, that through the cultural other, access is gained to that which is culturally and socially repressed. In this way he arrives at a definition of the intercultural sign: "an efficacious intercultural performance which is most noticeable by the distress it causes, by its ability to disrupt 'aesthetic' conventions that themselves mark ideologically protected presuppositions" (p. 74). Thus the intercultural sign, at its most suggestive, is understood as a function of the unconscious.

To clarify his concept of the cultural and social unconscious so fundamental to his argument, Tatlow takes recourse to different psychoanalytic theories such as those by Holland, Freud (in particular on laughter), and Fromm, but also to Foucault's attempt to establish a link between psychoanalysis and ethnology. He explains the unconscious as the repository of not merely repressed instinctual drives but also frustrated hopes. The social unconscious, therefore, is produced by a repressive society. Since identity tends to conform to the current social clichés, access to the social unconscious will bring about a destabilization of identity. Thus the intercultural sign shatters traditional cultural concepts of the self.

Having laid out the theoretical ground, Tatlow expands his theory by applying it to three different examples: a comparison of Plautus's Menaechmi and Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors; Brecht's adaptation of Shakespeare's Coriolanus; and Huang...