Asian Theatre Journal, vol. 18, no. 2 (2001)

From the Editor
Samuel L. Leiter, p. iii

A quick glance at this issue’s table of contents will immediately make clear the preoccupation of most authors with issues of some political import. S. Shankar’s translation of Koman Swaminathan’s award-winning Indian play Water! is as overtly political as a play can get, dealing as it does with the oppression of penniless peasants who have to fight obtuse authorities for every drop of water their parched village can scrounge. Swaminathan’s play offers a direct link to Darren Zook’s essay on the problems of developing appropriate methodologies of creating Indian political theatre, especially in regions where the efforts of theatre artists are subverted by the irony of the sociopolitical conditions under which they must exist. Xiaomei Chen takes us to contemporary China to examine the difficult problems of finding the appropriate mix of form and content in the modern spoken dramas of post-Mao communist society, while Wenwei Du seeks to discover how classical dramas of the Yuan era, revived in today’s China, can have social and political relevance for contemporary audiences.

The next three papers were all winners of the annual competition for the Association of Asian Performance Debut Panel. The papers were presented at the Association for Theatre in Higher Education Conference held in Washington, D.C. in July 2000. The first of them, Marlene Pitkow’s look at kathakali performance, deals essentially with aesthetic concepts, while the next contribution, by Erika Stevens Abbitt, is concerned with issues of gender in Japanese performance–a politics of the body, so to speak. The final debut paper, by Shinko Kagaya, however, returns us to a view of theatre in relation to the more traditional idea of politics in its governmental phase when she discusses the role played by early twentieth-century performances of outside of Japan as part of Japanese colonialist practices. Interestingly, most of the books (and the single video) reviewed in this issue are also concerned with issues of theatre (and film) as an entity in the larger political arena. So, while aesthetic issues are certainly not forgotten, this issue reminds us once again that the theatre in modern Asia functions not only to provide artistic pleasures, but that theatrical art is invariably either a handmaiden or–more likely–adversary of the powers that be, and that this relationship is what invests that art with life.


Water! A Tamil Play by Koman Swaminathan
Translated and introduced by S. Shankar, p. 123

Komal Swaminathan (1935-1995) is one of the most important Tamil playwrights of the twentieth century. His work was both highly commended by critics and widely followed by popular audiences. Water! (Thaneer, Thaneer, 1980) is his most significant work and may be regarded as an excellent example of a species of political drama influential in the seventies, not only in the Tamil theatrical world but in India in general. It appears here for the first time in English translation.

S. Shankar is the author of the novel A Map of Where I Live (1997) and the volume of criticism Textual Traffic: Colonialism, Modernity and the Economy of the Text (2001). He teaches in the Department of English, Rutgers University, Newark.


The Farcical Mosaic: The Changing Masks of Political Theatre in Contemporary India
Darren C. Zook, p. 174

Political theatre has often relied upon farce and satire to make a veiled but effective critique of political trends. In contemporary India, however, political theatre is facing a new challenge in trying to find ways to “out-farce” a political arena that has already become inherently farcical. There are two special challenges addressed here. The first comes from the state of Kerala in southwestern India, where a self-styled progressive state government in the hands of the Communist Party has come under attack by critical playwrights for ossifying into orthodoxy and complacency. The second challenge centers on the difficulties faced by playwrights who have turned toward so-called indigenous or folk models of theatre to voice their critiques. Since the national government in Delhi has tried to utilize the symbols of an invented indigenous past to establish its legitimacy, critical theatre often finds itself applauded and even co-opted by the very political forces against which it has directed its dissent. This article examines the difficulties of establishing a “pure” space for political theatre in contemporary India, and offers as a conclusion a possible path toward resolution.

Darren C. Zook teaches the history and politics of South Asia at the University of California, Berkeley.

A Stage in Search of a Tradition: The Dynamics of Form and Content in Post-Maoist Theatre
Xiaomei Chen, p. 200

This essay examines several modern Chinese spoken dramas known for their formalistic features in early post-Mao theatre. It discusses the dynamics of form and content, Eastern and Western dramatic traditions and styles, and political culture and theatre performance in contemporary China.

Xiaomei Chen is associate professor of Chinese and Comparative Literature at The Ohio State University. Her book, Occidentalism, was published by Oxford University Press in 1995. Her second book, Acting the Right Part: Political Theatre and Popular Drama in Contemporary China (1966-1996), is forthcoming from University of Hawai‘i Press.

Historicity and Contemporaneity: Adaptations of Yuan Plays in the 1990s
Wenwei Du, p. 222

Unlike revivals of classical drama in previous decades, post-1990s adaptations of Yuan plays in China have taken new directions. Wenwei Du examines these new phenomena in three types of adaptations. His article discusses various new versions of Yuan masterpieces such as The Chalk Circle, The Orphan of Zhao, The Lute, and The Western Wing. What links all these recent revivals is the relation between historicity and contemporaneity. Playwrights, directors, artists, and critics are all concerned with the problem of how contemporary adaptations can remain faithful to the original while making ancient themes relevant to present-day society.

Wenwei Du is associate professor of Asian studies and Chinese at Vassar College. He has published book chapters and journal articles on Chinese drama, film, and performing arts. Professor Du is currently working on a book-length study of traditional theatre in contemporary China and translating a collection of Chinese xiaopin comic skits.


Putana’s Salvation in Kathakali: Embodying the Sacred Journey
Marlene B. Pitkow, p. 238

Marlene Pitkow discusses the kathakali play, The Salvation of Putana, as an exemplar of that classical Indian form. Through her investigation of this solo piece in performance, she demonstrates varying structural principles of kathakali.

Dr. Pitkow received her Ph.D. in performance studies at New York University in 1998. Her dissertation focuses on the female role in kathakali. Dr. Pitkow, whose research interests center on the performing arts of Kerala, lectures in Indian dance and theatre at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Androgyny and Otherness: Exploring the West through the Japanese Performative Body
Erica Stevens Abbitt, p. 249

This essay focuses on a recurring figure in Japanese literature and drama–a hero of ambivalent sexuality and gender who uses a cloak of invisibility to pass through boundaries–and considers its use in three contemporary Japanese theatrical productions set in a historically distant, even “mythologized,” West.

Erica Stevens Abbitt recently served as artistic director of Kentucky’s Playhouse in the Park. She received her M.A. from California State University, Northridge, and is currently pursuing her doctoral studies at UCLA.

Performances in Gaichi
Shinko Kagaya, p. 257

The word gaichi was once used by the Japanese to refer to “overseas.” Shinko Kagaya’s essay focuses on the political importance of gaichi with regard to performances of theatre given in Asia in the half-century or so prior to World War II. She examines, among other things, the role that may have played as an implement of colonization during that era.

Shinko Kagaya holds a Ph.D. from the Department of East Asian Languages and Literatures, The Ohio State University. Her essay, “Western Audiences and the Emergent Reorientation of Meiji Nô,” recently appeared in Japanese Theatre and the International Stage, edited by Stanca Scholz-Cionca and Samuel L. Leiter. She is currently an assistant professor of Japanese in the Department of Asian Studies, Williams College.


Ranjini Obeyesekere, Sri Lankan Theatre in a Time of Terror: Political Satire in a Permitted Space
reviewed by Sudipto Chatterjee, p. 270

Rustom Bharucha, The Politics of Cultural Practice: Thinking Through Theatre in an Age of Globalization
reviewed by Barbara Sellers-Young, p. 274

Rachel Fensham and Peter Eckersall, eds., Disorientations Cultural Praxis in Theatre: Asia, Pacific, Australia
reviewed by Lyn Margaret Scott, p. 275

Poshek Fu and David Desser, eds., The Cinema of Hong Kong: History, Arts, Identity
reviewed by Ping Fu, p. 279


Anurag Wadehra and Salil Singh, directors, Borrowed Fire (videotape)
reviewed by Kathy Foley, p. 282