Global Theater Falls Behind the Curtain

Global Theater Falls Behind the Curtain
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A dark curtain of nationalism is lowering over the stages of Eastern Europe as populist governments in Hungary, Poland, and elsewhere embrace a blunt nativism. Increasingly, producers, directors, playwrights, and performers who step outside the self-serving storylines of local nationalists feel pressure to serve the populist cause. 

In Hungary, where the process is most advanced, Viktor Orban’s Fidesz Party-led government has severely cut funding to independent theaters, has propagated lists of “Jews, homosexuals, and liberals” in the arts, and has prompted increasing self-censorship. Recent laws enacted by the Polish government controlled by the ruling Law and Justice Party have criminalized denigration of the dignity of the Polish nation. In Russia, the Ministry of Culture has openly rejected the principles of tolerance and multiculturalism.

As the political wheel turns elsewhere, chauvinists are rehabilitating timeworn nativist villains with fresh coats of heroism.  In Ukraine, for example, the reputation of wartime partisan Stephan Bandera has shifted from that of Nazi collaborator to heroic national freedom fighter. Elsewhere, cultural figures once viewed as heroes of decades-long struggles against authoritarianism are recast as scoundrels.

What happens when nationalism comes to monopolize creative reputations?  Do artists lose their abilities to speak to others across time and space? Why care?

At the height of Japan’s late-19th Century opening to the world, a Meiji-era director came up with the idea of having Hamlet ride a bicycle. The scene quickly became an object of scorn for foreigners who mocked the absurd notion that Shakespeare or his characters could even have imagined a bicycle. To Japanese audiences, however, the moment made perfect sense. For them, bicycles and Danish Princes were equally recent novelties.

The folly of midnight cycle outings around Elsmere contradicts all that we know about the Bard, who remains the greatest of all English authors. If we consider Shakespeare as nothing more than an author of weighty Elizabethan plays, the very notion of placing his characters on a 19th Century device can only be considered absurd. Such incongruity melts away once we think of Shakespeare as having produced a body of work that speaks to audiences across time and space. Indeed, a century later, placing a bicycle on stage is among the least bizarre presentations of Shakespearean drama audiences now confront.

Our Meiji-era princely cyclist offered one of many signals that, having discovered Shakespeare’s works, Japanese audiences were making him their own. For kabuki-going theatergoers, Shakespeare’s plays were evocative of their own great bard Chikamatsu Monzaemon (Sugimori Nobumori), many of whose best-known plays seem to track Shakespearean storylines. So reminiscent of Shakespeare’s work are some of Chikamatsu’s scripts that an erudite scholarly enterprise has emerged that seeks to prove that he somehow must have gotten his hands on a bootleg folio or two. Such is the nature of cultural privilege that inhibits Westerners from accepting the possibility of non-Western genius equivalent to their own.

Shakespeare became so Japanese that he has assumed his own Japanese name, “Sao.” Some of the most powerful interpretations of his work have emerged from Japan over the past century and a half. For confirmation consider any number of Akira Kurosawa’s commanding films. Is Shakespeare any less English for having become Japanese? Alternatively, do we all discover new levels of profundity by approaching his work through a Japanese lens?

Anton Chekhov has long been the second-most performed foreign playwright in Japan. Like Shakespeare, Chekhov is at once the most native and the most international of authors. For many Russians, his plays and short stories capture the essence of their national ethos through compelling language and a searching struggle between traditional values and modernity.

A Chekhov play, like many of Shakespeare’s works, speaks to diverse audiences across time and space. For example, Peter Brook’s extraordinary 1988 production of Cherry Orchardat the Brooklyn Academy of Music is best remembered for a remarkable cast that included Brian Dennehy, Natasha Perry, Kate Mailer, Jan Triska, Linda Hunt, and David Price. In his staging, Brooks wrestled with Chekhov’s seemingly misplaced characterization of the work as a comedy rather than a drama. Dennehy’s Lopatin in particular spoke to the time and place of New York in the late 1980s as he pursued the destruction of the family’s ancestral estate in pursuit of lucre from real estate development. In Brook’s and Dennehy’s hands, Chekhov confronted the uncertainties of many New Yorkers just as a new horde of rapacious real estate developers were descending on their city.

In 2011, to cite another instance of crossing cultural and temporal barriers, the Sydney Theatre Company brought their own star-studded cast from Down Under to New York and Washington with a much-praised production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanyafeaturing Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, Hayley McElhinney, and Richard Roxburgh. Set in Stalin’s Soviet Union after the Second World War, Hungarian producer Tamás Ascher focused the play around the alcohol-driven dissolution of a professional class bitter over various lifetime failures and lost opportunities. As Roxburgh’s Vanya grumbles, “I could’ve been a Schopenhauer! A Dostoevsky!” That ensured that this glowing production would be more about 21st Century ennui and disappointment than about any world imagined by Chekhov. 

Simultaneously, accomplished director Lev Dodin was working with an extraordinary repertory company based at St. Petersburg’s Maly Drama Theater to breathe new Russian life into the Chekhovian repertoire.  Dodin’s productions of Cherry Orchard, Uncle Vanya, and Three Sisters capture the playwright’s quintessential Russianness by featuring the haunting beauty of his works’ language. Like Shakespeare, Chekhov’s exquisite use of his native language guarantees that he will remain quintessentially of his time and country even as he moves out into the world.

Even as Shakespeare and Chekhov speak to audiences in times and cultures they never knew, their patriotic defenders remain intent on tethering them to their own nationhood. Cultural nationalists embrace a purity that denies both bards the possibility of addressing the concerns of others whom they never knew. This impulse expresses a historical moment when many strive to build walls around their own identities so as to better peer down on those not among the embraced.

As the construction of such walls becomes a central drama of our times, we do well to recall the ability of great art to transcend time, place, and speak to a profound humanity larger than who any of us are at a given moment. Placing Hamlet on a Japanese bicycle neither denigrates Shakespeare nor denies his Englishness any more than an Australian production of Chekhov makes that playwright any less Russian. 

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