- World Theories of Theatre by Glenn A. Odom
Contrary to his title’s first impressions, Glenn Odom’s World Theories of Theatre makes no claims of exhaustiveness. Odom specifies world as “that portion of the world which is not Europe, Russia, or the U.S.—which is to say, most of the world” (1). He thus contests the tendency of English-language theatre-theory anthologies to relegate “most of the world” to a few stray contributions tucked between works from Anglo-/Eurosphere authors. As a corrective, Odom focuses on theatre as theorized by artists from Africa, the Middle East, South America, the Caribbean, Asia, and Oceania. As a teacher and scholar, I endorse Odom’s lament about the hegemony of Western views and the tokenization of “everything else.” Our field still struggles with presenting theatre theory without privileging Western assumptions or marginalizing world alternatives. How can we introduce the theatrical theories and practices of people as distinct as Femi Osofisan, Zeami, and Poile Sengupta together without creating a volume (or a class) either overstuffed or oversimplified? I commend Odom for offering one possible answer to these and other challenges.
He restricts his focus to theories of world theatre, a term he distinguishes from broader performance practices. Odom eschews a concrete definition in favor of defining theatre “locally,” taking his cue from the practitioners themselves about whether they are doing theatre or some nontheatrical performance form (4–5). Yet, with some notable exceptions (such as Zeami or Bharata), the majority of Odom’s world interlocutors are twentieth- and twenty-first-century playwrights influenced by and defining theatre within the broad conventions of Western drama (for instance, script-based productions in specialized theatrical spaces). Although these theorists’ contributions expand the range of perspectives about theatre, such expansion remains mostly within tacit parameters about theatre’s identity and potentials. To be sure, there is value in a study of how different world artists theorize “theatre” even within those parameters. But by sticking to more-or-less-recognizable theatre theory, Odom limits the potential of revelatory de-familiarizations—encounters with practices and theories that upset Western assumptions about theatricality. Such limits, however, represent a conscious choice on his part. He explicitly invokes and endorses an interconnectedness among global theatrical practices. “Maybe,” he offers, “there is something to the idea of theatre as world phenomenon” (2). Odom takes care to mark the dangers of asserting a facile theatrical universality, stressing areas of divergence and variation among his subjects’ views. His project assumes, however, that these diverse perspectives contemplate essentially the same object. Readers will find this assumption appealing or questionable based on their own backgrounds, training, and convictions. In any case Odom does not set out to prove theatre’s global interconnectedness, but simply proceeds from the possibility that the idea has merit.
Readers should know that this work is less an anthology than an introductory guide spiced with some primary source excerpts. It is a book about world theories of theatre rather than a book of theatre theories, such as Daniel Gerould’s Theatre/Theory/Theatre. The first and longest section consists of chapters organized by “theoretical questions”: aesthetics, politics, culture, identity, modernity, and gender. Odom begins each chapter with a case study describing a production that highlights the chapter’s questions. He then provides a miniature overview of these issues, often calling on Western theories to provide a familiar reference point. His discussion of aesthetics, for example, brings in Aristotle’s Poetics, and he grounds his introduction to politics in Louis Althusser’s notion of ideology. Odom then proceeds to two-to-four selections from world theatre artists writing about the theoretical underpinnings of their practice.
He includes oft-reprinted works like Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed, as well as excerpts from people whose theoretical work is less widely known in the West, such as Syrian playwright Saadallah Wannous and Maori artist Roma Potiki. Such latter contributions are valuable, especially when (as with Wannous) the work in question has never been published in English. That said, the selections themselves make up only a small...