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What is Cultural Appropriation

Revisiting Peter Brook’s Mahabharata

Spurred by the controversies over the new adaptation of The Jungle Book that opened this summer in Chicago, this series of articles explores who is allowed to tell whose stories onstage. This series is curated by Rebecca Stevens, the Chicago Commons Producer for HowlRound.

Sometime in the mid-nineties, I encountered the term “cultural appropriation” during the course of my theater studies at UC Santa Cruz. I don’t remember how or when it came to my attention, but I learned that it is a failure to adequately translate the semiotics (the study of signs and sign processes) from one culture to another. It is meant to examine the criteria by which intercultural artistic projects are devised, probe issues of representation, and definitions of “cultural property.” Cultural appropriation became the subject of my undergraduate thesis on Peter Brook’s adaptation of The Mahabharata.

Three actors on stage, one in a Ganesha mask
The Mahabharata, stage play by Peter Brook.

Those of us who pursue the craft of directing will eventually come across the name Peter Brook and his importance to the theater. And his book, The Empty Space, is probably considered to be the essential text on the meaning of theater and why it is deadly, holy, rough, and immediate.

India is the source and setting of The Mahabharata. Brook was born and raised in England. This point of departure presents problems and difficult interpretative decisions by the director. How are you going to represent India? How deeply is it to be evoked? Like many directors trained in Western dramaturgy, Brook's solution was not to literally represent India, but to selectively "suggest" the Indian context:

“We're not trying to show, but to suggest. We are telling a story which, on the one hand, is universal, but on the other, would never have existed without India. To tell this story, we had to avoid allowing the suggestion of India to be so strong as to inhibit human identification to too great an extent, while, at the same time telling it as a story with its roots in the earth of India.” (Emphasis mine)

Like many wide-eyed young artists before me, I believed Peter Brook was a champion of diversity in the founding of his company, the International Centre for Theatre Research, in Paris. His creation of a hyper-international ensemble of actors from different cultures and nationalities was unique and inspiring. And yet he offered this observation about acting and actors from Latin America in comparison to the English:

…one of the reasons why the English are normally more gifted for acting than Latin countries is that any Latin, as everyone knows, acts naturally. He has no inhibition whatsoever about immediately and completely expressing himself outwardly. There is nothing that holds him back. This absence of resistance, of course, leads to bad art. It leads to natural communication, but no need for the creative act that comes from difficulty and friction.

Nothing like a generalization from an acclaimed artist about your hemispheric background to burst one’s mimetic development. Perhaps I will address this in a future Café Onda post. But I digress…

are we ready to progress through the twenty-first century with honesty, accountability, diversity and fidelity to the work, or are we simply playing a zero-sum game where my telling of the story is more important than its original cultural source and context?

Brook was right up to this point in regards to presenting The Mahabharata to a wider, Western audience. I am not from India, and I understood the passion and impact of this legendary fable. But by A: essentializing characters into mythic figures, B: reducing deep philosophical concepts into digestible “universal themes,” and C: merely presenting a silhouette of the cultural setting of this most epic of Indian poems, he went off the rails. And because of Brook’s profound impact on directors trained in the 70’s and 80’s (some of whom are now influential directors themselves), I still see American theater directors and European expatriates, who stage work in America, repeating his error in examples A, B, and C.

Here’s what we should change:

  • Hold ourselves to high standards of faithfulness to the source material, cultural setting, and a clear conceptual idea for transforming a story from one culture to another.
  • Call upon and hire artists, scholars, and members of specific cultural communities for their expertise, knowledge and perspectives on the work.
  • Take artists and audiences alike on a theatrical journey that does not minimize the world in which the story takes place, and avoid decontextualization in order to appeal to an exclusively Western audience.
  • Reevaluate goals for how to create an adaptation that is “accessible” without the expense of reducing its core morals, values, spiritual or cosmic philosophy.
  • Ensure the retention of specific cultural contexts for characters to exist in; not to reduce them into simplified stereotypes, or worse, eliminate them altogether for convenience or laziness.

It’s certainly understandable those of us in the theater, especially those charged with responsibilities for conceiving productions (writers, directors, dramaturgs, producers), grow exhausted swimming against the overwhelming cultural tide that urges those with authority to rest on their ethnic privilege. I don’t consider Mr. Brook, nor directors like Julie Taymor or Mary Zimmerman who freely adapt from and are inspired by third-world stories and techniques, “enemies” by any stretch of the imagination. But directors who make statements like the ones I’ve quoted from Mr. Brook give us pause, since they uncharacteristically represent a movement to disengage with a key question of artistic ethics—are we ready to progress through the twenty-first century with honesty, accountability, diversity and fidelity to the work, or are we simply playing a zero-sum game where my telling of the story is more important than its original cultural source and context?

By allowing only a European/Western perspective to lead the artistic presentation of stories about class, race, and gender, are we continuing to allow those narratives to be appropriated, assimilated, or turned into the universal, etc. to the point of irrelevance? Perhaps in the attempt to distill a story to its essence there is a dilution that takes place at the hands of the dominant culture?

When faced with a world full of works of art that show outdated, grossly erroneous points of view about race, ethnicity, value, and status, the answer is not to make yet one more of them. Translating the untranslatable is one of the prime directives of the theater. We have the ability to change, adapt, reconsider and revise whatever story we wish to tell in a theatrical vision that is respectful, transformative, visceral, celebratory, and truthful to its origins and impulses.


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Thoughts from the curator

Spurred by the controversies over the adaptation of The Jungle Book that opened in 2014 in Chicago, this series of articles explores who is allowed to tell whose stories onstage.

Race and Representation in American Theatre


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I believe when Brook refers to "Latin countries", he is not referring specifically to Latin American nations, but rather to any countries in which Romance languages are spoken, e.g. France, Portugal, Italy, etc. This is the more usual usage in British English. Whilst this still obviously a mildly racist generalisation, I think you'll agree that the stereotype of, say, the effusive Italian or the direct Frenchman is not so uncommon in the anglophone world as to be remarkable.

Wow, that Brook quote is a doozy. Especially the "as everyone knows." (Still, I'll always be grateful to Brook for his 2000 "Hamlet," with Adrian Lester in the lead.)
For a different perspective on Mahabharata, I found Maria Shevstova's article in Theatre Research International to be a good, intelligent read: http://www.yavanika.org/cla...