Posts Tagged ‘Hamlet’

The Failed Literary Revolt: Shakespeare and the Early American Left

Thursday, July 25th, 2013

“We cling to the old culture, and fight for it against ourselves.  But it must die.  The old ideals must die.  But let us not fear.  Let us fling all we are into the cauldron of the Revolution.”[1]  Mike Gold, arguably the most influential figure in the American communist movement, said this in 1921 to initiate an American proletarian literary tradition.  Gold’s declaration that old culture must die—a reaction against bourgeois heritage in art—exemplified the general attitude of the communist-affiliated American Left during the 1920s.  With the commencement of the New Masses a few years later, Gold reiterated this message in greater detail: “Let us forget the past.  Shakespeare, Dante, Shelley, and even Bernard Shaw—for here are virgin paths that their feet could not have trod in time and space.”[2]  Rejecting past literary influences, however, proved to be a challenge when confronted with Shakespeare.  The American Left never could completely dissociate itself from Shakespeare.  This was in part due to the fact that Shakespeare had become naturalized as a national poet in America during the nineteenth-century.  It was also because the American Left’s Soviet and German counterparts, despite observing him with mixed feelings, never detached themselves from Shakespeare.  To this end, Shakespeare continued to be a part of exchanges regarding the future of politically-committed Leftist culture and art.  Ultimately, the American Left’s persistent battle with Shakespeare not only ended in defeat, but it actually reinforced Shakespeare’s cultural authority.

Shakespeare reached iconic status in the Soviet Union by the mid-1930s, but he was not always openly welcomed by revolutionary Soviet artists.  It was not until Maxim Gorkii publicly praised Shakespeare at the Soviet Writers’ Congress in 1934 that he was commemorated by Stalin and on a national level.  At this venue, Karl Radek too acknowledged Shakespeare’s genius.  Comparing the millions of Soviets that could access culture to the “small section of society” with access during the English Renaissance, Radek claimed that the Soviets “have one hundred times better chances that more Shakespeares, more geniuses” would be found among proletarian writers.[3]

Conversely, in the years immediately following World War I and into the 1920s, Shakespeare was the center of convoluted Soviet literary and cultural politics that traversed national boundaries.  These debates dressed Shakespeare in disparate forms: “as representative of ‘bourgeois’ artistic traditions; as indispensable classic; as alien, foreign text; as Renaissance precursor to new Soviet society; as valuable box office draw; as dramatic master; and as outmoded sympathizer of aristocratic circles.”[4]  These debates likewise preoccupied the American Left during the 1920s, so much that Gold felt compelled to address cynics who made accusations that proletarian art was mediocre at best because of the absence of a single great writer like Shakespeare.  When asked the question, “[W]here is your Shakespeare,” Gold responded, “Wait ten years more.  He is on his way.  We gave you a Lenin; we will give you a proletarian Shakespeare, too; if that is so important…we promise you a hundred Shakespeares.”[5]  The reference to Lenin illustrates the American Left’s link to international socialist and communist politics, and addressing Shakespeare in the plural demonstrates an opposition to bourgeois individualism.  Nonetheless, using Shakespeare as an archetype for gifted writers highlights the Bard’s pervasive bearing on the American Left.

The Shakespeare topic often framed larger American Leftist literary debates.  V.F. Calverton, a rising literary critic during the nascent stages of the American proletarian movement, offered a sociological approach to literature in his book The Newer Spirit (1925).  His criticism provided a strong Marxist foundation for Leftist theorists.  To make distinctions between different historical epochs, Calverton argued that Shakespeare was outdated by the 1920s.  Furthermore, he claimed that as time progressed, Shakespeare’s dramas would continue to face a “distinct diminution in value:”

Shakespeare’s attitude toward the working man, and his depiction of his characteristics, has far less value than it had in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.  This means, of course, that his dramas as a whole, and no critic can judge a drama aside from the social forces that created it, have a different value today than they had during the whole period of feudalism.[6]

Even if it was not Calverton’s intention, by using Shakespeare as an example in a critical argument, Calverton reinforced Shakespeare’s cultural authority among the literary Left. Moreover, Calverton’s sociological method is quite similar to those theories of more well-known critics.  Early writings of Bertolt Brecht, who has reached canonical status in present-day Shakespearean performance studies, depict a comparable attitude towards Shakespeare’s body of work.  In 1927, Brecht endorsed the abolishment of bourgeois aesthetics in Germany and praised the sociological approach to literature: “[Y]ou, the sociologist, are alone in being prepared to admit that Shakespeare’s great plays, the basis of our drama, are no longer effective.”[7]  Calverton and Brecht represent international backlash against bourgeois cultural influences.  Still, the specter of Shakespeare hovered over Leftist criticism.

Shakespeare also remained a constant factor in the “style versus content” debate.  Joseph Freeman, conceivably the father of proletarian literary theory in America, incorporated Shakespeare into his criticism as well.  But for Freeman, Shakespeare retained literary value.  Freeman spent a great deal of time in Moscow during the 1920s, and on multiple occasions he heard that reading Shakespeare was criminal.  He agreed that Shakespeare should be read critically, but maintained that Shakespeare should be read.  Freeman, like most American communist writers, was repulsed by the art for art’s sake idea; however, he believed that Shakespeare effectively implemented creative stylization while expressing socially-relevant content.  In personal correspondence with fellow critic Paris Irwin in 1921, Freeman wrote,

“Shall I kill myself or shall I not kill myself” is an idea similar to the idea “to be or not to be—that is the question.”  But it is not the same idea.  Shakespeare has said what my prose sentence has said; but he has said much more in addition; there is a whole hinterland of thought and emotion behind Shakespeare’s phrase which the prose sentence misses.[8]

In this instance, Shakespeare served as a model for the practice of creating a relationship between style and content.  Even though Freeman valued content over style, he understood that if content was not compromised by “charming” aesthetics, then talented formalist techniques could strengthen a piece of literature.  In an article urging workers to become writers, even Gold could not avoid turning to Shakespeare.  Gold adapted Hamlet’s line “Thus conscience does make cowards of us all” (Hamlet 3.2.85) to make a theoretical claim of his own: “Technique has made cowards of us all.”[9]  This quote was published a month after his proposed Leftist program outlined in “Towards Proletarian Art.”  The American Left may not have wanted to hold onto the past, but Shakespeare proved to be an asset for Freeman and Gold to propose literary formulas.

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While Gold and Freeman were establishing an American model for proletarian literature in the 1920s, Brecht was in Germany developing a theory for a political theatre that stressed the importance of content.  Brecht suggested that “[t]he proper way to explore humanity’s new mutual relationships is via the exploration of the new subject-matter” and “[o]nce we have begun to find our way about the subject-matter we can move on to the relationships, which at present are immensely complicated and can only be simplified by formal means.”[10]  These thoughts preceded the development of Brecht’s epic theatre, but they show early traces of Brecht’s later stance that audiences should contemplate real living conditions when leaving the theatre, rather than indulge in personal emotional responses.  Brecht’s emphasis on subject-matter complemented his own anti-heritage sentiments.  Like the American Left, he too set up Shakespeare as the quintessence of the old bourgeois world.

In brief, Gold, Calverton, and Freeman provide a strong representation of the direction of the American Leftist literary tradition in the 1920s.  Gold claimed to be an internationalist while simultaneously believing that American writers “ought to set sail for a new discovery of America.”[11]  But the role of Shakespeare in international leftism affords us the opportunity to recognize the American Left’s cultural agenda.  Its failed attempts to eradicate Shakespeare from the American proletarian tradition also reveal the overpowering cultural authority of Shakespeare.  Moving into the late 1920s and the 1930s, American proletarian writers began to accept Shakespeare’s place in the proletarian tradition and included him more freely in creative work rather than solely literary criticism and political propaganda.  Therefore, it is safe to say that the revolt against Shakespeare failed.



Jeffrey Butcher is a doctoral candidate in English at George Washington University, Washington, D.C.

[1] Mike Gold, “Towards Proletarian Art,” Mike Gold: A Literary Anthology, ed. Michael Folsom (New York: International Publishers, 1972) 62.  This article was originally published in the February 1921 issue of the Liberator.

[2] Mike Gold, “A New Continent,” Communism in America: A History in Documents, Albert Fried (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997) 70.

[3] Karl Radek, “Contemporary World Literature and the Tasks of Proletarian Art,” Soviet Writers’ Congress, 1934: The Debate on Socialist Realism and Modernism, Maxim Gorky et al., ed. H.G. Scott (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1977) 148.

[4] Irena R. Makaryk and Joseph G. Price, “When Worlds Collide: Shakespeare and Communisms,” Shakespeare in the Worlds of Communism and Socialism, eds. Irena R. Makaryk and Joseph G. Price (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006) 4.

[5] Mike Gold, “Proletarian Realism,” Mike Gold: A Literary Anthology, ed. Michael Folsom (New York: International Publishers, 1972) 204.  Gold published these comments in his editorial column “Notes of the Month” in the September 1930 issue of the New Masses.

[6] Calverton, V.F., The New Spirit: A Sociological Criticism of Literature (New York: Octagon Books, 1974) 131, 132-133.

[7] Bertolt Brecht, “Shouldn’t we Abolish Aesthetics,” Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic, ed. and trans. John Willett (New York: Hill and Wang, 1992) 20.

[8] Freeman, Joseph, An American Testament: A Narrative of Rebels and Romantics (New York: Farrar and Rinehard, 1936) 213.

[9] Mike Gold, “A Little Bit of Millennium,” Mike Gold: A Literary Anthology, ed. Michael Folsom (New York: International Publishers, 1972) 78.  This article was originally published in the March 1921 issue of the Liberator.

[10] Bertolt Brecht, “On Form and Subject-Matter,” Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic, ed. and trans. John Willett (New York: Hill and Wang, 1992) 30, 31.

[11] Gold, “A New Continent” 70.

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 Alexa Huang’s “’What Country, Friends, Is This?’: Touring Shakespeares, Agency, and Efficacy in Theatre Historiography.” Theatre Survey 54.1 (2013): 51-85.


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

Alex 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.




What Multilingual Shakespeare Can Teach Us

Sunday, July 29th, 2012


The World Shakespeare Festival in London in 2012 is arguably one of the most important and ambitious festivals since David Garrick’s Shakespeare Jubilee. Reading Shakespeare in multilingual and multimedia 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. Act 1 Scene 3 of Othello offers another interesting instance (which is the focus of Tom Cheeseman’s, a multilingual crowd-sourcing project):

If virtue no delighted beauty lack,
Your son-in-law is far more fair than black.

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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.

Another fun item to consider: I was recently interviewed by BBC Radio and was asked to put together a collage of recitations of Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” speech in different languages, drawn from actual performances. 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 –

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]