What are the uses of 'abroad' to a playwright? In a piece I wrote earlier today for the Guardian theatre blog, I wondered a little about how British playwrights had historically used foreign locations, and why. In Renaissance drama, this is particularly striking - above all, the Mediterranean was the place they selected for romances and identical twins, for baroque masques of poisoning and strangulation, for unguarded sex and swashbuckle.
These locations not only provided colour, they allowed dramatists to explore themes that might be politically sensitive or morally dubious - the stark cruelties of power, say, in Jacobean tragedy, or a saucy reversal of sexual norms (as in the play which prompted these reflections, The Custom of the Country by Fletcher and Massinger, a rarely-revived romp unearthed by the acting school RADA).
But what are authors looking for when they choose a foreign location? Accuracy seems to be the last thing on anyone's mind (The Custom of the Country is set in a Lisbon which is positively dripping with transgressive desire, plus sorcery on the side). Instead, a theatrical location represents an idea, and it's interesting to see what kind of ideas resonate with authors. For English authors of the 16th and 17th centuries, it would seem that warm climates allowed a finely nuanced culture to throw off its pained calibrations and explore extremes of desire and political orders.
But what do other cultures look for in farflung locations? Brecht's America (or, rather, Amerika) was a gangster exaggeration of Weimar Germany, offering an attractively vast landscape to sharkish entrepreneurs. Do artists from cold countries perhaps swoon at the idea of hotter climes (Ibsen's desert interlude in Peer Gynt, for example, or Petipa's Russian ballet Don Quixote)?
Commerce surely has a lot to do with how nations perceive the wider world. As a thrusting commercial nation, early modern England was actively engaged in finding new bits of abroad to trade with. Commercial exchanges might also prompt other kinds of engagement, exposing English Protestant ethics to the Islamic world. Several plays combine derring-do with scenes of forced - or willing - religious conversion. Plays like Robert Daborne's A Christian Turned Turk (1612) ask what might be lost and gained when identity itself becomes a commodity. Equally, Othello's uncomfortable intensity is heightened by taking the characters out of Europe and confining them on a small Islamic island, seemingly cast adrift from certainties.
But where do nations famous for amassing immigrants (and then moving back out across the globe) - Americans, Australians, or Canadians - locate fantasy versions of their own cultures, in either recent or classic plays? How about China, Japan or India? Not for the first time writing this blog, I'm humbled by how little I know. I'm hoping you'll fill in some of the blanks.
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