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Orientalia, Orientalism, and The Peking Opera Artist as ‘Subject’ in Contemporary Australian Performance

  • Sally Sussman (a1) and Tony Day (a2)


As brochures for the January 1996 Sydney Festival blare out ‘Feel the Beat. Feel the Heat!’ to draw the crowds of summering Sydney folk to performances of the National Dance Company of Guinea (already appropriated and stamped with approval by reviewers in San Francisco and London, who are quoted on the same flyer), the chairman and former artistic director of Playbox Theatre in Melbourne, Carrillo Gartner, worries about the strength of popular Australian opposition to Australia's expanding links with Asia. In an article on the holding of the 14th annual Federation for Asian Cultural Promotion in Melbourne, Gartner fears that ‘there are people in this community […] thinking that […] it is the demise of all they believe in their British heritage’. The focus of the article, though, is not the promotion of Asian culture but how to overcome Asian indifference to Australia and the problem of bringing Australian artists to the notice of Asian impresarios and audiences. Australian cultural cringe wins out over Australian Asia-literate political correctness. In another corner of the continent the director and playwright Peter Copeman has been attempting to replace ‘the Euro-American hand-me-downs and imitations’ of mainstream Australian theatre with a theatre project which explores ‘attitudes of the dominant Anglo-Celtic and the Vietnamese minority cultures towards each other, using the intercultural dialectic as the basis of dramatic conflict’.



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1. Yaman, Ebru, ‘Asia Eyes Local Talent’, The Australian, 01 5, 1996, p. 14.

2. Copeman, Peter, ‘The Hearts and Minds Project: Towards An Austral/Asian Theatre’, Australian Drama Studies, 25 (10 1994), p. 169.

3. Lo, Jacqueline, ‘Introduction’, ibid., p. 5.

4. Hay, Trevor, ‘Yellow Lady Meets Black Stump: An Obscene Postmodern Heroine in Australia’, Real Time, 10, 12-01 19951996, p. 12.

6. Ibid., p. 13.

7. See Broinowski, Alison, The Yellow Lady: Australian Impressions of Asia (Melbourne: Oxford University Press 1992), p. 205 and passim for discussion of the double bind, peculiar to Australia, of the need to define a cultural identity which is both Europe-derived and Asia-related at the same time.

8. What is at stake here is not the inscrutability of the Peking opera performer, as suggested by Kenneth Rea (‘the final impression is usually one of confusion and frustration at not being able to know exactly what the Chinese actors one has worked with really think and feel’), but the re-‘orientation’ of research on cross-cultural performance. Rather than simply document the problems of meaning and technique when Western performers and audiences encounter Asian performance, we also need to understand how Asian performers understand and utilize cross-cultural performance experiences to develop new, post-‘traditional’, cross-cultural modes of performance in non-Asian contexts. Rea is quoted in Riley, Josephine and Gissenwehrer, Michael, ‘The Myth of Gao Xingjian’ in Riley, Josephine and Unterrieder, Else, eds., Haishi Zou Hao: Chinese Poetry and Literature of the 1980s (Bonn: Engelhard-Ng Verlag, 1989), p. 147.

9. See, in Theatre Research International, Li, Ruru, ‘Macbeth Becomes Ma Pei: An Odyssey from Scotland to China’, Vol. 20, No. 1; and Diamond, Catherine, ‘Cracks in the Arch of Illusion: Contemporary Experiments in Taiwan's Peking Opera’, Vol. 20, No. 3.

10. See Robert Bethune's conclusion to his study of Kabuki training for western acting students at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, ‘Describing Performance in the Theatre: Kabuki Training and the Western Acting Student’, TDR, 33, 4, 1989, p. 159: ‘The experience of nine months Kabuki training under a recognized master actor did not bring about profound and pervasive changes in the western acting styles of the students in the study.’ Bethune believes nonetheless that training in Asian theatre techniques is essential for western actors who must act as ‘the media for transmission’ between Asia and the West, with the ‘fusion’ of the two theatre traditions as the ultimate goal (p. 160).

11. For more on Gao's career and ideas on theatre, see Riley, and Gissenwehrer, , ‘The Myth of Gao’; Roubicek, Bruno's introduction to ‘Wild Man: A Contemporary Chinese Spoken Drama’, Asian Theatre Journal, 7, 1, 1990, pp. 184–94, and Gao's own manifestos, ‘Clés pour mon théâtre’, in Chen-Ardro, Chantal, Curien, Annie & Sakai, Cécile, eds., Littératures d'Extrême-Orient au XXe siècle, (Arles: P. Picquier, 1993), pp. 218–29 and ‘Ma conception du théâtre’, Imaginaire, No. 1, 1986, pp. 37–43.

12. Xingjian, Gao, Between Life and Death, translated by Riley, Jo, (no date), p. 17. Gao also invokes traditional Chinese and avant-garde European concepts of theatricality and performance in his manifestos.

13. Gao thus echoed a familiar complaint made by spoken drama directors who work with Peking opera actors. See Wichmann, Elizabeth, ‘Tradition and Innovation in Contemporary Beijing Opera Performance’, TDR, 34, 1, 1990, p. 158.

14. Gao, , ‘Ma conception’, p. 42; see also ‘Clés’, op. cit., p. 224.

15. Gissenwehrer, Michael, ‘Peking Opera’, unpublished paper delivered in Beijing, 1986.

16. Riley, Josephine, The Articulate Body: A Study of Presence in Chinese Theatre (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming).

17. Similarly, Wu Xingguo, a xiqu performer engaged in the xiqu adaptation of Macbeth in Taiwan, quoted in Diamond, Catherine, ‘Kingdom of Desire: The Three Faces of Macbeth’, Asian Theatre Journal, 11, 1, 1994, p. 124, speaks oixiqu actors as ‘being helpless to resolve the situation when confronted with a character whose dimensions do not coincide with (role) type’. He further explains that ‘although the long training process in one role can create a very sophisticated style of acting, it also narrows the actor's creativity’. Wu claims that it was difficult to help classically trained actors ‘express true emotion when all their instincts had been curbed to produce a highly stylized representation’.

18. Ibid., p. 115.

19. Wichmann, , ‘Tradition and Innovation’, p. 159 and passim.

20. Diamond, Catherine, ‘Cracks in the Arch of Illusion: Contemporary Experiments in Taiwan's Peking Opera’, Theatre Research International, 20, 3, 1995, p. 239.

21. Using the same artists and directed by myself, Orientalia was performed at The Performance Space, Sydney, in March-April 1995 and examined theatrical orientalisms, using Brecht's observations on Mei Lanfang's Moscow performance of 1932 as a starting point.

22. Such experiments, involving what Ian Curruthers, in his piece on Suzuki's production with Australian actors, The Chronicle of Macbeth, calls ‘a transfer of technology’, seem to be another form of what Pavis calls approvingly cultural ‘neutralisation’ of a form for western consumption. See Pavis, Patrice, Theatre at the Crossroads of Culture (London and New York: Routledge, 1992), pp. 177–8. Carruthers seems to suggest that there is a polarity between text-based Western theatre forms and body-based Eastern theatre forms: ‘For Western actors looking for ways out of the impasse of psychological realism and the tyranny of the text, Japan's development of forms in which the word is an act of the body is particularly appealing.’ It is this kind of selective ‘technology transfer’ which I want to challenge by examining text, voice and language together. See Ian Carruthers, ‘What Actors and Directors Do to ‘Legitimate’ Shakespeare: Suzuki's Chronicle of Macbeth and Ellen Lauren's Lady Macbeth’, Mead, Philip and Campbell, Marion, eds., in Shakespeare's Books: Contemporary Cultural Politics and the Persistence of Empire, (Melbourne: Melbourne University Literary and Cultural Studies), p. 179 and passim. It is one of the revealing, if unintended, contributions of this article to a better understanding of cross-cultural performance in the Australian context that it ends with an extended interview with the American Suzuki-trained actor, Ellen Lauren.

23. See, for example, Wichman, 's comments, ‘Tradition and Innovation’, p. 158.

24. Video documentation of the two-week process, including the final showing, is available at the Centre for Performance Studies, University of Sydney.

25. Zarrilli, Phillip, ‘For Whom is the “Invisible” Not Visible? Reflections on Representation in the Work of Eugenio Barba’, TDR, 117, 1988, pp. 101–2.

26. Pavis, , Theatre at the Crossroads of Culture, pp. 178, 192, and 202.

27. ‘I'm talking about a situation in which there would be three kinds of theatre flourishing side by side: traditional operas, all 300 types, traditional spoken drama, and this new hybrid form we've been talking about — and maybe more than one kind of combination, maybe lots of types. ‘See’ Speaking About China's Spoken Drama: A Roundtable with Chinese Directors and Playwrights', TDR, 33, 2, Summer 1989, p. 100.

28. Xingjian, Gao, ‘Clés’, pp. 219 and 224.

29. Gao, , Between Life and Death, p. 16.

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Orientalia, Orientalism, and The Peking Opera Artist as ‘Subject’ in Contemporary Australian Performance

  • Sally Sussman (a1) and Tony Day (a2)


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