News

Listening to Global Shakespeare

Wednesday, July 24th, 2013

Music has always been an important element in Shakespeare’s plays, assisting the audience in understanding the setting of a film, the atmosphere of a scene, or the tone of an entire act. The productions documented on Global Shakespeares display a wide-ranging use of diverse types and styles of music, all intended to enhance the audience’s experience with a play. Listening closely to the music of a production can be as profitable as studying the text, costuming, scenery, and physical acting in a play, and open up new depths of understanding the meaning present in a performance. Here I’ll briefly discuss some of the kinds of music found in works provided by Global Shakespeares, and how they participate in creating what Umberto Eco calls the fictional world of the text.[1] Such listening requires no musical training, only a desire to more fully understand a production through all of the thresholds it gives us as viewers and listeners.

Sonata of the Witches: The Macbeth Verses, dir. LU Po-sheng (Taiwan, 2007)

Sonata of the Witches: The Macbeth Verses, dir. LU Po-sheng (Taiwan, 2007)

In Po-Shen Lu’s Sonata of the Witches: The Macbeth Verses (http://globalshakespeares.mit.edu/macbeth-unplugged-lu-po-shen-2007/), a 2007 adaptation of Macbeth, a cabaret-style band consisting of piano, winds, and strings is used to establish the surrealism and musical nature of the production. Lu feels that the music is integral to the production; in a 2003 interview, he commented that, “Too much entertainment now is visual. We want people to start listening again.”[2] Of his Unplugged Series, of which Sonata is a part, Lu says that he wants to “return the theater to the actors and actresses, and to focus more on the voice and the body language of the performers rather than on theatrical techniques.”[3]

The production opens with the three witches on stage, singing in counterpoint with one another and the piano in a minor-mode piece whose chant-like aspects signify something(s) quite old. As this changes mode and mood and becomes rather more lighthearted and dance-like, the witches’ attitudes shift as well, suggesting that mischief and chaos, albeit violent mischief, is their end goal. This opening number is based on a four-note motif that will run through all of the music in the play, musically reminding the audience that everything that occurs stems from the witches’ meeting with Macbeth and Banquo at the beginning of the play. It comes back when Macbeth goes to the witches for more prophesying, and as they make him “wash” his hands in the traditional manner of Lady Macbeth. Lady Macbeth “washes” her hands too, but has her own musical motifs that develop over the course of the play. The witches’ music is heard for the last time played on tubular bells—replicating church bells—when MacDuff arrives to kill Macbeth, while the witches watch. The witches return to their earlier, chant-like musical material, staring at Macbeth’s body and finally shrieking with laughter.

Dramatic rolling arpeggios in the piano that also include the witches’ four-note motif enter at the end of Lady Macbeth’s first scene, representing her driving of Macbeth to the killing of Duncan and the instability that her desires and demands will create, not least of which in her own mind. Each time Lady Macbeth pushes Macbeth towards her goals, this rumbling, minor-mode music heightens the atmosphere of danger and evil. It returns, varied, as Lady Macbeth watches Macbeth on his way to the slaying of the King, grasping at a dagger borne by the witches, and again when she expresses her dismay in his behavior after the banquet scene. This music for Lady Macbeth makes a poignant turn when, as she stands alone at the table after the banquet, it first mimics and then uses actual material from Beethoven’s Piano Sonata no. 8, the “Pathetique,” turning the forceful and tyrannical Lady Macbeth into a figure of pity. We hear, though the piano, her descent into anguish and overwhelming pain.

The music for this adaptation of Macbeth tells the audience at once that it is not meant to be realistic or traditional, with singing and dancing witches; nor is it meant to be an adaption that merely transfers the action to a different time or place. It suggests a fantasy on themes of Macbeth, a treatment of the materials of Macbeth without a full staging of the play. The mix of minor and major keys (often heard as “sad” and “happy”) during the witches’ scenes hints that their sense of morality, good, and evil, may not be the same as that of the mortals they affect or the audience who watches them, while Lady Macbeth’s music leaves no doubt that her role is a dramatic and tragic one.  The cabaret-style music and small ensemble locates the production in an intimate space—indeed, the stage and cast are small—and the thirteen scenes of the work focus on the relationships in the play. The use of clearly delineated individual music motifs to characterize the witches and Lady Macbeth emphasizes the role of women in the play, and follows their actions and the results thereof through the work.

Sulayman Al-Bassam’s Richard III: An Arab Tragedy (2007)

Sulayman Al-Bassam’s Richard III: An Arab Tragedy (2007)

In Sulayman Al-Bassam’s 2007 Richard III: An Arab Tragedy (http://globalshakespeares.mit.edu/richard-3-al-bassam-sulayman-2007/), two kinds of music are at work. On the Global Shakespeares site, the video is introduced with a sinuous line played by the violin from Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, but the music inside of the world of the play is Arabic-style music written by composer Lewis Gibson and performed onstage by an ensemble of Kuwaiti musicians. The arabesque line from Scheherazade promises the audience a fairy-tale-Arabian-Nights-kind of production, full of enchantment and exoticism. The music used in the play itself brings a far more realistic and location-specific aural landscape to its viewers and listeners. As Ben Brantley, reviewing the play in The New York Times wrote, it “has the timeless, propulsive sound of centuries passing to a steady, ominous beat.”[4] The contradiction established in these two musics is made all the more powerful by the play’s score. For Western audiences, the timbral resonances of this music, similar to that used in countless documentaries and news reports about the Middle East, conjures up images of both the past and the present: ancient ruins and modern palaces, camel trails and the luxury cars of the Shah and Saddam, the chaos of unstable, dictatorial governments both old and new. Some of the music locates the play in a modern Arabic country: drumming and electronica are mixed to create musical intros for news bulletins shown over a television screen, and Gibson creates a popular-music based march or rally song for the soldiers who come under Richard’s control and strut on screen, the troops for Richard’s declared “war on terror.” Drumming is also used in a traditional dramatic way to foretell and build tension at moments of crisis—we hear it as the executions of Rivers, Grey, and Hastings approach, and their beheadings are signified with a sharp, sudden “stinger” of loud sounds.

The music does not only set the scene for Al-Bassam’s modern-day Arab Richard, but is also used to underline and emphasize the adaptation’s most dramatic scenes. Edward’s death is announced by sung prayers, cymbals zing when Richard announces a death sentence, and small, high-pitched bells ring at the ends of lamentations by Elizabeth and Margaret. The final battle is accompanied by a rich and multi-textured score that calls to mind the calls of the muezzin and the sounds of modern warfare together, the sounds of an Arab tragedy.

Macbeth, dir. Yukio Ninagawa (1985)

Macbeth, dir. Yukio Ninagawa (1985)

Other plays and films on the Global Shakespeares site offer numerous other musical materials that locate the productions, create a tone for the direction of the play, help identify characters as themselves and in disguise, and add to the verisimilitude of the fictional worlds the performances create. The opening scene of Yukio Ninagawa’s 1985 Macbeth (http://globalshakespeares.mit.edu/ninagawa-macbeth-dir-yukio-ninagawa-1985/#clip=1) combines the sounds of Buddhist gongs with the ethereal sound of French composer Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem, creating an atmosphere of concommitant mourning and peace that, as Alexander Huang comments on the production’s main page (see also his chapter on Ninagawa in The Great Shakespeareans vol. 18), “compels the audience to dwell upon memories of the dead and the fault line between the sacred and the secular.” The same production uses Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings during the final fight between Macbeth and MacDuff (http://globalshakespeares.mit.edu/ninagawa-macbeth-dir-yukio-ninagawa-1985/#clip=6), again musically referencing death by way of Barber’s work, which was played at the funerals of Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, and has been used in countless films and television shows to signify tragedy.

Patrick Doyle’s art-music, quasi-Italianate score. Much Ado About Nothing, dir. Kenneth Branagh (1993)

Patrick Doyle’s art-music, quasi-Italianate score. Much Ado About Nothing, dir. Kenneth Branagh (1993)

Patrick Doyle’s art-music, quasi-Italianate score for Much Ado About Nothing (http://globalshakespeares.mit.edu/much-ado-branagh-kenneth-1993/) uses memorable melodies that accompany the film from start to finish, suggesting through its major and minor key variations the emotions and tenor of each scene. In this clip, we hear the light dance music of the revelers turn dark and foreboding as Don John’s men seek to trick Claudio for the first time, identifying Don John as the villain and creator of unhappiness amongst the otherwise merry festivities.

As a final example, Danny Boyle’s Closing Ceremonies for the 2012 Olympics in London (http://globalshakespeares.mit.edu/2012-london-olympics/) connected Shakespeare musically through two of the country’s best-known piece of musics: the hymn “Jerusalem” (0:00-0:37) which has stood to represent Britain in everything from Monty Python’s Flying Circus to military memorials; and Edward Elgar’s “Nimrod” from the Enigma Variations (0:50-2:03), a work which is played at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday and has been used to signify the British Isles and character in films such as Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth.

Kenneth Branagh dressed as Isambard Kingdom Brunel and reciting Caliban's speech at the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics

Kenneth Branagh dressed as Isambard Kingdom Brunel and reciting Caliban’s speech at the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics

Even without knowing the names or backgrounds of these pieces of music, audiences can understand the flavor and mood of each piece, what they convey in terms of their connections with a particular scene or character, and how they enhance a production. Close listening—for character, style, and even the instruments used—can add worlds to the understanding of a performance, and takes away nothing. When Hamlet asks, “Will the King hear this work?,” he speaks not just to the text, but to the music that accompanies, surrounds, and supports it, all part of the whole.

 

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About the Author

 

Kendra Leonard is a musicologist whose work focuses on women and music in twentieth century America, France and Britain; music and screen history; and music and disability. Her current research projects are on American composer Louise Talma and music and the English early modern period on screen. Her book Louise Talma: A Life in Composition will be published by Ashgate Publishing in 2014. She is the Director of the Silent Film Sound and Music Archive (SFSMA.org). She is the author of The Conservatoire Américain: a History and Shakespeare, Madness, and Music: Scoring Insanity in Cinematic Adaptations.

More at Dr. Kendra Leonard’s website


[1]    Umberto Eco, Confessions of a Young Novelist (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2011), 81.

[2]    Ian Bartholowmew, “Tainan Jen gets Macbeth talking,” Taipei Times, May 23, 2003. Accessed at http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/feat/archives/2003/05/23/2003052339.

[3]    Hermia Lin, “In Shakespeare we love and play—Tainaner Ensemble,” culture.tw, March 31, 2009. Accessed at http://www.culture.tw/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=1189&Itemid=157.

[4]    Ben Brantley, “Gloucester’s Emir, Handsome This Time,” The New York Times, June 11, 2009. Accessed at http://theater.nytimes.com/2009/06/11/theater/reviews/11brantley.html?_r=0.

Globalization and the Humanities in the Twenty-first Century

Friday, May 24th, 2013

Congressional Briefing, May 16, 2013

By Alexander C. Y. Huang

 

Some people register a sense of place through sweet memories of taste and sounds, others through scent and smell, and still others through images in their mind’s eye. To me, the world is made up of stories. Stories full of sound and fury. Great stories are often strangers at home. They defamiliarize banal experiences and everyday utterances while offering something recognizable through a new language and form.

And stories, like people, travel and move around. Stories connect us to other times and places. When Shakespeare’s plays move through different cultures, they reveal unexamined assumptions about human nature and tell surprising stories about globalization. Take, for example, a slice from Hamlet’s inquisitive mind: “To be or not to be, that is the question.” The versatile verb “to be” is as ambiguous in English as it is in many other languages. It has been translated into Russian, German, and Arabic as “to do,” “to die,” and “to have” (but to have or not to have what!?). Translating this speech into Japanese will require substantial rewriting, because Japanese does not have the verb “to be” without semantic contexts. Working with Japanese, a language more complex than English from a sociolinguistic point of view, a translator would have to wrestle with more than 20 first- and second-person pronouns to maintain the ambiguity.

Literary ambiguity is our friend. The ambiguity is a welcome gift for the uninhibited mind, for it has been an ally of oppressed peoples in the Soviet Union, Tibet, South Africa, Poland, and elsewhere. The ambiguity allowed them to express themselves under censorship. When history is held hostage by politics, when human rights are violated, the humanities help restore dignity to what it means to be human. When ambiguity is deliberately eradicated, when things are painted black and white, it is usually during a dark moment of history: the Holocaust, the Cultural Revolution, lynching, the Scottsboro boys incident in the post-Reconstruction South of the Unites States. Hamlet in a foreign language compels us to rethink what we assume to be familiar about our own culture. The humanities in a global context enrich our mind as we pause to ask some fundamental questions. To be whom? To do what?

I was born to Taiwanese parents in a farming village outside Kaohsiung and was raised in Taipei. On sultry summer evenings on the subtropical island of Taiwan, my grandmother would tell me fairy tales under a starry sky, stories about her life story under Japanese colonial rule, and stories of the stones, crickets, and the village. This is how I developed an insatiable appetite for stories—historical, fantastical, political, heroic. As a college student at Tsinghua, I majored in the practically impractical major known as literature. I was fortunate enough to receive a scholarship to study abroad as an exchange student in Germany, where I discovered that the most frequently performed playwright in that country is not Goethe but William Shakespeare. As I would find out later, Shakespeare was an important figure that helped establish a unified German cultural identity and literary tradition in opposition to French classicism. I soon learned that all over the world Shakespeare has been a common cultural touchstone for centuries. A Renaissance poet associated with a theatre called the Globe, Shakespeare had become a global author long before globalization became a catchphrase. There are now Globe theatres in Germany, New Zealand, Japan, the Unites States, Canada, and elsewhere.

My curiosity set me on a path of studying cultural globalization that took me to Strasbourg, France, Oxford, England, and several other countries. When I visited London in 1996, work was under way to reconstruct Shakespeare’s renowned Globe Theatre near its original site on the South Bank that would open in July 1997. I gleefully donated a brick to the project. In the mind of an undergraduate student from a small island nation that has not been recognized by the U.N. and most countries since 1971, that brick was a material connection to the West beyond international politics, to a fascinating historical space, and to the intangible cultural heritage of a “brave new world,” as Miranda would say in The Tempest. Storytelling is in fact the foundation of Prospero’s magic. The magician frames the world he and his daughter live in with stories that help them heal from the experience of exile and forgive their enemies.

What I was not aware of as I stood at the construction site of the great theatre in London in 1996 was that globalized art means business. The modern Globe is not only a sign of cultural rebirth of London’s once-shady South Bank but is also a perfect example of how the humanities can lead to economic prosperity and transform communities. The number of visitors to the South Bank and the Bankside Cultural Quarter (where the Tate Modern and the Globe are located) jumped from an annual average in the tens of thousands in the 1990s to 13 million in 2011. Another example of this principle is how the humanities informed the core strategies used to market London during the 2012 Olympics. This strategy is being repeated for the 2016 Olympic Games: a reconstructed Globe Theatre is being planned in Brazil to coincide with the games and the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. Beyond economic implications, we can also learn a great deal about another culture through stories its members tell, and we can always learn about ourselves by comparing how another culture reads a story we know, such as Hamlet.

Shakespeare’s stories and the stories different cultures tell about Shakespeare eventually led me to California in 1999. American humanities education plants seeds for great changes in people’s lives. As a wide-eyed graduate student at Stanford, I learned from an inspiring, international faculty and cohort of students how to ask probing questions and take history to task and how to find a path through a dark forest of conflicting ideas. To achieve these goals, I studied a number of languages, including Latin, classical Chinese, modern Japanese, German, and French. I learned how to read closely and contextually for both information and untold or silenced stories and how to build sustainable intellectual communities through effective written and oral communication. When it came time to choose a topic for my doctoral dissertation, I initially wanted to stay with a conservative, safe topic in a more established subfield in Renaissance studies. I am thankful that instead I discovered and participated in the creation of global Shakespeare as a new field of study. I am forever indebted to Professor Patricia Parker, whose relentless pursuit of perfection pushed me to take the road less traveled and answer my calling to tell stories. After I earned my doctorate in comparative literature from Stanford, I moved to the east coast and became a scholar of globalization.

As my students at George Washington University’s Department of English and Elliott School of International Affairs tell me, the humanities and especially imaginary literature helps them put human faces on globalization. There are social implications of the fact that today’s college students understand globalization better through the humanities. There are clear benefits to being able to relate to international trade partners and strategic allies on a human level with compassion and not treat them as statistics. Knowledge of cultural globalization can help us avoid cultural imposition and move towards cultural sharing and building common ground.

Story-telling makes us human because it helps us understand the human condition in different contexts.

Recent history has shown that the humanities are greater than the sum of its parts. An eccentric topic for an obsessed researcher may not seem to matter in light of national security or to the general public until we are caught off guard in a crisis when, as in the wake of September 11, we are pressed to learn about who we are, how to come to terms with atrocities, where we as a nation are headed, and why. The humanities are not a luxury; they are the very foundation on which meaningful lives are built. Skills in critical thinking, civil debate, and understanding narratives are vital to American values of liberty and social equality, and a democratic society founded upon the government’s accountability and rational citizen participation. This is why public support for the humanities is crucial.

It is a privilege and a unique responsibility to teach Shakespeare and globalization in downtown Washington, D.C., three blocks from the White House. My international and local students alike take pride in studying in the nation’s capital. The American nation was founded upon basic principles of humanistic thought, including the concepts of justice and universal humanity. Capital Hill is a proud host to institutions that foster these ideas, including the Supreme Court, the Folger Shakespeare Library, and the Library of Congress, the oldest federal cultural institution. America clearly values humanities thought: its Library of Congress is the largest library in the world. Today its collection includes over 155 million books and a vast collection of photographs, sheet music, sound recordings, and films on over 838 miles of shelves. The library provides a record of how people lived and expressed themselves in daily life and through the arts.

Shakespeare has helped shape powerful thinkers around the world, including the founding fathers of this nation. Thomas Jefferson kept a commonplace book that featured Shakespearean passages. Abraham Lincoln could recite soliloquies from Richard III. Language becomes literary when it acquires the power to motivate people and move nations.

In our age of globalization, understanding other peoples’ stories means the difference between being a window shopper and being an informed decision maker in international arenas. Here are two inspiring stories of Shakespeare in South Africa and in China.

A smuggled copy of The Complete Works of Shakespeare inspired Nelson Mandela while he was in the Robben Island jail. The South African prisoners there signed their names next to passages that were important to them. The passage Mandela chose on December 16, 1977, was from Julius Caesar, just before the Roman statesman leaves for the senate on the Ides of March in act 2, scene 2:

Cowards die many times before their deaths;

The valiant never taste of death but once.

Of all the wonders that I yet have heard.

It seems to me most strange that men should fear;

Seeing that death, a necessary end,

Will come when it will come.

These lines taught Mandela how to dream and how to rise from the ashes. Through imaginary literature, we, like Jefferson, Lincoln, and Mandela, are able to rehearse multiple scenarios and histories without having endure the costly consequences of going to war or taking one’s own life in a political prison. The humanities can show us the future of the history we are making.

We are defined by our stories. At the same time, stories liberate us from the prison house of a relatively short life span in the infinite universe. Great stories can also give us courage, insight, and vision. In one of my classes, I discuss with my students the impact of the joint project of the National Endowment for the Arts and the Department of Defense to tour the Alabama Shakespeare Festival’s production of Macbeth to thirteen U.S. military bases in 2004. Indeed, what does it mean to read Shakespeare through peace and war?

Wu Ningkun has a moving story to tell. The mainland Chinese intellectual returned from the University of Chicago to join Mao Zedong’s New China in 1951. A decade later, he was sent to reform himself in a labor camp during the Chinese Cultural Revolution because of his alleged association with the capitalist West. Although he was under close surveillance, he still managed to smuggle a copy of Hamlet into the camp to read whenever “the prisoners had to spend the day cooped up in a cell when a blinding blizzard blew from Siberia” in northeastern China. Of this experience, he later wrote in his memoir A Single Tear: A Family’s Persecution, Love, and Endurance in Communist China:

Hamlet was my favorite Shakespeare play. Read in a Chinese labor camp, however, the tragedy of the Danish prince took on unexpected dimensions. . . . The Ghost thundered with a terrible chorus of a million victims of proletarian dictatorship.

The real question I came to see was neither “to be, or not to be,” nor whether “in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” but how to be worthy of one’s suffering.

It is interesting to note what Wu elides from the Hamlet quote: “or to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them.” On the one hand, it could mean that he wishes to counter the unfortunate condition of Cultural Revolution by not taking on a Hamlet-like passivity. On the other hand, it could imply that Wu seeks justice on a more transcendent level and is not seeking revenge upon those who unjustly imprisoned him. Shakespeare helped Wu survive in the labor camp, and reading Wu’s story helps us understand a crucial moment in the making of post-Mao China as the nation emerges from the Cultural Revolution.

Thinkers and leaders such as Lincoln, Mandela, and Wu have drawn inspiration from their reading and built stronger, interconnected communities through the humanities. There will be no national security without an in-depth understanding of our own culture and the cultures of others. Statistics and numbers give us only a partial picture of international affairs. Thoughtful and engaged citizens are the foundation of a democratic, civil society. The humanities enrich the creativity of the business world, enhance the adaptability of workforces, and promote crucial cross-cultural understanding.

Video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ILMLjDVKNO4

 

—————

Alexander Huang is Professor of English, International Affairs, Theatre and Dance, and East Asian Languages and Literatures, director of graduate studies, founding co-director of the GW Digital Humanities Institute, and director of the Dean’s Scholars in Shakespeare Program at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. He is the co-founder and co-director of the open-access digital performance archive “Global Shakespeares,”http://globalshakespeares.org/

 

Alex Huang Addresses U.S. Congress

Friday, May 24th, 2013

Globalization and the Humanities in the Twenty-first Century

Congressional Briefing by Alex Huang, May 16, 2013

Some people register a sense of place through sweet memories of taste and sounds, others through scent and smell, and still others through images in their mind’s eye. To me, the world is made up of stories. Stories full of sound and fury. Great stories are often strangers at home. They defamiliarize banal experiences and everyday utterances while offering something recognizable through a new language and form.

And stories, like people, travel and move around. Stories connect us to other times and places. When Shakespeare’s plays move through different cultures, they reveal unexamined assumptions about human nature and tell surprising stories about globalization. Take, for example, a slice from Hamlet’s inquisitive mind: “To be or not to be, that is the question.” The versatile verb “to be” is as ambiguous in English as it is in many other languages. It has been translated into Russian, German, and Arabic as “to do,” “to die,” and “to have” (but to have or not to have what!?). Translating this speech into Japanese will require substantial rewriting, because Japanese does not have the verb “to be” without semantic contexts. Working with Japanese, a language more complex than English from a sociolinguistic point of view, a translator would have to wrestle with more than 20 first- and second-person pronouns to maintain the ambiguity.

Literary ambiguity is our friend. The ambiguity is a welcome gift for the uninhibited mind, for it has been an ally of oppressed peoples in the Soviet Union, Tibet, South Africa, Poland, and elsewhere. The ambiguity allowed them to express themselves under censorship. When history is held hostage by politics, when human rights are violated, the humanities help restore dignity to what it means to be human. When ambiguity is deliberately eradicated, when things are painted black and white, it is usually during a dark moment of history: the Holocaust, the Cultural Revolution, lynching, the Scottsboro boys incident in the post-Reconstruction South of the Unites States. Hamlet in a foreign language compels us to rethink what we assume to be familiar about our own culture. The humanities in a global context enrich our mind as we pause to ask some fundamental questions. To be whom? To do what?

I was born to Taiwanese parents in a farming village outside Kaohsiung and was raised in Taipei. On sultry summer evenings on the subtropical island of Taiwan, my grandmother would tell me fairy tales under a starry sky, stories about her life story under Japanese colonial rule, and stories of the stones, crickets, and the village. This is how I developed an insatiable appetite for stories—historical, fantastical, political, heroic. As a college student at Tsinghua, I majored in the practically impractical major known as literature. I was fortunate enough to receive a scholarship to study abroad as an exchange student in Germany, where I discovered that the most frequently performed playwright in that country is not Goethe but William Shakespeare. As I would find out later, Shakespeare was an important figure that helped establish a unified German cultural identity and literary tradition in opposition to French classicism. I soon learned that all over the world Shakespeare has been a common cultural touchstone for centuries. A Renaissance poet associated with a theatre called the Globe, Shakespeare had become a global author long before globalization became a catchphrase. There are now Globe theatres in Germany, New Zealand, Japan, the Unites States, Canada, and elsewhere.

My curiosity set me on a path of studying cultural globalization that took me to Strasbourg, France, Oxford, England, and several other countries. When I visited London in 1996, work was under way to reconstruct Shakespeare’s renowned Globe Theatre near its original site on the South Bank that would open in July 1997. I gleefully donated a brick to the project. In the mind of an undergraduate student from a small island nation that has not been recognized by the U.N. and most countries since 1971, that brick was a material connection to the West beyond international politics, to a fascinating historical space, and to the intangible cultural heritage of a “brave new world,” as Miranda would say in The Tempest. Storytelling is in fact the foundation of Prospero’s magic. The magician frames the world he and his daughter live in with stories that help them heal from the experience of exile and forgive their enemies.

What I was not aware of as I stood at the construction site of the great theatre in London in 1996 was that globalized art means business. The modern Globe is not only a sign of cultural rebirth of London’s once-shady South Bank but is also a perfect example of how the humanities can lead to economic prosperity and transform communities. The number of visitors to the South Bank and the Bankside Cultural Quarter (where the Tate Modern and the Globe are located) jumped from an annual average in the tens of thousands in the 1990s to 13 million in 2011. Another example of this principle is how the humanities informed the core strategies used to market London during the 2012 Olympics. This strategy is being repeated for the 2016 Olympic Games: a reconstructed Globe Theatre is being planned in Brazil to coincide with the games and the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. Beyond economic implications, we can also learn a great deal about another culture through stories its members tell, and we can always learn about ourselves by comparing how another culture reads a story we know, such as Hamlet.

Shakespeare’s stories and the stories different cultures tell about Shakespeare eventually led me to California in 1999. American humanities education plants seeds for great changes in people’s lives. As a wide-eyed graduate student at Stanford, I learned from an inspiring, international faculty and cohort of students how to ask probing questions and take history to task and how to find a path through a dark forest of conflicting ideas. To achieve these goals, I studied a number of languages, including Latin, classical Chinese, modern Japanese, German, and French. I learned how to read closely and contextually for both information and untold or silenced stories and how to build sustainable intellectual communities through effective written and oral communication. When it came time to choose a topic for my doctoral dissertation, I initially wanted to stay with a conservative, safe topic in a more established subfield in Renaissance studies. I am thankful that instead I discovered and participated in the creation of global Shakespeare as a new field of study. I am forever indebted to Professor Patricia Parker, whose relentless pursuit of perfection pushed me to take the road less traveled and answer my calling to tell stories. After I earned my doctorate in comparative literature from Stanford, I moved to the east coast and became a scholar of globalization.

As my students at George Washington University’s Department of English and Elliott School of International Affairs tell me, the humanities and especially imaginary literature helps them put human faces on globalization. There are social implications of the fact that today’s college students understand globalization better through the humanities. There are clear benefits to being able to relate to international trade partners and strategic allies on a human level with compassion and not treat them as statistics. Knowledge of cultural globalization can help us avoid cultural imposition and move towards cultural sharing and building common ground.

Story-telling makes us human because it helps us understand the human condition in different contexts.

Recent history has shown that the humanities are greater than the sum of its parts. An eccentric topic for an obsessed researcher may not seem to matter in light of national security or to the general public until we are caught off guard in a crisis when, as in the wake of September 11, we are pressed to learn about who we are, how to come to terms with atrocities, where we as a nation are headed, and why. The humanities are not a luxury; they are the very foundation on which meaningful lives are built. Skills in critical thinking, civil debate, and understanding narratives are vital to American values of liberty and social equality, and a democratic society founded upon the government’s accountability and rational citizen participation. This is why public support for the humanities is crucial.

It is a privilege and a unique responsibility to teach Shakespeare and globalization in downtown Washington, D.C., three blocks from the White House. My international and local students alike take pride in studying in the nation’s capital. The American nation was founded upon basic principles of humanistic thought, including the concepts of justice and universal humanity. Capital Hill is a proud host to institutions that foster these ideas, including the Supreme Court, the Folger Shakespeare Library, and the Library of Congress, the oldest federal cultural institution. America clearly values humanities thought: its Library of Congress is the largest library in the world. Today its collection includes over 155 million books and a vast collection of photographs, sheet music, sound recordings, and films on over 838 miles of shelves. The library provides a record of how people lived and expressed themselves in daily life and through the arts.

Shakespeare has helped shape powerful thinkers around the world, including the founding fathers of this nation. Thomas Jefferson kept a commonplace book that featured Shakespearean passages. Abraham Lincoln could recite soliloquies from Richard III. Language becomes literary when it acquires the power to motivate people and move nations.

In our age of globalization, understanding other peoples’ stories means the difference between being a window shopper and being an informed decision maker in international arenas. Here are two inspiring stories of Shakespeare in South Africa and in China.

A smuggled copy of The Complete Works of Shakespeare inspired Nelson Mandela while he was in the Robben Island jail. The South African prisoners there signed their names next to passages that were important to them. The passage Mandela chose on December 16, 1977, was from Julius Caesar, just before the Roman statesman leaves for the senate on the Ides of March in act 2, scene 2:

Cowards die many times before their deaths;

The valiant never taste of death but once.

Of all the wonders that I yet have heard.

It seems to me most strange that men should fear;

Seeing that death, a necessary end,

Will come when it will come.

These lines taught Mandela how to dream and how to rise from the ashes. Through imaginary literature, we, like Jefferson, Lincoln, and Mandela, are able to rehearse multiple scenarios and histories without having endure the costly consequences of going to war or taking one’s own life in a political prison. The humanities can show us the future of the history we are making.

We are defined by our stories. At the same time, stories liberate us from the prison house of a relatively short life span in the infinite universe. Great stories can also give us courage, insight, and vision. In one of my classes, I discuss with my students the impact of the joint project of the National Endowment for the Arts and the Department of Defense to tour the Alabama Shakespeare Festival’s production of Macbeth to thirteen U.S. military bases in 2004. Indeed, what does it mean to read Shakespeare through peace and war?

Wu Ningkun has a moving story to tell. The mainland Chinese intellectual returned from the University of Chicago to join Mao Zedong’s New China in 1951. A decade later, he was sent to reform himself in a labor camp during the Chinese Cultural Revolution because of his alleged association with the capitalist West. Although he was under close surveillance, he still managed to smuggle a copy of Hamlet into the camp to read whenever “the prisoners had to spend the day cooped up in a cell when a blinding blizzard blew from Siberia” in northeastern China. Of this experience, he later wrote in his memoir A Single Tear: A Family’s Persecution, Love, and Endurance in Communist China:

Hamlet was my favorite Shakespeare play. Read in a Chinese labor camp, however, the tragedy of the Danish prince took on unexpected dimensions. . . . The Ghost thundered with a terrible chorus of a million victims of proletarian dictatorship.

The real question I came to see was neither “to be, or not to be,” nor whether “in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” but how to be worthy of one’s suffering.

It is interesting to note what Wu elides from the Hamlet quote: “or to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them.” On the one hand, it could mean that he wishes to counter the unfortunate condition of Cultural Revolution by not taking on a Hamlet-like passivity. On the other hand, it could imply that Wu seeks justice on a more transcendent level and is not seeking revenge upon those who unjustly imprisoned him. Shakespeare helped Wu survive in the labor camp, and reading Wu’s story helps us understand a crucial moment in the making of post-Mao China as the nation emerges from the Cultural Revolution.

Thinkers and leaders such as Lincoln, Mandela, and Wu have drawn inspiration from their reading and built stronger, interconnected communities through the humanities. There will be no national security without an in-depth understanding of our own culture and the cultures of others. Statistics and numbers give us only a partial picture of international affairs. Thoughtful and engaged citizens are the foundation of a democratic, civil society. The humanities enrich the creativity of the business world, enhance the adaptability of workforces, and promote crucial cross-cultural understanding.

Great stories instruct and delight, comfort and inspire. Because you provide public support for the humanities in America and allow us to continue to discover and tell powerful stories to the next generation of Americans, you play a major role in securing the leadership role of the United States. For that, I thank you.

 
Video also available at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ILMLjDVKNO4
—————————————–

May 16, 2013,    2:15-3:15 pm
Rayburn House Office Building, Room 2253, Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C.
Sponsored by the National Humanities Alliance in cooperation with Congressional Humanities Caucus
http://www.nhalliance.org/news/upcomi…
Session chaired by Eva Caldera, Assistant Chairman for Partnership and Strategic Initiatives of the National Endowment for the Humanities

Alex Huang is Professor of English, International Affairs, Theatre and Dance, and East Asian Languages and Literatures, director of graduate studies, founding co-director of the GW Digital Humanities Institute, and director of the Dean’s Scholars in Shakespeare Program at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. He is the co-founder and co-director of the open-access digital performance archive “Global Shakespeares,”http://globalshakespeares.org/

Other panelists include Eli Sugarman, Senior Director at Gryphon Partners LLC, and Carter Findley, Humanities Distinguished Professor in the History Department at Ohio State University

Founded in 1981, the National Humanities Alliance advances national humanities policy in the areas of research, education, preservation and public programs.

Fundación Shakespeare Argentina’s Events

Saturday, May 4th, 2013

Global Shakespeares’ partner Fundación Shakespeare Argentina (FSA) has organized several successful events to broad the appreciation for Shakespeare in Argentina and international recognition of Argentinian performances and interpretations of Shakespeare.

On Friday, May 10, 2013, the FSA will host a very exciting panel at the Buenos Aires International Book Fair!

Buenos Aires International Book Fair

Buenos Aires International Book Fair

At 2:30 pm, May 10, a panel of distinguished speakers will speak on “Shakespeare entre todos”.

The Argentinian Director Rubén Szuchmacher and Horacio Peña (Henry IV Part 2) who played Falsttaf at the London Globe in 2012 will talk about their experience at the World Shakespeare Festival.

Mr. Szuchmacher, director of the production of Rey Lear, and Mr Peña who played Kent in that production, will share their experience with Shakespeare.

 

For more information and future FSA news, please visit:

http://www.shakespeareargentina.org/FSA/news.html

 

 

Global Shakespeares in the News

Wednesday, April 10th, 2013

Global Shakespeares co-founder Alex Huang and regional editor for the “Arab World” Margaret Litvin were recently interviewed on separate occasions by The Shakespeare Standard. These review and interviews are available online.

Highlights from these reviews and interviews.

Logo-Final-CHOSEN-orange-2inch

Excerpt from the Review by Josh Magsam

It’s been my experience that many open-access databases and archives often suffer in terms of ease-of-use. Curation, as digital humanists are fond of repeating, is as much an art as it is a skill, and it’s clear that the staff who curate Global Shakespeares are very good at their art. Given the not-inconsiderable size of the archive, site navigation and search filtering is a snap. The main page defaults to a grid view of the database (you can select a table view if you prefer), with most recently archived entries appearing at the top.

Users can quickly filter what they see here by restricting the view to performances of specific plays, the source language of the entry or performance, or the region of origin for the performance, as well as directly search the archive. Searches can be filtered quickly and efficiently in the same screen – no backtracking to reset search parameters, just click to add or remove filters as you wish. Inside of a minute, I was able to first search for English-language performances of Hamlet staged in North America, then North American performances in any language, and finally, Arab language performance around the world. This little exercise also underscored the non-anglophile focus of the archive, as my first search returned zero hits, the second returned just one (a trailer for Mesnak, a 2003 French-Canadian film) and four Arab productions, ranging from full video of director Hani Afifi’s 2009 stage play I Am Hamlet to a brief clip of the “to be or not to be” speech from an untitled and undated production. As a bonus, Afifi’s production is accompanied by a link to a video recording of scholar Margaret Litvin’s seminar on the production, given at Cairo University.

If, like me, your primary interest in performance relates to teaching Shakespeare’s plays in the classroom, then you’ll find plenty of exciting material to work with here. The materials archived on the site are great vehicles for getting students to consider the plays outside of euro-centric norms and perspectives. Showing a few minutes of Patrick Stewart’s performance as Macbeth can be an effective way to help students think about the impact of physical gestures, the posture and proximity of one actor or actress in relation to another, the impact of enunciation and speech volume – but it won’t easily open a conversation into the cultural implications and expectations that ground many of these elements.

Excerpt from the Interview with Margaret Litvin

Prof. Margaret Litvin with Skull

How do you incorporate the MIT Global Shakespeares website into your teaching?

The videos and contextual metadata on the MIT Global Shakespeares site give me the possibility and the confidence to teach productions outside my area of specialization, such as Wu Hsing-Kuo’s Lear is Here. I also rely on guest speakers a lot, calling in friends or colleagues to come introduce an area of their expertise, and I reciprocate whenever I can. Several of my colleagues at other universities are offering Global Shakespeares courses of their own, or, e.g., whole courses on Hamlet appropriation.  Does guest lecturing count as an instructional technology?  Well, it does when you do it over Skype because plane tickets are so expensive.  Another basic technology is email: I try to convince students that living authors are human and occasionally contactable.

What are the challenges to teaching Shakespeare in this globally minded way? Are there limitations to teaching Shakespeare though the lens of globalization?

The biggest limit is the length of the semester – “all the world in the time” as David Damrosch put it. Some of the students still wanted to spend more time close-reading the Shakespeare plays. Which is admirable in a way – and we did spend as much as we could.  Others wanted to spend less time on obscure (to them) twentieth-century works and more time on more “relatable” American adaptations, including more recent films like Almereyda’s very intricate Hamlet 2000 or even O (a high school basketball team Othello) and Ten Things I Hate About You. I tried to convince them they didn’t need a college seminar for those – they should have a film series on their own time.

What is your philosophy of teaching when it comes to Global Shakespeare? 

What English teachers have historically been good at is bringing in an adaptation and teaching students to “compare” it to Shakespeare’s “original.”  Humans are two-eyed beings, good at one-to-one comparisons.  As scholars and teachers, we find it easy and fruitful to look at Text B and ask how it revises Text A – or, if we’re especially enterprising, how it reflects Context X.  These interpretive and pedagogical habits are deeply engrained, because they work; they “teach well” and have yielded many productive readings.  But after all these years of talking about provincializing Europe, the binary approach still leaves us captive to a Prospero-and-Caliban model of reception and appropriation: modern writers responding, as though directly and in isolation, to the provocation of Shakespeare. I don’t have a background in an English department.  My background is in Arabic – and for the Arab world as well as many other non-Anglophone regions, this binary approach does not serve.  My book Hamlet’s Arab Journeyfocused on Egyptian theatre and identified the “global kaleidoscope” of influences – French, Italian, Russian, Eastern European, American, and other – through which the Arab reception of Shakespeare was filtered.  Unlike Caliban, modern Egyptian writers did not grow up on a cultural island, subject to a single dominant (British) cultural influence.  Like Hamlet rather than Caliban, they grew up in a world of competing authorities and would-be father figures; their cultural inheritance was multiple from the start.

 

Excerpt from the Interviews with Alex Huang

Edinburgh-BBC-Interv-Huang

Many Westerners who hear “Shakespeare” and “Asia” probably do not go beyond Kurosawa.  How can the layperson move beyond Kurosawa? Can you explain what they are missing?

Akira Kurosawa is a master filmmaker, visual artist, and storyteller, which is why his Throne of Blood (1957) and Ran (1985) are so popular. However, his postwar film versions of Macbeth and King Lear are not the earliest or the only Shakespeare films from East Asia. There is much more to Asian interpretations of Shakespeare than Kurosawa, on stage and screen, in manga, fiction, painting, and many other genres. In Japan, Yukio Ninagawa’s widely toured productions are a staple at international venues and festivals.

There are a few performances and films that can take you beyond Kurosawa. Check out these gorgeous adaptations.

The Banquet, or Legend of the Black Scorpion, dir. FENG Xiaogang (China, 2006)

This martial-arts feature film in Mandarin Chinese gives Gertrude and Ophelia, traditionally silenced women characters in Hamlet, a strong presence, though the centrality of the Gertrude figure in the film’s narrative has been seen as problematic by some critics. As a bold period epic, the film is informed by rich intertextual traces of diverse themes from Shakespearean and Chinese sources.

The Tempest, dir. OH Tae-suk (Edinburgh, U.K., and Seoul, Korea, 2011 and 2012)

Renowned South Korean stage director and playwright Oh Tae-suk mounted his version of The Tempest to critical acclaim in Edinburgh. His production offers, among other creative twists, a two-headed Caliban played by two talented actors in a suit with a pouch. Recast as a vexed character capable of recognizing his own limitations, Prospero was often challenged by the spiky-haired Miranda and worked closely with Ariel, a shaman, to manage domestic affairs. Ariel sometimes assumed a motherly role to augment the aging father’s tenuous relationship with his teenage daughter. The production deliberately avoided the tired allegory of colonialism that has often been associated with The Tempest in modern times. The performance ended on a high note. Instead of a staff and books—symbols of authority and the archival source of knowledge in an ontological sense—Prospero carried a folding bamboo fan (hapjukseon)—a symbol of artistry and intellectualism—when he was not at the drum.  The folding fan is an integral part of a gentleman’s accessories and is a more versatile prop and powerful symbol than books.

 

Are there geo-political areas where it seems Shakespeare has little or no significance? What are the limits of Global Shakespeares?

There are countries and regions in the world where Shakespeare does not figure prominently in their local cultural history. From a collector’s point of view, this is archival silence. Archival silence is useful because it compels us to rethink our criteria, frame of reference, and historiographical assumptions. For example, while post-colonial critics commonly privilege works that critique the role of Western hegemony in the historical record of globalization, the meanings of Shakespeare today are not always determined by post-colonial vocabulary or the discourses of globalization.

Well, I am disappointed, and relieved at the same time, by the fact that there are no significant “Shakespeare traditions” in the Antarctic, Greenland, or large swaths of Sub-Saharan Africa (save for South Africa). The lack of a coherent, constructed Shakespeare tradition does not mean there are no local engagements with Shakespearean material. Artistic, political, and scholarly traditions of Shakespeare in any given location should be understood in different frameworks. While there are rich references and allusions to Shakespeare and his characters in Mexican cinema, there is no local scholarly tradition of Shakespeare studies, according to Alfredo Michel Modenessi who serves on our advisory board (of Global Shakespeares).

Global Shakespeares as a critical concept and a research project have changed how we think about Shakespeare’s legacy and Shakespeare’s place in different cultural marketplaces around the world. However, “global Shakespeare” as a concept is limited—though simultaneously energized — by the competing pull of tendencies to privilege local over macro-histories, and “global Shakespeare” as a project reveals multiple geographical areas where there are no significant “Shakespeare traditions.”

 

Can you do a few top essential global Shakespeare productions (available for viewing)? 

The Speaker’s Progress, dir. Sulayman Al-Bassam (2011), inspired by Twelfth Night, in Arabic and English with English subtitles with multimedia

  • A “retired” theatre director is sent abroad with a troupe of “envoys” to defend the image of their unnamed totalitarian homeland, which has banned all theatre. They present a localized Gulf Arab version of Twelfth Night.   – from Margaret Litvin’s review of the production in Boston

Titus, dir. Julie Taymor (1999)

  • Smart interweaving of different historical periods and modes of signification. Apocalyptic humor. A must see and a major milestone in Shakespearean cinema.

Romeu e Julieta by Grupo Galpão, dir. Gabriel Villela (1992), performed at the London Globe in Brazilian Portuguese

  • Mix of comedy and tragedy, and formal and street-theatre presentational elements. Stilts, songs, and a carnivalesque atmosphere. What’s not to like?

Lear Is Here, dir. and perf. WU Hsing-kuo (2001), solo Beijing opera semi-autobiographical performance with English subtitles.

  • The Taiwan-based Beijing opera actor plays 10 roles including his alter ego on stage. This is a visually stunning and intellectually refreshing story of an Asian actor’s soul searching and his engagement with one of the most profound Shakespearean tragedies.

 

 

Teaching Shakespeare and Globalization

Saturday, March 16th, 2013

 It is easy to incorporate the issues of global Shakespeare or globalization into the standard Shakespeare course.

Global Shakespeare as a curricular component answers the competing demands of internationalizing education to prepare our next generation for a complex world and of sustaining traditional canons. There are many ways to incorporate issues of politics, reception, and aesthetics raised by global Shakespeare into standard undergraduate Shakespeare courses.

Teach the blessing and curse of globalization and localization in conjunction with Shakespeare. Teach familiar texts in strange settings. As Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel reminds us, what is “well known” is never properly known simply because, well, they appear to be well known, which is why Folger Shakespeare Library research director David Schalkwyk once said that unless you have read Shakespeare in another language, you do not really understand Shakespeare.

Here are some possibilities.

(1) Reading Shakespeare in multilingual contexts is important. Consider for example these lines from Macbeth: “The multitudinous seas incarnadine, / Making the green one red.” The repetition of ‘incarnadine’ and ‘red’ is serendipitous, but the deliberate alternation between the Anglo-Saxon (Germanic) and the Latinate words suggests two pathways to and two perspectives on the world.

(2) Different cultural frameworks and translations slow us down and compel us to rethink what we assume to be familiar. Performances in world cultures can lead us back to Shakespeare’s plays with new insight and new paths for interpretation. Works such as Ong Keng Sen’s transnational and pan-Asian productions (Search: Hamlet, Lear, Desdemona, Lear Dreaming), Kenneth Branagh’s As You Like It with a strong Japanese motif, and Tim Supple’s multilingual Midsummer Night’s Dream with an all-Indian and Shri Lankan cast, are generating extraordinary artistic and intellectual energy by recasting gender, racial and social identities. The racial issue disappears by being recast as uneasy familial relations in Japanese interpretations of Othello, and it is made hauntingly present through its absence from radically localized, colorblind, Korean performances that seek to redress the wound of Japanese colonization. In the Chinese tradition of performing The Merchant of Venice as romantic comedy, the play is often retooled as an adventure of an attractive woman lawyer or an outlandish tale involving a pound of human flesh.  This framework has activated elements of the play that, over several centuries of Anglo-European readings, have become obscure to communities that gravitate towards the ethics of conversion as a key site of tension in the narrative. Other examples of reconfigurations of the center and the periphery abound. These works have led to the transformation of traditions occurring in both directions at once.

(3) It is important to appreciate the historicity of global Shakespeare as a cultural phenomenon that is not exclusive to the modern era. Translation was an unalienable part of the cultural life in early modern England. Translation, or translatio, signifying “the figure of transport,” was a common rhetorical trope that referred to the conveyance of ideas from one geo-cultural location to another, from one historical period to another, and from one artistic form to another. London witnessed a steady stream of merchants and foreign emissaries from Europe, the Barbary coast, and the Mediterranean, and thousands of Dutch and Flemish Protestants fled to Kent in the late 1560s due to the Spanish persecution. Within Shakespeare’s plays, the figure of translation looms large.

Henry V contains several instances of literal translation, including the language lesson scene and the well-known wooing scene. Translation serves as a figure of transport, theft, transfer of property, and change across linguistic and national boundaries, as the characters and audience are ferried back and forth across the Channel. The “broken English” (5.2.228) in the light-hearted scene symbolises Henry V’s dominance over Catherine and France after the English victory at the Battle of Agincourt. However, the Epilogue reminds us that the marriage is far from a closure (Epilogue 12), for it produces a son who is “half-French, half-English” (5.2.208). The English conqueror pretends to be a wooer to Catherine of France who cannot reject him freely. One is unsure whether Catherine is speaking the truth that she does not understand English well enough (“I cannot tell”) or just being coy—playing Harry’s game, though Catherine eventually yields to Henry V’s request: “Dat is as it shall please de roi mon père” (5.2.229). A play such as Henry V and its global afterlife (for example, Laurence Olivier’s film version during World War II as propaganda) provide rich material to be mined to teach various aspects of international relations and to further students’ understanding of Shakespearean aesthetics.

(4) If you have a diverse classroom, take advantage of students’ different backgrounds and experiences. Turn international students who are not native speakers of English into your asset. All too often they are seen as a liability, but their linguistic and cultural repertoire should be tapped to build a sustainable intellectual community. Take The Tempest for example. What exactly do Prospero and Miranda teach Caliban? The word “language” is ambiguous in act 1 scene 2 (Caliban: “You taught me language …”). It is often taken to mean his master’s language (a symbol of oppression). But it can also mean a new tool for him to change the world order. One way to excavate the different layers of meanings within the play and in performances is to compare different stage and film versions from different parts of the world. Students can even try to translate a passage and share their rationale with the class. Caliban’s “language” is translated variously in different languages. In Mandarin Chinese it is rendered as “human language”, 語言, as opposed to languages of the animal or a different system of signification. Christoph Martin Wieland translates the word in German as redden, or “speech”. Caliban may know how to curse in his own language before Prospero takes over his island, but he now has one more language in his arsenal.

Take another word from The Tempest. Prospero announces in act 4 scene 1 that “our revels now are ended.” The word “revels” in the Elizabethan context refers to royal festivities and stage entertainments, but it carries different diagnostic significance in translation. Christoph Martin Wieland used Spiele (plays) and Schauspieler (performer) to refer to Prospero’s masque and actors (“Unsre Spiele sind nun zu Ende” in German). Sometimes translators working in the same language have different interpretations. Liang Shiqiu translated it as “games” in Mandarin Chinese in 1964, alluding to the manipulative Prospero’s “games” on the island, but Zhu Shenghao preferred “carnivals” (1954), highlighting the festive nature of the wedding celebration.

Act 1 Scene 3 of Othello offers another interesting instance (which is the focus of Tom Cheeseman’s Version Variation Visualization: Multi-Lingual Crowd Sourcing of Shakespeare’s Othello):

 If virtue no delighted beauty lack,

Your son-in-law is far more fair than black.

Translations of these lines into different languages deal with the meanings of “fair” and “black” rather differently. Mikhail Lozinskij’s Russian translation says “Since honor is a source of light of virtue, / Then your son-in-law is light, and by no means black.” Christopher Martin Wieland and Ángel Luis Pujante used white in German and Spanish (respectively) to translate “fair,” while Victor Hugo chose “shining.” It’s eye opening to see how translation opens up the text in new ways.

(5) Class units can be designed around watching videos on Global Shakespeares and discussing the English subtitles. It is eye opening for students to experience Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” speech in languages other than English. The vague, versatile, and “Swiss-knife” verb “to be” is as ambiguous in English as it is in many other languages. Sometimes it is translated as “to have” (but to have or not to have what!?), to do, to die, and so on. Go to this page to listen to the speeches.

There you will find “to be or not to be” in several languages drawn from actual performances:

  • English [Gielgud Hamlet]
  • Arabic [Sobhi Hamlet]
  • Assamese (Indian dialect) [Hazarika Hamlet]
  • Brazilian Portuguese [Correa Hamlet]
  • Japanese [Kurita Hamlet]
  • Korean [Yohangza Hamlet]
  • Mandarin [Hamlet Unplugged]
  • Swedish [Lyth Hamlet]

(6) One can also build into a Twelfth Night unit issues of gender, world cultures, and Shakespearean performance. Japanese is a language more complex than English from a sociolinguistic point of view. Performing the play in Japanese is therefore a challenge. One would have to wrestle with more than 20 first- and second-person pronouns to maintain the ambiguity and subtlety of gender identities. In addition to making the right choice of employing the familiar or polite style based on the relation between the speaker and the addressee, the male and female speakers of Japanese are each confined to gender-specific personal pronouns at their disposal. Before a translation can be undertaken, decisions will have to be made on the register and gendered expressions to convey Orsino’s comments about love from a male perspective and Viola’s apology for a woman’s love when in disguise as Cesario, or the exchange between Rosalind in disguise as Ganymede and Oliver on her “lacking a man’s heart” when she swoons, nearly giving herself away (4.3.164-176). But limitations create new linguistic and cultural opportunities. Translational moments like this can launch interesting discussions about visible and invisible gender identities in Twelfth Night.

(7) Interdisciplinarity. Global Shakespeare is a great topic for inquiry-driven learning. It is often assumed that materials to be presented in the undergraduate classroom have to be dumbed down, and that students will be overwhelmed by interdisciplinary approaches. The opposite is true. Students love a hands-on approach to create and share knowledge, to build on existing theories to explore new frontiers. As a broad field, global Shakespeare allows students to make fresh contributions. Beyond Global Shakespeares, many other archives can help students make transhistorical connections between issues and build cross-cultural understanding of arts. For example, Early English Books Online (EEBO), and the Folger Shakespeare Library’s LUNA.

Symposium on Eastern European Hamlets

Wednesday, March 13th, 2013

A Symposium on Eastern European Hamlets, co-organised by the University of Kent and the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, University of London, took place at Central School on Wednesday, 30 January 2013.

The event examined the role of Hamlet on Eastern European stages after 1989. It addressed the legacy of Jan Kott’s political interpretation of the play that saw it as a struggle of an individual against a corrupt government. Such an understanding of Hamlet resonated with theatre makers across post-war socialist Europe. The symposium sought to inquire into the significance of this tragedy in New Europe, through examination of its theatrical and cinematic representations.

1)      According to Jan Kott, Hamlet in socialist Europe had the potential to mirror and challenge socio-political circumstances from a relatively safe position of a cultural icon; has the function of this seminal text changed after the fall of the Iron Curtain?

2)      What are new approaches to staging Hamlet after the shift in social-political circumstances in 1989?

3)      Is there still an identifiable phenomenon of the ‘Eastern European Hamlet’ in the so-called ‘New Europe’? Are there common political and aesthetic approaches among Eastern European theatre makers? Have Eastern European countries forged their own styles of interpreting Hamlet?

 

Prof. Robin Nelson, head of Research at Central, opened the event and chaired the symposium. Dr. Duška Radosavljević from University of Kent and Alexandra Portmann M.A., from University of Berne and University of Kent introduced the theme of the symposium and the speakers.

The five presentations during the symposium focused on performative, political, historical, and cultural aspects of post-1989 Hamlet productions from Romania, Poland, Hungary, Lithuania, and Serbia.

Dr. Nicoleta Cinpoes, University of Worcester
“‘Who’s there?’: Hamlet and Romania in the New Millennium”

Dr. Aneta Mancewicz , The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, University of London and Kazimierz Wielki University, Bydgoszcz, Poland
“A Bittersweet Prince: Hamlet in the 21st Century Poland”

 

Dr. Márta Minier, Drama at the University of Glamorgan
“Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed … Something Golden”: Post-1989 Hungarian Hamlets

Dr. Sonia Massai, King’s College London
“Nekrosius’s Hamlet at the Globe to Globe Festival”

Dr. Duška Radosavljević, University of Kent /Alexandra Portmann M.A., University of Berne and University of Kent
“Serbian Hamlet meets Fortinbras from Yorkshire”

 

The presentations were followed by a discussion among the presenters and an open Q&A session with questions from the audience. Most importantly, the discussion concerned:

-          the continued significance of Hamlet for Eastern European nations,

-          the diminishing role of Fortinbras in Eastern European productions,

-          the analogies on the level of dramaturgy and the use of media in Eastern European performances of Hamlet,

-          the growth of individual perspectives in Eastern European countries, manifested in the variety of approaches and styles of staging Hamlet, post-1989,

-          the popularity of other Shakespeare’s plays and other classic playwrights in Eastern Europe,

-          different perceptions of what  “Eastern Europe” means for the East and the West,

-          the increasing role of globalisation and universalism in interpretations of Shakespeare.

 

The event offered a wide range of perspectives to the presence of Hamlet in Eastern Europe. Considering the breadth of the topic, it was, however, inevitable that the discussion could not answer all the points raised during the panel. It is, thus, hoped that there will be a follow-up event on that subject in the near future.

 

“What Country, Friends, Is This?”: Multilingual Shakespeare on Festive Occasions

Wednesday, January 30th, 2013

Redacted without footnotes from Alexander Huang’s “’What Country, Friends, Is This?’: Touring Shakespeares, Agency, and Efficacy in Theatre Historiography.” Theatre Survey 54.1 (2013): 51-85.

Full text available at: http://web.mit.edu/acyhuang/www/Publications/HuangTS2013.pdf

 

“What Country, Friends, Is This?”: Multilingual Shakespeare on Festive Occasions

Alexander Huang

Touring theatre is a place where theatre studies and globalization come into contact. The year of 2012 was a year of global festivities in which Shakespeare’s works played a major part. Through their exemplary power, the intersections of world cultures and Shakespeare provide a set of important issues for repositioning theatre studies in the wider field of globalization studies.

How does Shakespeare make world theatre legible in the British context? What roles have “foreign” performance styles played in the rise of Shakespearean theatre as a “global” genre and to post-imperial British identity in the world? More specifically, what does it entail for international touring theatre artists to perform Shakespeare in Britain and for the British press to judge these touring productions?

Some answers to these questions can be found in the patterns of production and reception of Shakespeare in postnational spaces—festival venues where national identities are blurred by the presence of such entities as transnational corporate sponsors. Some of the touring theatre works in 2012 were produced under circumstances that may prove challenging or alienating to even the most cosmopolitan audiences. Shakespeare in the diaspora puts pressure on some of the theoretical models theatre historians have privileged in their documentation of the Western sources of non-Western performances.

In particular, the reception of touring performances is informed by issues of politics, language, and performantive cultural affiliations.

First, the cultural and political conditions of a venue or a production intervene in reception and undercut the work of artistic intent. This genre of stage works is shaped by forms of agency that are not rooted in intentionality.

Second, in Shakespearean performance, language is often granted more agency than the materiality of performance, leading to the tendency to privilege certain modernized and editorialized versions of Shakespearean scripts and their accurate reproduction in foreign-language performances. The humanities over the past century have witnessed the so-called linguistic turn, the semiotic turn, and the cultural turn, all of which operate on assumptions about the substantial and substantializing power of language as opposed to the materiality of cultural representation. As opposed to other forms of embodiment, language as a marker is deeply ingrained in identity politics. Language is a tool of empowerment to create solidarity, but it can also be divisive at international festivals where audience members who do not have access to the immediacy of the spoken language on stage might feel alienated or excluded.

Third, Shakespeare productions that tour to the United Kingdom reflect shifting locational terrains of performative meanings that—unlike nationalist imaginations of Shakespeare—do not always correspond to the performers’ and audiences’ cultural affiliations. The systemic mutations in the politics of cultural production and compression of time and space engender variegated, layered subject positions. Directors from Africa, Asia, and Latin America who tour their works to the U.K. often make revisions to accommodate the performance space and audiences of international festivals, dictated by the cultural prestige of the exporting nation. In contrast, the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC)—occupying a more privileged position in the Shakespearean circle—does not usually localize its productions for the purpose of international tours (e.g., Loveday Ingram’s The Merchant of Venice, starring Ian Bartholomew, in Beijing and Shanghai, 2002).

 

“As Huge as High Olympus”

Organizers of the 2012 London Olympics and the Cultural Olympiad proclaimed Shakespeare, once again, the bearer of universal currency. Much more ambitious than the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2006 Complete Works festival, the 2012 Globe-to-Globe (part of World Shakespeare Festival) was an integral part of the Cultural Olympiad to celebrate the Olympics. The festival was presented by the Royal Shakespeare Company, the EIF, and the Globe to Globe program. Opened on 21 April, it brought theatre companies from many parts of the world to perform Shakespeare in their own languages (“37 plays in 37 languages”; Fig. 3) “in [the London] Globe, within the architecture Shakespeare wrote for.” In fact, thirty-eight Shakespearean plays were performed in languages ranging from Lithuanian to sign language. This is arguably one of the most important festivals since David Garrick’s Shakespeare Jubilee in 1769 that jump-started the Shakespeare industry and tourism in Stratford-upon-Avon.

The World Shakespeare Festival, unlike the previous RSC Complete Works Festival, included almost exclusively non-English-language performances. The WSF also made an effort to cover Africa, the Americas, Russia, Asia, Europe, and New Zealand. In terms of geographical distribution during the WSF, European companies alone offered fifteen touring productions to the festival including British Sign Language performances. Asian companies offered eight productions (not counting the Maori Troilus and Cressida), African companies six, and Middle Eastern companies six. Groups from Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, and the US also brought productions to the WSF.

Both the Olympics and the Globe’s festival focused on participants from many nations and on brands in promotional efforts. The parallels between sports and performance have been explored in various studies. Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht attributes the fascination with watching sports to a very literal sense of aesthetic experience, namely the nature of athletic beauty. J. P. Singh argues in Globalized Arts that “creative products” can be incorporated into local and global markets to address cultural discomfort and anxieties about globalization. Some visiting companies and audience members who spoke the languages the companies used in their productions saw the festival at the Globe as an opportunity to assert identity.

Both the Olympic Games and the Cultural Olympiad share a common goal of promoting mutual understanding among countries, but they also fuel nationalism in various guises. Despite the London Globe’s effort to market the international Shakespeare productions by focusing on the languages of the plays and the cities of origin of the companies rather than their countries (e.g., a Hebrew Merchant of Venice from Tel Aviv; The Comedy of Errors from Kabul), national flags appeared online and were brought onstage while enthusiastic crowds of expatriates cheered on. Similar to international sporting events, the multicultural celebration of languages inevitably fueled nationalist sentiments in various guises that ranged from political protests to celebration of independence.

For instance, a 12 × 4.5-inch image of a crowd waving flags of the Republic of South Sudan (est. 2011) adorns the Globe’s Web page advertising the South Sudan Theatre Company’s Cymbeline in Juba Arabic. At the curtain call of Dhaka Theatre’s Tempest at the Globe on 8 May 2012, one of the actors reappeared onstage wrapped in the Bangladeshi flag. The gesture connected an artistic achievement with national pride. More controversial were the street demonstration outside the Globe Theatre and calls to boycott the Israeli company Habima’s performance of The Merchant of Venice.

 

Boomerang Shakespeare Comes Home

Prominent in the marketing language of the World Shakespeare Festival (of which Globe to Globe was a part) was Viola’s aforementioned question in Twelfth Night, now made rhetorical: “What country, friends, is this?” appears with an image of a marooned ship on the WSF’s website to advertise the RSC’s “shipwreck trilogy” (The Comedy of Errors, Twelfth Night, and The Tempest) and to serve as a tongue-in-cheek reaction to the deliciously confusing festival.  The idea seems to be that if each country’s artists fully embody the essence of their culture, the audience would be able to tell which country it is at first blush.

The Q Brother’s ninety-minute hip hop Othello: The Remix was invited to represent the U.S. at the Globe. Set in modern-day U.S., the story about the reigning king of hip hop was acted and narrated by a cast of four men in jumpsuits, with a DJ up in the balcony. The production was among the first show to be sold out, and attracted a large number of young audiences.

There were moments in several productions when questions about cultural and geopolitical identities ceased to be rhetorical and became pressing in a productive way. The Belarus Free Theatre’s production of King Lear was refreshing and challenging, partly because few audience members were familiar with Belarus and its culture. The facetious performance treated the play as a comic folktale that spirals into tragedy. Lear wobbled onstage with a thatch of white hair atop his slender frame, only to throw off the wig and reveal his jovial self. The play did not seem to need a Fool. The division-of-the-kingdom scene was presented as something akin to a reality TV show involving a rival striptease among the daughters. It is a different story with other troupes.

One of the contributions of touring productions and theatrical contingency is that Viola’s question will be asked with increasing urgency and will prompt more reflections on cultural identities that have been taken for granted. “Shakespeare” is a canon that is supposedly familiar to educated English speakers, but it is increasingly alien to the younger generation. If the Belarusian Lear estranged Shakespeare in linguistic and artistic terms, the hip hop Othello made Shakespeare more familiar and relevant. Thus, the Globe to Globe seasons and other similarly structured festivals including Edinburgh International Festival and the Barbican International Theatre Events pitched Shakespeare as global celebrity against Shakespeare as national poet and created a new brand with contemporary currency and vitality.

What is left unarticulated, however, is how foreign Shakespeares have been deployed to validate and elevate the status of English Shakespeare performances, especially at a venue such as the London Globe.

 

Working with and against the Surtitles

Festival organizers have a curatorial function in bringing together and presenting works by diverse groups. Touring Shakespeare productions share some features with international spectator sports; both require international travel, both are capable of garnering media attention, and both thrive on the unpredictability of the outcome. The theatre audience is simultaneously an outsider (to the foreign style) and an insider (familiar with certain aspects of Shakespeare).

Festivals and special events have played an important role in bringing touring productions to London, Stratford-upon-Avon, Edinburgh, and other U.K. cities. In 1994, the Barbican Theatre hosted a festival entitled Everybody’s Shakespeare that offered performances by the Comédie-Française (Paris), the Suzuki Company of Toga, Tel Aviv’s Itim Theatre Ensemble, Moscow’s Detsky Theatre, and the Düsseldorfer Schauspielhaus. Of interest is how the organizers turned Shakespeare on tour into “consumable chunks of popular culture” in a workshop of metonymic equivalences (the cherry blossom for Japan, drumming for Africa, the carnival for Brazil, and so on). As is the case with many touring productions, the reception of this festival was characterized by conflicting strands of what Peter Holland has aptly summarized as “xenophobic suspicion at the sheer unEnglishness of the work” and cultural elitism that assumes that the novelty of Shakespeare in Japanese is superior to English Shakespeare conventions. For some critics, the language barrier proved to be an insurmountable obstacle, as Charles Spencer commented: “There we sit, following [the] surtitles while listening to the performers delivering the matchless poetry in an incomprehensible tongue.” He wrote with a sense of national pride, and many critics operated under a similar assumption of cultural exclusivity, though few voiced their disapproval in such a radical form.

During the World Shakespeare Festival in 2012, the Globe devised a strategy to divert attention away from the surtitles to the action onstage and applied it uniformly to all of the productions in different languages. The purpose was to remove language as a distraction, if not an obstacle, in order to allow for certain degree of improvisation. One obvious limitation is that the architectural space of the Globe is not ideal for line-by-line surtitles because of the pillars and the thrust stage. Only short summaries of the scene—written by the Globe staff in consultation with the visiting companies—were projected on the two screens next to the stage. According to Tom Bird, the synopsis surtitles were meant to avoid the elitism associated with line-by-line translations of Shakespearean texts. The plot summaries are based on Shakespeare’s script most of the time rather than performative choices or improvisational elements. Obviously no synopsis can be neutral whether it is based on narrative or dramaturgical structure, because it involves interpretive acts.

As the actors worked with and against the surtitles, the synopsis surtitles redirected the audience’s attention to the tension between the plot and dramaturgical structures. In the Mandarin Richard III, short English phrases were inserted by actors playing the two murderers for more immediate comic effect. In another production, the actors mocked the surtitles. The audiences were told not to trust what was being projected “up there.” Such moments of textual resistance became more noticeable through the synopsis surtitles.

Some touring or intercultural productions were seen as showcases for the exotic beauty of unfamiliar performance traditions for cultural elites. Targeting audiences who are bored by an overworked Shakespeare through the education system, these productions are not for purists. A few strands dominate in the narratives surrounding this type of productions, ranging from celebration of other cultures’ reverence of Shakespeare (e.g., the “Shakespeare Is German” season at the London Globe in 2010) to suspicion about delightful but bewildering (for the press at least) productions that are fully indigenized.

The Globe has played host to numerous such productions, and the RSC often sets English-language performances by British actors in non-British locations. Directors face a dilemma, as they are caught between pursuing authenticity and “selling out.” For example, the RSC’s recent English-language productions of two plays, one Chinese and the other Shakespearean, have reignited debates about cultural authenticity.

The first is Gregory Doran’s adaptation of Orphan of Zhao with an almost exclusively white cast of seventeen. British actors of East Asian heritage have spoke up against the practice of “non-culturally specific casting,” in Doran’s words, or colorblind casting. The politics of recognition can be a double-edged sword. One the one hand, intercultural theatre is important testing ground for ethnic equality and raises questions of equal employment opportunity in the UK. On the other hand, can an all-white cast not do justice to the Orphan of Zhao just as an all-Chinese cast performed Richard III at the London Globe and in Beijing? Why would an English adaptation of a Chinese play have to be performed by authentic-looking East Asian actors?

The second is Iqbal Khan’s Much Ado About Nothing that is set in contemporary Delhi and staged at the Courtyard Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon in August, 2012. Clare Brennan, writing for the Guardian, believes that the transposition of Messina to contemporary Delhi works well, because it “plays to possible audience preconceptions about the communality and hierarchical structuring of life in India that map effectively on to similar structuring in Elizabethan England.” Performed by a cast of second generation British Indian actors to Bollywood-inspired music as part of the WSF, the “postcolonial” production (in Gitanjali Shabani’s words) was quickly compared by the press and reviewers to the two more ethnically authentic productions at the Globe from the Indian Subcontinent (Arpana Company’s All’s Well That Ends Well directed by Sunil Shanbag in Gujarati and Company Theatre’s Twelfth Night directed by Atul Kumar in Hindi). Cultural, linguistic, and ethnic pedigrees are part of the picture. Some critics question the RSC’s form of internationalism. Birmingham-born director Khan’s treatment of Indian culture is seen as too simplistic. Kate Rumbold wishes the production had not ignored but “ironized the company’s inevitable second-generation detachment from India.” Taking issue with the production’s “pastiche of ‘internationalism’, with apparently second generation British actors pretending to return to their cultural roots in a decidedly colonial way,” Kevin Quarmby states that the production offers “the veneer of Indian culture, served on a bed of Bradford or Birmingham Anglicized rice.” He concludes that “as the World Shakespeare Festival and Globe to Globe seasons have shown, ‘international’ is best understood in the context of the nations who embrace Shakespeare as their own.” The more difficult part of these debates concerns commercialized cultural and ethnic identities. Obviously art and commerce are not antithetical activities, but they have become inescapable predicates in the debates about the sociological and expressive values of touring and intercultural Shakespeare performances.

 

Sites of Origin and Cultural Prestige

In this second decade of the twenty-first century, touring foreign productions of Shakespeare have emerged as a new brand in Britain, competing side by side with British productions. Non-English interpretations of Shakespeare’s plays are not lesser versions of their English counterparts.

At the core of the touring phenomenon is the idea of returning to Britain as a geocultural site of origin (performing “within the architecture Shakespeare wrote for”), as an imaginary site of authenticity (e.g., the Shanghai Kunqu Opera’s adaptation of Macbeth, entitled The Story of the Bloody Hand, performed in Scotland in 1987), and as a privileged site for performative acts (both original practice and international Shakespeares are now the Globe’s main products).

It is interesting to note that the logo of the 2012 World Shakespeare Festival is the Earth seen from over the North Atlantic, showing Britain nearest the center of the world. This “return” is part of the organizing principle of some festivals, and the narrative surrounding it is informed by internationalism and (paradoxically) a form of nationalism. As part of the cultural festival to celebrate the 2012 London Olympics, the multilingual World Shakespeare Festival evoked such a “return.” According to festival director Tom Bird and the Globe’s artistic director, Dominic Dromgoole, the festival brought Shakespeare’s plays—“plays which have travelled far and wide”—“back home” to London’s South Bank, “dressed in the clothes of many peoples.”

Part of the touring boom is created by festivals, internationally renowned films, and visiting companies, and part of it is shaped by British directors who incorporate non-Western performance styles into their productions, such as Peter Brook and Tim Supple, or who work with artists from other parts of the world, such as David Tse, and thereby raise awareness of a broader range of performative possibilities among British audiences.

Many theatre artists rely on international spectators to disseminate their decidedly local works, and some festivals thrive on the ideological purchase of being “global.” Msomi’s 1970 adaptation of Macbeth may not have achieved international recognition without the 1972 production at Aldwych (as part of the RSC’s World Theatre Season) and the 1997 revival at the London Globe. U.K. tours are equally important for local companies. Thelma Holt Ltd.’s partnership with Ninagawa since 1990 has benefited both sides and made the Japanese director a mainstay on the English stage, and in 2004 Thelma Holt CBE received the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays and Rosette at the Embassy of Japan in the UK in recognition of her contribution to mutual understanding through theatre exchange.

Global Shakespeares have a deterritorializing effect, in the anthropological sense, that unmarks the cultural origins of intercultural productions because they work against assumptions about politically defined geographies in theatre historiography—artificial constraints that no longer speak to the realities of theatre making. Touring productions can also reterritorialize the plays upon arriving in a new location. In a world constantly in motion, representations of certain aspects of culture transcend territorial boundaries. These touring works can be best understood through theatrically defined cultural locations (e.g., a French–Japanese Richard II in Paris and on tour, a “culturally neutral” Richard III made in Beijing but presented in Berlin) rather than through political boundaries (e.g., when “Shakespeare in India” is used as unproductive shorthand for literary universalism). Simplified notions of the universal can be self-deceptive and even self-effacing.

Theatre can produce and redefine visible and invisible cultural localities. Performance history is currently driven by polity, by periodization, and by continental divisions, and as a result it inadvertently creates myths of multiple unknowable objects. Touring global Shakespeares can uncouple speech and writing and problematize various conventions of authenticity and the kind of dramaturgical stability that dulls the edge of theatre. They can unsettle assumptions about the referential stability of Shakespeare as a textual and verbal presence and about non-English performances as a privileged, unified, visual signifier of otherness.

 

________________________

Alexander Huang is Director of the Dean’s Scholars in Shakespeare Program and Associate Professor of English at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and Research Affiliate in Literature at MIT. The recipient of the MLA’s Aldo and Jeanne Scaglione Prize, he chairs the MLA committee on the New Variorum Edition of Shakespeare. The co-founder and co-editor of Global Shakespeares, Huang serves as a General Editor of the Shakespearean International Yearbook and performance editor of the Internet Shakespeare Editions.

Introduction to Nós do Morro

Tuesday, January 8th, 2013

Cristiane Busato Smith, one of the Global Shakespeares Regional Editors for Brazil, has written an article on the theater troupe Nós do Morro.

Here is an excerpt:

Nós do Morro (Us from the Hillside) is a community based theatre company and school based in the Vidigal Morro, one of the largest favelas (shanty towns) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Perched on a hillside overlooking the rich districts of Leblon and Ipanema, with fantastic views of the Atlantic Ocean, is the house where Nós do Morro has trained actors, technicians and other art professionals. Founded in 1986, it has over 350 participants, among them children, youngsters and adults who reside in the Vidigal Morro. In over twenty-five years, most of which relying on their meager finances, Nós do Morro consolidated its roots in the heart of Vidigal while also achieving recognition nationally and internationally.

Nós do Morro was founded by a group of friends inspired by the dream of journalist Guti Fraga, who wanted to create a cultural movement in the Vidigal community, similar to the ones he had seen in Harlem, New York. His idea was to use the local talent to portray the rich universe of the favela and create work of excellence. His conviction in the transformative power of art is clear in his successful history with Nós do Morro. As Fraga explains: “The only way to change stereotypes is through quality. That is the only way. One word that I don’t want near my work is pity. Pity is an ugly word. It makes the pitier feel better and the pitied feel worse. So you have to break through that emotion with quality, first and always.”

 

Click here to read the full article.

 

 

Nós do Morro: Voice, Art, and Empowerment

Tuesday, January 8th, 2013

Nós do Morro (Us from the Hillside) is a community based theatre company and school based in the Vidigal[i] Morro, one of the largest favelas (shanty towns) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Perched on a hillside overlooking the rich districts of Leblon and Ipanema, with fantastic views of the Atlantic Ocean, is the house where Nós do Morro has trained actors, technicians and other art professionals. Founded in 1986, it has over 350 participants, among them children, youngsters and adults who reside in the Vidigal Morro. In over twenty-five years, most of which relying on their meager finances, Nós do Morro consolidated its roots in the heart of Vidigal while also achieving recognition nationally and internationally.

Nós do Morro was founded by a group of friends inspired by the dream of journalist Guti Fraga, who wanted to create a cultural movement in the Vidigal community, similar to the ones he had seen in Harlem, New York. His idea was to use the local talent to portray the rich universe of the favela and create work of excellence. His conviction in the transformative power of art is clear in his successful history with Nós do Morro. As Fraga explains: “The only way to change stereotypes is through quality. That is the only way. One word that I don’t want near my work is pity. Pity is an ugly word. It makes the pitier feel better and the pitied feel worse. So you have to break through that emotion with quality, first and always.”[ii]


Guti Fraga at Vidigal[iii]

Nevertheless, it is true that the favelas dominate the landscape of Rio de Janeiro and map the socioeconomic disparities of Brazil. Yet, the concept of “cidade partida”[iv] (split city), i.e., a city divided by morro (hillside) and asfalto (tarmac) is challenged by Nós do Morro’s theatrical practice. It is indeed through art and hard work that the young actors from the Vidigal favelasucceeded in breaking through class and cultural barriers that are so entrenched in Brazilian society. Cicely Berry, director of text and voice at the Royal Shakespeare Company, describes the impressions of her first visit to Vidigal in these words:

I’ll never forget that first visit, leaving behind the pomposity of the coastline with its beautiful mansions safe behind iron bars. I remember being taken uphill through a tortuous pot holed road, the water flowing downhill, where life happens in the streets, where commerce unravels all the time and you feel this amazing enthusiasm for life. I remember this intense sensation of enormous joy.[v] (136, my translation)

While Cicely finds a fabulous zest for life in the favelas, it cannot be denied that they are dangerous places where drug culture is rife and work is scarce. Despite all this, Nós do Morro produced many plays where the favela is at once the stage, the protagonist, and theme. Plays such as Encontros (1987), Biroska (1989), Abalou – Um Musical Funk (1997), É Proibido Brincar (1998), and Noites do Vidigal (2002) describe the every day reality in Vidigal. In these plays, the favela represents more than just the backdrop: it becomes an aesthetic language that challenges the outside discourse which always depicted the favela and its inhabitants in negative terms. With Nós do Morro, the favela found its way to present its own discourse from the inside-out.

In the face of hardships in the initial stages when the company had no sponsors, rather than seeing problems, Fraga sought creative solutions. Theatre critic Tânia Brandão recounts an anecdote about recycling trash to use as props which exemplifies Fraga’s philosophy of creating opportunities through art[vi]:

(…)the trash was really scanty: there were mostly soy oil cans…. No problem: from the cans, lights were made. The first lights. Trash then helped to solve one of the greatest difficulties which was lighting, a technical resource whose cost is too dear. Soon they moved to another stage because the oil cans turned out to be insufficient. But this act of searching in oneself, of searching within, of going to the trash cans to catalogue one’s own means to structure a project impressed me. It was not a tribute to poverty, but the deliberation that poverty is not and cannot be an obstacle for the realization of one’s dreams. It was the manifestation of a legitimate spirit of fight.  (126, my translation)[vii]

Inspired by Fraga’s faith in the ability of performance as an agent of social change, the company has produced a versatile repertoire of plays and audiovisual productions, achieving significant public recognition. They earned international respect with the movie City of God (2002), Brazil’s most successful film internationally. Forty-two actors from Nós do Morro created some of the hardest-hitting scenes in a violent, graphic depiction of the evolution of the drug trade in a Rio favela. The company’s success led to important partnerships such as Petrobrás and the British Council, the latter becoming a decisive path towards the group’s successful association with Shakespeare.


Nós do Morro: Actors and Musicians[viii]

Shakespeare and Nós do Morro

The syntony of Nós do Morro with Shakespeare became evident to Cecily Berry during a dramatic reading of Hamlet at the Fórum Shakespeare project, in 1995. Since then she has been collaborating regularly with the company, bringing with her the philosophy that “Where words prevail not, violence prevails”[ix].

Shakespeare’s plays are indeed an open invitation to experiment and a fantastic chance to “hear a thousand things through other tongues”. Nós do Morro adds a fresh vibrance to Shakespeare’s plays through the voices of the samba school that originated in the favelas, the effervescence of street theatre, and the ingenious and colorful settings.  Not afraid to appropriate the English playwright, they transpose him into their local reality, while declaring such appropriations as “intromissions”.

Their first stage adaptation of Shakespeare, Sonho de uma Noite de Verão: uma Intromissão do Nós do Morro no Mundo de Shakespeare (Midsummer Night’s Dream: an Intromission from Nós do Morro in Shakespeare’s World), directed by Fernando Mello da Costa (2005), began with an inside joke: a group of amateur actors rehearse to perform for the court, an unambiguous parallel to Nós do Morro’s history.  Drawing on the theme of social exclusion and subversion in Midsummer Night’s Dream, Nós do Morro’s production establishes a parallel between the “rude mechanicals” in early modern England[x] and the trash pickers in modern Brazil. The creative set uses recycled materials such as ropes, handkerchiefs, bottles and other objects, and the festive mood is supported by the music played and sung by the actors.

Soon after Midsummer, Nós do Morro was invited for a workshop with The Royal Shakespeare Company. A year later (2006) they returned to Stratford-upon-Avon to perform The Two Gentlemen of Verona (directed by Guti Fraga) at the Complete Works Festival. Performing without props or sets, the actors put on a vibrant show playing furniture, buildings and walls. The performance was punctuated by Brazilian music and capoeira[xi] which helped situate the play in Brazil. In 2008, the group was invited to return to England to perform at the Barbican Theatre. Receiving both critic and public acclaim in England and in Brazil, it had now become clear that Nós do Morro managed to transcend the limits and stereotypes of the map and offer alternative configurations to the theatrical and human landscape of Rio de Janeiro. They have decisively inscribed themselves into the History of Brazilian Theatre.


The award winning Two Gentlemen of Verona at The Barbican Theatre in 2008[xii]

 

Since 1986, Nós do Morro has presented over 35 plays sustaining the mission of providing young people with an opportunity to experience culture, art and citizenship though the theatre and visual arts. Their Audiovisual Centre has produced four short films written by young people, winning international awards in France and Brazil. Many of its actors have appeared in Brazilian TV series, soap  operas and movies.

 

 

 

 

 


[i] Vidigal was “pacified” in November, 2011. The policy of pacification tries to establish state control in areas that were previously controlled by armed drug traffickers.

[ii] Quotation taken from http://cma.staging-thetimes.co.uk/tto/arts/article2404246.ece, accessed November 6, 2012

[iii] Marques, Laura. Guti Fraga fundador do Grupo Nós do Morro, no Vidigal (Guti Fraga, founder of Nós do Morro, at Vidigal). Digital image. O Globo. O Globo. 1 March. 2012. Web. 6 November. 2012. <http://oglobo.globo.com/zona-sul/um-sonho-que-deu-certo-4111140 >.

[iv] Cidade partida (split city) is a term coined by journalist Zuenir Ventura in 1994 to designate the socioeconomic structure of Rio de Janeiro. In this view, Rio de Janeiro is seen as socially and culturally split in two distinct geographic areas: the “morro” and the “asfalto”, with limited social and cultural permeability between the two. Morro refers to the shanty towns on the hillside, whereas asfalto (tarmac) refers to the urban areas where the upper classes live. In recent years, however, there have been many successful attempts to promote the transit of artistic and cultural productions from the favela to other sectors of society and confront this historical exclusion. Nós do Morro is a successful example of this movement.

[v] Cicely Berry, “Ouvindo Shakespeare no Vidigal,” Nós do Morro, 20 Anos. (Rio de Janeiro:  XBrasil, 2008). (my translation): 137-7

[vi] See Guti Fraga, TedX lecture “Arte, Transformação e Possibilidade Nós do Morro,” (São Paulo, 14 November 2009). <http://www.tedxsaopaulo.com.br/gutifraga-sub/>

[vii] Marta Porto, “Paisagens de Luz e Outras Histórias”, Nós do Morro, 20 Anos. (Rio de Janeiro:  XBrasil, 2008). (my translation):  124-13

[viii] Nós do Morro: Actors and Musicians. Digital Image. Portal das Notícias. N.p. 18 March, 2009. Web. 5 November. 2012. <http://www.portaldasnoticias.com/cultura-e-teatro-direto-do-vidigal/#>

[ix] Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy (2.1)

[x] See, for example, “A Kingdom of Shadows” by Dorothea Kehler, Midsummer Night’s Dream: Critical Essays. (New York and London: Routledge, 1998) pp 217-240.

[xi] Capoeira is a Brazilian Martial art that combines elements of dance and music. It originated with enslaved Africans who wanted to devise a method of disguising their training by combining it with dance-like movements, singing and musical instruments such as berimbau. Capoeira became a symbol of resistance to the oppression and is considered a cultural heritage of Brazil.

[xii] Kurtz, Ellie. The award winning Two Gentlemen of Verona at The Barbican Theatre in 2008. Digital image. I’ll Think of Something Later. Blogspot. 21 October. 2008. Web. 9 November. 2012. <http://davidnice.blogspot.com/2008/10/back-to-couch-again.html>