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Asian Theatre Journal 20.1 (2003) 88-91

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The World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre: Asia/Pacific. Edited by Don Rubin, Chua Soo Pong, Ravi Chaturvedi, Ramendu Majumdar, Minoru Tanokura, and Katherine Brisbane. New York: Routledge, 1999. 524 pp. Cloth. $175

The World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre (WECT) is essentially an "encyclopedia of nations and their theatres" (p. 3) that documents the artistic output and cultural resources of nearly every nation in the world. In many areas the WECT Asia/Pacific succeeds in describing the rich and turbulent history of twentieth-century Asian theatre by using native scholars and broadly representing many nations. Never before has an encyclopedia attempted to cover contemporary theatre in such detail; the Asia/Pacific volume opens up theatre scholarship in many linguistically inaccessible regions. In some respects, the WECT is comparable to the United Nations: both have noble and ambitious goals and provide valuable contributions to international dialogue, but both are plagued by inefficiency and redundancy as well and mired in the political ideologies of member nations.

The Asia/Pacific volume is the fifth and last in a series that includes separate volumes on Europe, the Americas, Africa, and the Arab world. The WECT Asia/Pacific is more than twice the size of its nearest competitor (The Cambridge Guide to Asian Theatre) and covers fourteen countries with extended articles and seventeen countries with overview articles. The Asia/Pacific nations in the volume include nearly everything from Iran to French Polynesia—among them many tiny nations, such as Brunei and Bhutan, which are often overlooked. Unfortunately, in some respects the reach of this project [End Page 88] exceeds its grasp and in several places it is missing the consistent editorial oversight that would have made the Asia/Pacific volume a more reliable and accessible resource.

The volume begins with six introductory essays that establish various issues concerning Asian theatre in the twentieth century. Most recap only the highlights, however, and tend to avoid the conflicts of the past century. Only A. J. Gunawardana's essay introduces some of the complex issues surrounding the conflicted relationship between cultural traditions and Western modernity. Comparing the salient similarities between modern European drama and what emerges in Asia in the mid-twentieth century, Gunawardana finds that the new modern Asian theatre employs many of the same devices (proscenium staging, stage realism) often for the same purposes (social commentary and commercial gain). One important innovation that is not addressed here is the introduction of mixed-gender productions. Women and men acting on stage together was perhaps one of the most radical changes of the early modern era, but very little attention is given to the expanding role of women in theatre. A few exceptional essays do address these changes: the Japan article deals with later stages of this phenomenon, and the Iran article presents fascinating descriptions of Iranian women's theatre (bazi-hayi namayeshi) along with names of female performers and directors.

The bulk of the encyclopedia is made up of extended national articles that are divided into fifteen subheadings: descriptions of the nation's history, companies, theatre buildings, technical design, dramaturgy, and so forth. The history sections are reminiscent of what one would expect to find in an encyclopedia; they describe developments in the theatre chronologically and offer some political, demographic, and geographic background. Even in these encyclopedic sections, there are significant differences in the types of information discussed. The essays on some countries, such as India, go very far back in history; others, such as those on China and Japan, hardly mention pre-twentieth-century theatre. Some unique sections in the WECT provide a wide range of information that is typically overlooked. The sections on puppet theatre and youth theatre are often quite fascinating and offer novel insights into contemporary theatrical activity within the country.

Some subsections, such as "Artistic Profiles," are ill defined and the information found in such sections varies considerably. Several of these categories also seem to overlap, creating a certain amount of redundancy. Some of the sections in the articles are also quite long, making...