The contemporary, strictly speaking, is always out of date. It follows that a World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre must be doubly threatened by obsolescence. First, because the object at the core of its attentions, live performance, will be forever beyond the reach of adequate retrieval. Second, because a comprehensive global survey inevitably will entail a widening gap between the original and its report. For live theatre junkies such gaps frustrate desire, distance the fix promised by a night in the stalls.
Yet all encyclopaedias draw up cartographies of culture. So maybe encyclopaedias of theatre can supply especially telling relief maps of their times, especially reflexive views on the long perspectives of history. Enter the live theatre autodidact, bent on etching out the smallest detail of the grand display, which in this instance is defined by continents - Europe, the Americas, Africa, The Arab World, Asia/Oceania - and the slippery, unstable, even fugitive nations that hover within and on the edges of their ambit.
Autodidacts and junkies need long lines of suppliers to feed their habits successfully, and this particular encyclopaedia provides them in apparently happy profusion. Five further volumes are in preparation, but already it is the product of prodigious organisation incorporating all the major international theatre associations and a myriad of expert individuals. To gather such dispersed scholarly energy together to form a cross-cultural community of writers is an extremely impressive feat of co-ordination in the drive to create detailed up-to-date descriptions of postwar theatre in more than 150 nations. Moreover, the ambition of global comprehensiveness is tactically balanced by an admirable root principle of the whole project: all accounts are stories from the home front, by writers native to the cultures they describe. The many sponsors of this extraordinary scheme, especially Unesco and Routledge, deserve applause for their commitment to the risks in the basic design but when the global reach is based on national difference what kinds of coherent analytical framework might we reasonably expect to survive?
Don Rubin, in his introduction, "Of Nations and Their Theatres", offers notional cohesions through contrasting reading strategies. A "vertical" reading promises an in-depth portrayal of each of the 47 or so "nations" represented as part of Europe. This sudden explosion is explained by the inclusion of the former states of the USSR and other eastern bloc countries. A "horizontal" reading aims to establish cross-national comparisons under ten subheadings. These range from a general sociopolitical history of each country, through sections entitled "Structure of the National Theatre Community", to an "Artistic Profile" which is further subdivided into broad generic categories "Music Theatre", "Dance Theatre" and so on. So how well does the structure of these fairly traditional headings serve the autodidact and the junkie?
A skim across entries for music theatre highlights some typical problematics. For writers from most countries - Estonia, France, Ireland, Switzerland are representative - music theatre means the classical opera of the international repertoire. Although mention is often made of other uses of music in theatre, through (say) the influence of indigenous folk traditions, or avant garde experiment, or pop and rock, there is then only an occasional glimpse of the cultural dynamics that such a naturalising view of the dominance of opera can produce. In Switzerland, for example, violent protests greeted a proposal to spend millions on the renovation of the Opernhaus Zurich: the mostly young demonstrators wanted the money to be diverted to fund a centre for youth arts.
Conversely, when the writers are less conventional in their approach - and this is signalled clearly for Ireland, Netherlands and Turkey, where "Music Theatre" and "Dance Theatre" are combined under single headings - a more distinctive picture of the theatrical dynamics within and between nations emerges. The junkie in me was enthused by the briefest mention of the Dutch company called Bewth, which staged "movement theatre in various unusual locations, including factories and churches"; while the autodidact was annoyed at the erasure of classical opera in Holland. These variations throw into high relief the ideological slants that "horizontal" categories such as "Music Theatre" are almost certain to produce. And this raises a question about how much the typical tilt encouraged by the conventional view becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, which justifies an almost exclusive focus on opera in the general introduction to "Music Theatre" for the volume as a whole. That introduction, ironically, may then appear to be less than an accurate account of what has been happening in European "Music Theatre", and more an expression of desire by the writer to be or become a particular type of live theatre junkie.
Such uncertainties are an inevitable side effect of "horizontal" critical readings through the ten categories which are designed to form the text's analytical backbone. Thus, for some contributors the idea of the "Structure of the Theatre Community" includes detailed and fascinating statistics, while for others numeracy is not a skill so much in play. Entries for "marginal" countries, such as the former Soviet states display a lively engagement with the cultural politics tossed up in the wake of their new political freedoms; by contrast the older democracies supposedly at the heart of Europe are made to appear too often complacent about the stability of their theatre "communities". Hence, a violent assault on the theatrical polis occasions a proper anxiety in Malta, where A-Teatru (Anti-Theatre) was forced into closure after a reactionary arson attack whereas a nearly identical event at the Albany in the East End of London does not rate a mention.
Even such small variations of focus may be read as metonymic signals of the instability of the organising concept of the total project. So three "Historical Overview" sections for Czechoslovakia, the USSR, and Yugoslavia gesture backwards to irretrievable shadowlands. Then there are examples which are awkwardly liminal, or just simply awful. Thus Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are counted as part of the United Kingdom (and as a consequence receive too little space), while some smaller countries that shifted towards political independence in the collapse of communism get an entry for themselves. More crisply paradoxical is the presentation of Germany, whose report shuttlecocks between an "east" and a "west" that are supposed to be merely notional, but which really are not. Most heart-rending is Bosnia-Herzegovina, where the headings for six of the ten sub-sections are followed by the blankly distressing statement: information not available at time of publication.
Hence, the text is full of fissures opened up by much more than simple omissions. Their source is the central problematic invoked by such a singular encyclopaedic vision in a pluralistic and rapidly post-modernising world: the more one tries to pin things down the more it becomes clear how much they are slipping away. Both autodidact and junkie might then throw themselves towards the safety net of the index, but for very different reasons. The autodidact will hanker after a stable conceptual system beyond or below the text's main organising categories, maybe searching for clues to patterns of international interaction and influence, cultural formations and aesthetic evolutions: naturalism, political theatre, semiotics. The junkie might need a quick fix on the cutting edge of innovation, on the quickly shifting frontiers of international success: interculturalism, performance art, feminist spectacle. Sadly, both will be disappointed by the elementary list of proper names occasionally punctuated by tantalising possibility: "shadow puppets, Greece".
Meanwhile, a fascinating further way in may be had through the many photographs that Routledge has sensibly allowed. Almost everywhere there are signs of extraordinary imagination, incredibly gripping design, stunningly adventurous staging, even astonishing acting as well as perhaps just a few too many boring publicity shots. The junkie's eye will be caught by cascading corn at the Slovene National Theatre in 1991, or by the scene set in a soup bowl at the Thetre de Galafronie (Belgium) in 1983. The autodidact might trace a tendency to unrevealing close-ups in Israel and Italy, or to spectacle in Austria, or to shadows in the Czech Republic. Altogether, then, this first volume of the World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre is a wonderfully rich source of theatrical information. In the moments when its critical categories fray and dissolve, when its analytical apparatus appears full of holes, the invention of the artists that it documents comes shining through. Don Rubin and his many collaborators deserve resounding applause for pulling together such a remarkable and useful survey, which represents European theatre with a good deal of accuracy: as multifarious, unruly, discontinuous, full of escape routes to places never before imagined.
Barrie Kershaw is professor of theatre and performance, University of Lancaster.
The World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre Volume One:: Europe
Editor - Don Rubin
ISBN - 0 415 05928 3
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £100.00
Pages - 1,052pp