Asian Theatre Journal 20.2 (2003) 253-255
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Central to Italian scholar Nicola Savarese's work is the concept of "oriental theatres," a complex of suggestions he explains as resulting from an imprecise knowledge of Asian forms of theatre that has worked as a sort of myth for European theatrical culture since the end of the eighteenth century. "Oriental theatre," therefore, is a historical rather than a geographical concept that enables the scholar to investigate the numerous "encounters" that important European artists have had with Asian theatrical forms.
Paris/Artaud/Bali is the story of one of these encounters: an original and passionate reconstruction of Antonin Artaud's vision of a Balinese troupe at the 1931 Paris Colonial Exposition. As Savarese clarifies, this book is what remains—"the phosphorous ashes of the ink"—of what used to be a four-hour-long conferenza-spettacolo (conference-performance) presented for the first time at the 1981 Festival of Santarcangelo, Italy, and produced more than a hundred times in Italy and abroad during the following years. By means of slides, videos, music, registered voices, inscriptions, and so on, Savarese attempted to give the spectator the archival material the same way he discovered it, in "all the variety and apparent whimsicality of its coincidences" (p. 16). What Savarese offers to the reader is thus the "script" of this conference-performance, "a montage of various materials divided in five parts and an epilogue" (p. 17).
The first section of the book,"Prelude by Moonlight," attempts to recreate the atmosphere of the Parisian theatrical life of the period with an emphasis on artists who were fighting for the modernization of theatre: Dullin, Copeau, Pitoe¨ff, Antoine, and Artaud. The second section of the book, "Paris by Night," offers a portrayal of the artistic life in Paris in 1931 through the writings, among others, of Jacques Prévert, Louis Aragon, Anaž¨s Nin, Simone de Beauvoir, Henry Miller, and Jean Cocteau. The third section, "Tabu,"deals with the emergence of the image of Bali in Western culture by way of the writings of Walter Spies—the German artist who invented kecak, a form of dance telling the Indian story of Ramayana, with no musical accompaniment and whose rhythm is provided by a chanting chorus—and those of Friedrich Murnau, Spies' friend, who went to Tahiti with his yacht named Bali [End Page 253] to shoot Tabu. The fourth section "Fire! Fire!" describes the fire that took place in the Dutch East Indian Pavilion and destroyed its Balinese theatre. But more important, it presents articles describing the success of the 1931 Paris Colonial Exposition despite the attacks on colonialism conducted by the Surrealists and the French Communist Party. The fifth section, "Colonial Gran Gala," is about the fateful night when Artaud saw the Balinese theatre.
In the "Epilogue," Savarese abandons the kaleidoscopic nature of his presentation of documents and draws some conclusions. The review of the Balinese dances that Artaud wrote for the Nouvelle Revue Française (1931) appeared in revised form seven years later in The Theater and Its Double (1938) and, chronologically, was the earliest article of the book. Thus according to Savarese, since Artaud's visionary concept of theatre was propelled by his view of the Balinese troupe, "it is not sufficient only to study Artaud's verbal labyrinth or only to examine Balinese theatre. It is instead necessary to investigate the entire cultural process that . . . made his visionary leap possible" (p. 180). Savarese's investigation begins with the "dubious footlights" of the Paris Colonial Exposition: dubious because the declared intent of the exposition—to celebrate both the colonial economies and the charm and cultural attractions of distant lands—was not fully realized given the impossibility of eclipsing the turmoil under way in the colonial world. Although the 1931 Colonial Exposition was a huge success with the urban masses, even...