- Modern Asian Theatre and Performance 1900–2000 by Kevin J. Wetmore Jr., Siyuan Liu, and Erin B. Mee, and: The Methuen Drama Anthology of Modern Asian Plays ed. by Siyuan Liu and Kevin J. Wetmore Jr.
These two works fill a gap and provide reasonably priced texts that cross cultural areas giving insight into the development of Asian modern dramas, especially of Northeast and South Asia. The focus on contemporary work echoes the more recent scholarly trend that has moved from the pattern of the 1960s–1980s—which tended to focus on traditional Asian genres—to highlighting urban script-focused modern drama from 1900 to the present. This contemporary focus marks the work of younger scholars entering the field beginning in the 1990s.
The twentieth century gave rise to shingeki (“new theatre” Japan), huaju (“spoken drama” China), and theatres that became an important medium for indigenous elites of the British Raj. These genres were created by educated innovators who had observed European theatre and sought to reformulate local performance with first realism as represented by figures such as Ibsen, Chekov, and Shaw and later with styles that were part of global literary trends, be it Marxism, absurdism, or postmodernism and postcolonial thought. The individual theatres had different trajectories but all were hybrids that both countered and coopted forces of Western colonialist impacts/educational systems, local nationalisms, and so on. These theatres both entertained and dealt with critical sociopolitical issues (nationalism, class and gender disparities, demands for social justice) and gave rise to indigenous forms. Major authors/dramatists sometimes moved between literary genres (poetry, novel, drama), creating first melodramas or realistic examination of important social issues, and in time experimental forms and revivals of indigenous genres infused with new ideas. Their works educated the audiences via performances.
Rather than having a single author addressing the varied histories of colonialisms, independence movements, and postcolonial theatre explorations across Asia, the three co-authors have worked together, generally focusing on their area of expertise (Wetmore on Japan [with Korea and Southeast Asia], Lui on China [with Taiwan and Hong Kong], and Mee on India), but with all touching on common themes to give coherence to the whole. The three regions (Japan, China, India) are generally allocated two chapters: one to lay out the earlier history of the language/cultural area and a second to evaluate work of the later twentieth century. South Korea, with its fraught yet persistent ties as a colony of Japan in the first half of the twentieth century and then theatre linked to US trends in the post–Korean War period, gets modest focus in a single chapter authored by Wetmore (North Korea is not addressed). Southeast Asia is only glancingly represented—the [End Page 217] single chapter devoted to multiple nations with widely different colonial and postcolonial histories is thin. Asian areas of the former USSR are likewise omitted.
“To understand modern Asian theatre is to understand modern Asian society” (p. 15) is the contention of the authors. The opening discussion sees modernity and modern drama in Asia as interlinked. In Northeast Asia the new spoken drama was developed by the Japanese as part of their Meiji modernization and self-strengthening program and was exported from there to China and Korea by students who were studying in Japan. They took home techniques of acting and ideas of writing from the Japanese explorations at the dawn of the twentieth century. Japanese new theatre, whether shin pa or later shingeki, was conceived as a tool of transforming society and strengthening it against the encroachments of Western powers. This new theatre, first in Japan and then other countries affected by the Japanese model, emphasized dialogue/text. This created hybrids in China like huaju (spoken drama). Authors, directors, and actors did not come from professional performing families (as was the norm...