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Twenty Eight Number Two intellect Journals | Theatre & PerformanceVolume

ISSN 1468-2761


Studies in

Theatre & Performance

Two intellect Journals | Theatre & Performance Volume ISSN 1468-2761 28.2 Studies in Theatre & Performance

Studies in Theatre and Performance

Volume 28 Number 2

Studies in Theatre and Performance is the official publication of the Standing Conference of University Drama Departments in the UK. It incorporates Studies in Theatre Production, which had been a leading forum for the analysis of theatrical practice, processes and performance for a decade. The journal is now published three times a year. We encourage the submission of articles which are not only descriptive of practical research, but which delineate the ongoing analysis that formed a part of that research. Articles may also describe and analyse research under- taken into performance pedagogy. They are particularly welcome when all this is related to broader theoretical or professional issues.

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Christopher Balme, University of Amsterdam, Holland Christopher Baugh, University of Leeds, UK David Bradby, Royal Holloway College, University of London, UK Christie Carson, Royal Holloway College, University of London, UK Kennedy Chinyowa, University of Zimbabwe Jim Davis, University of Warwick, UK Steve Dixon, Brunel University, UK Greg Giesekam, University of Glasgow, UK Gerry Harris, University of Lancaster, UK Dee Heddon, University of Glasgow Kirti Jain, National School of Drama, India Derek Paget, University of Reading, UK Meredith Rogers, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia Glendyr Sacks, University of Haifa, Israel Elizabeth Sakellaridou, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece Denis Salter, McGill University, Montreal, Canada

Advisory Board

Martin Banham, University of Leeds, UK Adrian Kiernander, University of New England, Australia Alison Oddey, University of Northampton Patrice Pavis, Université Paris 8, France Janelle Reinelt, University of Warwick, UK William Huizhu Sun, Shanghai Theatre Academy, China Julia Varley, Odin Theatre, Denmark Phillip Zarrilli, University of Exeter, UK

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Anuradha Kapur

National School of Drama, India

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Tufts University, USA

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Dept. of Drama University of Exeter +44 (0) 1392 262334

ISSN 1468–2761

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Studies in Theatre and Performance Volume 28 Number 2 © 2008 Intellect Ltd Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/stap.28.2.91/1

Brecht and the disembodied actor

Roy Connolly and Richard Ralley


This article examines Brecht’s contribution to acting theory and the various claims and confusions that have surrounded this contribution when attempts have been made to impose unity upon his ideas or to re-inscribe his theory in light of his practice. Rather than get caught up in existing debates, our strategy is to examine the processes that Brecht describes as a problem of action or behaviour, to look for a practical method for the actor and to interrogate this method via ref- erence to current ideas in the psychology of embodiment. In doing so, we contend that, although Brecht’s ideas about acting are (and have been historically) employed to legitimise a range of practices, they are, in their essence, problematic, as they depend upon an over-conceptualisation of the human being and a privileg- ing of symbolic communication.







Brecht and the Academy

Can the approach to acting espoused by Brecht be practically implemented, and if so in what ways might this approach be said to differ from other forms of acting? It might be assumed that this question is already thoroughly exhausted, as ‘Brechtian’ acting often appears to circulate as standard currency for students, teachers and critics of theatre alike. The shorthand for Brecht is certainly well known: Brechtian acting is, ‘devoid of emotion, declamatory, rooted in broad physical caricatures with no basis in reality’ (Krause: 273). Alternatively, it is popularly held that, even if difficult to cir- cumscribe in their own right, Brecht’s ideas about acting can at least be elaborated through reference to their opposition with Stanislavski’s system (Zarrilli: 225) or Strasberg’s method (Krause: 273). This ‘folk’ view of Brecht has significant prevalence, perhaps not least because it allows Brecht’s ideas to be rendered with a neatness that facilitates their handing down to successive generations of actors and students. However, though this version of Brecht may suit the exigencies of classroom, rehearsal or assessment, the generalisation it entails will be obvious to any but the most dilettante reader. Amid some sections of the critical establishment, this version of Brecht has of course been under challenge for some time. Eric Bentley drew attention to the dangers of creating binary oppositions between Brecht and Stanislavski as early as 1964 in his essay ‘Are Stanislavski and Brecht Commensurable?’ (although, ironically, at the same time, incorporating the binarism into his argument). Following Bentley, initiatives designed to expose the flaws that underpin accounts of

Brecht’s ideas – as simply antithesis to mimetic acting – have been numer- ous. These studies provide a more convincing portrait of Brecht by high- lighting not only the problem of constructing binary oppositions but also by drawing attention to the fragmented nature of Brecht’s output. In this regard, Peter Brooker argues against the tendency to see Brecht’s work as fixed and unchanging, or to view it as ‘revered holy writ’ (Brooker: 185); Elizabeth Wright reminds us we are dealing, not with a closed system, but with ideas formulated over thirty years which are ‘scattered about his writings in the form of aphorisms, poetic fragments, working notes, and instructions’ (Wright: 25); and John Rouse draws our attention to the absence of the dominance of any single all-powerful acting technique, let alone the dominance of a global acting methodology (Rouse: 238), and identifies, on the contrary, ‘the application of virtually the full range of customary actor techniques’ (Rouse: 238). These studies have addressed some problems in the ‘folk’ conception of Brecht. In doing so, they have, however, done little to resolve the matter of what constitutes the Brechtian performer and, arguably, threaten to increase contention. A quick review of the literature certainly discloses a diversity of opinion. We thus, at once, find Brecht co-opted to reaffirm conventional mimetic forms through a theatre founded on ‘the truth of life and the warmth of the presentation of the role’ (Eddershaw 1994: 262); Brecht as advocate of heightened playing and ‘a theatre of rhetorical gesture and process’ (Baugh: 250); Brecht as rebel against self-indulgent performance and actors who will not subordinate themselves to the demands of the play (Hurwicz, cited in Eddershaw 1994: 262); and Brecht as the father of modern theatre, whose ideas, either alone (cf. Brooker:

194) or in combination with other practitioners (usually Artaud), ‘provide the basic structure of contemporary drama’ (Wright: 115). Most recently, Brecht has emerged as the key practitioner for anti-foundationalists or proponents of postmodern theatre, for whom Brecht is seen as providing a means of resisting, destabilising, or even dissolving Western Theatre tradi- tion (cf. Diamond 1997). In such readings Brecht’s contemporary heirs are held to lie not in ‘theatre’ but in Performance Art, ‘where interpreta- tion is banished from the stage’ (Baugh: 251) or experimental feminist performance (cf. Love 1995). As Michael Patterson points out, what we mean by Brechtian continues, then, to be variously misapplied, loosely defined and freely adapted to the point where it can seem to be rendered meaningless (Patterson: 273). Yet simultaneously it is commonplace for the notion of Brechtian acting to persist as a form that can be absolutised and distinguished from customary, mimetic or historical forms of acting. Can we get beyond this confusion? As Michael Patterson has it, can we get beyond using Brecht’s ideas as a ‘critical hold all’ (Patterson: 273) which legitimises all kinds of practices or as an ‘exercise in public relations’ (Patterson: 275)? This article seeks to identify the limits of Brecht’s theories about acting. We explore the models of performance that Brecht advocates and examine

the relationship between approach and function that he expounds. In doing so, we address the issue of ‘Brechtian’ acting, not only as a philo- sophical problem, but also as a problem of action or behaviour, and ask whether or not Brecht provides a practical method for the actor. In con- fronting these issues, we argue that there are clear reasons why Brecht’s theory is over-interpreted and/or misunderstood, and suggest that the confusion Brecht provokes is not, as might be supposed, merely a conse- quence of contention over his theories, but rather because of the view of the human being that he adopts. In this respect, we contend that Brecht inherits a dualism which divorces mind from body and privileges represen- tation over action (Clark; Dennett; Damasio 1994). Although privileging the mind and the human’s symbol-making capacities – and correspond- ingly underestimating physical processes – is, of course, complicit with a vein in twentieth-century epistemology, we argue that in fragmenting the human being’s emotional, physical and cognitive processes, Brecht inscribes a disjunctive view of the actor. Thus, just as it might be argued that the contradictions between Brecht’s political beliefs and personal behaviours reflect his deferral of engagement with the physical world, so Brecht’s misunderstanding of human communicative processes (his over- conceptualisation of the human and his reliance on the symbolic order) produces a considerable problem for the practical realisation of a perfor- mance style. And, consequently, though Brecht’s ideas may appear theo- retically compelling, they do little to negotiate the problem of acting as it exists in the real world. In addressing this matter, we turn to the growing literature in psychology that argues that dualist views need to be replaced by embodied views of cognition, which emphasise that thought is a practi- cal activity (Cosmides and Tooby; Gibson; Glenberg; O’Regan and Noe), and that physical, emotional and mental capacities must be integrated if human communication and interpretation (e.g. the actor-audience rela- tionship) is to be understood. 1

1. ‘A growing body of opinion suggests that the view of cognition as distinct from perception, action, and emotion has no theoretical or empirical


the root of these distinctions is a

fundamentally disembodied and dualist view of the mind. The notion of a central executor that is distinct from the information acquired from the



such] distinctions do not correspond to the structure of the nervous system or to how its functions are physiologically implemented’ (Barton



Brecht’s theory

It might be assumed that the inconsistencies in the reception of Brecht’s theories can be attributed to inconsistencies in the theories themselves, with these in turn attributed to the long period over which they are com- posed, a period during which Brecht steadily works his way through a series of models for the theatre. There is some truth here, as there are undoubtedly contradictions among Brecht’s ideas, and we will return to these later (cf. Wright: 25). Equally though, there is, in fact, very little dis- agreement about the most salient points that Brecht makes. In this regard, the same key propositions of Brecht emerge in criticism time and again. Foremost here is Brecht’s advocacy of an approach to acting and the stage that will demystify representation. This is encapsulated by Brecht’s much- cited reference to the importance of creating a shift from a theatre based upon emotion and catharsis to a theatre founded on critical detachment, in which ‘instead of sharing an experience the spectator must come to

grips with things’ (Brecht: 23). Central to this is, of course, the alienation effect, in which what is ‘natural’ will ‘have the force of what is startling’ (Brecht: 71). The alienation effect promises to transform the actor from ‘icon’ to signifier, with the actor no longer achieving impact by embodying

a character but instead by presenting ‘the person demonstrated as a

stranger’, with the character’s action placed firmly in parenthesis (Brecht:

125). A concise version of this view is supplied by Elin Diamond:

In performance the actor alienates rather than impersonates her character, she quotes or demonstrates her character’s behaviour instead of identifying with it. Brecht theorises that if the performer remains outside of the character’s feelings, the audience may also and thus freely analyze and form opinions about the play’s ‘fable’.

(Diamond 1997: 45)

Theory set against practice

The problem of these statements begins to emerge when we examine Brecht’s practice. Here it becomes clear that the aspects of the theory cir- cumscribed above (abstract and philosophical ideas) do not square with the exigencies of Brecht’s rehearsal room. Eddershaw, indeed, suggests that, in rehearsal, the ambition articulated in Brecht’s theory is put to one side in place of pragmatism (Eddershaw 1994: 254). Weber (1994) also suggests that Brecht’s practice reveals an emphasis on results, and there- fore only partial engagement with the mechanics or process via which

results are achieved. Similarly, accounts of the detail of Brecht’s rehearsal- room work pull against the theory. Though the rehearsal techniques that have become known as Brechtian undoubtedly have utility, here, rather than a manifestation of ‘difference,’ we find techniques that are equivalent

in many respects to, and in some cases overlap markedly with, those tech-

niques developed by other twentieth-century European practitioners (such as behavioural analysis, role-swapping, narration, and use of metonymy; cf. Rouse; Eddershaw 1994, 1996). These techniques are less a reflection

of a theoretical position than a means of textual analysis and a series of

more or less inventive responses to the problem of staging the play. Beyond this, Brecht’s process is documented as relying to a startling extent on physical circumstance – what he calls the ‘taken for granted’ (Brecht:

235). This is particularly the case where performance is concerned. Although Brecht’s theory is elaborated by turning, as Stanislavski does, to what can be learnt from great actors, Brecht does not proceed from these actors to analysis, he rather seeks to appropriate their skills to support his theory, co-opting virtuoso performers to his cause. Furthermore, rather than reformists, the actors he favours are those actors we might identify with the traditions of melodrama and personality-based performance, actors marked by plangent vocal or physical characteristics or exceptional technique. Here we have Frank Wedekind, Hans Gaugler, Helene Weigel, Charlie Chaplin and Charles Laughton. Laughton presents a particularly

interesting case, as Brecht depicts him as a Gordon Craig-like renaissance figure, expresses reverence for Laughton’s ‘inimitable’, extra-theatrical qualities, and even praises Laughton for the very thing he is usually taken to oppose: his command of inspiration (Brecht: 163). Brecht’s lack of engagement with the practical problem of acting is further underlined by the dismissiveness with which he is reported to have treated the complexi- ties of the actor’s task at various points in his career, as Thomson notes his failure to ‘appreciate, or even to recognise, the needs and vulnerabilities of actors’ (Thomson: 26) and his refusal to entertain the task-based difficul- ties they might experience (Thomson: 27). Brecht’s real-world relationship with actors might then be variously characterised as based on pragma- tism, reverence or aloofness. Though these attitudes reveal diverse empha- sis, in all cases there is a clear ambition in Brecht’s view of acting that does not find equivalence in practice. The pragmatic Brecht, concerned with the practicalities of acting, iterates other theatre forms or draws upon the extra-theatrical characteristics of actors to negotiate the gaps in his theory. The aloof or reverent Brecht meanwhile displays a tendency to over-regard ideal forms and to avoid engagement with the real-world com- plexities of realising a method. Bearing this in mind, it is important to treat with circumspection the suggestion that Brecht’s ideas are ‘workable’ if, or when, properly understood, as it is precisely this kind of attitude that underlies the confusion that actors and students experience when first introduced to Brecht. 2 To develop this point further, it is helpful to turn our attention to the historical context that informs Brecht’s attitude towards the actor.

2. We find Rouse suggesting that the dynamic between practice and theory is such that Brecht continually modifies or reconstitutes his theories on the basis of what he learns from his practice (Rouse: 228), and Brooker denying any retreat from theory into practice and claiming instead that there is a fully materialist, that is to say practical, accent to his theory: ‘the theory of gestic acting was a theory of performance’ (Brooker: 197).

Brecht’s Adversaries

Brecht’s theatre is founded, like most twentieth-century theatre move- ments, on the rejection of existing paradigms (cf. Zarrilli: 222): specifically, according to Eddershaw, the style of acting he observed in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s (Eddershaw 1994: 254) which swamps the audience with emotionalism and thereby deceives or dupes them. Brecht thus con- tends: ‘We need to get right away from the old naturalistic school of acting,

the dramatic school with its large emotions

sentation that can express our time’ (Brecht: 68). As will be evident, there is a marked overlap with Stanislavski’s project to rid the theatre of histri- onic performance. However, as mentioned previously, whereas Stanislavski starts with real human beings and the rehearsal room and seeks to unpick what is going on through observation and experiment, Brecht begins with abstraction and theory and applies this to the physical realm. Furthermore, he favours, not an attack on anything as small as the over-emotionalism of a few German actors, but instead prefers large revolutionary language and opposition to the whole of Aristotelian theatre. This is, of course, a vague and generalised opponent (see Brecht: 87) which conflates a range of theatre forms (forms that Brecht subsequently both approves and disap- proves). Brecht nevertheless maintains his opposition to the Aristotelian

This isn’t the kind of repre-

on the basis of its collusion with emotionalism and illusion (Brecht: 78). Brecht’s attack on the actor convincing an audience that he or she really

is the character (see Eddershaw 1994: 255) proceeds on this basis. Brecht

characterises this theatre as one in which the actor loses himself in the role, persuading himself and thereby others that the actor is transformed

completely into the character (Brecht: 137, 214). In contrast, Brecht seeks

a theatre in which the actor is a demonstrator. There is however, something

rather disingenuous about all this. Brecht’s account of realistic theatre is certainly guilty of the very thing for which he admonishes realistic theatre:

conflating representation with reality. His reference to transformation – ‘the actor convinces himself and thereby the audience’ – in particular mis- represents or misunderstands realistic acting. The ontological confusion certainly stands out, for even though realism might exploit a certain iconicity, realism is never like reality. In psychological terms, the acted role

is always just that, ‘acted’. Even if the stage environment, conscious effort and emotion provide enough information to convince the actor’s physical nature of the ‘truth’, there is still no need to think of the actor becoming, clinically, a different person. The actor may be immersed in an experience, but this does not create an independent, continuously experiencing self, free of the actor’s own ability to monitor and control events (cf. Metzinger). The enacted role is merely the ‘centre of narrative gravity’ (in Dennett’s terms). On these terms, for Stanislavski (for example) acting is a practical skill in terms of combining sensations and memories in, crucially, very active and dynamically varying contexts, but this does not diminish the fact that the actor always has control over the character and knows he is acting. Piscator makes a similar point, reminding us that all acting involves the self-conscious regard for what is shown to an audience or, put another way, demonstration (see Krause: 272). Brecht then sets himself against an ill-defined and highly questionable opponent. Aristotelian theatre is at once generalised, conflated with emotionalism and presented as accom- plishing an ontological shift. Subsequently, Brecht is led into many tangles as he is forced to qualify exactly what it is that he opposes and how his theories play out in light of this. Furthermore, in making these qualifica- tions, exactly what it is that he opposes is subject to considerable fluidity, drifting as it does between the extremes of heightened playing – the non- realistic (cf. Brecht: 213) – and illusionism – too realistic (cf. Brecht: 142).

Brecht in practice

Given Brecht’s endeavour to work within the structures of mainstream theatrical practices, it is perhaps not surprising that, when we look for dif-

ference in his approach to acting we find, instead, re-inscription of existing theatrical approaches under the name of epic theatre. This is also the case

if we turn away from theoretical issues to look at famous examples of

Brechtian acting. To elaborate this point it is instructive to refer to perhaps the most famous of all Brecht’s acted roles: Helene Weigel’s performance in the Berliner Ensemble’s 1951 production of Mother Courage. For many

critics, Weigel’s Courage is the definitive Brechtian performance and it is thus much cited as an exemplar of the Brechtian approach. Furthermore, this exemplariness is held to adhere in one sequence of Weigel’s perfor- mance in particular: her use of a heightened and elaborate, yet also silent, scream to express grief at the death of her son Swiss Cheese. On these terms, according to Rouse, Weigel’s scream is an example of the ‘type of carefully elaborated physicality that the ensemble’s actors were expected to develop’ (Rouse: 236). He argues furthermore:

The very physicality of the moment moves it beyond the level of naturalistic grief with which an audience can empathise. We are shocked, stunned, shaken by Courage’s grief, but we are not allowed to share it on the plane of petty emotional titillation. The technically accomplished extremity of Weigel’s acting, in short, defamiliarises Courage’s grief through the very demonstration of that grief.

(Rouse: 236)

This kind of elaboration of natural behaviour is thus held to capture Brecht’s idea of action formed on a large scale and ‘given a stamp that sinks into the memory’ (Brecht: 83), or alternatively, using Brecht’s terms, this may be identified as an example of the gestic principle taking over from ‘the principle of imitation’ (Brecht: 86). Though this may be critically exigent, when we examine the detail of what is described here, we find existing theatre technique – if not the nature of Western theatre itself - has been co-opted as Brechtian. As critics such as Victor Shklovsky and Peter Stockwell argue, the key feature of all literary and theatrical works is to make the familiar world appear new to us by focusing in, re-ordering, jux- taposing, and heightening reality. Thus, all theatre might be said to involve something very similar to the kind of defamiliarisation Rouse identifies:

that is, all fictive experimenting with human experience opens up a space for reflection on the world and/or critique (cf. Shklovsky; Stockwell: 14). In terms of the specifics of Weigel’s approach, it is also difficult to detect where her approach departs from mimetic or Aristotelian theatre. For in mimetic theatre, the emphasis is also less upon faithfully depicting appear- ances than upon distilling and heightening ‘real life’. In both approaches, the actor seeks to communicate an idea, not by producing a character in totality but by drawing on certain correspondences with reality. Furthermore, we find the clearest account of this kind of metonymic process (the highly mediated selection from life) in Stanislavski’s system, where he defines the actor’s task, not as to reproduce or capture reality, but as to distil quotidian behaviour via ‘attention’ or ‘purpose’ of various kinds: that is, the actor must resist ‘amateurish rubber stamps’ (Stanislavski: 28) and traits that ‘happen to flash into the mind’ (Stanislavski: 30), and instead refine action, trans- forming reality into a poetical equivalent via the creative imagination (Stanislavski: 174). What we have in the practice of Brecht’s most famous actors is not an oppositional mode of performance, but rather reinscription

3. In this regard, both practitioners draw heavily on the account of Brecht offered by Elin Diamond in her 1988 essay ‘Brechtian theory/feminist theory: towards a gestic feminist criticism’, and later in Unmaking Mimesis. However, although Diamond attests to the ‘stunning’ effects of Brechtian acting, she offers little in the way of practical method, conceding that ‘A-effects are not easy to produce’ (1997: 47).

of existing theatre practices (Brecht: 199). If Brecht’s theory does (as Rouse suggests) follow behind practice, Brecht’s theorisation of his practice is pri- marily a reconceptualisation and redesignation of established techniques. Elizabeth Wright effectively sums up the point:

What he calls ‘epic theatre’ is not a wilful invention displacing the ‘natural’ theatre, the point being that there is no such thing. Both epic and ‘natural’ theatre have demonstrators who show their interests, spectators who are caught up in the events and prepared to take the role of arbitrators. In each case there is an interplay of art and life: the experience is ‘repeated’ and the- atricalised, rather than imitated as if it were happening for the first time.

(Wright: 31–32)

Contemporary Brechtian performers

What, though, if we look at the area where Brecht’s contemporary advo- cates are most likely to be found, in the field of experimental performance? Might the practices of avant-garde theatre uncover the radical potential in Brecht? As already mentioned, Brecht provides, if not a practical method, then certainly inspiration for those seeking a means to resist the ‘repre- sentational frames of conventional theatre’ (Love: 275). Here, the practices of the actors Lauren Love and Duane Krause are instructive, as both per- formers offer reflections on their attempts to implement an ‘epic’ style. 3 For each practitioner, Brecht’s appeal rests on the same proposition:

When he appears on the stage, besides what he actually is doing he will at all essential points discover, specify, imply what he is not doing; that is to say he will act in such a way that the alternative emerges as clearly as possible, that

his acting allows the other possibilities to be inferred

The technical term for this procedure is

every gesture signifies a decision

every sentence and

‘fixing the “not


(Brecht: 137)

Following this idea, Krause states that, when adopting an epic approach, actors should attempt to reveal to the audience the choices they have made in presenting their character (rather than mask these choices and make them appear inevitable) so that alternatives may be recognised (Krause: 273). To achieve this end, Krause recommends a performance style based upon a pastiche of different representational forms. In addi- tion, he argues that the actor should reveal the means of representation at several points during performance itself by ‘dropping’ the constructed façade and assuming a ‘natural’ voice and posture to address the audience directly. Working in this way, he argues: ‘the spectator’s view of the char- acter is constantly intercepted by the actor/subject’ (Krause: 265), and as a consequence he suggests, by way of Elin Diamond, ‘the spectator is able to see what s/he can’t see: a sign system as a sign system’ (Diamond 1988: 90). However, despite Krause’s enthusiasm for this approach, when it comes to

the issue of whether or not his practical methods achieve their express ends, Krause is rather circumspect. He offers the conjecture that the per- formance is ‘no doubt “strange” as well as “surprising” for at least some of the audience’ (Krause: 274), but does not interrogate the viewer’s experi- ence beyond this. Thus, though Krause may successfully draw attention to the duality of performance, he does not distinguish the duality he fore- grounds from the duality that is present in all acting (actor/role). He cer- tainly does not get as far as explicating the relationship between the actor

disrupting character and the audience engaging in critique. Love’s approach is more politically motivated than Krause. She aligns herself with a feminist performance project and seeks a performance technique which will ‘allow

the actor to point to the construction of

the basis of resisting organic performance lies in two things. She mirrors Krause’s desire to have the character and actor present simultaneously, as she argues having an actor who stands beside the role, and steps in and out of character (Love: 287, 288) creates a unique tension which, in turn, opens a space for critique (Love: 282). In addition, Love’s approach is also marked by the endeavour to disrupt the conventional idea of female char- acter and thereby resist collusion with the male gaze (Love: 284). She thus foregrounds the importance of playing against the text’s overall image, and rewriting character through performance. However, although Love enthuses about the possibility of resistant performance on this basis, her approach – like Krause’s – stumbles on the point of intentional fallacy. She focuses on what is intended to be read in a highly selective manner. Furthermore, upon inspection, the resistant element in her work owes more to Stanislavski’s notion of the superobjective than anything in Brecht’s theory (cf. Love: 286), with the performance she advocates resembling the performance of any actor playing with an awareness of subtext, and offer- ing a reading or interpretation of a role. Giving the inconsistencies implicit here, we find Love ultimately unable to testify to the efficacy of her work and acknowledging that the outcome of her efforts is rather dubious:

gender’ (Love: 276). For Love,

‘Whether or not the spectators questioned their assumptions about gender or representation is unknown to me and highly doubtful’ (Love: 288). Consequently, though placing their faith in, and weight behind, Brecht, both Krause and Love end their reflections upon their work with self- effacement, looking towards the future breakthroughs of like-minded prac- titioners rather than celebrating their own achievements. This deferral is, though, perhaps not surprising, as it mirrors Brecht’s own experience. We might remember that Brecht himself was circumspect about his success in realising his theories, noting that only ‘a few connoisseurs’ were apprecia- tive of his new, cold, rational method and that, at best, this approach rep- resented a staging post on the way towards the new theatre (Brecht: 28). In the remainder of the article, we propose to show that the inability of Brecht and these other practitioners to realise their intentions is not, as they assume, because of the embryonic nature of their efforts, it is rather because their practice incorporates an erroneous view of the human

4. See Durkheim’s influential suggestion that society is a body of ideas that is not constrained by human nature and which provides the mould for the content of the mind (Durkheim [1895]1962). For a converse modern view see Buss (2001):

‘Culture rests on a foundation of evolved psychological mechanisms and cannot be understood without those mechanisms’ (Buss:


5. Brecht sees behaviourism as the source of a new art capable of affecting the world: ‘We have acquired an entirely new psychology:

viz. the American Dr Watson’s Behaviourism Such is our time, and the theatre must be acquainted with it and go along with it, and work out an entirely new sort of art such as will be capable of influencing modern people’ (Brecht: 67).

being. In order to make this argument, it is appropriate at this point to turn to something that may appear to have been conspicuously absent from this article – Brecht’s politics, for it is Brecht’s politics that provide the clue to the problem with his view of the actor.

The constructed human

It is, of course, commonplace to note the influence of Marxist epistemology on Brecht’s thinking, so we do not propose to visit this topic in depth. For present purposes (our discussion of Brecht and the actor), there are, though, two aspects of Marxism that are particularly relevant. Firstly, Marxism’s suspicion of the natural order of things and accompanying emphasis, in league with early twentieth-century psychology, on the con- structedness of the human. 4 And, secondly, Marxism’s concern with raising consciousness about the power relationships at work beneath social and human structures. Drawing on Marx, Brecht seeks to disrupt the idea of

human nature, natural order and ‘“universal” situations’ (Brecht: 96) and to reveal the human world – and by extension the human being’s identity – as an artificial or arbitrary construct, bound up in changeable social, political and economic factors (Brecht: 86). In doing so, Brecht petitions subjects to become aware of their socialisation and political oppression. This view of the human as social rather than biological entity is captured at its most extreme when Brecht speculates: ‘as in mathematics, it is only the series which assigns meaning. “One is no one. One has to be addressed by another”; man only comes into being via the language of a collective, by being called upon to occupy a place. Identity is not there from birth but produced within a signifying system’ (cited in Wright: 35). On these terms the human being is represented as narrative matter or data with his/her identity at best unstable.

The influence of behaviourism

The depiction of fluid identity may suggest chaos at the personal level, but Brecht finds a point of anchorage amid this account of the human through an appeal to rationality and science. Furthermore, in science he finds a natural ally for his perspective in behaviourist psychology which, like Marxism, focuses on the social influences on behaviour. 5 In this regard, behaviourist science’s aim to control clear and distinct experimental oper- ations and focus entirely on observables rather than the inner sources of mind provides Brecht with the inspiration for a new theatre technique in which ‘social laws’ are subjected to rigorous rational investigation (Brecht:

50, 67, 86). Under the influence of behavourism, Brecht seeks to stage narratives which will enable a ‘radical transformation of the mentality of our time’ with ‘theatre, art, and literature [forming] the ideological super- structure for a solid, practical rearrangement of our age’s way of life’ (Brecht: 23). In this it is important to note that Brecht conceives that it is ‘mental’ influence that impinges on the body of society rather than the underlying subconscious imperatives of evolved psychological mechanisms

(Brecht: 23). As a consequence, Brecht aims not merely to reflect the world but to lift the world onto a dialectic plain through abstraction, and to focus upon symbolic meaning and the essential aspects of social forces.

Appealing to consciousness

Brecht’s privileging of rationality and second-order or symbolic meaning is bound up with a sense of the necessity for communication to take place on the conscious plane in order to facilitate critical detachment and analysis:

that is, playing has ‘to enable and encourage the audience to draw abstract conclusions’ (Brecht: 100). 6 In this respect, the play-audience relationship

is seen as being underpinned by the kind of algorithmic rules by which

mathematical problems may be solved, and the actor is inscribed as data that can be fragmented and read in multiple fashion by an autonomous spectator. Brecht’s view here is utopian. He wishes to produce an audience who will confront the contradictions and flux of the social world (Brecht:

76). Emphasising ideology and social change is, though, also for Brecht a means of addressing what he sees as the covert operations of existing theatre practice, where acceptance or rejection of actors’ actions and utterances take place ‘in the audience’s subconscious’ (Brecht: 91). For Brecht this

kind of physical, non-mediated, non epistemised interaction is to be resisted

at all costs. The body, unlike the mind, is not to be trusted, as it risks

duping the audience or flooding the human system with the chaos of the organic. 7 In this regard, Brecht sees ‘flesh and blood’ not as a wellspring

of human nature and communication but as site of dysfunction, i.e. the

body is the source of a cloddish resistance that stands in the way of ideas

(Brecht: 46).

6. This, once again, illustrates the extent to which Brecht’s views reflect the ideas of his time; a similar distrust of the subconscious and the body was prevalent in psychology.

7. Brecht’s distrust of processes that are below consciousness leads him to warn against employing evolutionary capacities as a means of communication: for example ‘a turn of the head with tautened neck muscles, will magically lead the audience’s eyes’ (Brecht: 193).

Disembodiment in practice/the disembodied actor

A conception of the human as data rather than physicality, then, forms

the basis of how Brecht approaches the actor. He demotes the physical and focuses on laws and that which is available to consciousness. He seeks not

to exploit physical communicative capacities but to disembody the actor into

the semiotic, so that a language of metaphor stands in for direct experience, and the actor operates as a signifier (a symbol) rather than as a referent (cf. Wright: 114). This preoccupation with the symbolic order is reflected

in many aspects of Brecht’s practice. As an example, we can note Brecht’s

fondness for mime, where the creation and manipulation of symbolic lan- guage rather than direct or pre-symbolic communication requires the spec- tator to work at constructing narrative meaning. Of course, more notably, this is also at the root of Brecht’s suspicion of actors’ over-identifying with the characters they play and of iconicity in performance. In order to avoid direct correlation (the unity of actor and role) Brecht employs a variety of devices to dehumanise the actor and turn the actor into a symbol (make- up, performance style etc.). His employment of a device such as the actor switching between mimetic acting and narration also reflects this ambi- tion (as narration is also of course another means of mediating reality)

(Brecht: 58). In all cases Brecht sees it as his task to establish new rules for the art of acting, with devices such as the alienation effect, the gestic style and narration operating as symbolic devices ‘designed to disrupt the imag- inary unity between producer and text, actor and role, and spectator and stage’ (Wright: 2). As Elizabeth Wrights notes, this is an enterprise which is similar in spirit to Barthes’s project in S/Z (Wright: 2). However, as Brecht works with actors, and not as Barthes does with words, Brecht runs together organic experience (what is presented via the body) and the symbolic (what is read).

Brecht’s Error

In conflating the human with the operation of the human’s consciousness, and, indeed, inferring that the body needs to be held together by con- sciousness, Brecht overestimates mental processes and correspondingly underestimates physical capacities, direct human communication and the body. This misunderstanding or mistrust of the body leads Brecht to divorce information from its carrier and cut the actor adrift in a disembod- ied or post-human theatre (Brecht: 95). In seeking to transform acting from an organic process to the manipulation of data, Brecht overlooks the extent to which the organic and not the textual (extra-theatrical qualities and information from outside the play) must be drawn upon by both actor and audience (Brecht: 54). Similarly, in expecting the actor to have con- scious control of acting Brecht fails to appreciate how the actors who must develop his works actually function. His acting theory is thus incompatible with what the actor is able to achieve. Human predispositions cannot be ignored. They are central to communication. Without the human element acting is reduced to a mechanical process. In practice, furthermore, the reality of the human will always intervene and get in the way of conscious awareness. The tension here is confirmed by practical experiences and commentaries of actors, for whom Brecht’s theories over-intellectualise and/or misconceive the nature of acting. This sense is effectively captured by Alec Guinness’s contention that Brecht’s theories ‘cut right across the nature of the actor substituting some cerebral process for the instinctive’ (cited in Eddershaw 1994: 265). And it is also reflected upon by Anthony Sher and Charles Laughton, who, despite being renowned exponents of Brechtian theatre, each, nevertheless, profess not to understand Brecht and thus to employ conventional acting techniques when performing in his plays (Eddershaw 1994: 260, 265). Such testimonies help substantiate the view that it is not sufficient to conceive of the human (and therefore the actor) as a cultural construct; the biological dimension must also be understood. In order to explore this problem further it is instructive at this point to turn to the much debated topic of emotion.


The role of emotion (or not) in Brecht’s theatre has generated much dis- cussion. This is because of clear tension in Brecht’s expressions. On the

one hand, he conceives of emotion as a source of disruption which induces helpless and involuntary ‘lurchings’ (Brecht: 89) and so suggests that actors should play against emotion (Brecht: 122) portraying incidents of utmost passion without delivery becoming heated (Brecht: 93). He also claims that demonstration can ‘lose its validity’ if emotion is reproduced

(Brecht: 122); and at his most provocative asserts his disdain for ‘the scum who want to have the cockles of their hearts warmed’ (Brecht: 14). On the other hand, Brecht notes that ‘neither the public nor the actor must be stopped from taking part emotionally’ (Brecht: 173) and admonishes the frequently recurring mistake of supposing that epic production dispenses with emotional effects (Brecht: 88). After considerable debate on this topic, most critics have abandoned the old assumption that Brecht throws emotion out of the theatre, and now accept that emotion is, in fact, very much a part of his work (cf. Meyer-Dinkgräfe: 64). However, the various debates about whether or not Brecht permits emotion, and, if so, the nature of this emotion, have obscured the real problem: Brecht inscribes an emotion/reason dualism which misunder- stands the way people transmit and receive information (Brecht: 15) (for more on Brecht’s view of rational and emotional points of view see Brecht:

145). Though this is consistent with much of European epistemology, it is

a perspective that is problematic from the point of view of modern psy-

chology. Here, the idea that cognition is skewed towards representation and abstract problem-solving is increasingly being replaced by approaches that look at the affective nature of mind. Under such approaches, the human is no longer seen on the one hand as a coldly rational processor of information or, on the other, as irrational and error-prone. Emotion is,

rather, accepted as an integral part of thinking. This can be termed a shift from cold to hot cognition. In hot cognition, motivational systems are seen to drive cognitive systems, and emotion and purpose are held to be at the heart of thinking and engagement with the world. A growing number of researchers working from this premise thus argue that emotion helps human beings organise and select responses when negotiating the environment and each other (see Brecht: 193). For Metzinger, emotion is central to the notion of the ‘self’. For Panksepp, emotion provides a precondition for the emergence of thought and reflective self-awareness (Panksepp: 150). For LeDoux, the human system is an emotional system (LeDoux: 72). And for Damasio – perhaps the most significant contemporary theorist of emotion – emotion not only makes communication more efficient, it also operates as

a kind of metacognition (Damasio 2003: 69), which is essential to thinking,

meaning and decision-making (Damasio 2003: 121). Correspondingly, Damasio argues that judgements made in ‘emotion-impoverished’ circum- stance are likely to be erratic, or underdeveloped (Damasio 2003: 144–50). These perspectives foreground the efficacy present in emotion. Such views have many advantages for explaining human interaction with the world. They are also helpful to the analysis of theatre, as they offer a plau- sible account of how the human being engages with the experience of a

phenomenon such as a play, by giving an indication of the kind of human tendencies that need to be drawn upon if literary artefacts are to achieve their effects (cf. Carroll 2007). In this regard, we might note the deictic manner in which drama functions, that is, how it depends on anchoring meaning to context. For a dramatic world to function, the spectator must be allowed to immerse himself in that world, and through this immersion to familiarise himself with local laws, find his way round, understand the participatory relationships between characters, and orientate himself in relation to shifts in location and time (cf. Stockwell: 44–6). A hot view of cognition suggests that emotion and empathy are the key to this kind of deictic engagement, that emotion and empathy bind the spectator to the play and facilitate the identification that is essential for tracking a charac- ter’s perspective (Stockwell: 153). In addition, emotion and empathy are the source of the ability ‘to intuit another person’s perceptions, thoughts and beliefs’ and to envision the world from someone else’s point of view (Carroll: 641; Stockwell: 171–3). On these terms emotion and empathy cannot be seen merely as unfortunate after-thoughts or side-effects of a practice such as drama, they must instead be regarded as that which makes drama possible: i.e. without emotion and empathy, the spectator would have no means of navigating a dramatic world because there would be no positive or negative feelings to prompt the spectator along his course.

In this regard, it follows that it is the affective, and not reflective conscious- ness, that is the source of the spectator’s ability to structure response to phenomena such as dramatic stage presentations. Correspondingly, modern views of cognition imply that there is a binding problem with staging nar- ratives that are shaped by conscious forms rather than by the underlying subconscious imperatives of (evolved) psychological mechanisms. These accounts suggest that, in itself, the conscious mind is unreliable and con- fabulatory and even a source of irrationality (e.g. Simons and Chabris; Metzinger: 234–7), and that what binds the human together, and to the social, is a warmer kind of cognition, emerging from emotion and the upwelling subconscious, part of which may be the ‘core consciousness’ of physical states (Damasio 2000). Under these views, thinking is part of action, and emotion is very much part of thought. In contrast, Brecht explicitly maintains an ‘uncom- promising intellectualism’, deprecating emotion in favour of reason and a socio-historical approach to the human mind (for example, Brecht suggests that Shakespeare loses his power when the individual becomes a capitalist) and assuming that everything comes together in consciousness (Brecht:

15, 20). In this, there is a preoccupation with ‘the idea of the human mind

as a carefully engineered machine

as biological organ

with an evolutionary history’ (LeDoux: 39). This may well fit the spirit of Brecht’s time, but it has disadvantageous consequences. It prompts Brecht to underestimate the role that emotion and the subconscious play for the human being and the performer; human engagement with the world is more efficient, and less abstruse than he assumes.

[rather than]

The subconscious

Brecht’s view of emotion inscribes a common metacognitive human error – the human being’s tendency to overestimate the ability of his/her own consciousness, which is tributary to an overestimation of verbal, logical, conscious intelligence, and corresponding de-emphasis of emotion, moti- vation, and context (Levin; LeDoux; and see also Dennett). Consciousness is not, though, the kind of representational and processing summation that it subjectively seems. In fact, even the fraction of the human’s inter- action with the world that is incorporated into consciousness is incom- pletely assembled (see Simons and Chabris). Evolutionary psychology helps develop this point. It emphasises that the mind is more than con- scious cognition, and that, though the human mind solves problems, it does not necessarily do so by dealing in abstract formulations but rather according to built-in adaptations (see Cosmides and Tooby). Furthermore, as the limited evolutionary remit and capacity of consciousness makes it unable to process everything adequately for performance, subconscious processing is the rule rather than the exception (LeDoux). Perceptual, motor, semantic and response processes are all regularly engaged without conscious awareness (Dehaene et al.; Milner and Goodale), and even speech and imagery, which appear to be bastions of the conscious manipulation of information, are products of subconscious manufacture. Similarly, social relationships and social decision-making depend on physical functioning, as the latent activation of motor responses is needed to understand others’ actions, emotions and intentions, and these motor responses occur during the observation of actions without ever necessarily being available as rep- resentations in consciousness (Damasio 2003; Gallese, Keysers and Rizzolatti 2004; Rizzolatti and Fogassi 2007). In all respects, the mind’s natural inclination is to distil the essence of engagement with the world. The mind sifts out useful rules about how to act, and then seeks to make these com- ponents of future responses as readily available as possible, for example, by reducing them to permanent and unconscious skills that are effortlessly recalled via the process that is commonly known as ‘procedural’ memory.

Consciousness and technique

Because he seeks to draw attention to representation and the hidden oper- ations of power, Brecht is suspicious of the notion of these kinds of natural human capacities. Instead, he has a sense of the necessity of appealing to a coldly rational human for whom interaction with the world takes place on the conscious plane. He thus seeks a means of detaching the actor and audience from their natural biological imperatives. The actor is charged with developing an effortful, self-conscious kind of acting through refer- ence to symbol and consciousness rather than the subconscious and the body (see Brecht: 128) and via this process to transform him/herself into data. This idea of detaching the actor from character rests on the idea that the inner world is separable from outer expression and that human behav- iour is predicated on conscious ideas. Brecht believes that divorcing the

actor from his ‘natural’ human state aids the process of presenting the play as a rational, perceptual problem to be solved by an audience. Brecht

also posits that this assists the spectator in becoming an autonomous maker

of meaning who analyses rather than feels as his/her first imperative and

for whom consciousness rather than the body intercedes in the reception

of the play. In psychological terms, Brecht is then focused on ‘declarative

knowledge’ that is consciously reportable. However, as noted above, this is only a subset of learned knowledge (i.e. most knowledge is unconscious, procedural and bodily). The subconscious plays a key role in interpretation and in organising activity, and it is here that most human behaviour (and communication) is sourced or generated. Consequently, abstractly model- ling the emergence of complex behavioural patterns of response from simple ones does not capture how directed purpose is embodied in an external form (how the actor acts). Thus, where Brecht expresses an acting theory, this is a theory of the mind and not the body. In this he conceives of acting as a practice where ‘Knowledge is a matter of knowing the tricks’ (Brecht:

96). However, employing techniques alone, without embedding the actor in emotion and the subconscious sources of action, is, as Stanislavski reminds us, a ‘senseless exercise’ (Stanislavski: 238). This might allow for an idealised actor who exists abstractly, but it does nothing for the actor who must deal with the contingencies of the real world. Conceiving of acting as representation and convention involves too limited a view of how the human operates. Emotion and the subconscious also must be accom- modated, as they facilitate ‘the direct cooperation of nature itself’ in per- formance (Stanislavski: 24) and scaffold human communication, such as that seen in bodily mechanisms that allow a direct communicative link between performer and viewer to exist without reflective mediation or symbolic conceptualisation (Gallese et al.). Emotions, central to the trans- mission of meaningful information, cannot be freely triggered or manipu- lated, and so in particular confront the human with the mind’s physicality (see Metzinger) that through shared inheritance provides richly for the transmission of information, if the emotional context is right. Rather than

focusing on representation, it is therefore important to establish an organic connection for the actor between outside and inside conditions. Intention, purpose or objective are not sufficient on their own, they must put nature

to work. Without this, Brecht’s pedagogics carry more than a hint of being

arbitrary, learnable behaviours (the presumption of which was the down-

fall of behaviourism). In this regard, the repeated insight from key figures and thinkers in psychological science is that we need to study the human as thoroughly engaged in action, with the purpose of all perception and thought being to serve action, and the human continually and actively using all of its capacities while interpreting and responding to the situa- tion around it (James 1890; O’Regan and Noë 2001). Developing an approach to acting that opposes or resists some of these capacities entails

a lack of engagement with the world and an inability to construct an

account of how the actor’s actions ‘play out’ or dramatic patterns emerge

(something we have already noted Brecht is culpable of in his various shifts between reverence for actors, aloofness, and pragmatism – ‘the proof of the pudding is in the eating’). This lack of engagement with the reality of the human and the physical and affective (as well as conscious) nature of the actor’s task might thus be seen as the source of the competing claims, confusions, debates and deferral that surround the topic of Brecht’s approach to the actor.


The embodied view of cognition is sometimes critiqued for offering a reductive view of the human. This is because stressing fit-for-purpose mechanisms and the natural necessities that impinge on the human risks tying the individual’s responses too closely to the external environments that specify them. In this regard, emphasising the importance of bodily mechanism (subconscious, automatic, procedural processing) can appear to entail determinism or to turn human behaviour into a motorised process. It is important that this kind of position is avoided, as it merely inverts the problem of the overestimation of consciousness that we have discussed with regard to Brecht. On these terms, Brecht’s experimental and didactic approach to the actor is not to be dismissed as mere esoteri- cism. While acknowledging that the functioning of the human mind is constrained by its biological nature, we can also note that a perspective such as that of Brecht has a contribution to make to constructing a com- prehensive account of the human. In this regard, Brecht raises important issues that provide a challenge to psychology. His insistence on con- sciousness foregrounds an important issue – the human’s non-context bound capacities (i.e. how the human being is able to detach itself from immediate circumstance, employ counterfactual thinking (see Glenberg), and explore and evaluate alternatives [Carroll: 640]). As a consequence Brecht makes a contribution to confronting psychologists with nothing less than the issue of how humans alter the world in which they live. Thus, while acknowledging the tensions in Brecht’s view of the human (and the actor), Brecht reminds us that not only the body and ‘natural response’ needs to be at the centre of any account of, or appeal to, the human (and the actor) but also consciousness and all the complexities that go with it. However, while taking on board that the social laws that Brecht addresses may vary in the extent of their subconscious and biological constraints (according to the principles of evolutionary psychology; see Boyd and Richerson; Buss), it is also important to remember that the transmission of information about such laws cannot be understood inde- pendently of the evolved design of human social interaction. Innate human systems create a direct link between human senders and receivers of information and provide a suitable scaffold for social cognition (Gallese et al.), and emotion and physical action are central not only to the trans- mission and understanding of information but also to more conceptual


The word ‘grasp’ appears in discussions of seminal brain research (particularly work by Rizzolatti et al.) that raises the prospect that imagining, simulating, understanding and doing have the same basis. Hence, with reference to empathy and the brain systems that directly link humans, as referred to in this article, Metzinger (2003:

379) applies the term ‘grasp’ to underline the importance of action to conceptual understanding.

explanations of behaviour (Barton 2007: 138–41; Damasio 2003; Gallese 2003, 2007). Consequently, the evolved capacities of social inter- relation, action and empathy are fundamental realities that must be acknowledged if a theory of acting is to be constructed and/or the con- cepts and social laws that Brecht discusses are to be grasped 8 or interro- gated by spectators.

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Brecht and the disembodied actor


Suggested citation

Connolly, R., & Ralley, R. (2008), ‘Brecht and the disembodied actor’, Studies in Theatre and Performance 28: 2, pp. 91–110, doi: 10.1386/stap.28.2.91/1

Contributor details

Roy Connolly is a Senior Lecturer in Drama, and programme leader for the MA in Contemporary Performance Practice at the University of Sunderland. His research interests include cultural identity, acting and directing. E-mail:

Richard Ralley is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Edge Hill. His research and teaching interests are in cognitive psychology, especially the psychology of perception and action, and the relationship of conscious to unconscious thought. E-mail:


Roy Connolly and Richard Ralley

Studies in Theatre and Performance Volume 28 Number 2 © 2008 Intellect Ltd

Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/stap.28.2.111/1

Following the dream/passing the meme:

Shakespeare in ‘translation’

Mike Ingham



In this article I will investigate why Shakespeare’s plays are sites of translation- adaptation-appropriation par excellence for memetic propagation within and across cultures. I will explore one of Shakespeare’s most famous and beloved works, as well as one of his most adapted, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and refer to a number of adaptations, appropriations, variations or even evolutionary mutations, as one might call them in the terminology of gene and meme theory. What I am principally interested in, for the purpose of this article, is the question of relevance and applicability of memetic concepts to Shakespeare, himself one of the most significant cultural phenomena of the last 500 years. As arguably the most influential adapting and subsequently adapted author of all time, Shake- speare is ideal for the purposes of the present study. The sheer popularity, regu- larity of performance and cultural continuity of A Midsummer Night’s Dream makes it, along with Macbeth, King Lear, Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet, highly representative in its universality. I will refer to a number of diachronic appropriations and adaptations, including Henry Purcell’s The Fairy Queen, Benjamin Britten’s more faithful operatic version of the play and George Balan- chine’s sumptuous 1962 ballet version based on Mendelssohn’s famous score. I will also discuss the current vogue for Asian adaptations of Shakespeare with a number of examples, focusing especially on Jung Ung Yang’s recent appropriation of Shakespeare’s Dream into a traditional Korean theatrical idiom for Seoul-based Yohangza Theatre Company.


cultural transmission







Korea or Asian appropriations

This exploration of literary adaptation and appropriation has had recourse at several points to companion art forms such as film and music and to the scientific domain, especially to those theories that began with Gregor Mendel and Charles Darwin in the 19th century and whose tendrils reach well into the 21st with the ongoing debates about DNA and genetic modification.

(Julie Sanders, Adaptation and Appropriation: 156)

Bless thee, Bottom, bless thee! Thou art translated.

(A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Act 3, Scene 1)

And the ‘mazed world, by their increase, now knows not which is which.

STP 28 (2) 111–126 © Intellect Ltd 2008

(A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Act 2, Scene 1)


Background and meme theory

That virtue of originality that men so strain after is not newness (there is nothing new); it is only genuineness.

(John Ruskin, Modern Painters, Vol. II)

In Michael Bristol’s book Big-time Shakespeare, the author refers to Harold Bloom’s theory of poetic cultural influence, particularly Shakespeare’s, and, extending the etymological proximity of influence and influenza, likens it to a virus, which replicates itself exponentially. In his discussion of Shakespeare’s longue durée, Bristol touches on the question of whether the cultural transmission of Shakespeare’s work has something in common with concepts of biological replication connected with the human brain and, by extension, digital replication

Does the principle of a self-replicating code or informational virus appear in the domain of culture? Bloom’s theory of influence suggests that memorable literary works are a complex form of obligate parasitism created by skilful linguistic hackers. On this view the literary artist uses the resources of a natural language to devise the self-replicating code. This then is loaded into human bio-ware, where it makes copies of itself.

(Bristol: 127)

Julie Sanders contemplates a similar scenario of dynamic cultural replica- tion in her 2006 study of literary adaptation and appropriation. She sees a necessary link, rather than a loose metaphorical analogy, between biologi- cal and cultural adaptation phenomena

What begins to emerge is the more kinetic account of adaptation and appro-

these texts often rework texts that often, themselves, reworked

texts. The process of adaptation is ongoing. It is not entirely unconnected

that the disciplinary domains in which the term adaptation has proved most

resonant are biology and ecology

[adaptive variation in species] to be a far from neutral, indeed highly active, mode of being, far removed from the unimaginative act of imitation, copying or repetition that it is sometimes presented as being by literature and film critics obsessed with ‘originality’.

Adaptation proves in these examples


(Sanders: 24)

Richard Dawkins in his influential book The Selfish Gene (1976) introduced the concept of the meme. It is defined as ‘a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation ([1976]1989: 192). A meme is an idea, but the latter emphasises the stability of the entity while the former emphasises its movements. A meme spreads and, like a gene, it replicates. Also like a gene, a meme transforms itself in accordance with the conditions of the new habitat in order to survive. The habitat of the meme is the human


Mike Ingham

brain. Susan Blackmore discusses its fundamental characteristics in The Meme Machine: ‘What then makes for a good quality replicator? Dawkins (1976) sums it up in three words – fidelity, fecundity and longevity. This means that a replicator has to be copied accurately, many copies must be made, and the copies must last a long time – although there may be trade- offs between the three’ (Blackmore: 58). Dawkins’s agenda is sociobiological. He tries to represent another dimension of human evolution stressing the role of the brain in genetic transformation. He is careful to differentiate between the gene and the

In general, memes resemble the early replicating molecules,

floating chaotically free in the primeval soup, rather than modern genes in their neatly paired chromosomal regiments’ ([1976]1989: 196). Nevertheless, Dawkins believes that memetic evolution is ‘achieving evolu- tionary change at a rate that leaves the old gene panting far behind’ ([1976]1989: 192). With methodologies of natural science, one might go so far as to argue that memes can affect the biological function of the brain, therefore other body functions and ultimately genetic revolution. That would be an ambitious and significant task for human beings’ self- understanding. Yet for the present occasion, I limit myself to using the concept of the meme without exploring the biological implications (a task for which I am, as a non-scientist, eminently unsuited!). In any case we should bear in mind that Dawkins’s original hypothesis of the meme is just that: a hypothesis and an interesting postscript to his genetic theories, as he has been at pains to point out in introducing Blackmore’s development of his hypothesis (1996: xvi). Notwithstanding reservations about the demonstrability of the meme, in Dawkins’s recent best-selling broadside against revealed religion and creationist propaganda, The God Delusion, he appears to have retained con- fidence in his original concept: ‘The meme pool is less structured and less organised than the gene pool. Nevertheless, it is not obviously silly to speak of a meme pool in which particular memes might have a “frequency” which can change as a consequence of competitive interactions with alter- native memes’ (2006: 223). Speaking of the thorny issue of fidelity, as compared to Darwinian replicators, Dawkins offers the exquisitely apt example of master-apprentice transmission of craft skills. He concludes:


‘The details may wander idiosyncratically, but the essence passes down unmutated, and that is all that is needed for the analogy of memes with genes to my work’ (2006: 224). The concept of the meme has been elaborated and applied in a number of studies of different disciplines, notably Andrew Chesterman’s applica- tion of the idea to Translation Studies. In Memes of Translation: the Spread of Ideas in Translation Theory (1997), Chesterman’s concern is translation theories. He circumscribes a number of concepts in translation theories, calling them ‘supermemes’ (after Dawkins) of translation, and discusses what they mean in different theoretical paradigms. For Chesterman, the concept of the meme ‘highlights an aspect of the translation phenomenon

Following the dream/passing the meme: Shakespeare in ‘translation’


that I want to foreground: the way that ideas spread and change as they

are translated, just as biological evolution involves mutations. In this light,

a translator is not someone whose task is to conserve something but to

propagate something, to spread and develop it: translators are agents of change’ (Chesterman: 2). In his discussion of the Source-Target supermeme

in Translation Studies, he emphasises this idea as being ‘directional’, and as

being about ‘movement along a path: cognitive linguistics would talk of a “path schema”, with the translation itself being the “trajector” moving along this path’ (Chesterman: 8). This is useful for our present purpose because the metaphor of the path offers a special dimension in the way we think about the replication of memes. According to the hypothesis, a meme reproduces itself with trans- mutation involved in the process. The new meme does not replace the parent-meme. They exist side by side. If the parent-meme does not survive,

it is because it does not adapt to either a changed or a new environment,

never because it is replaced by the new meme. Any translator, adaptor or play director can understand this perfectly well. His/her translation/ adaptation/appropriation can never replace or efface the original text, although the original might not be read by the translation’s readers or seen by spectators of the adaptation. This is true for inter-lingual transla- tion and inter-cultural transposition. I am particularly interested, in the present article, in what Roman Jakobson called inter-semiotic translation or transmutation – that is, translation across sign systems such as from words into music, from music into dance, and from dance or music into painting (Jakobson: 147). In his essay ‘The Task of the Translator’, Walter Benjamin discusses the

idea of what he terms ‘translatability’, referring to the qualities of the liter- ary text that lend themselves to translation. He goes on to say, ‘Translation, ironically, transplants the original into a more definitive linguistic realm since it can no longer be displaced by a secondary rendering. The original can only be raised there anew and at other points of time’ (Benjamin: 76).

It is this use of ‘anew’ that is particularly illuminating for theatrical adap-

tation and translation practice. Each local production of a pre-existing play, from whatever source-culture it may derive, actively seeks to reinterpret the text for a fresh target audience. This is true of many traditional theatre practices, even to some extent Japanese traditional theatre, and to a larger extent traditional Chinese theatre. It is certainly true of Shakespeare, even in the context of Globe Theatre ‘authentic’ performances. To Benjamin’s concept of translatability I would like to append that of adaptability – the extent to which a certain source-text is apt for cross-cultural transposition and mediation within a somewhat alien target culture. As this article will argue, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a pre-eminent example of adaptability, in addition to having achieved pre-eminence as a source of cultural replica- tion and transmission. At the very end of his essay on translation, Benjamin’s profoundest insight, I believe, in discussing what he calls the ‘afterlife’ of the text, is this:


Mike Ingham

Just as in the original, language and revelation are one without any tension, so the translation must be one with the original in the form of the interlinear version, in which literalness and freedom are united. For to some degree all great texts contain their potential translation between the lines.

(Benjamin: 82)

It is precisely this nebulous content contained between the lines of a dra- matic text that has inspired directors and actors of diverse cultures and generations to explore the vast possibilities inherent in the work, and re- encode the work for a fresh target audience, be their praxis intra-cultural or inter-cultural.

The afterlife of A Midsummer Night’s Dream – ‘How shall we find the concord of this discord?’

‘Ovid’s Metamorphoses are themselves a fable of constant translation, of the tragic or ironic changes of identity into new form.’

(George Steiner, After Babel: 413)

The performance history of A Midsummer Night’s Dream exemplifies the view that Shakespeare’s dramatic work is protean and elastic in its perfor- mance potentiality. To quote Fischlin and Fortier: ‘As long as there have been plays by Shakespeare, there have been adaptations of those plays’ (Fischlin and Fortier: 1). Given the huge range of adaptations and appro- priations of this play, it is therefore somewhat ironic that it is one of the few Shakespeare plays that does not appear, as far as scholarship can tell, to have been adapted predominantly from a single original source. Dating from around the same time as Romeo and Juliet and probably first per- formed in 1595, the play is, in Stanley Wells’s authoritative view, ‘one of Shakespeare’s “most individual creations”’ (Wells 1967:14). However, that is not to say that the various components of the play are without traceable literary sources. There are three main plot strands: the love affairs and quarrels between the pairs of fugitive human lovers; the strife and mischief in the fairy world of the forest; and the rehearsals and ultimate performance of the workmen preparing a dramatic interlude for performance at the wedding of the Duke of Athens. The Theseus and Hippolyta element appears to be strongly indebted to Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale and the transformation scene with the ass’s head to Apuleius’ The Golden Ass, via Adlington’s 1566 translation. It is even more evident that many of the play’s mythological references, as well as the burlesque final-act Pyramus and Thisbe performance, come from Ovid’s mythopoeic work The Metamorphoses, probably via Arthur Golding’s pedestrian trans- lation of 1567. There is strong speculation that the play was composed specifically for an aristocratic wedding in the mid-1590s and first per- formed in this celebratory context, but there is equal evidence that the Dream was primarily written for and played in the public theatres.

Following the dream/passing the meme: Shakespeare in ‘translation’


1. The libretto of The Fairy Queen is derived from an anonymous adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Subsequently it was attributed to Elkanah Settle but another possible author has been identified as Thomas Betterton, with whom Purcell collaborated on another semi-opera, Dioclesian. See The

Cambridge Introduction to English Theatre,

p. 22 for a more

detailed discussion of the idiosyncratic medley of Shakespeare’s plot details and the libretto lyrics set to music by Purcell.

2. Peter Thomson, The

Cambridge Introduction to English Theatre,


Cambridge: CUP,

p. 22.

Subsequent productions of the play itself or textual variants, bowd- lerised versions and adaptations-appropriations into other art forms or media have tended to emphasise one or two of the above plot strands, fre- quently to the detriment of the third. It seems that, to judge by a Samuel Pepys diary entry of 1662 in which the performance is described as ‘insipid’ and ‘ridiculous’, the claims of spectacular mimesis over dramatic poesis in performances of the play were already firmly established. Again this is ironic considering the magically evocative quality of the language itself. Little wonder, then, that many educated commentators and cultural con- noisseurs preferred the reading mode of Shakespearean appreciation to the live performance mode. As Wells pertinently observes, ‘Over-exploitation of the play’s opportunities for spectacle has too long a history’ (Wells: 8). That said, there is little doubt that among Shakespeare’s plays A Midsummer

Night’s Dream is commonly regarded as one of the most visually appealing and enchanting, particularly in an open-air setting where allusions to nature in the text can be experienced not only literally, but also viscerally and phenomenologically. The powerful synthesis of nature and mythology

lies at the heart of the play’s power to regenerate its magical allure for fresh audiences from century to century and continent to continent.

Henry Purcell’s baroque entertainment The Fairy Queen (1692), based on the quarrels of the mortal and fairy couples – ‘the forgeries of jealousy’ in Titania’s memorable epithet – and especially the tussle over the ‘lovely Indian boy’, set Shakespeare’s central plot line, but not his dramatic poetry

in any distinctly recognisable form. 1 To quote Peter Thomson, the work is ‘a wild composite of startling songs, bursts of dialogue from A Midsummer


musical invitations to scenic spectacle’, but for all that ‘for sheer aesthetic nerve this misshapen spectacular carries the hallmarks of the theatrical avant-garde’. 2 In the creative adaptive process Purcell created songs and airs of exquisite, crystalline beauty in his rambling, nine-masque version of the play’s central themes and motifs. The Fairy Queen prioritises music – both vocal and instrumental – mime and dance over all else. The burlesque element provided by Shakespeare’s ‘rude mechanicals’ is retained, but transformed into the presence of a drunken poet, somehow assimilated into the loose narrative, and the sexually suggestive antics of the rival factions of fairies. One of the more exotic and entirely extraneous impositions on the narrative is Oberon’s Chinese-style wedding and a monkey dance, which prefigure the human reconciliation and weddings proclaimed in ‘Sure, the dull god of marriage’ and ‘They shall be as happy’ in the final masque. It is clear from the status of Purcell’s Fairy Queen in the classical music canon that this type of inter-semiotic transposition of Shakespeare’s play can be considered great art in its own right. Consequently it may be argued that the high degree of variation in the transformed text highlights the musical-operatic form as an agent of change or cultural mutation. This in turn suggests a correlation between radical difference of the target text from the source and aesthetic value/creative independence. However,

Night’s Dream, characters who have crept in from pastoral whimsy


Mike Ingham

a much more recent variation on Shakespeare’s source, namely Benjamin

Britten’s opera, also entitled A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1959) – libretto by Britten and Peter Pears after Shakespeare – undermines any such for- mulation. Britten’s opera, by marked contrast with Purcell’s, exhibits a high degree of fidelity to Shakespeare’s formal and poetic concept, in spite

of his inevitable abandonment of iambic pentameter and trochaic tetrame- ter. Britten’s and Pears’s libretto for the opera sets many of Shakespeare’s lines, although it does take structural liberties by conflating certain scenes from different acts and omitting some of the more extended exchanges between characters. The three-act structure of Britten’s adaptation – very much a standard format for opera – succeeds in encapsulating all of the plot elements in an instantly recognisable form. Certain effects, such as skilfully devised synchronous duets and quartets covering several exchanges in the original text, capture the mood of the lovers’ quarrels wonderfully well. They convey effectively, more effectively perhaps than consecutively delivered lines of the spoken play, the insistence of each of the lovers on their own emotional perspectives and their refusal to listen to each other rationally. Britten’s master-stroke in his operatic version of this quintessential English pastoral piece is to recreate the sound world of Shakespeare’s play in a paradoxically modern and yet ancient style. In doing so he lays to rest the ghost of Mendelssohn’s magnificent but excessively associated incidental music of the romantic era, with its famous wedding march and irresistible motifs suggesting the antics of both fairies and clowns. The Mendelssohn meme had predominated for more than a hundred years and become wholly identified with Shakespeare’s play, in spite of a minor variation on

it by composer Erich Korngold in a version specially re-arranged for Max

Reinhardt’s 1935 film of the Dream. Britten succeeds in discovering a more elemental soundscape to replace the romanticised world of nineteenth- century interpretation – more chromatically nuanced than the Mendelssohn score – which harmonises perfectly with the Shakespearean text and brings out the play’s Englishness. The hauntingly beautiful blessing refrain ‘Now until the break of day’, sung by Oberon, Titania and their fairy retinue, which closes the opera, is somehow Elizabethan in its use of voices – reminiscent of Byrd, Tallis or Dowland, but at the same time modern and original, not mere pastiche. To use the meme hypothesis here seems apposite. Fecundity and longevity can be assumed to be demonstrably applicable to Shakespeare in general and to A Midsummer Night’s Dream in particular. What is more at issue in the context of the present article is the antithetical claims of free variation against imitative likeness, or, to put it in the terminology of the arts, poetic licence versus faithfulness. Variation and difference in the propagation of the ‘Dream Meme’ in a text like The Fairy Queen are offset by fidelity and proximity to the parent text in the Britten opera. The 1939 American swing musical Swinging the Dream – starring a youngish Louis Armstrong, incidentally, as Bottom – inclined more, not surprisingly, to the Purcell

Following the dream/passing the meme: Shakespeare in ‘translation’


adaptation mode. Britten, by contrast, saw something intrinsically English, pastoral and eternally magical in Shakespeare’s language, which he opted to transpose remarkably faithfully. At the same time that Britten was composing his faithful yet indepen- dent version – and there is clear concord in the discord of this paradox – George Balanchine was conceiving his neoclassical ballet of the Dream (1962) for La Scala Ballet Company, fusing his own visions of pure dance with Mendelssohn’s inspirational music. Balanchine jettisoned much of the burlesque element provided by Bottom and his fellow mechanicals, in favour of a two-part structure that highlights the disputes and confusion of the first act followed by the unifying joint nuptials of the second act. The wedding march and the various divertissements and pas de deux of the celebratory and narratively static second act indicate unequivocally where Balanchine’s interests lay for the purposes of his adaptation. In the first act, apart from the slightly bizarre variant of transforming the ‘little changeling boy’ into ‘Titania’s cavalier’ (an excessively sexual interpreta- tion of Shakespeare’s use of the word ‘squire’, it seems), the adaptation follows Shakespeare’s narrative quite closely. One exception to the work’s concentration on pure dance and aesthetic harmony is the incongruity of Bottom’s dance with Titania, a brilliant compromise between artistic purity and dramatic necessity. Having dispensed with the plot detail before the intermission, the choreographer feels free to concentrate on pure dance and spectacular configurations in the second half. Perhaps, though, such licence is not so far from the spirit of the original as may be thought. As Harold Brooks has pointed out, the music, song and dance elements in The Dream are an intrinsic part of the work’s plot, not merely an optional extra (see Brooks 1979). The work’s spectacle and its sound world go hand-in- hand with the lyricism of Shakespeare’s dramatic rhythms and cadences. The recurrent meme in all of these transpositions – and in visionary, landmark stage interpretations such as Harley Granville Barker’s 1914 Savoy Theatre production, Peter Hall’s 1959 Stratford production or the 1970 Peter Brook Royal Shakespeare Company production – relies on transmitting or regenerating the sound-vision balance at the heart of Shakespeare’s play. The physical sound experience of the language of A Midsummer Night’s Dream transcends – rather as the words of nursery rhymes or the works of Lewis Carroll fix themselves in the brain on account of their sonorities – reception of the performance on purely semantic levels. The creation of variant rhythms and musical echoes and motifs in Britten’s opera opened up the potential sound world of the play in a way that had not been explored as profoundly before. Thus, just when conventional modes of production and reception are becoming stale with the accretions of cultural fashion and one-time mould-breaking interpre- tation, the Dream meme is reinvigorated by a mutation or adaptation, which reasserts either the play’s rich cultural tradition or its potential for variation and cultural alterity. As Benjamin observed, going back to the source text and reading between the lines is the key.


Mike Ingham

Asian ‘Babes’ – Shakespeare’s Asian progeny and Yohangza Theatre Company’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream

From fairest creatures we desire increase That thereby beauty’s rose might never die

(William Shakespeare, Sonnet 1)

In recent decades there has been a proliferation of Asian adaptations of Shakespeare, whether for the stage or for the screen. Akira Kurosawa’s Ran and Throne of Blood have embedded themselves in the consciousness of Shakespeare devotees world-wide and evolved a cultural life both relative to and independent of their respective parent texts. Many Asian adapta- tions of Shakespeare are intercultural and inter-semiotic in essence, and the most memorable succeed in transplanting the Shakespearean seed into fresh and fertile cultural soil that is culturally alien from London or Stratford. Anthony Tatlow’s perception of more than a decade ago is prob- ably even truer now than when he wrote it, given the innate conservatism and resistance of the Shakespeare establishment towards any attempt to ‘take liberties’ with the Bard, and the corresponding time-lapse required for acceptance

A Japanese or Chinese Shakespeare no longer seems a contradiction in terms but can open our eyes to readings we would never have associated with those texts but which seem entirely justified and hence an enlargement of our understanding. These performances are simply more exciting and sug-

than anything currently available within a

gestively defamiliarising purely Western repertory.

(Tatlow: 12–13)

Tatlow’s book pre-dates new groups such as Edward Hall’s Propeller company, and he may not have seen Théâtre de Complicité at the time, but both companies, not to mention Mark Rylance’s high-quality Shakespeare productions at the Globe Theatre, have done much to revitalise native Shakespeare performance in the last ten to fifteen years. Both Complicité and Propeller have also toured extensively to critical acclaim. Nevertheless, Tatlow’s point has often been echoed by more open-minded and acute critics in the West, culminating, I would argue, in a greater acceptance by western audiences of ‘foreign Shakespeares’. A further factor to con- sider is that the inexorable effects of globalisation have done much to reduce the culture gap between western audiences and Asian theatre practitioners. Indeed, Shakespeare’s plays appear to have a remarkable affinity with diverse Asian theatrical forms such as Chinese xiqu, Japanese kyogen and kabuki, Indian kathakali and Cambodian Khmer classical dance. Dynamic stylised treatment can open up new perspectives on some of the tired and clichéd western production concepts of Shakespeare, and especially the

Following the dream/passing the meme: Shakespeare in ‘translation’


3. Interview reported in South China Morning Post, 11 March 2007.

Dream, which correspond to the ‘deadly theatre’ that Brook targeted so unerringly in The Empty Space. As Jatinder Verma of London-based Tara Arts, whose recent production of The Merchant of Venice was set in Cochin in Kerala, points out: ‘Shakespeare is strong on class structures and hier- archies, but these hierarchies have broken down in England. In Asia we still have strong hierarchies. I’d say the best way to do Shakespeare and be true to him is to do it through Asian eyes.’ 3 One director who sees Shakespeare’s work as utterly Asian is Japanese master Yukio Ninagawa. Ninagawa’s epic Japanese settings of Shakespeare plays have become accepted as modern classic productions in the West as well as in Asia, and his work has, not surprisingly, exerted considerable influence on fellow Asian directors. South Korea’s leading playwright, Tae Su Oh, had considerable success internationally with a highly acclaimed Korean-set Romeo and Juliet. In 2001 the Monsaku Nomura Company’s kyogen adaptation of A Comedy of Errors, entitled A Kyogen of Errors, was performed to a rapturous reception at the Globe Theatre in London, as part of the Shakespeare Globe-to-Globe season. The Singaporean director Ong King Sen’s Shakespeare variations, making use, for example, of multi- ple Asian performance techniques in his 1998 King Lear, have also in their own idiosyncratic way extended the bounds of what is possible. And one should not overlook the multi-talented Taiwanese actor-deviser Wu Hsing- kuo, whose brilliant solo performance of all nine major roles in his modern xiqu King Lear (Hong Kong Arts Festival 2003) was a profoundly rich the- atrical experience, one which encouraged us to look at the characters of the tragedy afresh. Such diverse and divergent Shakespeare adaptations have created a benchmark for excellence and innovation that intrigues and delights all but the most conservative and closed-minded of audiences in the West, and has in the process stimulated the creativity of directors such as Mike Alfreds with his quasi-Japanese Cymbeline (2001). Another UK director profoundly affected by Asian theatrical techniques and conventions is Tim Supple. Staged in 2006 for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Complete Works Festival, Supple’s ambitious eight-language Dream, with a cast of 23 actors, musicians and dancers from the Indian sub-continent, offered an exciting reworking of the play for an audience whose familiarity with Shakespeare’s work could not be taken for granted. Many critics expressed the view that this production was of seminal importance in the contemporary Shakespearean performance context. Michael Billington in the Guardian called it ‘a play of multiple transforma- tions all wonderfully realized in this visionary sub-continental version’, while for Nicholas De Jongh, in The Evening Standard, the Indian Dream’s vitality and freshness ‘recovered that sense of magic and enchantment of which the play has been purged by Anglo-Saxon directors’ (vide Tatlow). That said, Christopher Luscombe’s Regent’s Park production, in the rain-drenched 2007 summer season, of ‘a deeply English Dream’, as Time Out put it, demonstrated that a more restrained form of magic is not beyond the reach of the indigenous director and company. The reason that it was


Mike Ingham

‘impossible to withstand the shy but sure magic of this honest, determined Dream’ (Time Out) may well be an index of the play’s constant powers of self-renewal and regeneration, and its ability to transcend specific instances of kitsch and cliché in the production design (as was certainly the case in Luscombe’s conceptualisation – especially the ever-problematic fairies, which, to be fair, constitute a creative headache for most Anglo-Saxon directors). We may conclude that open-air productions of the Dream, whether tradi- tional Western-style or Asian, or a mixture of the two, generally succeed in discovering this pastoral play’s magical propensities more than indoor productions, where arguably it is easier to fail. However, such a view would be an over-simplification, since many Asian adaptations work equally well in diverse and distinctly un-pastoral venues, as I have witnessed in Hong Kong and elsewhere. Incidentally, I would include Globe Theatre produc- tions in the category of open-air performances, and it is here that visiting groups performing Shakespeare kathakali, kyogen, xiqu and other Asian genres, find a natural home and audience. It is very much in the context of this stimulating recent tradition of Asian Shakespeare, and of the Dream in particular, that we should see the Korean Yohangza production. ‘Yohangza’ means ‘voyager’ in Korean, as director Jung Ung Yang points out. ‘Life is a journey and through the journey of life we meet a lot of people,’ he adds – a comment that seems pertinent to the journeys of our dream-lives and of Shakespeare’s own Dream. First staged in Korea and Japan in 2003, and later at the Seoul Performing Arts Market in 2005, the adaptation was well placed to attract international attention and gain promotion and proliferation in the Asia region and further afield. It has been a critical success at various interna- tional arts festivals, including Hong Kong’s in March 2007. Jung Ung Yang professes not only great admiration for Shakespeare’s plays, but also particular attraction to the tragedies, like so many other Asian directors and adaptors. When asked during the post-performance, meet-the-audience discussion why he chose the Dream rather than Lear or Othello, he said with disarming simplicity and, one suspects, playful disingenuousness, ‘because it is a very romantic play and I am a very romantic person’. As with Britten, Balanchine, Brook and other highly creative adaptors of Shakespeare’s play, the Korean company’s version propagates the Dream meme by adding to it and altering it, whilst at the same time encouraging the viewer to return to the original text as a point of reference. One of Tatlow’s (see Tatlow: 35–50) major criticisms of conventionally prettified and reductive readings of the Dream by actors and directors over the centuries, and even nowadays, is that such versions are fundamentally at odds with the Shakespearean text and subtext. For him the play attests to the society’s unconscious and its repression of anxieties (the Elizabethan society originally), including anxieties about female sexuality, about pater- nity and progeny, about controlling nature (human and non-human) and the undermining of the male prerogative – all the more so in the era of a female monarch. The comedic, burlesque elements may help to repress

Following the dream/passing the meme: Shakespeare in ‘translation’


those fears on one level, but they can also be used to highlight such gender insecurities, which is precisely how Jung Ung Yang and Yohangza approached the text. If an Elizabethan audience, or perhaps a more reactionary male audience, were to see this production, their worst nightmares would seem to be realised. But perhaps we should not congratulate ourselves too much about our more progressive and broad-minded attitudes, since this Korean Dream never allows us to sit back secure in our cultural identities and assumptions. It is a good Dream, theatrically speaking, precisely because it is a vaguely disquieting Dream, in which one can quite literally feel targeted or even isolated amid the comic revelry. It is always edgy, and predicated, like street theatre or clowning, on what is happening now, and what might happen if you don’t pay careful attention. The traditional Korean theatre setting in that respect is misleading. As Young Joo-Choi has commented in the article ‘Tracking Young Directors in Korea Today’, ‘what differentiates Yang from his elders is that he adapts traditional culture without an historical or social consciousness. His purpose in adapting traditional culture into his style is not so much the implied interest in his nation, but an interest in aesthetic images that can transcend local languages and communicate directly with other cultures’ (2006: 75). This translates directly into a two-way communicative aesthetic, intended for audience consumption and delight both at home and abroad. Thus the theatre style is to welcome the audience into the theatrical event, as though into a shrine, according to Korean traditions of hospitality. The stage itself is designed as more of a house or home (which picks up on the ‘bless this house’ motif of the Dream’s final act), although there are strong hints of trees and nature combined with the pine-wood set. The central space is open and semiotically flexible, at once a living room in which the actors receive their audience and a site of action and movement. Dramatic action is choreographed in a fusion of dance, song, physical comedy and dialogue that borrows lightly from key lines and speeches of the original. The production idiom is folkloric and essentially traditional Korean, as is the visual symbolism of the colour scheme – coloured robes for the lovers’ opening and closing sequences, but off-white for both fairies and humans for the central body of the play, signifying both the dream state and Buddhist purity and unworldliness. Although the actors have specifically designated roles, they step out of them at various points to move upstage to the music area in order to play the traditional Korean folk instruments employed by the company. These consist of a double-headed drum, a bamboo flute, and other gongs and percussion instruments, includ- ing a xylophone-like instrument that is used to enhance the actors’ ges- tures. The music is an integral part of the production, as it is in the various western adaptations we have reviewed. Likewise, it is specially written for the production by musical director Eun Jeong Kim, with parts adapted from traditional Korean or western musical elements. Despite the director’s avowed spirit of hospitality, the audience is greeted by the cheekily amusing, but also slightly threatening, antics of


Mike Ingham

the two white-faced goblins or dokkebi – mythological Korean folkloric creatures – representing the role of Puck. They are not above frightening or mocking the audience, or even ridiculing them with scatological tricks that are reminiscent of Shakespearean bawdy. Among other acts of inter- action with the audience, some distinctly unsettling, the twin Pucks distribute fluorescent wrist-bands as a sign of welcome. This splitting or twinning of the role is not as arbitrary as it first appears; Puck is alluded to as both Robin Goodfellow and Hobgoblin in the same speech by Titania’s fairy in Act 2 Scene 1, and admits to all of the appellations. The doubling of this role works perfectly, since the two sprites play their tricks in unison and entirely in dumb-show. The duality of the Puck role actu- ally enhances the capacity of this character – in many ways the source of the comedic mischief in Shakespeare’s original – for monkey business. It also facilitates the symmetry of movement in the dance-like sequences and ensemble work that characterises the confusions and subsequent rituals of the production. Dokkebi (goblin), when broken down, can be rendered as Dot (fire – a recurrent image for romantic ardour in Shakespeare’s text) and Gabi (father), and these are the two names given to the Titania and Oberon figures, respectively. There is a crucial difference in their plot functions, however, because the roles are reversed. Here it is Dot (a female Oberon) who orders the Pucks to teach her philandering husband (a male Titania) a lesson, rather than the other way round. One rationale for this switch is that, in the Korean psyche, it is the women who keep the men in line, and that the woman’s role signifies domestic harmony in the traditional Korean order. The transformation of Bottom, not into an ass but a pig, is likewise in conformity with Korean animal symbolism, which sees the pig as preter- naturally stupid – more suggestive of stupidity than the donkey – but also a harbinger of good fortune. Variations on the original mechanicals element are far more radical than substitution of pig’s head for ass’s head. ‘Sweet Bully Bottom’ is metamorphosed by the director into a comic old woman wandering in the mountains in search of a hundred-year-old ginseng. She has no ‘lads’ or ‘hearts’ for company, and no play to rehearse. The visually grotesque Shakespearean coupling of Titania with Bottom complete with ass’s head is paralleled by the absurd sight of the Fairy King falling in love with a gluttonous and uncouth country woman with the face of a pig. Nevertheless, in spite of her apparent humiliation, Ajumi (Bottom) eventu- ally finds the rare ginseng herb she has sought. In Yang’s conception it is a just reward for unwittingly helping Dot to punish the lascivious Gabi, for whom the punishment, when he awakes from his dream, definitely fits the crime. Like Bottom, Ajumi seems only vaguely aware of what has happened to her, as in a dream one cannot quite recall. Furthermore, in Yang’s concept the love confusions are triggered by the scent of the herb, rather than the juice of the flower, illustrating the significant shift of sensory focus in the adaptation – from eyes to nose – which is very much a reflection of the director’s policy of creative independence.

Following the dream/passing the meme: Shakespeare in ‘translation’


Audience response to the production has been extremely positive. It doesn’t require a Korean audience to appreciate the warmth and simplicity of Yang’s approach to theatre. The theatre, for Yohangza, is a place of fun and humour as well as a meeting-place for audience and artist, just as the bustle of the traditional market was a meeting-place for vendors and buyers. As regards the company’s use of their own nation’s folklore and tradition, it seems well justified in view of Shakespeare’s skilful integration of nature, folk- lore and mythology in The Dream. Last but not least we are conscious of the relative de-emphasis on speech and dialogue in this production. The musical- ity of the iambic and trochaic rhythms of Shakespearean verse is transposed to the unfamiliar but effective idiom of song with music accentuating simple speech at key moments. Like many other Asian-aesthetic Shakespeare adap- tations, this version blends indigenous cultural and aesthetic components, entirely foreign to Shakespeare’s world, with narrative, creative elements of the original to produce a seamless work that is both new and old.

Conclusion: ‘And the blots of nature’s hand, shall not in their issue stand’

I’ll let you be in my dream if I can be in yours

Bob Dylan

For a play that is, like much of Shakespeare’s festive comedy, ultimately concerned with harmony, reconciliation and, in a number of clear textual references, regeneration and progeny, it is fitting that we should assess the play’s success in regenerating itself. That Shakespeare was concerned with the reception of his work is evident in many of his concluding scenes and his verse imprecations for audience’s understanding of his intentions – A Midsummer Night’s Dream certainly being no exception. He is also con- cerned with the relationship between higher truth, dramatic illusion and poetic imagination. The onward transmission of his imagination in the Dream through various adaptations for stage and screen is indisputably successful, judging by the work’s continuing popularity. The sheer diver- sity of memetic variations on Shakespeare’s original theme, from Purcell to Jung Ung Yang, is proof that this play – perhaps more than most in the Shakespeare repertoire – transcends cultural boundaries. Its satisfying dramatic design and the accomplished fusion of its hybrid interlocking ele- ments is impressive by any standards. No matter what elements of the Shakespeare work are fore-grounded and what back-grounded or side- lined in any given adaptation, the Dream renews itself through the widest possible range of authenticating dramatic conventions. Arguing against individual consciousness in favour of the higher power of the meme-plex, Susan Blackmore expresses the anti-essentialist-humanist view thus: ‘The creative achievements of human culture are the products of memetic evolution, just as the creative achievements of the biological world are the products of genetic evolution. Replicator power is the only design


Mike Ingham

process we know of that can do the job, and does it. We do not need con- scious human selves messing about in there as well’ (1999: 240). This con- testation is nothing if not challenging to notions of individual genius and autonomy of creation. But perhaps Theseus’ comments on the ‘seething brains’ of lovers and poets needs to be understood through Hippolyta’s reply:

‘And all their minds transfigur’d so together/More witnesseth than fancy’s images/And grows to something of great constancy’. Like collective memory, there seems, as Hippolyta/Shakespeare acknowledges, something more at work than individual genius in these acts of cultural transmission. Whether one accepts or rejects what may appear to the sceptic as the pseudo-scientific explanations of meme theory, it is clear that the cultural propagation of key cultural artefacts in the history of human culture, of which A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of the supreme examples, cannot be explained by individual arbitrary acts of consciousness alone. ‘Transfigured together’, the various memes propagated by Shakespeare’s hybrid play and its diverse sources amount to a remarkable achievement. Productions like Yohangza’s demonstrate the fecundity and potential in the work for regen- erating the existing meme set, if one chooses to describe the work in these terms, and producing even more fascinating variants, without in any way diminishing the power and capacity to please inherent in the original text.

Works cited

Benjamin, Walter ([1973] 1992), Illuminations, Hannah Arendt (ed.), London:

Fontana Press.

Blackmore, Susan (1999), The Meme Machine, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bristol, Michael D. (1996), Big-Time Shakespeare, London and New York: Routledge.

Brooks, Harold F. (ed.) (1979), A Midsummer Night’s Dream, London: Methuen (Arden edition).

Chesterman, Andrew (1997), Memes of Translation: The Spread of Ideas in Translation Theory, Amsterdam: Benjamins.

Dawkins, Richard (1976), The Selfish Gene, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

——— (1999), Introduction to Susan Blackmore’s The Meme Machine.

——— (2006), The God Delusion, London: Transworld Publishers.

Fischlin, Daniel and Mark Fortier (2000), Adaptations of Shakespeare, London:


Jakobson, Roman (2000), ‘On linguistic aspects of translation’, in L. Venuti (ed.), The Translation Studies Reader, London: Routledge, 113–118.

Sanders, Julie (2006), Adaptation and Appropriation, London and New York: Routledge (New Critical Idiom Series).

Steiner, George (1998), After Babel – Aspects of Language and Translation, (3rd edn.), Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Tatlow, Anthony (1995), Shakespeare in Comparison, Hong Kong: Department of Comparative Literature, University of Hong Kong.

Wells, Stanley (ed.) (1967), A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Young Joo-Choi (2006), ‘Tracking Young Directors in Korea Today’ in Hyung-Ki Kim and Seon-Ok Lim (eds.), Sketching in Contemporary Korean Theatre, Seoul:

Theatre and Man Publishing Company/I.A.T.C./Korea.

Following the dream/passing the meme: Shakespeare in ‘translation’


House Programmes

Yohangza Theatre Company, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hong Kong Arts Festival,


Teatro alla Scala, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hong Kong, 27–29 October 2006.




Time Out, July 4–10, 2007 – Open-air Theatre, p. 132.

Suggested citation

Ingham, M. (2008), ‘Following the dream/passing the meme: Shakespeare in “translation”’, Studies in Theatre and Performance 28: 2, pp. 111–126, doi:


Contributor details

Mike Ingham has a Modern Languages tertiary background in the UK. He now teaches on the English Studies programme at the Department of English in Lingnan University, Hong Kong. He is interested in many aspects of performing, particularly drama, poetry and music, and is a founder member of Theatre Action, a Hong Kong-based theatre group that specialises in action research on more liter- ary drama texts. As well as doing scholarly work on theatre in performance and cinema, he directs theatre in Hong Kong and writes performing arts criticism for local media. His books include Staging Fictions (Edwin Mellen Press, 2004) and Hong Kong: A Cultural and Literary History (Signal/HKU Press/OUP, 2007). E-mail:


Mike Ingham

Studies in Theatre and Performance Volume 28 Number 2 © 2008 Intellect Ltd

Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/stap.28.2.127/1

Technique in exile: The changing perception of taijiquan, from Ming dynasty military exercise to twentieth-century actor training protocol

Daniel Mroz



This article describes the development and emigration of a Chinese military exercise complex called taijiquan. It traces the genealogy of this practice from sixteenth- century China to twenty-first-century North American and European profes- sional and university theatre programmes. It provides a systemic description of the protocols of taijiquan training in order to analyse its advantages and limita- tions in the contexts of contemporary actor training. Finally, by offering concrete examples of its application by different theatre artists, it presents a portrait of both its current use and future potential as a major component of actor training.


This article describes the development and emigration of a Chinese military exercise complex called taijiquan. 1 I shall trace the genealogy of this prac- tice in order to shed some light on how a system of military exercises from sixteenth-century China has become part of the training offered to North American and European actors by many contemporary professional and university theatre programmes. Folk theory would have us believe that ‘Tai Chi’, the slow exercise prac- tised by Chinese people in the early hours of the day in parks around the world is an ancient, holistic system of self-care created many millennia ago by the gentle practitioners of Daoism, China’s indigenous religion and phi- losophy. This view is supported by countless popular books on taijiquan and by the popular culture surrounding its transmission in contemporary Europe and North America. Taijiquan is presented as an archaic and quasi- religious system of movement training concerned with health maintenance and personal enlightenment. By tracing taijiquan’s evolution, from its roots in the Ming dynasty to its present incarnation in actor training programmes, I intend to demonstrate that this perception of taijiquan is a recent one, created by a romantic nationalist movement among late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Chinese intellectuals and furthered by the Human Potential Movement in late twentieth-century North America. By provid- ing a systemic description of the protocols of taijiquan training I will offer

STP 28 (2) 127–145 © Intellect Ltd 2008



contemporary actor


devised physical


Battery Opera

One Reed Theatre Ensemble

1. In this article I use the Hanyu Pinyin standard phonetic system to represent Pitonghua (Mandarin, the official Chinese dialect) pronunciation of Chinese characters. Pinyin is used consistently in translations published in China. Readers may be more familiar with the earlier system of Romanisation, the Wade-Giles, which unfortunately did not set an international standard and is falling into disuse. Nevertheless, older publications using Wade-Giles will refer to taijiquan as T’ai Chi Ch’uan, Daoism as Taoism and romanise such terms as tuishou as t’ui sho.

an analysis of its advantages and limitations in the contexts of contempo- rary actor training, independent of the discourse of the spurious folk theo- ries surrounding it. Finally, by offering concrete examples of its application by different theatre artists, I hope to sketch an accurate portrait of both its current use and future potential as a major component of actor training.

Ming dynasty roots

The earliest written records of taijiquan indicate that it was a synthesis of military calisthenics and combative dills put together by one Chen Wangting (1600–1680). Chen was a successful military officer in charge of the garrison of Wen County in the Henan province of China between 1641 and 1644. With the fall of the Ming Dynasty in 1644, his advancement through the military hierarchy was blocked by the change of regime and he retired to his family home of Chenjiagou, the village of the Chen family, also in Henan province (Sim and Gaffney: 12). In the early years of the Qing Dynasty, Chen synthesised a new system of martial training for the militia of his home village. It was based upon the best training techniques that he had come across during his military career. His major source was a military training manual authored by a Ming dynasty general named Qi Jiguang (1528–1587). Composed in 1561, Qi’s book, Ji Xiao Xin Shu or the New Book of Effective Techniques, is itself a synthesis of sixteen different military training systems popular in the Ming dynasty (Sim and Gaffney:15 and Wile: 7). In the Ming and early Qing dynasties soldiers were trained for battle by executing group manoeuvres in formation. They spent virtually no time on unarmed tactics and their fighting training consisted of countless repe- titions of simple movements with weapons such as the spear and the sabre. Chen Wangting’s principal contribution to the story of the Chinese martial art is his development of incrementally resistant partner training. Soldiers who might be called up for active duty at any time cannot engage in train- ing that might leave them injured and unfit for combat. This meant that the peacetime training of Ming dynasty soldiers was limited to the rote repetition of short, set sequences of attack and defence with battlefield weapons. As fighting techniques could not be practised with anything approaching battlefield intensity without the risk of injuring the troops, improvisation and spontaneity could not be sanctioned. Improvisation and spontaneity are the two qualities most needed by combatants who will be faced with the unpredictability of actual combat. The absence of improvi- sation and spontaneity in training meant that Ming dynasty Chinese sol- diers had little chance of improving their skills through safe practice. Chen Wangting’s solution to this dilemma was a methodology by which soldiers could practise fighting techniques in a spontaneous and improvised way that resembled actual combat, without running the risk of serious injury. This practice is called tuishou, which is usually translated as ‘push hands’. It refers to a training game played by two partners who practise body movements that generate force while keeping their forearms in contact.


Daniel Mroz

The goal for each player is to maintain control of their posture in the face of perturbations provided by their partner. To the casual observer, the prac- tice looks like a kind of wrestling done standing up. Tuishou practice begins very slowly with minimal force and allows the players to learn how to defend against the four major types of attack found in the Chinese martial art, which are referred to as the si ji: grappling (na), throwing (shuai), kicking (ti) and striking (da). As the partners become more and more used to absorbing or reversing the forces directed at them, they can gradually increase the intensity of the game until they are providing each other with significant amounts of resistance and impellent force. 2 Thus, Chen Wangting developed a method of training for fighting that allowed for improvisation and spontaneity and minimised the risk of injury. Importantly, it allowed older, more experienced practitioners to maintain their fighting form into middle age and to progressively refine it over their lifetime. Chen Wangting also devised armed versions of tuishou based on similar principles (Sim and Gaffney: 16). He also synthesised a series of solo movement-training sequences, which are called taolu. Taijiquan, in Chen Wangting’s lifetime and beyond, became firmly estab- lished as a training system for a rural civilian militia. It remained confined to the Chen family village until sometime between 1799 and 1853 when one Yang Lu Chan (1799–1871) journeyed to Chenjiagou in order to study martial art with Chen Wangting’s descendant Chen Changxing (1771–1853). Many legends have grown up around Yang’s studies under Chen Changxing and the transmission remains mysterious for the simple reason that the taolu and tuishou of the taijiquan taught by Yang Lu Chan’s descendants is quite different from that practised by the Chen family.


Contemporary presentations of tuishou vary widely in intensity and structure. Practice can range from flowing and graceful choreographed exchanges to intense competitive grappling reminiscent of such combat sports as Olympic wrestling, Japanese judo and Russian sambo.

From Chen village to Beijing

Itemising the structural differences between the Yang style of taijiquan and the original Chen style, and speculating on the reasons for these differences, are beyond the scope of this article. What is especially significant about Yang’s studies with Chen is his subsequent teaching of his own modified system of taijiquan in Beijing after 1851. Because of his great skill as a fighter, Yang was much sought after as a teacher. His students included the bodyguards of the Manchurian rulers of Imperial China. Yang, an illit- erate fighter in a society that prized literacy above all else, was suddenly exposed to a class of people he had never met before, the upper class Chinese intelligentsia who, at the turn of the nineteenth century, had a very par- ticular cultural agenda. Late nineteenth-century China faced internal corruption and external colonial pressure. The native Han population had been subjugated by the Manchurian rulers of the Qing dynasty, and these rulers themselves faced the combined military and economic aggression of Russia, the United States of America, Britain and France. Prior to the nineteenth century, the literate governing classes of China looked down on martial art. China, after all, was an empire that for hundreds of years had been governed by

Technique in exile: The changing perception of taijiquan, from Ming dynasty


an intellectual class to whose authority the military deferred. Fighting was for professional soldiers, bodyguards, peasant militias and bandits. What were the upper classes of late nineteenth-century Beijing doing practising taijiquan with an illiterate ruffian like Yang Lu Chan? Even more curious, why did they begin to attribute all sorts of healing properties, Confucian values and Daoist meditative qualities to it? Douglas Wile suggests that the disempowered Chinese élite created a ‘holistic’ myth about taijiquan in response to their existential situation. To confirm their cultural identity, they brought together things that had pre- viously been separate and even antagonistic: Confucianism and Daoism, healing exercises and martial art were united under the banner of silent resistance to the forces that besieged them. Training was not for the purpose of actual insurrection – personal practice of taijiquan was sufficient revolution in itself. Rather, the élite could rely on an embodied practice to confirm their personal and ethnic resistance to the overwhelming forces of history (Wile: xvii). This sudden declaration of the perennial and holistic nature of taijiquan was supported by reference to an anonymous and supposedly ancient text that mysteriously appeared soon after Yang’s arrival in Beijing. These writings are called the taiji jing, or taiji classics, and they provided the Beijing intelligentsia with textual support for their claims. These writings could not have been produced by the illiterate Yang and are not found in Chenjiagou, the home of the Chen family style. The taiji classics were likely authored by Wu Yuxiang (1812–1880), one of Yang’s erudite students. Wu did two retrospectively brilliant things. He wrote a text that described taijiquan as a synthesis of native Han philosophies and practices and he presented it as being an ancient document of divine origin, revealed to a long-dead Daoist sage in meditation (Wile: i). Indeed the prefix taiji, which means ‘undifferentiated unity’ and refers to one of the phases of creation in Daoist metaphysics, was likely coined at this time, over 300 years after Chen Wangting’s original synthesis. In the early years of the twentieth century, various students of Yang Lu Chan founded their own versions of taijiquan. Public policy during the early Chinese Republican Period (1912–1918) advocated that the people should take part in what was called ‘self-strengthening’, and the practice of taijiquan spread widely due to state sanction and support (Wile: 14). By the 1930s, five major varieties of taijiquan could be identified: the original Chen, the Yang, the Wu, the Hao and the Sun schools. These different schools of taijiquan served a spectrum of needs that ran from militia training, to bodyguard skills, to personal self-defence, to health enhancement, to national identity construction, with plenty of overlap between categories.

Taijiquan and the founding of the People’s Republic

With the establishment of the Communist People’s Republic of China in 1949, the ideological and functional nature of taijiquan changed yet again. In 1956 the State Commission for Physical Culture and Sports of China


Daniel Mroz

introduced the National 24 Form of taijiquan, a radically simplified and shortened version of the taolu of the Yang style of taijiquan. Recall that traditional taijiquan practice is composed of solo training or taolu for coor- dination training and conditioning and of tui shou, or partner training, for combat. In constituting this new form, the Communist government of China made choreographic choices with ideological implications. The pos- tures of the National 24 Form do not adapt well to actual combat. The form takes four to six minutes to execute, down from the thirty minutes it takes to perform the traditional Yang family taolu, thereby reducing the level of conditioning it provides. The National 24 Form was taught not to individuals for solo practice, but to large groups for collective training. The popular image of hundreds of Chinese people training outside, dressed in matching clothes, executing exactly the same movements in unison does not represent the tradition of martial practice in China as much as it does the Communist ideals of collective unity and efficiency – it has far more in common with Taylorism than with Daoism! Finally, and most significantly, the State Commission for Physical Culture and Sports de-emphasised the practice of tui shou combat training to such an extent that the practice of taijiquan became synonymous with the practice of the taolu, or solo exer- cise, for its own sake (Sim and Gaffney: 27). The new National 24 Form of taijiquan fulfilled only one of the possible functions of the earlier traditional forms. Communist style taijiquan was not useful for training militia, bodyguards or private citizens in self-defence. It was too short and simple to contribute meaningfully to health enhance- ment and physical conditioning. It could no longer be related to traditional Chinese religious cosmology or Daoist meditation, as the Communists viewed such things as primitive and reactionary. The only thing that it remained useful for was national identity construction, an identity dic- tated by the Communist party. Although the National 24 continues to be taught, practitioners of the traditional family styles are very much present in martial arts in China today. However, during the devastation of the Cultural Revolution and the period immediately afterwards, the tradition- alists practised in almost total secrecy.

Taijiquan in Taiwan and beyond

In the unrest leading up to the Communist victory, many nationalist Chinese martial artists fled to Taiwan. Among them was Zheng Manqing (1900–1975) a Chinese doctor known for his calligraphy, poetry, painting and taijiquan. Zheng studied Yang style taijiquan with Yang Lu Chan’s grandson, Yang Cheng Fu, in Beijing from 1929 to 1936. Zheng’s influence would likely have remained confined to the Chinese martial art communities of Taiwan and Southeast Asia had he not attracted the attention of Robert W. Smith (b. 1926), an American aficionado of combat sports. Smith worked for the CIA and was posted to Taiwan where he studied taijiquan under Zheng from 1959 to 1962, an unusual honour for a foreigner in those days (Smith 1995: 51). Smith became the first

Technique in exile: The changing perception of taijiquan, from Ming dynasty


Western writer to document the Chinese martial art in a thorough fashion and his many books and articles on the subject are considered authorita- tive (see, for example, Smith 1999). Zheng Manqing described himself to Smith as an eccentric, or qiguai. Not a typical martial artist, Zheng felt that classical Chinese painting and taijiquan shared common principles, a seemingly dilettantish position made credible by his unusual skill in both disciplines. It is perhaps due to this eclecticism and his friendship with Smith that he accepted French and American invitations to travel and show his artwork in the West. On his return from an exhibition at the Cernuschi Museum in Paris in 1964, Zheng visited New York City where he was welcomed by members of the Chinese community and by American ‘artists, literati and taiji aficionados’ (Smith 1995: 61). By 1965, Zheng had moved to America, settling on Riverside Drive in New York City and teaching in a studio in the Bowery. Zheng welcomed all, including Americans, artists, eccentrics, dropouts, hippies and pot-smokers (Smith 1999: 278). One can imagine what a romantic figure Zheng must have cut, dressed in traditional Chinese robes, sporting a dapper goatee and curling side-locks, surrounded by adoring Chinese and Western students. Along with his unusual personality and innovative choice of students, Zheng appears to have made significant choices in his presentation of taiji- quan to North Americans. Firstly, as explained in detail by American taiji- quan teacher J. Justin Meehan, Zheng’s recorded execution of the Yang style taolu differs significantly from the Yang style taolu demonstrated by Yang family heir Yang Zhenduo (b.1926), in that Zheng’s version is far less vigorous and athletically demanding (Online Source: Meehan, J.). Secondly, as explained by American taijiquan teacher Scott M. Rodell, Zheng may also have de-emphasised the martial partner exercises of taijiquan in his North American teaching:

While cannily balancing the martial and civil components in his own life and practice, Zheng’s writings often tend to emphasize the spiritual, medita- tive, and medicinal aspects of taijiquan. Further, when teaching in New York, Zheng adopted a relatively passive attitude toward the development of martial skill among his students.

(Online Source: Rodell, S.)

Although Zheng was definitely a leading author of the popular perception of taijiquan in North America, the rapid spread of taijiquan there was facilitated by two aspects of educational and popular culture that were ascendant in the 1970s, the idea of interdisciplinary studies and the experiential workshop.

Taijiquan’s North American incarnation

Interdisciplinary studies and the experiential workshop became the back- bone of the Human Potential Movement, a North American cultural phe- nomenon born at an alternative educational institution called the Esalen Institute. Located on the California coast near Big Sur, Esalen was founded


Daniel Mroz

by Michael Murphy and Dick Price in 1962 with the goal of integrating insights from a wide variety of traditional and marginal disciplines, East and West. The Human Potential Movement was a cultural and intellectual trend that emerged during the 1960s. It combined ideas derived from developments in Western psychology with the philosophies and practices of numerous Asian meditative and religious systems in order to develop the extraordinary abilities found in leading artists, intellectuals, athletes and religious figures both living and historical. Inspired strongly by the work of psychologist Abraham Maslow, the participants in the Human Potential Movement sought to synthesise from contemporary and tradi- tional sources actual practices that would lead to an exceptional quality of life, characterised not only by peak experiences but also filled with joy, cre- ativity and contentment (see Kripal: passim). At Esalen, therapy, education and recreation were combined in experi- ential workshops that offered instruction in such Asian disciplines as hatha yoga, meditation and taijiquan (Wilber: 257–8). One of the most influential tajiquan teachers at Esalen was Chungliang ‘Al’ Huang. Huang’s teaching approach emerged from the emphasis at Esalen on the potential interrelationships between diverse Asian disci- plines and the primacy of the experiential. Given the Human Potential Movement’s concern with personal happiness, creativity and fulfilment, Huang’s presentation of taijiquan built on the holistic myth created at the turn of the century in China, and updated it for 1970s North America:

Tai ji is just a Chinese word for something that appears in many forms of dis- cipline. Yoga, in essence, is tai ji. Zen is tai ji. Tai ji is what is. No more, no less.


(Huang 1973: 11)

Tai Ji is a universal medium for the cultivation of Body, Mind and Spirit. It is natural. It is perennial. It is for everyone, of all ages. It is easy to learn. It can be joyful and exciting to practice. It is a dance of life to be treasured. It is for you.

(Huang 1989: 7)

While reinforcing a perception that taijiquan was ‘oriental’ and ‘mysteri- ous’, by refusing to define it, Huang also de-emphasised the importance of the five traditional lineages and implied that taijiquan is first and foremost an individualistic expression:

[When asked] ‘What do you practice?’, I say ‘I practice the Huang style.’ My style comes out of the other styles, and I have to develop it to the point that it becomes me.

(Huang 1973: 12)

Technique in exile: The changing perception of taijiquan, from Ming dynasty


Finally, he transformed tuishou from an exercise in combat training into a practice concerned with settling the emotional and social conflicts of par- ticular individuals:

I used this one time in a couples workshop, and I practice this with my wife when we feel crossed and in conflict. She’s a very headstrong woman and sometimes when we disagree I say, ‘Suzanne, let’s do t’ui sho.’ She says, ‘ I don’t want to do t’ui sho; I’ve had enough of your encounter things.’

(Huang 1973: 70)

If Zheng Manqing brought a taijiquan that was still very much culturally Chinese to a cosmopolitan public, Huang and those who have followed in his footsteps can be seen to have created a whole new, specifically North American, incarnation of the art. Today, taijiquan instruction in North America exists along a continuum. At one end are the representatives of the traditional five lineages, who look upon the taijiquan that they teach as a martial art with classical standards of execution and an emphasis on combat training. At the other end of the spectrum are teachers who present a gentle exercise complex that offers students an opportunity for self- expression, contains little or no partner training and is legitimised by its sup- posed link to the exotic and archaic spirituality of Daoism. It also appears that the majority of North American practitioners, regardless of their orien- tation, eschew the purely martial end of this continuum, placing greater emphasis on solo taolu practice than on partner tuishou, a tendency that also holds true in the teaching of taijiquan in performing arts institutions.

Early use of Taijiquan in actor training programmes

As Professor Robert Dillon of Southeast Missouri State University puts it:

Since the sixties the notion of ‘martial arts for actors’ has gone from being alternative in every sense of the word to being mainstream. Edwin Wilson, in his introductory text, The Theatre Experience, mentions ‘martial arts’ as actor training tools (121) and discusses tai chi [sic] in some depth (119-120); you can’t get much more mainstream than that.

(Online Source: Dillon)

Dillon’s perspicacious essay on martial art in actor training describes, quite accurately, the state of taijiquan practice in North America:

Tai chi [sic] is almost totally a solo

lost—except in certain schools and with certain teachers—many of its combative applications in favor of a Taoist-flavored and broadly defined ‘spiritualism’; tai chi systems are mostly ‘about’ self-discovery, wellness, and self-expression.

Tai chi has pretty much


(Online Source: Dillon)


Daniel Mroz

The section of Edwin Wilson’s The Theatre Experience that deals with taiji- quan concords perfectly with Dillon’s description:

Unlike some martial arts, tai chi [sic] is not aggressive: it is a graceful, gentle exercise regimen performed widely by men, women and children in China. It has spread to other countries where it is sometimes practiced in conjunction with meditation or body awareness. The movements of tai chi are stylised and often seem to be carried out in slow motion. Among other things, tai chi requires concentration and control, both valuable qualities for a performer.

(Wilson : 12)

Wilson goes on to say that taijiquan is useful to actors because it helps them with ‘centering’. ‘When performers are able to “center” themselves’, he says, ‘they achieve a balance, a freedom and a flexibility they could rarely find otherwise’ (Wilson: 127). The idea of using a combative exercise system in the training of actors is not new. Countless traditional performance forms from around the world derive their physical culture and choreography from martial movement. For example, Chinese jingju (‘Beijing Opera’) employs martial exercises adapted from the bei shaolin, the northern systems of Chinese martial art, as a source of both performance choreography and performer preparation (Yao: 21). And, while such techniques as boxing, historical fencing and stage combat have been used in twentieth-century North American and European actor training, they have never been described in such existen- tially portentous terms as the language Wilson uses to describe taijiquan. The perception that taijiquan solo taolu training has a profound transfor- mational outcome can be traced to both the nineteenth-century Chinese

self-strengthening holistic synthesis and to the twentieth-century American Human Potential Movement. Furthermore, the aesthetic innovations of American performing artists that began in the 1950s created a receptive atmosphere for taijiquan’s adoption as an actor training protocol. Arnold Aronson describes these innovations as being ‘a rebellion against the mainstream commercial system and the utter rejection of the status quo’ (Aronson: 3). This new movement was responsible for the eventual erasure of the boundaries between theatre, dance, art and music and, a half-century later, allows critics and theorists to describe contemporary theatre as being characterised by a ‘movement away from the dominance of the word to the primacy of the

moving body

As theatre artists became increasingly preoccupied with the lived expe- rience and training of the body, they reached out to a host of movement disciplines, and not least among these was taijiquan, in its multiplicity of North American incarnations, from the personal expression of the Human Potential Movement to the martial art of the traditionalists.

.’ (Mitter and Shevtsova: xviii).

Technique in exile: The changing perception of taijiquan, from Ming dynasty


The first major North American theatre training institution to employ taijiquan in its acting programme was the University of Madison-Wisconsin’s Asian/Experimental Theatre Program, founded by Professor A.C. Scott in 1963 (Zarrilli 1995: 182). A pioneering scholar of Chinese performance forms, Scott had studied a shortened version of the taolu of Wu-style taijiquan from an unnamed teacher in Hong Kong in the 1950s (Online Source:

Zarrilli). Later, in the early 1970s, the theatre programme of the California Institute of the Arts, under the guidance of Herbert Blau, hired Marshall Ho’o, who taught student actors a shortened version of the taolu of the Yang style of taijiquan (Blau: 122). And from here, smoothly and quietly, taijiquan became an accepted part of theatre training. Although an historical overview provides an understanding of how the current perception of taijiquan was created, a systemic approach is needed to understand its actual potential in actor training.

Systemic analysis of Taijiquan training

In his classification of human athletic and movement activities, Russian kinesiologist L.P. Matveyev proposes three overall groupings: monostruc- tural exercises characterised by relatively stable forms, polystructural exercises, characterised by variable forms, and complex exercises, made up of combinations of mono and polystructural exercises. Examples of mono- structural, polystructural and complex exercises are, respectively, weightlift- ing or endurance running (mono), team games or sporting combat (poly) and combined events, such as decathlons or aesthetic sports such as gymnastics and acrobatics (complex) (Matveyev 1977, cited in Siff: 432). According to Matveyev’s system, taijiquan practice is a complex exercise. Tuishou, conforming as it does to the category of sporting combat, is a polystructural exercise, while taolu practice, containing, as it traditionally does, virtuosic feats of coordination and motor skill, is an aesthetic sport. In combining the characteristics of both combat and aesthetic sports, taiji- quan potentially offers actors benefits in two key areas, their psychophysi- cal coordination with respect to themselves and their psychophysical coordination in relationship to a fellow player. The moment where the gains of an exercise complex such as taijiquan are applied in a performance-specific venue is referred to in kinesiology as conversion (Bompa and Carrera: 24). All aspects of actor training have their moment of conversion, where drills and skills have to be applied in context. The measure of a training protocol’s utility is in how effectively conversion takes place. I suggest that the effectiveness of taijquan’s conversion to actor training protocol be evaluated in terms of the overall psychophysiological effects of both taolu and tuishou training and in terms of how these effects address the needs of actors performing in a variety of types of theatre. Yang Yang (b. 1961) is a teacher of the Hunyuan style of taijiquan, which is a modern branch of the Chen style, and a doctoral candidate in kinesiology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He describes the process of


Daniel Mroz

learning taijiquan taolu as being concerned with familiarising the practi- tioner with ‘natural’ movement, where natural refers to:

the orientation or angle of the body joints relative to the direction of

If the body’s joints are not naturally aligned with the intended

direction of movement, two outcomes are certain: the force exerted will be

weak (or even non-existent), and the unnatural alignment will eventually result in injury.


(Yang: 83)

It is important to understand the nuanced use of the word natural in this example. Because of the degree of coordination involved, natural move- ment in taijiquan will necessarily be experienced by the novice as compli- cated, uncomfortable and artificial, far from the sensations of everyday movement that the term ‘natural’ conjures up. Taijiquan movement is described by kinesiology as voluntary movement, or movement governed by learned motor programmes. Motor programmes are represented in the brain as ‘an abstract plan (as opposed to a series of joint movements and muscle contractions)’ (Yang: 111). Thus, in learning taolu, students adopt a motor programme designed to maximise their movement effi- ciency. The effects of this adoption are seen in several areas. Increased endurance strength in the legs results in improved balance. The repeated practice of sophisticated movements yields improvement in the attribute of coordination. Because of the coordination of the legs with the move- ment of the torso, an apparent increase in absolute strength is also an effect of training. Sustained taolu training also produces a phenomenon known as relaxation response, wherein the activity of the sympathetic nervous system is reduced and the activity of the parasympathetic nervous system increases (Yang: 68). The sympathetic nervous system is dominant during perceived emergencies and ‘helps mediate vigilance, arousal, activation and mobilization’, while the parasympathetic nervous system mediates ‘growth, energy storage and other optimistic activities’ (Sapolsky: 22–3). What is especially significant about taolu training is that it appears to balance the relationship between the two systems, offer- ing practitioners the ability to remain alert, responsive, rational and relaxed without entering a static, motionless and vegetative state or a hyper-aroused one dominated by fear. Yang continues by explaining how tuishou functions in contemporary terms:

Maintaining central equilibrium and effortless motor control is dependent upon a continuous flow of sensory information (visual, somatic, sensory and vestibular). Posture and movement are controlled by the brain’s motor system in two ways:

1. The nervous system monitors sensory signals and uses this informa- tion to act directly on a limb. This responsive action is called feedback.

Technique in exile: The changing perception of taijiquan, from Ming dynasty


2. Using sensory input and experience, the mind adopts a pro-active strategy and contracts muscles that will be necessary to maintain balance during an imminent disturbance. This anticipatory response is called feed- forward.

(Yang: 136)

Yang goes on to argue that sustained practice of tuishou hones the effi- ciency of the feedforward and feedback functions of the motor system. Thus, while the practice of taijiquan taolu can provide a certain amount of coordination balance and nervous-system straining, in order to fully enjoy the potential benefits of taijquan, coordination, balance and psy- chophysical equilibrium need to be actively challenged. Actors need to work on the spontaneous and improvised partner exercises of tuishou. Tuishou teaches what the taolu is for. It brings a strong dose of objectivity to training: testing and applying one’s movements with a partner in tuishou allows one to check if the taolu practice is producing any verifiable concentration, control, balance, freedom and mental flexibility. In the absence of partner-practice, one’s sensations of centring, power, creativ- ity, and fulfilment remain subjective, fleeting and personal. Tuishou offers the opportunity to correlate subjective impressions with reality in order to create a repeatable change of skill level, rather than merely an ephemeral change of state.

level, rather than merely an ephemeral change of state. Figure 1: Chen Zhonghua and Daniel Mroz

Figure 1: Chen Zhonghua and Daniel Mroz practising Chen-style Taijiquan Tuishou on Daqingshan Mountain, Shandong, China. (Photo by Scot Jorgenson)


Daniel Mroz

Figure 2: Chen Zhonghua uses his advantageous position to lock Daniel Mroz in an arm-bar

Figure 2: Chen Zhonghua uses his advantageous position to lock Daniel Mroz in an arm-bar during the training. (Photo by Scot Jorgenson)

Concrete applications of Taijiquan in actor training

Over time, actors training in taijiquan can reduce their reaction time to sudden stressors in order to act proactively and appropriately due to increased sensory input (Yang: 138). Tuishou is an incremental protocol for reducing the degree of the stress-response, the nervous and hormonal activation that makes the heart pound, shrinks the field of vision and inhibits fine motor control (Sapolsky: 6–8). Much of actor training is directly concerned with de-conditioning the stress-response. Actors’ lack of physical ease, vocal projection and ability to respond creatively to their fellow players are all caused by habituated over-reaction to actual or anticipated stressors. This in itself is enough to recommend traditional taijiquan to any actor-training programme. Furthermore, taolu teaches stage actors to be able to repeat a precise choreography of actions that, due to their martial nature, contain very clear force vectors. These not only render a body trained in their execution more dynamic, but also the specific breathing protocols used in taijiquan allow the moving actor to support vocalisation with movement in a highly efficient manner. Having learned the classical choreography of the taolu, actors can apply themselves to composing posture and movement when acting in self-consciously theatrical genres. Actors creating devised physical theatre or interpreting classical, late-modern and post-dramatic repertoire all have need of strong compositional skills. For actors working in these forms, tuishou training converts into the skill of being able to respond

Technique in exile: The changing perception of taijiquan, from Ming dynasty


appropriately, compositionally and without stress to other actors and to the performance environment.

Sustained versus terminating training

The major limitation on taijiquan’s usefulness to actors is the institutional context in which it is typically provided. Actor-training in North America is characterised by terminating training programs that move graduates into the cultural industry after three or four years of schooling. Taijiquan, by contrast, was originally conceived as a sustained training activity, involving daily work over a lifetime in order to maintain the mature fighting form of a rural militia with a strong, pre-existing background in martial movement. Although a high level of competence could be achieved by novices who devoted them- selves to its daily practice exclusively for three or four years, when practised for only a few hours a week as part of a larger, varied curriculum, basic skill in taijiquan – the growing ability to maintain physical balance and mental calm when wrestling with another – may never have a chance to manifest.

Solutions in terminating training programmes

The need for intense practice has led acting teacher Phillip Zarrilli to make taijiquan practice more central to the performance programmes he has directed. Formerly the head of the Asian/Experimental Theatre Programme at the University of Madison-Wisconsin and currently Professor of Performance Practice in the Drama Department of the University of Exeter (UK), Zarrilli has shared a shortened form of the Wu style of taijiquan with graduate and undergraduate students in England and America since 1980. Zarrilli’s programmes are not only restricted to taijiquan, but also include training in kalarippayattu, a martial discipline from South India, and hatha yoga (Zarrilli in Zarrilli 1995: 183). What I find most significant about Zarrilli’s curriculum is his attempt to offer students in terminating training programmes a maximum number of hours of physical practice by placing it at the centre of their work. The training programme he instituted at the University of Madison-Wisconsin’s Asian/Experimental Theatre Programme, which he inherited from A.C. Scott in 1980, proceeded as follows. For the first six months of their time in the pro- gramme, both graduate and undergraduate students would meet five days a week to practice taijiquan, kalarippayattu and hatha yoga for 90–120 minutes. Following the six-month introductory period, daily training was reduced to a 60-minute period that served as an intensive preparation for the acting that was a part of the students’ course of work (Zarrilli 1995: 183–4). Zarrilli has maintained his commitment to training intensity in his more recent work at Exeter, where students in the Physical Performance and Actor Training MA and MFA degrees receive at least 150 hours of guided instruction each semester in physical training that includes taijiquan, in addition to the hundreds of hours of personal practice that are expected of them during their one- or two-year programmes (Online Source: University of Exeter Course Descriptions).


Daniel Mroz

The ultimate test of a programme set up along these lines is found in the post-graduation choices of its students and in Zarrilli’s availability to them for ongoing training. A two-year period can provide students with a decent introduction to taijiquan, or to any martial discipline, but it does not provide them with the experience they need to continue devel- oping their fighting or movement skills without further instruction. For students in terminating programmes to fully assimilate skill in taijiquan they will not only have to develop a personal solo and partner practice, but also seek further instruction – in other words, they will have to use the foundation they acquired in terminating training to fuel a life- time of sustained training. Given the specificity of Zarrilli’s programme, the commitment that students must have going in to such a course of studies must be considerable. As a result, I feel optimistic about the possibility of this course of terminating training planting the seed of sus- tained practice.

Solutions in sustained training programs

Although there are probably many professional actors who take taijiquan classes for the purpose of general self-maintenance, the number of theatre artists using taijiquan as the physical basis of their creative process is small, restricted to companies creating devised physical theatre or postdramatic works that blur the distinctions between theatre, dance and performance art. Furthermore, it would be misleading to describe their work as pure sustained training. The possibilities for sustained training by contemporary performing artists are constrained, in Canada where I live and work, by arts-funding structures and union regulations. Theatre companies in Canada are funded by public and private agencies at national, provincial and municipal levels. Grants are either offered for the creation and performance of an individual work or for the administration of a more established company over several years. Neither project-based funding nor operating funding has in mind a stable ensemble of performers who base their creative life in a shared physical practice. Funding theatre artists to develop their technique on a daily basis, without a pre-determined, terminating goal in sight, is viewed as a risky investment, and is not sanctioned. Thus, contemporary theatre artists in Canada attempting to base their work around taijiquan training are con- fronted with two realities: training is periodic as opposed to constant, and the group of performers being trained is not necessarily constant. Two Canadian groups whose attempts to create a signature style of performance are based on taijiquan training are Battery Opera, led by Lee Su-Feh and David McIntosh, and One Reed Theatre Ensemble, directed by myself. Battery Opera is based in Vancouver, British Columbia, in Western Canada while One Reed is based in Toronto, Ontario in the east. I have chosen to present the work of these two groups as I am personally acquainted, albeit to different degrees, with their work, and thus feel able to link my direct practical experiences of them with the historical and the- oretical material I have presented above.

Technique in exile: The changing perception of taijiquan, from Ming dynasty


3. While living in Montréal I saw Reptile Diva at Espace Tangente (1999), Spektator at the Festival International de Nouvelle Danse (2002) and took

a short martial

movement for

performers workshop

led by McIntosh and Lee at Studio 303,

a training and

creation centre for


performance and

dance (2000).

Battery Opera

Battery Opera’s founding members, Lee Su-Feh and McIntosh, both trained in Chinese martial arts under Xu Gong Wei (b. 1915), a teacher who exposed them to numerous styles including chaquan, xingyiquan, baguazhang and of course, taijiquan. In addition to their work with Xu, they have benefited from the strong Asian presence in Vancouver, and have trained in Chinese

and other martial arts with a wide variety of teachers, as well as such Asian systems of physical culture as hatha yoga and qigong. Their descrip- tion of the role of martial arts in their process is lucid and inspiring:

A large part of the development process in any of our work involves the train-

ing of the performers (ourselves included) to a point where they have the appropriate skills and fluency in the language of our physical worldview. The basis of this language is not only aesthetic (a certain kind of gestural lan- guage or dynamic) but also has to do with a specific use of focus, breath and mindfulness. In this state, the performer is highly in tune with her breath and how it connects with her eyes, with her internal and external impulses. She also becomes highly aware of the space around her, the shape of it and the lines of energy that run through it. Often, the work requires that performers

improvise from this state. In order to arrive at this state, the company trains

in a class that is based on a number of disciplines; qigong, yoga, voice, basic

martial arts (wushu) and, particularly, Chinese internal martial arts.

(Online Souce: Battery Opera Website)

Battery Opera offers an example of a successful, if periodic, approach to sustained training. Although the two core members, Lee and McIntosh, have a sustained practice of taijiquan, they do not work with a completely stable ensemble. Their three current performances, Cyclops, Spektator and Reptile Diva, use some of the same performers, but the ensemble is not exactly the same from work to work (Online Source: Battery Opera Website). And as the description above reveals, training for the company as a whole is part of the preparation of an individual project, and not the daily practice of an ensemble. Despite the constraints that periodic training with a shifting group imposes, I believe that Battery Opera has successfully created a signature style of performance, anchored in and revealed by a way of moving that distinguishes them from other physical theatre and dance companies. To the trained observer, this way of moving clearly derives from the Chinese martial arts, including taijiquan. The actualisation of this way of moving is likely to be dependent on the constant presence of Lee and McIntosh from project to project, and to their own ongoing martial training. 3

One Reed Theatre Ensemble

One Reed Theatre Ensemble is a group that I co-founded with four gradu- ating students of the English Acting Section of the National Theatre School of Canada. Under its current artistic director Sherrie Bie, the English


Daniel Mroz

Acting Section has been encouraging its students to become independent artists who create their own aesthetically diverse works. As such, Canadian devised physical theatre artists Ker Wells and Karin Randoja give a class each year at the National Theatre School. I studied with Wells and Randoja myself when they were members of Primus Theatre, a major Canadian contemporary theatre ensemble active in the 1990s, directed by former Odin Teatret actor Richard Fowler. I met the four actors of One Reed, Frank Cox-O’Connell, Megan Flynn, Marc Tellez and Evan Webber, when they were students of Wells and Randoja. Upon their graduation in 2005, we began to work together and created what would become One Reed Theatre, and our first performance, Nor The Cavaliers Who Come With Us. During their work with Wells and Randoja, the actors had been exposed to some of the same physical training that I had learned from Richard Fowler, the Pre-Expressive Training developed by the actors of Eugenio Barba’s Odin Teatret, where Fowler had worked for over a decade. They had also been taught the approach to performance composition that I had experienced with Fowler and Primus. However, given my interest in martial arts training, in my work as a performer and director I had largely replaced the physical exercises of Fowler’s Pre-Expressive Training with my own repertoire of exercises. Added to this was the fact that, while I had trained with Fowler and Primus periodically but intensively for four years, the actors of One Reed had worked with Wells and Randoja for only six weeks. Thus, while we were all content to use the approach to perfor- mance composition we had inherited from Primus, I didn’t feel that any of us had enough experience with Fowler’s Pre-Expressive Training to con- tinue with it. We were also faced with time constraints – we had secured funding for only nine weeks of full-time work. A common physical training was essential to the way in which we had elected to make a performance, but I also knew that nine weeks work on taijiquan taolu, even at three hours per day, six days per week, would yield only minimal results and take away from the time needed to compose the performance. I decided to break with tradition and concentrate only on partner exercises. I shared various approaches to taijiquan tui shou with the actors, in addition to partner-training games from such contemporary approaches to combat sport as Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and Chinese sanshou. To borrow Lee Su-Feh and David McIntosh’s words:

We are interested in the martial body as a body that always works in relation- ship to an immediate opponent or partner, where the space around the body

The martial artist’s relationship to an oppo-

nent with close range provides us with clues about how to address the audience in an intimate space and how to relate to the performer’s scene partners.

has weight, shape, is

(Online Source: Battery Opera Website)

This reflects my preoccupations exactly, and I felt that, by privileging partner work, I would be hopefully optimising my collaborators’ imaginations and

Technique in exile: The changing perception of taijiquan, from Ming dynasty


4. Nor The Cavaliers Who Come With Us, devised by One Reed, performed by Frank Cox-O’Connell, Megan Flynn, Marc Tellez and Evan Webber and directed by Daniel Mroz had its Canadian Premiere at the 2006 Summerworks Festival in Toronto. After a very favourable review, the production went on to win the Summerworks Festival Spotlight Award. The performance was cited for Outstanding Production, Outstanding Direction and Outstanding Ensemble by Toronto’s arts-weekly Now Magazine which subsequently declared One Reed to be Toronto’s Best Young Ensemble.

group complicity by amplifying their feedforward and feedback responses to movement. It is difficult to give any kind of reasonable evaluation of one’s own work. Nevertheless, I believe that, as a short-term solution, the choice to concen- trate on free-form, improvised fighting drills created excellent responsiveness and complicity in the performers. The performance Nor The Cavaliers Who Come With Us, which deals with the consequences of the sixteenth-century conquest of Mexico today, has been a popular and critical success. 4 Nevertheless, I feel that, if we are to surpass ourselves for our next outing, we must now concentrate on taolu. While interpersonal response has been honed, it is not supported by sufficient physical coherence. Raised scapular girdles, necks transposed forwards and excessively loose stops, the bane of all stage performers, need to be trained out of existence through the metic- ulous application of classical technique. Classical technique also prepares the performer’s body in a global and uniform fashion that improvised partner-work, which privileges personal idiosyncrasies, cannot. Without the objective standard for movement quality that taolu training imposes, I do not feel we will be able to grow in our ability to innovate formally and challenge ourselves. We have yet to find an ideal solution to our theoreti- cal commitment to sustained training, yet I am inspired by the success of Battery Opera to attempt a periodic approach to training as we begin to work on our next creation.


Taijiquan is an exercise complex that has captured the imaginations and cultural agenda of a surprisingly wide variety of groups. I have endeav- oured to provide a history of its uses, both in China and North America, as well as a systemic description of its training activities. I have discussed its potential impact in the context of both terminating and sustained approaches to training. Finally, I should like to suggest that, as taijiquan enters the twenty-first century, theatre practitioners who would avail themselves of its benefits would do well to look back to its martial roots and emphasise tui shou in their study and practice.

Works cited

Aronson, Arnold (2000), American Avant-Garde Theatre: A History, New York:


Blau, Herbert (1982), Take Up the Bodies: Theater at the Vanishing Point, Champaign:

University of Illinois Press.

Bompa, Tudor and Michael Carrera (2005), Periodization Training for Sports, Champaign: Human Kinetics.

Huang, Chungliang (1973), Embrace Tiger, Return to Mountain, Berkeley: Celestial Arts.

——— (1989), Essential Tai Ji, Berkeley: Celestial Arts.

Kripal, Jeffrey J. (2007), Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion, Chicago:

University of Chicago Press.

Mitter, Shomit and Maria Shevtsova (2005), Fifty Key Directors, London: Routledge.


Daniel Mroz

Sapolsky, Robert (1998), Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, New York: W.H. Freeman.

Siff, Mel (2003), Supertraining, Denver: Supertraining Institute.

Sim, Davidine and David Gaffney (2002), Chen Style Taijiquan, Berkeley: North Atlantic.

Smith, Robert (1995), ‘Zheng Manqing and taijiquan – a clarification of role’, Journal of Asian Martial Arts, 4:1.

——— (1999), Martial Musings, Erie: Via Media.

Wilber, Ken (1998), The Eye of Spirit, Boston: Shambhala.

Wile, Douglas (ed. and trans.) (1996), Lost T’ai Chi Classics from the Late Ch’ing Dynasty, Albany: State University of New York.

Wilson, Edwin (2004), The Theater Experience, Columbus: McGraw-Hill.

Yang, Yang (2005), Taijiquan: The Art of Nurturing, The Science of Power, Champagne:

Zhen Wu.

Yao, Haihsing (2001), ‘Martial-acrobatic arts in Peking Opera’, Journal of Asian Martial Arts, 10: 1.

Zarrilli, Phillip (1995), ‘On the edge of a breath, looking’, in Phillip Zarrilli (ed.), Acting(Re)Considered, London: Routledge.

Online Sources Accessed 5 November 2006.

Dillon, Robert, ‘Asian martial arts in actor training: an enthusiast’s critique’, in Journal of Martial Combatives, Deborah Klens-Bigman (ed.), jtcart_dillon_1299.html. Accessed 24 May 2001.

Meehan, J. Justin, ‘A comparative study between traditional Yang style of Yang Chengfu and Cheng Manching’s style’, articlecomparingyang.pdf. Accessed 11 September 2006.

Rodell, Scott, M., ‘The martial and the civil in Yang style Taijiquan’, http:// Accessed 25 May 2006.

University of Exeter Course Descriptions, theatrepractice/welcome.html, dram034.pdf,, http:// Accessed 31 October 2006.

Zarrilli, Phillip, ‘Phillip Zarrilli and kalarippayattu/martial arts/performance’, Accessed 24 May 2006.

Suggested citation

Mroz, D. (2008), ‘Technique in exile: The changing perception of taijiquan, from Ming dynasty military exercise to twentieth-century actor training protocol’, Studies in Theatre and Performance 28: 2, pp. 127–145, doi: 10.1386/stap.28.2.127/1

Contributor details

Daniel Mroz teaches in the Theatre Department of the University of Ottawa. A long-term student of Chinese martial arts and physical culture, he is currently studying Hong Junsheng’s Practical Method of Chen Taijiquan under the guidance of nineteenth-generation lineage holder, Chen Zhonghua. He is the director of One Reed Theatre Ensemble, a Canadian company devoted to the creation of devised physical theatre. E-mail:

Technique in exile: The changing perception of taijiquan, from Ming dynasty


Studies in Theatre and Performance Volume 28 Number 2 © 2008 Intellect Ltd Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/stap.28.2.147/1

‘Your sincere friend and humble servant’:

Evidence of managerial aspirations in Susannah Cibber’s letters

Helen Brooks



This article explores both the text and some of the sub-texts of Susannah Cibber’s

David Garrick

correspondence with David Garrick from 1745 to 1747, when she was an estab-

Drury Lane

lished leading actress and he was contemplating entering into the management of

theatre management

the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. It considers the strategies Cibber adopted in her

James Lacy

attempts to persuade Garrick into co-management and speculates on the ‘real’ reason for the ultimate dashing of her hopes.

women’s rights

Theophilus Cibber

From July 1745 to January 1747 Susannah Cibber, leading actress on the Drury Lane stage wrote a series of letters to her ‘stage lover’ David Garrick. These letters form just a small part of the extensive private correspondence of David Garrick compiled by the noted biographer, critic, essayist and his- torian John Forster (1812–1876) and held at the National Art Library. Yet while these letters are just one piece in the jigsaw of David Garrick’s story they are invaluable for the insight they provide into one of the leading actresses of her day. With Susannah Cibber’s long-term partner William Sloper having destroyed part of her correspondence after her death, and his widow Catherine Sloper having finished the job after her estranged husband’s death, these letters are some of the few extant sources through which we can directly access Susannah Cibber’s own ‘voice’. Moreover with the main focus of these letters being Susannah’s attempts to convince Garrick to join her in various theatrical ventures, they offer us a valuable perspective on this actress’s managerial aspirations and more significantly, how she sought to achieve them. At the point at which Susannah began this correspondence with Garrick, the London theatre scene was feeling the impact of political insta- bilities threatening the country. With Charles Edward Stuart’s Scottish uprising causing national economic unrest, and runs on the Bank of England unsettling the London market, the bank which held the patent of Drury Lane was in a tenuous position. The partnership of the bankers and paten- tees, Green and Amber, was known to be at the point of breaking, and the impact on the Drury Lane theatre under the management of James Lacy was not going unnoticed. Lacy had already had difficulty in paying his actors the previous season, and in mid-July 1745, with a number of salaries still outstanding, he was attempting to negotiate salary cuts with his leading

STP 28 (2) 147–159 © Intellect Ltd 2008


actors. It was within this context, in which both Susannah Cibber and David Garrick were negotiating hard with Lacy to renew their contracts at their current rates that Susannah wrote the series of letters in which she sought to gain Garrick’s support in an independent managerial venture. The first letter of the series was sent by Susannah on 18 July 1745, and she began it by dramatically informing Garrick of the current state of their salary negotiations:

I must write what comes uppermost; so, without father [sic] ceremony, I must tell you that I hear we are both to be turned out of Drury Lane play- house, to breath [sic] our faithful souls out where we please. But as Mr Lacy suspects you are so great a favourite with the ladies that they will resent it, he has enlisted two swinging Irishmen of six feet high to silence that battery. As to me, I am to be brought to capitulate another way, and he is to send a certain hussar of our acquaintance to plunder me.

(Garrick 1835: 1.34)

Warning Garrick foremost that Lacy was unprepared to capitulate to their salary demands, Susannah also paints a vivid picture of how Lacy intended to resolve his predicament. In Garrick’s case this meant bringing in the ‘two swinging Irishmen’, whom Garrick would have known to be the popular actors Thomas Sheridan (1719–1788) and Spranger Barry (1717–1777), as replacements. Spranger Barry in particular was Garrick’s closest rival, the difference in their style being best exemplified by Mrs. Pritchard who wrote that of the two actors’ performances in Romeo and Juliet, Garrick’s was:

.] I should have expected he would have

come up to me in the balcony; but had I been Juliet to Barry’s Romeo – so tender, so eloquent, and so seductive was he, I should certainly have gone

so ardent and impassioned

down to him.

(Highfill: 1.330)

Whilst the threat Susannah presented tapped into Garrick’s greatest inse- curity, in relation to herself Lacy’s intentions appear to have been far more menacing. Asserting that the manager intended to force her to work by encouraging her estranged husband Theophilus Cibber, that ‘certain hussar’, to ‘plunder’ her property and income as he had throughout the last ten years, Susannah presented herself to Garrick as the threatened, powerless victim of Lacy’s schemes. Yet although the threats Susannah described might well have been real, her reason for painting such a bleak picture of the ‘terrifying resolu- tions’ (Garrick 1835: 1.34) which faced them was not selfless. Moreover it soon becomes clear that Susannah actively emphasised the ‘melancholy’ nature of their situation specifically in order to lay the foundations for the suggestion that she was about to put to Garrick. In fact, the situation she


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described did not present a substantial risk to either herself or Garrick. In Garrick’s case he was already well-established as the leading London actor, and while for Susannah there was always the potential that Theophilus would decide to involve himself in her career, her financial position was now far more secure than when she had been subject to her husband’s matrimonial rights. Now that she was co-habiting with and had had a daughter by William Sloper, whose substantial inheritance had consolidated his social and financial position in 1743, the threat of being ‘plundered’ is unlikely to have been a great concern to Susannah. Rather, therefore, than aiming to warn Garrick, the ‘melancholy’ picture Susannah painted func- tioned primarily to provoke Garrick’s hostility towards Lacy, to encourage him to view Susannah as his ally, and ultimately to make him more likely to respond positively to her following suggestion that they join together in rebelling against Lacy’s management:

What think you of setting up a strolling company? Had you given me timely notice of your going to Buxton, I am sure the landlord of the Hall Place would have lent us a barn, and with the advantage of your little wife’s first appearance in the character of Lady Townly [in Colley Cibber’s The Pro- voked Husband], I don’t doubt but we could have pick’d up some odd pence:

this might have given a great turn to affairs, and, when Lacy found we could get our bread without him, it might possibly have altered these terrifying resolutions.

(Garrick 1835: 1.34)

While Susannah quickly made light of this idea, continuing ‘but joking aside, I long till you come that we may consult together’ (Garrick 1835:

1.34), the suggestion that she and Garrick lead a theatrical rebellion to prove their professional worth is significant. With its overt echoes of the 1733 rebellion against Drury Lane’s management, and the 1695 seces- sion from the United Company, 1 Susannah’s suggestion located her within a tradition of leading players who had rebelled against the management and subsequently become actor–managers in their own right. Provoked by Lacy’s refusal to recognise what she perceived as her own commercial value, Susannah revealed not only the extent to which she would fight to retain her professional value, but for the first time, her belief in her own managerial capabilities. While Susannah’s idea was certainly interesting, we can gather from her subsequent letter just over three months later, on 24 October, that Garrick had not responded enthusiastically to this strategy for chal- lenging Lacy’s management. With a clear rebuttal from Garrick, Susannah therefore quickly backtracked, brushing her idea aside and asserting that ‘I am partly of your opinion, that the masters would refuse our proposal: the thing came into my head as I was writing to you, so I mentioned it without father [sic] reflection’ (Garrick 1835: 1.37). Almost immediately, however, Susannah developed her second idea for becoming

‘Your sincere friend and humble servant’: Evidence of managerial aspirations



In 1733, one year after buying out his father’s share in Drury Lane’s management patent, Theophilus Cibber had fallen out with the principle patent holder at Drury Lane, John Highmore. As a result Theophilus had been banned from participation in the theatre’s management. In response he had led a group of disaffected actors away from Drury Lane, to join him in a new company which he established at the Haymarket theatre. The following year Highmore had been bankrupted, in part because of the competition from the rebel company, and Theophilus had been invited back to Drury Lane as a leading actor–manager. Even

earlier, in 1695, following the ‘petition

of the players’, a

group of eight ‘rebels’ had gained a

licence to set up independently from

the United Company,

a move which had

resulted in Ann Bracegirdle and Elizabeth Barry becoming the first female

actor-managers of

a London theatre


2. One month earlier, in September 1745, Charles Edward Stuart had marched on Edinburgh with his Highland army and defeated the Hanoverian force led by Sir John Cope at the Battle of Prestonpans. In October they were continuing to march south. Publicly locating herself as a supporter of the Hanoverian throne would be a particularly valuable move for Susannah, since in religious terms, as a Roman Catholic, her allegiance might be assumed to be to the Jacobite cause.

an actor manager, and this one she told Garrick was ‘a much better scheme’:

There will be no operas this year; so if you, Mr Quin, and I, agree to play without any salary, and pick up some of the best actors and actresses that are disengaged, at what salary you both think proper, I make no doubt we

shall get a licence to play therefore fifty, sixty, or any number of nights you agree upon. Mr Heidegger shall pay scenes, & c. and pay those that receive wages; and deliver the overplus to some proper person to enlist men to serve in any of the regiments of guards, at five pounds per man; – this is the service [th]at St Martin’s parish puts the money to that they collect, – and I mention it, because it is thought the most serviceable to the government, of

.] if we succeed, which I have very little doubt

any scheme yet proposed

of, I desire nothing better than us three playing at the head of any company of actors we can get together. I believe we shall convince the whole town that we have not been unreasonable in the salaries we have demanded.

(Garrick 1835: 1.37)

Unlike her previous plan, which ‘came into my head as I was writing to you’, Susannah appears to have thought this new scheme through in some practical detail before she committed it to article. It is not, however, solely in the fact that she laid out a clear, practical and ultimately achievable strategy that this letter marks a significant progression in Susannah’s managerial aspirations, nor in the fact that she used a far more assertive, definitive tone in proposing the idea. Rather, the significance of this letter is the extent to which Susannah had re-figured her scheme within the broader political context. In her earlier proposal Susannah had sought to achieve her managerial aspirations with a direct move in competition with Lacy, proving to him that they could ‘get our bread without him’. Now, however, while her goal of setting up an independent company remained essentially the same, Susannah sought to achieve it by framing her aspira- tions not as a rebellion but as a patriotic endeavour, a move which would effectively mask her fundamental desire to manage a company in opposition to Lacy beneath a philanthropic and seemingly selfless display of national support. Moreover, by presenting the endeavour as a nationalist enterprise and giving the profits directly to the regiment of guards, Susannah’s plan would publicly and valuably locate both herself and Garrick as active par- ticipants in the national fight against the Young Pretender who had only one month earlier defeated the English forces in the first major battle of the Jacobite uprising. 2 It was a sophisticated strategy, and as such presented an interesting dilemma to Garrick who, immediately on receiving Susannah’s letter, wrote to his friend and confidant Somerset Draper saying:

I should not have troubled you so soon again, was it not to tell you I have received a letter from Mrs Cibber, who proposes a scheme for our acting with Mr Quin, gratis, in the Haymarket; in order to raise a sum of money to enlist


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men for his Majesty’s service. Now although I imagine this proposal merely chimerical and womanish; yet, as I would not give my opinion too hastily upon such an affair, I must desire you to wait upon her; and to be sure if I can, in any way, contribute to the general good, I shall be ready upon the first notice, to come and give my assistance.


Susannah begins her letter of 30 October by telling Garrick that ‘yesterday Mr Draper called upon me’ (Garrick 1835: 1.38).

(Little and Kahrl 1963: 1.66)

Garrick was torn. On the one hand he perceived the idea to be ‘womanish’ and ‘chimerical’, yet on the other he recognised that he might ‘turn this’ to his own advantage with Lacy since, in Susannah’s words, ‘to break this scheme he will give you any terms you will demand (Garrick 1835: 1.37). Additionally, perhaps he also recognised the significant risk of the venture going ahead without him, and of the public finding out that he had refused to take part in a philanthropic and patriotic endeavour. Turning to his most trusted advisor, Garrick therefore asked Somerset Draper to visit Susannah Cibber ‘as soon as possible, and give me your opinion on it’, making it clear that ‘if I can, in any way, contribute to the general good, I shall be ready upon the first notice’(Little and Kahrl 1963: 1.66). Three days later Susannah received a visit from Somerset Draper, 3 who swiftly resolved Garrick’s dilemma by convincing her ‘that it was best to drop the affair I mentioned to you’ (Garrick 1835: 1.38). The means by which Draper succeeded in quelling Susannah’s scheme are unfortunately lost, although we can speculate that the news that Garrick intended to depart shortly for Ireland may have played some part. At the same time, Susannah’s recently received letter regarding the potential sale of the Drury Lane patent may also have encouraged her to put the present scheme to one side in favour of the greater potential ahead. 4 Yet, whatever the reason, when Susannah next wrote to Garrick, on 30 October, her tone was notably cooler and even resentful of Garrick’s abandoning her at this time of change and uncertainty. ‘I am sorry to hear you propose going to Ireland without calling at London’, she wrote:

4. In her letter of 9 November 1745 Susannah tells Garrick that she wants to speak to him about ‘a letter sent me a fortnight ago’, suggesting that when she wrote to Garrick on 30 October she might already have received this letter regarding the patent.

I should think it would be right to see your friends here first. You don’t know what events may happen in your absence; as I have no notion the theatre can go on in the way it now is. I should have been very glad to have had two or three hours conversation with you before your journey; but if I have not that pleasure, I heartily wish you your health.

(Garrick 1835: 1.38)

Having now attempted twice to gain Garrick’s professional collaboration on two separate managerial projects, and having been clearly rebutted by him and even abandoned for another country, it would not be surprising to see Susannah give up on her attempts to further her ambition with her stage lover. Yet only ten days later, on 9 November 1745, Susannah appears to have re-evaluated her strategy. She wrote once more to Garrick, putting forward her third and final proposal, and suggesting that she and

‘Your sincere friend and humble servant’: Evidence of managerial aspirations


Garrick join together in purchasing the patent for Drury Lane. As in her first letter, Susannah opened by carefully setting the tone and laying the groundwork for the revelation of her plan. She began:

Sir, I had a thousand pretty things to say to you, but you go to Ireland

.] You assure me also you want sadly to make love to

me; and I assure you, very seriously, I will never engage upon the same theatre again with you, without you make more love to me than you did last year. I am ashamed that the audience should see me break the least rule of decency (even upon the stage) for the wretched lovers I had last winter. I desire you always to be my lover upon the stage, and my friend off it.

without seeing me

(Garrick 1835: 1.38–39)

This wonderfully flirtatious opening paragraph was a new strategy for Susannah. Up until this point her propositions of commercial ventures had been businesslike in tone, focussing primarily upon the situation, laying out plans and strategies and, perhaps most of all, being overtly enthusias- tic about the ventures proposed. Now, however, Susannah began by show- ering Garrick with praise, pandering to his ego and conversing in what must have seemed, from its flirtatious tone, a much more ‘feminine’ way. Whether in part simply an attempt to make up for the distant tone in her previous letter or out of recognition that her more ‘masculine’ style of con- versing had not previously been successful in furthering her ambitions, the main function of this flirtatious opening was to reaffirm and re-estab- lish Susannah’s alliance with Garrick. Throughout this paragraph the key points that Susannah asserted were her professional loyalty and her per- sonal affection for Garrick. Asserting that no other actor compared as a ‘lover upon the stage’, Susannah located herself as Garrick’s primary stage partner, a relationship which would be key if she was to convince Garrick to join her as co-manager of Drury Lane. Having laid the groundwork through flattery and encouragement – notably the exact reverse of the strategy Susannah had used in July when attempting to gain Garrick’s support with the threat of the ‘terrifying resolutions’ – Susannah then came to reveal her final and ultimate aspiration:

What I wanted to speak to you about was, a letter sent me a fortnight ago. The purport of it was, supposing the remainder of the patent was to be sold, would you and Mr Garrick buy it, provided you could get promise of its being renewed for ten or twenty years? As I was desired to keep this a strict secret, I did not care to trust it in a letter, but your going to Ireland obliges me to it. After this, it is needless to beg you not to mention it to any body; but let me know what you think of it, because I must return an answer.

(Garrick 1835: 1.39)

Having asked the key question, Susannah quickly drew the letter to a close, and the reader is left with the sense that she had neither a particular interest


Helen Brooks

in purchasing the patent nor in hearing Garrick’s opinion on the venture. Whilst in both earlier proposals Susannah had overtly stated her proposal, laying out her case assertively and detailing key aspects, here her approach was almost the exact opposite. By spending only these three sentences on the topic of the patent, Susannah appeared to simply drop it into the letter, giving no sense of her own opinion on the venture and only asking of Garrick’s because ‘I must return an answer’. From her following letters, however, it becomes clear that, rather than reflecting Susannah’s real feel- ings, this superficial disinterest was part of a sophisticated strategy to win Garrick over. By presenting herself as a passive, reactive, and therefore fundamentally more ‘feminine’ figure, Susannah effaced any threat Garrick might have previously felt from her assertive, dominant approach and effectively assured him that in any partnership he would be able to take a more active and ‘masculine’ role. The sophistication of Susannah’s strategy, however, lay not in her ‘feminising’ of her role. More significant in fact was the way in which she balanced this with a clear demonstration of those ‘masculine’ traits which would be essential to Garrick’s acceptance of her as a potential actor– manager. Sandwiched in between her flirtatious opening and her passive reference to the patent, Susannah included two sentences which served exactly this purpose. She wrote:

5. As well as being inherently masculine, in the current political climate, with the Catholic Charles Stuart about to cross into England, Susannah’s military references would have resonated strongly, also reiterating her earlier alignment of stage and politics. Again, as a Roman Catholic herself, the refusal to lead a ‘rebel’ company also located her as a supporter of the national forces, and directly in opposition to the Stuart forces.

I have given over all thoughts of playing this season; nor is it in the power of Mr Lacy, with all his eloquence, to enlist me in his ragged regiment. I should be very glad to command a body of regular troops, but I have no ambition to head the drury-lane militia.

(Garrick 1835: 1.39)

In this short announcement Susannah made a profound statement. Not only did she overtly and proudly assert her ambition to lead the Drury Lane company but she also demonstrated that she had the skill to do so. Switching on an instant from the flirtatious, ‘feminine’ style of her opening, through which she had sought to put Garrick at ease, Susannah used a notably different, and essentially ‘masculine’ tone. With her assertive, con- fident statement of her managerial ambitions, her resistance to Lacy and her use of military terms with their inherently masculine associations, Susannah emphasised to Garrick that she had the traits needed to take on this role successfully. 5 By slipping this ambitious statement into a letter distinguished by its feminine and passive tone, Susannah appears to have been attempting overall to negotiate a balance between ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ roles, a task which would be essential to any successful partner- ship with Garrick. On one hand she appears to have recognised that to work with Garrick she would need to be the more passive and dependent partner, while on the other she also appears to have been aware of the implicit risk that such an approach presented. As a partner, Susannah therefore offered herself in feminine terms, whereas as a manager she

‘Your sincere friend and humble servant’: Evidence of managerial aspirations



The Veterans Scheme had been set up as a charitable institution to support English soldiers.

made it clear that she would play an equal and assertive role in the busi- ness of managing the company. Unfortunately, with Garrick’s reply to this letter being lost, we have no idea how he responded to Susannah’s carefully crafted attempt to gain his

7. In Private Correspondence the year put to this letter and the subsequent letter of 19 December is 1746. However this is a clear mistake since both letters directly refer to Susannah’s production of The Beggar’s Opera at Covent Garden, a production which took place in December 1745.

partnership in co-managing Drury Lane. What we do know, however, is that Susannah’s next step in her strategy was to take action which would practically demonstrate to Garrick both her ability as a manager and her professional value as a partner. On 7 December 1745 she published a notice in the Daily Advertiser offering to play Polly in The Beggar’s Opera for the benefit of the Veterans’ Scheme, an offer which bore remarkable similarities to her earlier scheme of performing gratis for the regiment of guards. 6 The way that Susannah planned and enacted this venture is rarely recognised as a key moment in her career, and yet, within the context of her attempts to purchase the patent of Drury Lane, this solo staging of The Beggar’s Opera was effectively Susannah’s public and most overt demonstration to Garrick of her ability and acumen. From her choice of a controversial and provoca- tive play, to her negotiations with the theatre managers and her indepen- dent management of public opinion with her confident puffing in the papers, Susannah ensured that every element of this production would give her the full opportunity to demonstrate to Garrick her significant value as a partner in the management of Drury Lane. In offering to play Polly in The Beggar’s Opera, Susannah would have known she was making a highly political and provocative move. Just under ten years before, in 1736, she and Kitty Clive had become embroiled in what had been popularly known as the Polly War, a very public confronta- tion over which of the two actresses would be allowed to play the part of Polly in a production at Drury Lane. With Kitty Clive having won the original battle, Susannah’s statement was a clear provocation to her rival. Moreover, with Clive being a member of the Drury Lane company, Susannah’s choice of play was also a direct challenge to Lacy, forcing him to choose between his leading actress that season and the significant ben- efits to be gained from supporting Susannah’s venture. The option of working at Covent Garden, however, was no less controversial, and in a similar way forced that theatre’s manager to choose between the value Susannah would bring and the ongoing value offered by her estranged husband who was already a member of the Covent Garden company. In this context, and by choosing both this role and play, Susannah was clearly setting herself up to succeed under even the most difficult circum- stances. Deliberately provocative, Susannah’s choice prompted an immedi- ate theatrical and public tumult. As she wrote in a later letter to Garrick, on 11 December 1745: 7

The morning my first advertisement came out, I wrote lacy a very civil letter,

desiring to know if he consented to my proposal

the green room was in an uproar: I was cursed with all the elegance of phrase that reigns behind the scenes, and Mrs Clive swore she would not

.] I heard that night that


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play the part of Lucy. The next morning Mr Rich sent me an offer of his

house, that he would give the whole receipts to the Veteran scheme, and that he should always esteem it a great obligation done to him; that he had sent to Mr Cibber, who promised that he would never come near the house during the rehearsals, or performances and that Mr Rich would answer with his life he should keep his word: so I concluded it the same day, which was Sunday. The next mor