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The Rites of Women Erika Munk Please put up with me, I need to restate a few obvious things: theatre is overwhelmingly written by men and directed by men, with an audience of men in mind. During several of its great-periods it was entirely performed by men, and in several of its most respected and "purest" forms, it still is. In this sense, theatre is an extremely "masculine" art; paradoxically (perhaps), it's also stereotyped as a stronghold of (male) homosexuality. Until film and television took over, it was our most public art, entwined in and reflecting social and political life. At the same time, theatre, so closely tied to the sacred while so deeply identified with ungodly vice, is suffused by myth and eros. Given all this, what theatre has to show us about the nature of men and women is of the greatest importance. But not, of course, necessarily of the greatest truth. (At least from my half of humanity's point of view.) When ISTA-the International School of Theatre Anthropology, run by Eugenio Barba, director of Denmark's Odin Teatret-announced its September conference on "The Female Role as Represented on the Stage in Various Cultures," its subject was inviting to every theatre person trying to figure out a workable relation between the traditional and the new, troubled by the juncture of artforms and daily history, and concerned with the shaping power of representation. The list of participants was formidable: Bibi Andersson, Franca Rame, the Odin itself; prominent critics and directors; performers from several traditional Asian theatres: Kabuki and Nihon Buyo; Chinese opera from Beijing, Taipei, and Hebei; Odissi, Kathakali, and Gotipua dancers; Balinese dance-drama. Men and women were going to demonstrate cross-gender work in a multitude of styles so that we who were watching, questioning, participating, might find out what is represented in these representations, might unravel the ways in which codification traps or even frees us. The relation of these codes to the cultures in which actors are trained, perform, and live would be clarified. The sexual attitudes expressed in theatre, whether through mise-en-scene 35 or a hand's gesture, would be held up to our critical eyes. What a joyous prospect! It didn't happen. Such questions were barely referred to, let alone discussed. But the way it didn't happen is interesting, even enlightening. If all those questions had remained unexamined because of organizational blundering or individual misogyny, the eventwould be worth no more than a sigh or a shrug. Its silences, however, seemed to spring directly from certain aspects of Western experimental theatre as that theatre shaped itself a couple of decades ago: the search for techniques and spiritual purpose in pre-industrial Asian performance; a guruistic, all-controlling directorial style; an anti-analytical, anti-intellectual bent; the superficial scientism of the theatre "laboratory." The Grotowskian mindset of the sixties, from which Barba's ideas greatly derive, stressed religiosity on the one hand, and acting technique on the other. This resulted-among other, better, things-in near-deification of the actor and his martyrdowm (Barba says "Like Saint Sebastian, the actor is a target"). It also made playwriting beside the point, and led to enormous contempt for such quotidian concerns as social and political meaning, or psychological analysis. The difficulty, of course, is that the kind of questions that seemed to spring from the ISTA announcement are the topics that theatre "anthropology" (unlike most anthropology) finds too mundane, too obvious, or as Barba puts it, too "visible." A selection of brief writings by Barba in the conference program stated the grounds from which our investigation was supposed to proceed. For its publicity poster, ISTA used an old photograph of Mei Lan-Fang, robes blowing in the wind, holding two swords, the face a perfect mask of androgyny; and the opening page of the program dedicated the congress to him. A biographical note on the actor emphasized his role in challenging the conventions of Chinese opera: "By 1920, he had already presented a new opera in which a young girl refused to marry the man her family had chosen for her. In this conflict between traditional values...


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pp. 35-42
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