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  • American Students Performing the Foreignness of Human Culture in Foreign Drama
  • Les Essif (bio)

My academic field is French studies, and my primary area of research is contemporary French drama and performance. As part of my instructional responsibilities I produce plays in French with students of foreign language. Quite serious about collaborative performance practice, I have written a book describing how my students and I re-create (contemporize, hybridize, condense, and localize/contextualize) classical French plays.1 Called French Play, the book's conclusion addresses the need for resistance in the production of art, which my students of French language and culture and I (an academic doing theater) practice when we become artists who deliberately resist the false security and certainty of our conventional and referential world, that is, "reality" in its covert as well as its more overt forms. As I argue elsewhere, theatrical uncertainty is a form of resistance to conventional culture's call for certainty.2 Thus, from 1993 through 1998, I supervised and directed recreated productions that aggressively merged (rather than simply juxtaposed) two classical texts from the French canon—Jarry's Ubu Roi with Queneau's Exercices de style, Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac with Molière's Dom Juan, and Shakespeare's Macbeth with Ionesco's Macbett—for example. In these endeavors, I make an effort dynamically to infuse classical texts with new cultural perspectives and make my students think and solve problems outside of the cultural box of staging a foreign classical text. Highlighting the uncertainties helps to identify and undermine the certainties that each of the texts has acquired over time through interpretive convention and that our performance group has acquired through behavioral conditioning. [End Page 319] In short, we use theater practice to rediscover our socio-human souls by reestablishing our cultural foreignness. Actors become foreigners who evolve within the foreign space of the stage.

From the perspective of a globalizing world, conceptions of a "global village" might regard the attributes of "foreignness" as both productive and uniquely theatrical forms of uncertainty. Edward Said cites a "hauntingly beautiful passage" by Hugo of St. Victor, a twelfth-century monk from Saxony. In an attempt to profile the ideal cosmopolite, Hugo affirms that the quintessential global citizen is neither he who remains attached to his homeland nor he who accepts every foreign place as his own, but rather "he is perfect to whom the entire world is as a foreign place."3 The first duty of the global citizen, then, is to acknowledge and accept the contradictory nature of all cultures, including the one she considers her own. Likewise, Edouard Glissant's approach to "problems of world totality" is based on the principle of transnational creolization.4 In our unpredictable "chaos-world," argues Glissant, we need to develop, sustain, and celebrate the world's foreignness as a strange, "creolized" community in which the contradictions and conflicts as well as the resemblances and the harmonies within and between the great variety of cultures come together through "relational identities" that require a constant critical, intellectual vigilance, if not struggle, in which self-doubt is of the essence.5 Despite some reservations stemming from his postmodern uncertainty,6 Jean Baudrillard would have likely concurred with Said and Glissant. Testing the notion of truth in his version of the problem of world totality, Americans, he says, have an "ignorance of the evil genius of things"; they prefer to see the dynamics of human culture as "plain and straightforward." Consequently, "Americans are fascinated by the yellow-skinned peoples in whom they sense a superior form of cunning, a higher form of that absence of truth which frightens them."7 The superior cunning of the "Oriental" derives from a belief in and an acceptance of the absence of truth, implying self-doubt. The theatrical performance of a foreign text in a foreign language is relevant to this discussion.

In the performances we produce, my students and I intend to convey a twofold cultural statement, a statement about culture in general, that is, human culture and its sociological, ideological, and aesthetic potentials, as well as one about our act of producing an essentially cross-cultural [End Page 320] and uncertain...


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