Lighting a Fuse

Sallie Goetsch
School of Theatre Studies
University of Warwick
Coventry CV4 7AL

When I first considered devoting an issue of Didaskalia to fusions of Greek and Asian drama, what struck me was the number and variety of such fusions which had already been produced. It is the Japanese theatrical forms which have been most widely adopted, or perhaps I should say adapted, as a means of performing Greek plays. Shozo Sato and his Kabuki Medea have taken up residence at a number of venues throughout the U.S., where Sato teaches groups of actors to reach for something beyond the ordinary. Suzuki Tadashi has not only created powerful and successful No-inspired productions of Greek tragedies (discussed in greater detail in Marianne McDonald's article in this issue); he has also created the 'Suzuki Method' of acting. The distinctive movement style has proved popular in the United States. The director of the Mount Holyoke production of Trojan Women (reviewed by Robert W. Bethune in Didaskalia 1.1) used Suzuki movements without Japanese-inspired makeup or costumes.

The best place to look for direct comparisons of Greek tragedy and Japanese No is probably Mae Smethurst's The Artistry of Aeschylus and Zeami. In 1384, Zeami Motokiyo became head of the Kanze acting company. It was he who developed No into its present form and began the Secret Tradition writings which are the basis of that all-male form of masked acting.

Zeami's writings and his approach to acting have had a considerable impact on Ariane Mnouchkine, whose Les Atrides took the theatrical world by storm in the early 1990s. But while the Japanese influence was apparent in the movements of the actors, it was the use of the Kathakali dance-drama of India for the choruses of Iphigenie, Agamemnon, and Les Choephores which brought the productions so overwhelmingly to life. Kathakali is another form of drama in which the actors are all male though the characters may be men, women, or supernatural beings. There were several men in Iphigenie's chorus of young virgins, their gender well-disguised in layers of bright cloth (though Mnouchkine had reduced the traditional 55-yard skirts of Kathakali to a more manageable fullness). In most respects this experiment of fusing Greek and Indian was extremely successful, enough so that one hopes it will encourage similar ventures in the future. The only real drawback was the fact that Kathakali is a form in which the spoken word never occurs: all communication is via hand-gestures called mudras. The words of Mnouchkine's choruses were overwhelmed by the movements. But this difference should provide a challenge, not a barrier, to other directors.

Another form of dance-drama which might lend itself readily to fusion productions is the Seraikella Chhau, which is performed at an April festival of Shiva and makes use of masks with subtle expressions. Like Kathakali, it is a wordless telling of a tale, but the style of movement is dreamy and fluid, without the vigorous stamping of Kathakali. Seraikeilla Chhau seems most similar not to Greek tragedy or comedy but to the mimetic dancing of the pantomimes as described by William Slater in Didaskalia 1.2.

Hybrids of the Greek and the Javanese have also proved fruitful. In the early 1970s W.S. Rendra, a prominent director of contemporary Indonesian drama, produced a Lysistrata in Yogyakarta, Central Java. It was the first time an Indonesian director had used traditional costume and movement in a production of a Western play. Both his Lysistrata and his later Oedipus Rex employed techniques from East Javanese proletarian theater, Javanese street theater, and even the wayang kulit theater of shadow-puppets. Inspired by Rendra's success, the Teater Lembaga in Bandung and the Teater ATNI in Jakarta also attempted adaptations of Greek plays. Robert Petersen and Nyoman Sedana once produced a wayang kulit Prometheus Bound as a class project; Petersen also advised that 'the Balinese make great frog masks if Aristophanes is your plan.' (See also C.W. Marshall's 'Notes for a Gamelan Birds' in this issue.)

Korean shamanism inspired two separate productions of Euripides' Bacchae. Choreographer Gina Buntz, who has studied and performed in Korea and Africa, created a piece called 'Paces' to the drumbeats of a Korean witch-dance. It was the possessed, Dionysiac quality of this performance which resulted in her choreographing the 1993 production of Bacchae at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. The resulting choral dances fused a number of traditions and innovations but retained the entheos quality and the strong percussion element. Approximately a year later Theresa Kim decided to incorporate elements of Korean shamanism in a production of Bacchae at Suny Stony Brook (reviewed by Floraine Kay in Didaskalia 1.2), envisioning the death of Pentheus as a shamanic sacrifice. Though Bacchae is the obvious play on which to test these ecstatic forms, there is no reason to restrict Korean-Greek fusions to such obvious parallels.

It was when I inquired about fusions of Greek drama with Chinese performing arts that I ran into controversy. Capsule descriptions of Peking Opera as a combination of music, dance, theater, and martial arts make it sound ripe for adaptation, but whatever inherent potential there is has gone largely unexploited. The one notable exception has been Taiwan's Contemporary Legend Theatre, which produced Medea at the Taipei International Drama Festival in July of 1993.

Specialists in Chinese theater put forward a number of suggestions as to why Chinese adaptations of Greek plays were so rare, ranging from Chinese and Taiwanese cultural policy and allocation of funds to the absence of similarities in the formal structures of Greek and Chinese scripts to a lack of individuals with sufficient expertise in both areas. The ultimate consensus of the ASIANTHEA-L discussion was that in terms of the demands on librettists and performers, Greek tragedy is no more difficult to adapt to the Beijing Opera form than is Shakespearean tragedy--with the caveat that more librettists in China read English than Greek. The area is ripe for research and experimentation, but the impulse may have to come from the West.

Another possibility for Greek-Asian fusion is the Nuo (also known as Nuoxi or No) theater of the Sichuan province in China. Nuo is a form of masked drama enacted by a priest as a means of exorcism (did I hear somebody say katharsis?) which is also 'theatre with a presentational aspect, and festival, and the idea of gathering to establish ties and norms...the rituals have been incorporated into Chinese living or are commentaries on them...You can see many of the similarities to shamanistic practice, and hence early Greek drama, that knowing the spirit world requires masks, dancing, motion and theatre/ritual...It is important to note that while Szechuan is in the northern linguistic zone, it is in the southern religious and spiritual one.' (From a private e-mail conversation with Stirling Newberry.) Nuo has attracted a good deal of scholarly attention in recent years; as it becomes better-known it may also attract the attention of producers of Greek theater.

The variety of Greek-Asian performances which have already been attempted is impressive, but the potential for fusions of Greek and Asian dramatic forms is by no means exhausted. Some of the dances of China, Tibet, and Bali, which incorporate elaborate animal costumes and long streamers of silk, suggest means by which the animal choruses of Greek Old Comedy or the flying Oceanids of Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound might be brought to life without making use of twentieth-century technology. The success of the combinations of Greek and Asian dramatic forms which have so far been presented is an incentive for future collaborations and experiments to bring ancient theater to life.

The information in this article has come substantially from electronic conversations with colleagues. I would therefore like to thank the listmembers of ASIANTHEA-L generally and the the following people specifically:

Cobina Gillitt Asmara of NYU
Robert Petersen of the University of Hawaii, Manoa
Kenneth Robbins of the University of South Dakota
Theresa Kim of SUNY Stony Brook
John Bell of NYU
Gina Buntz, Detroit choreographer
Bell Yung of the Univerity of Pittsburgh
Nancy Guy of the University of Pittsburgh
KY Chin of the University of Kansas
Stirling Newberry of Lotus Development

For further information on Nuo theater, see: Chen Ruilin, 'Chinese Nuo and Nuo Mask,' Journal of Popular Culture 27 (Fall 1993) 25-37, and 'China's Nuo Theatre: Two Views,' The Drama Review 33 (Fall 1989) 103-21.

Sallie Goetsch

Sallie Goetsch is a Visiting Fellow at the University of Warwick