Lesson 4: Theatre and the Body



Eugenio Barba, Theatre Anthropology

  • What is the point of interculturalism? We mostly see differences between cultures, between performances.
  • What is common among diverse performances (music, costume, styles, stories, stages, etc.)? Is there a universal principle? Can we have a universal theory?
  • ThematicˇXwe tend to think the only common ground is the "universal, permanent, human nature" (ex, love as the common theme of Romeo and Juliet and the Chinese Butterfly Lovers).
  • Barba argues that the body is the common element between Chinese opera, Japanese Noh, Indian Dance, Balinese dance, ballet, mime, Commedia dell'Arte, etc. To be more specific, it is the denaturalizing the body, the performance body in contrast to the everyday body.
  • Natural body conserves energy; it is a survival principle and animal nature; energy (calories from food) is very precious.
  • We have natural desire for fatty food (our desire for MacDonald, bear's desire for salmon skin)ˇXbecause fat is essential for survival in the winter. Our desire for diet food (salad, vegetarian) is totally unnatural and purely cultural; it is trained.
  • Performance as a deliberate breach from natural principlesˇXit features waste of energy, unease, and tension.
  • Performance as a deliberate challenge of body's limitationˇXacrobatic movements, yoga postures.
  • Other uses of the unnatural bodyˇXreligious abstinence of sex and meat, Buddhist sitting posture, Buddhist bald heads, Muslim covering up the entire body, military marching stepsˇXall force you to break away from everyday habit, everyday mind (so you can contemplate more important things than survival, such as religious truth, or can learn to obey blindly against your survival instinct).
  • Performance as entirely cultural and artificial (vs. natural)ˇXopposite the realistic/naturalistic theory of performance which dominated the West.
  • Realism/naturalismˇXour belief as well, we criticize bad acting as "not natural," "not likely to happen in real life," "fake"; we praise good acting for real tears, real passion, real transformation of actor/actress (ex: Leonardo de Caprio is Romeo incarnate).
  • False realism/naturalismˇXtheatre lighting and painted scenes, fourth wall, loud voice, thinking out loud, unreal time, unreal distance, cinematic moving lens, cinematic close-ups, cinematic double visions)ˇXculture mistaken as nature.
  • Examples of the unnatural bodyˇXbalance, eyes, hands, feet, costume, masks, high boots, etc.
  • CodificationˇXrecognizable male/female hand gestures, sacred/mundane postures, good/evil facial features. In real life, there is no real distinction!
  • What is the point of performance then? Why do we do it?
  • AnthropologyˇXexplanation of human behavior (we worship gods/ghosts because we are afraid of death). How do we explain performance?
  • Religious rootˇXtrue to many performances (Greek tragedy, medieval religious plays, Indian/Balinese dance, etc.). But does this apply to ballet, mime, acrobatics today? If not, what? To amaze? To inform (of what?)ˇXwhy?
  • What exactly does theatre/performance do? Why do they exist in all times, all places?
  • To escape from the everyday prison?ˇXspiritual purpose, like meditation or fasting or hypnosis. You see/feel/realize things otherwise unavailable to you.
  • Is theatre only a form/branch of religion then?









Tadashi Suzuki, Culture Is the Body

  • Similar to Barba but also contrary.
  • The "cultural" (performance) body is actually the truly "natural" body.
  • We are cut off from our own primitive nature and need to be trained to go back, regain our physical perceptivity and sensibility.
  • Why do we want that? What's wrong with an electronic concert, an electric-powered theatre, a computer high-tech Disney movie?
  • We tend to think natural is good (organic food, nakedness, 100% cotton, unplug concert, An Lee's martial art movie, Jackie Chen's fighting, etc.) etc.)ˇXwhy?
  • We mystify nature as beauty, good, and true.
  • Is there real nature? Or is it all cultural?
  • If we follow this theory or that theory, can we really find nature? Or we are just following a cultural trend? Do we really want to find nature? Why?







  • All these Western theorists find inspiration and "truth" in Eastern erformances/philosophy/religion.
  • How true is their perception of the East? Dreamland, utopia? Fictional East?
  • What do we, Easterners, think about East and West?
  • In the Taiwanese opera Romeo and Juliet, Qiusheng has romanticized notion of the West.
  • In West Side Story, the "America" is more realistic, though seemingly cynical and joking.



Kunqu OperaˇmŞL¨R©]©bˇn

  • Purely Eastern (Kunqu, unlike Taiwanese opera, is very classical and conservative).
  • Amazing physical skillsˇXtotally unnatural, intense, extraordinary, amazing, technically challenging.
  • Manifesting/visualizing an extraordinary passion happening to an extraordinary figure (the leader of eight hundred thousand soldiers).
  • Why do we find it satisfying? Vicarious psychology? Escape from the boring daily reality?


Escape at Night

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© 2005 by Bi-qi Beatrice Lei. All rights reserved.