Impersonation, Autobiography, and Cross-Cultural Adaptation: Lee Kuo-Hsiu's Shamlet

By Huang, Alexander C. Y. | Asian Theatre Journal, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

Impersonation, Autobiography, and Cross-Cultural Adaptation: Lee Kuo-Hsiu's Shamlet


Huang, Alexander C. Y., Asian Theatre Journal


Lee Kuo-Hsiu's 1992 Shamlet is a "sham" Hamlet that possesses three palimpsestical levels of signification as it rearranges Shakespeare's play. The first level is the parody of the Shakespearean text, where scripted technical errors and confusion prevail when a fictional Taiwanese theater company rehearses and performs Hamlet. The second level is (auto) biographical: the stories of the characters of the company portraying Hamlet reflect the chaotic condition of theatre making and living in contemporary Taiwan, where the economics of the arts are vexed and the political future of the island is unclear. At a third level, where the parody of the Western classical text and the autobiographical rendition of contemporary East Asian reality confront each other in scripted improvisations, a new Asian modernity emerges in the articulate voice of Lee Kuo-Hsiu.

Alexander C.Y. Huang is assistant professor of comparative literature at Pennsylvania State University. He has a PhD in comparative literature and a joint PhD in humanities from Stanford University. His research focuses on modern Chinese literature, transcultural performances, Shakespeare, and interactions between writing and other forms of cultural productions.

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The 1990s saw cross-cultural adaptations for the Taiwanese theater in new ways in parody, autobiographical performance, and scripted "improvisation" in Shamlet, a ten-act comedy conceived and directed by Lee Kuo-Hsiu (1992; revived in 1994, 1995, 1996, and 2000). (1) Interestingly, the piece was not confined to small audiences, as many experimental works are, but was immensely popular and toured internationally. This article examines the emergence of this new performing genre through Shamlet. Some other representative works of this genre include Wu Hsing-Kuo's Li'er zaici (Lear Alone) and Lee's Zhenghun cishi (Personal Ads). A huaju (spoken drama) play inspired by Hamlet, Shamlet stages Shakespeare's play within autobiographical impersonations: that is, it connects fictional characters in Hamlet to the theatrical careers of the performers of Shamlet. Impersonation in this context means both the dramatic representation of a character and the act of superimposing one's own offstage life on the character one is performing.

Visualize an empty stage in the Novel Hall in Taipei with a pseudo-medieval European chair. A backdrop of painted pillars, back-lit with an azure light, creates the illusion of a colonnade. Before the show, the following newspaper "review" (complete with a headline) credited to Xiaoniao bao (Little Bird News) is projected onto a screen above the stage. The lines are written against a green and pink background:

    Fengping Theater Company Performs Shamlet
      Shamlet premiered last night in the Novel Hall in Taipei to
    critical success. The audience stood up and applauded for half an
    hour at the curtain call.
      Presenting Shamuleite, also known as The Revenge of the Prince.
    [...]

As the light goes on, the audience sees Shamlet (as Prince Hamlet is called in this adaptation) sitting in the chair and talking to Horatio. Both wear pseudo-medieval royal dress resembling Laurence Olivier's outfit for Hamlet in the 1948 film. The duel scene soon follows, and Shamlet dies entreating Horatio to "live in this world and tell the story of [Shamlet's] revenge." The curtain falls.

What has just been shown on the stage is the last scene from the "premiere" of Shamlet in Taipei. As the curtain rises again, the audience is whisked from Act 5, Scene 2 of Hamlet to Act 1, Scene 5. This time a chaotic rehearsal unfolds with the actors squabbling and going in and out of character. The confusion is heightened as stagehands interrupt, cell phones ring, and the actors' lines get mixed up with their conversations on and off the phone. The action appears to be improvised, but it is scripted. The "rehearsal" devolves into a counseling group where each cast member vents and brings personal problems to bear on the play they are "rehearsing. …

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