Don Rubin[1]


Is it fair to say that many of the world’s leading artists — from ancient times to our own – have been provocateurs of one sort or another? Some have sought to provoke politically. Some stylistically. Some were fighting for new ideas. Some for new ways of seeing or being or becoming. And from time immemorial, many of these cutting edge artists have either felt the need themselves to break free of their own familiars or, in many cases, have been forced out of home and country by those they have differed with or offended. Whether by need or choice then artists and exile (whatever form it may have taken) have long gone hand-in-hand.

The examples are many. In our own time we have seen the Nobel Prize winning dramatist Wole Soyinka forced into exile from Nigeria through death threats from a mad military regime. Kenyan playwright Ngugi wa Thiong’o spent some two decades abroad for challenging his government and what he saw as its colonial-minded policies. Athol Fugard in South Africa challenged his country’s policy of apartheid for decades and the South African government couldn’t wait to get rid of him only to find that he declined their kind offers and chose to live for much of his embattled artistic life within the country in a kind of internal exile.

During the Cold War and going back almost to the Russian Revolution of 1917, artists not willing to toe the official Communist Party line often opted out of their homelands for safety as well as for intellectual and artistic freedom. The names are too many to list them all here but among the most well-known of these political exiles one must certainly recall the experiences of the German Bertolt Brecht, the Russian Yuri Lyubimov and the Romanian Andrei Serban. Theatre of the Oppressed founder Augusto Boal was forced out of his native Brazil early on in his career by rightwing police facing threats of death if he returned.

But the exilic is not only about being forced abroad. Many choose to work away from their own homelands because it is also a way of seeing the world with fresh eyes. Would Ibsen have written his great plays if he had not left Norway for Germany and Italy? Would the Italian Eugenio Barba have learned to barter and anthropologize aspects of world theatre if he had not moved to Denmark and created his unique Odin Theatre? Would Peter Brook have created his Mahabharata or his Iks if he hadn’t chosen to leave the security of a commercial career in Britain’s West End for his ramshackle experimental theatre in Paris. The exilic – including the difficult but sometimes necessary choice to live abroad as an expatriate — is something that happens frequently in the contemporary world. And once such a choice is made, the challenges of living that new life, living in a new society as a minority, often working in a new language, makes one seem to be different, makes one what we now call the “other.”

This issue of Critical Stages takes as its theme the whole notion of exile and the exilic, expatriatism and otherness and seeks to understand what it is and what it does to the artist both positively and negatively. The section begins with a fascinating theorization of the exilic state by Russian-born and now Canadian-based scholar Yana Meerzon. In an excerpt from her soon to be published study Theatre in Exile as Performing Odyssey (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), Prof. Meerzon defines the field as both imposition and choice connecting her major study to contemporary definitions of self. Her work starts at the Odin.

Two historical pieces look at exile in historical contexts. Critic and scholar Savas Patsalidis from Aristotle University in Thessaloniki examines the huge significance of exile in early Greek drama. His study of Aeschylus’ play The Suppliants (and American dramatist Charles Mee’s adaptation, Big Love) explores the loss of friends and family along with the protection of one’s government and sees it as a fate worse than death. Expatriate Italian scholar Lamberto Tassinari, on the other hand, starts with a remark made by T.S. Eliot to the effect that Shakespeare saw the emerging English world with such fresh eyes that he must have been an exile. Utilizing textual and biographical evidence, Tassinari adds to the recent debate about the Shakespearean authorship question (the Japanese-backed, English-set film Anonymous — directed by a German — has brought the whole issue, for better or worse, into classrooms around the world). Tassinari suggests that a good case could be made these days that the real Shakespeare was actually Italian poet and lexicographer John Florio. Exile and otherness, he argues, are clear themes in so many of the plays.

The section concludes with examination of two lives directly connected to the issue of exile. In the first, Finnish scholar Liisa Byckling – an expert in Finnish-Russian cultural contacts – looks closely at the life and career of one of Stanislavski’s star students, the Moscow Art Theatre actor and acting teacher while in exile Michael Chekhov. Chekhov, a relative of the dramatist Anton, struggled to create a Russian-style acting school and company during his years in the UK and later the US after leaving the new Soviet Union where his alternative approaches were not always appreciated. His experiences in exile as an acting teacher were also not always appreciated or understood in his new homelands.

The final piece in the section is an interview with one of Asia’s leading theatrical provocateurs, director-playwright Chong Wishing, sometimes known as Jung Euishin. Chong is a clear example of the exilic as Other. The son of a Korean immigrant to Japan, Chong has lived his whole life in that country, was educated in Japan, does not really speak Korean and yet has spent his entire career feeling and being seen as different, as an outsider, as a minority. In this specially-commissioned interview with Chong, Japanese critic Manabu Noda explores Chong’s long and important career and the role that alterity has played in it.

To speak personally for a moment, it has been an honour to edit this exciting theme section for CS. In preparing it, I have spoken to innumerable people with innumerable views on all sides of the issue. Some were themselves exiles, others (like me) expatriates, and still others minorities within their societies. The section has clearly only been able to scratch the surface of this issue, an issue that in a world of growing trans-nationalism and inter-culturalism promises only to become more important in the decades to come. Many thanks to everyone who has spoken with me about what should be included and especially to those who have taken the time to actually write for CS here. Your time and thought and work are deeply appreciated.


[1] Don Rubin is founding Editor of the quarterly journal Canadian Theatre Review and Editor of Routledge’s six-volume World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre. He teaches at Toronto’s York University.

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