Theatre And The Oriental Gaze Cultural Studies Essay

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According to Edward Said, the West constructs a notion of the East as "other," through orientalism which turns the East into a place to be feared or desired as an image of the West's imagined "otherness." as noted in the work of Peter Brook's Mahabarata, and contemporary films like we have seen in Avatar, or of practitioners that subvert and challenge Orientalist perception found in the West, as we have seen in M Butterfly.

Through an examination of performance from at least two different cultures, show how the theatre is used to either exotify the other in a kind of "Oriental Gaze," and the work of other contemporary practitioners who wish to challenge these "Otherings" of a culture.


The idea of Orientalism played an important role in literature of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century in Europe. It was widely referring to the portraying of the East by Western artists, as the fascination with the Orient influenced many of the romantic writers who situated novels and poetry about the mysterious Eastern lands and also dazzled many famous painters who were surprised and impressed by the charm and beauty of the East. These painters translated their fascination in their paintings using many methods. While some of them painted what they actually saw and experienced in the East, others painted from their imagination about the myths and magical tales of the mysterious East. The East became an interesting destination for travellers and scholars, many of whom went on to paint and write about their experiences in the exotic lands among unfamiliar peoples and customs. In arts in general, the Orient became associated with beautiful landscapes, eroticism and mystery.

The beginning of postcolonial studies in literature, philosophy, anthropology, and arts attributed by many scholars to Orientalism a book written by Edward Said which was published in 1978. Said focuses in his work on the interplay between the "Occident" which refer to the West and the "Orient", which refer to the East.

In this essay I will explore the meaning of "The Other" from the perspective of the Western gaze. I will try to find out how the West perceive and recognize the East by focusing on their image of the Eastern women through theatre as it is one of the important arts that reflect the community perceptions, by analyzing the "Veil" as a symbol and it representation through Oscar wild play Salome and the "Kimono" which is a Japanese traditional cloth, as a symbol through Puccini's opera Madame Butterfly. I will also show how some practitioners subvert and challenge Orientalist perception in the West by analyzing David Henry Hwang's play, M. Butterfly.


Orientalism is broadly defined as the representation of the Eastern world by the Western world, more deeply, as the study of the orient by Western scholars and their evaluation of its social and moral values, and its future prospects. The beginning of orientalist perception by the West was in the nineteenth century by scholars who translated some writings of the East into English in order to know more about the Eastern cultures believing that will empower the West with knowledge of how to conquer and defeat the Eastern countries (Sered, 1996).

By the mid nineteenth century Oriental Studies expanded and became important to many scholars. However, racist attitudes and stereotypes have become inherent to this cultural movement. It become a way of thinking of the East, as strange, exotic, inferior, mysterious, erotic and dangerous, and has helped the West to define itself through this contrasting image as according to Byington, (2001) "The idea of the oriental as the other or the mysterious unknown reflects the Western concerns about one's own identity". Orientalism must also be viewed in light of colonial expansion by Western countries and how they rationalize the colonisation of the East, by defining Eastern people as stagnant and in need of "Christianizing, civilizing or controls" (Hübinette, 2002).

Edward Said and Orientalism

"Orientalism is a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between "the Orient" and (most of the time) "the Occident"… In short, Orientalism as a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient."

(Said, 1978)

The most influential critique on orientalism came in 1978 with Edward Said. In his book Orientalism, he managed to attack the oriental perception not only to our notions of the ways the West constructs representations and portrays the East but to how the ideology of othering is facilitated through art and literature. According to Said, the West has created a "dichotomy" between the reality of the East and the romantic notion of the orient. The West representation to the Middle East and Asia are perceived as biased and racist. The East history, culture and future were created by the West. On this framework rests not only the study of the Orient, but also the political imperialism of the West in the East. He discussed the controversial relationship between "Occident" and "Orient" as is a manifestation of "us versus them" (Said 1978).

Said argued that the Orient was constructed as an opposite reflection of the "Occident" who are the Western culture. On his way to prove his theory he studied many works of Western scholars and writers who were specialized of the Middle East cultures, in order to denounce the relations of power between the colonizer and the colonized in their texts. According to Said, Orientalism was motivated by imperialism as Westerners would never have study near and far-Eastern societies and culture without imperialism. Orientalism is considering as an indicator of the power the West holds over the Orient and not about the Orient itself. Said added that their was a contrasting perceptions by the West to the East as the Western writers portrayed the orient as weak and feminised in contrast with the strong and masculine West, He suggested that this contrast was derived from the need to create difference between the West and the East (Said 1978).

Moreover, Said argued that the West has stereotyped the East in art and literature which that even the most apparently objective Western texts on the East were permeated with a bias. The task of exploring and interpreting the orient's languages, culture and history was allocated for Western scholars by themselves, their justification that the East was not capable of composing its own narrative. They have written the Eastern past and constructed its modern identities from a perspective that takes Western cultures as the norm, from which the exotic and enigmatic Orient deviates (Said 1978).

Orientalism as a mean of expressing cultural and social identity

Edward Said, pointed out in his definition of Orientalism that the orient is "almost a European invention, a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences" (Said, 1978). He also pointed that the orient helped the West to define itself, as it consider to be a contrasting image in terms of people, ideas, experiences, etc. As Orientalism lives on in the academic world, many writers, ideologues, journalists, political, historians, poets, painters, moviemakers and others contributed to the Orientalist vision of the world, they justify that by the impossibility of studying the orient, without being influenced by Orientalism (Said, 1978).

The term Orientalism was increasingly used by sociologists and other scholars since the 1990s, to refer to ethnocentrism, stereotyping, and cultural representations of the Eastern societies (Chua, 2008). Orientalism became a way of thinking about and representing the Eastern world and the cultures that inhabit it. It acquires global significance through the identification and provision of these cultures in ways that support and promote the political and economic superiority of the West.

The other and the otherness

According to the Encyclopaedia "other" can be defined as the image outside oneself, each different yet somehow the same and, therefore, connected by their reflection. It can also be understood within the double of self and can be seen as organizing the very existence of individual subjects. While "otherness" is the condition of being different from that otherwise experienced or known.

The term "The other" as was defined Encyclopaedia in the is usually used by social, ethical, cultural, or literary critics; they use this term in order to understand the social and psychological ways in which one group excludes or marginalizes another group. By using the term "other", the person begins to notice the dissimilarity from another, and this is usually shown in the way they represent others, especially through stereotypical images. 

The West used these terms to identify what they didn't understand about the Eastern culture as the contemporary preoccupation with other and otherness in the West which represents a concern for personal identity. But in order to understand the Eastern culture they had to exclude them from the normality and surrounding them with mystic cloud thus the focusing on "otherness" became a way of understanding the cultures differences more than similarities (Portis, 2009).

Portrayal of the Orient in arts

In the nineteenth century, many artists travelled to the Middle East, they were fascinated by the mystic of the East and they began to represent the oriental culture in their art. In many of these works, they portrayed the orient as exotic, colourful and sensual, such works typically concentrated on the Middle East countries.

French artists such as Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres who painted many work portraying the Middle East culture. When Ingres, painted a highly coloured vision of a Turkish bath, he made the public accept his erotic image of the orient by expand his thoughts of generalizing of the female forms. In the "Turkish bath" painting, the women shown are more European than Middle Eastern or African in appearance. The amazing thing about the East representation in Ingres painting was that he never travelled to Africa or the Middle East to see such subjects in person, in contrast to Eugène Delacroix who had the chance to visit an Algerian harem in person before represents them in his painting "the Algerian harem". For Ingres the oriental theme was an excuse for portraying the female nude in a passive and sexual context (Elif, 2008).

In theatre, Madam Butterfly and The Mikado are considering examples to the oriental perception to the Far East. Gilbert and Sullivan in The Mikado and Puccini's Madam Butterfly- which is based on a short story written by John Luther Long and dramatized by David Belasco- depict the Japanese culture musically and dramatically. They used Western musical views and perceptions of Japanese and oriental music in both plays and that by taking Asian musical features and exaggerates them. Japanese music has its own set of modes, instruments, structure, scales and patterns which were not used in both plays. As well as the Western stereotyping of the Japanese people appearance as the costumes, white faces, hair design, and other elements without presenting the true nature of this culture. These performances played on stereotypical Western views of the Far East in general and the Japanese culture in particular.

The Middle Eastern Arabs are seen as terrorists and murderers due to how the media presents them. According to Shaheen (2001), "Live images on big screen and television go beyond a thousand words in perpetuating stereotypes and clichés". The moviemakers' have shown the Middle Eastern Arabs as heartless, uncivilized, religious fanatics, expressing hatred against the other religions believers as Jews and Christians; and demonstrating a love for wealth and power. These distortions of the Middle Eastern Arabs have created a general mistrust and dislike for Arabs among the Western world.

To summarize, Orientalism is not a contemporary perception, as the role of colonialism had been important in creating the Western image of oriental societies. These images were created from the exaggeration, fantasy and imagination of the West which were connected to that perception of the Orient as the other and produced a wide range of stereotypes of the Eastern societies. One of the most important factors in reproducing these images of "the Others" as completely different is the media which are highly responsible in maintaining Orientalism misconceptions.

The images of women in East

Many scholars who wrote about or painted the East didn't really visit or experienced the Eastern culture, as Jean Ingres who never visited the East but at the same time created paintings of the Orient which become a reference to the West about the Eastern societies. These scholars just interpreted what they imagined about the East, that inherent the images of the Eastern people in particular the women, with stereotyping. Asian women have been portrayed as prostitutes, aggressive, opportunistic sexual beings and predatory gold diggers using their femininity to get what they want (Hofstede, 1996). Also Middle Eastern women were usually portrayed as belly dancers, subservient, forced to remain silent, obedient and oppressed. Western film and literature has continually portrayed such stereotypes of the Eastern women.

There are many terms portraying the stereotyping of the Asian women such as the "China Doll" stereotype which portrays Asian women as subservient, compliant and anxious to please men. This term also identified all Asian women as Chinese. From the perspective of the West, Asian women are meant to be seen and played with as a doll. Also, in the Western culture, The "Geisha" is seen as a prostitute or sex entertainer, this stereotype indicates that Eastern women are valued and used for their bodies and for aesthetic pleasure; on the contrary, the "Geisha" in Japanese culture is an artist. The "Geisha" girls are trained in developing certain social skills such as dancing, singing, tea-making, conversing and serving to be an artistic entertainer not prostitute (Prasso, 2005). Additionally, there are other terms refer of stereotyping the Asian women suggesting that they are sexually available to foreign white men as "Yellow cab", "Sarong party girl and "Comfort Women"

According to Elaine Kim a Professor of Asian American Studies, the stereotype of Asian women as submissive has hindered Asian women's economic mobility. Asian women are usually portrayed as beautiful, sexually available, exotic, and loyal and submissive as all these stereotypes perceptions depended on how the West misunderstands the East, These perspectives harmed their identity and lead them to be more isolated or more violent in Western societies as well as there economically productivity decrease which could affect the country as a whole

The West have build symbolic boundaries with the East which mark the difference between the two worlds and leads to stigmatization and the elimination of anything as specified impure because it is considered threatening to the Western cultural system (Hall, 1997). And Since the first contacts with the Middle East world, the West has developed a set of stereotypes depicting the Middle Eastern people as uncivilized and violent. With the spread of the colonization in the nineteenth century an organized scholarship devoted to the representation of 'Otherness' emerged; they used these representations as a defining moment in this cross-cultural history (Hirchi, 2007).

The stereotypical representations of the Middle Eastern, Arabs and Muslims woman are often manifested in literature, media, theatre and other creative expressions. The Middle Eastern is usually represented as belly dancer, sex objects, whore, or subservient, imprisoned behind a veil of powerlessness (Shaheen, 1988). Even in cartoons which is consider to be aimed at children is full of negative images of Middle Eastern women which portray them as belly dancers, exotic and harem girls (Wingfield and Karaman, 1995). Also in TV and movies they are sometimes involving themes associated with violence, as the words "Muslim" or "Arab" is connected with the image terrorist and bomb-making. These stereotypes don't only harm the psychological and cultural part of the Eastern civilisation but also helps dehumanizing a group first before attacking it (Qumsiyeh, 1998).

Salome as a representative of the Middle Eastern women

In the beginning of the 20th century, the fascination with the Middle East become at its peak, the writers and painters saw the story of John the Baptist as a good example of the Orient from their perspectives the story had all the elements that make for public interest sexual overtones as murder, politics and the seductive dance (Elliot, 2002). For decades Salome figure has became a representation of the Middle Eastern women. The West used to see the Middle Eastern women as evil, seductive, belly dancers, nudes and that was shown in many arts work of that time which is considers stereotyping to the these women. Salome's Oscar Wilde is a one act play present the Biblical story of the stepdaughter of Herod Antipas which her name is Salome, who to the delight of her mother Herodias, requests the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter as reward for dancing the Dance of the Seven Veils which is consider the most stereotyping scene of the Middle Eastern women. The origin of Salome story and her famous dance came from the Bible:

"But at a birthday party for Herod, Herodias' daughter performed a dance that greatly pleased him, so he vowed to give her anything she wanted. Consequently, at her mother's urging, the girl asked for John the Baptist's head on a tray.

The king was grieved, but because of his oath, and because he didn't want to back down in front of his guests, he issued the necessary orders".

(Matthew 14:6-11)

"Herodias' chance finally came. It was Herod's birthday and he gave a stag party for his palace aides, army officers, and the leading citizens of Galilee. Then Herodias' daughter came in and danced before them and greatly pleased them all.

"Ask me for anything you like," the king vowed, "even half of my kingdom, and I will give it to you!"

She went out and consulted her mother, who told her, "Ask for John the Baptist's head!"

So she hurried back to the king and told him, "I want the head of John the Baptist -- right now -- on a tray!"

Then the king was sorry, but he was embarrassed to break his oath in front of his guests. So he sent one of his bodyguards to the prison to cut off John's head and bring it to him. The soldier killed John in the prison, and brought back his head on a tray, and gave it to the girl and she took it to her mother."

(Mark 6:21-28)

In reading the Biblical description, we find out that there is no specification of the kind of dance Herodias' daughter did. Nothing claim that her dance involved veils or the removal of clothing or seduction. Actually there is no proof in the bible story that the death of John the Baptist is linked to the seductive seven veils striptease.

In 1891, Oscar Wilde wrote his play Salomé based on the origin story in the bible. Wilde's play portrays Salomé as an evil character who becomes obsessed with John the Baptist (Elliot, 2002). In Oscar Wilde play script we find this scene that the dance of the seven veils appears for the first time:

"Herod: Do not rise, my wife, my queen, it will avail thee nothing. I will not go within

till she hath danced. Dance, Salomé, dance for me.

Herodias: Do not dance my daughter.

Salomé: I am ready, Tetrarch. [Salomé dances the dance of the seven veils.] "

The script of the play does not specify that the dance must be seductive or a consisting any striptease of veils as it is just a scene note, but when this scene preformed on stage this simple note was interpreted by Wilde into the famous dancing scene which is linked to striptease and seduction. The nature of this dance was invented by the Western, as they were steeped in the misconceptions of the Middle Eastern women. However, the dance of the seven veils has never been a part of Middle Eastern dance traditions, and is not performed in the Middle East today. May be it is used in some dance performance but without the incorporate removal of seven veils until the dancer stands totally nude.

The veil becomes not only a piece of cloth; it is marked as a part of mystery and myth. It is both part of the culture and the imagination of people in the East. However, the veil and the harem symbols have always been a fascination of the West as well which was presented clearly in their paintings, literature and performing arts. In the Middle East Western people were prevented from seeing and communicating with Middle Eastern women because of the veil which produced a kind of frustration feelings and aggressive behaviour among them. Furthermore, the veil has provided Western men with the fantasy of exotic and erotic experiences with the beauty behind the veil (Mabro, 1991). But despite these Western fantasies, the veil was and still a modesty garment which is worn to protect the Middle Eastern respectable woman from the prying eyes of male strangers.

To conclude, Salome is seen as an oriental misrepresentation to the Middle East women from the perspective of the Western. This misrepresentation have harmed the image of the true nature of the Middle Eastern women as they were seen as evil, belly dancers, seductive and nude with no respect to their own identity and religion. And the veil become associated to that mis representation as it become a seductive tool linked with nudity.

Madame Butterfly as a representative of the Asian women

"Female sacrifice narratives can be traced back to biblical tales like the story of Ruth, who gives up everything for the sake of her husband who has a culture and religion different from her own. In America Pocahontas tales, which call for the sacrifice of the woman of color for the sake of white men, have been common. However, the Japanese Madame Butterfly has become the best known modern manifestation of this type of narrative."

(Marchetti, 1993)

Madame Butterfly is an opera by Giacomo Puccini. He based his opera in part on the short story "Madame Butterfly" (1898) by John Luther Long, which was dramatized by David Belasco. Puccini also based it on the novel Madame Chrysanthème (1887) by Pierre Loti. Puccini's Madame Butterfly is a tragic story of love, betrayal and a young mother ultimate sacrifice. The story of Madame Butterfly is about an American naval officer who married Japanese young girl, Butterfly then travel back to his country after some time and deserts her. After three years, she find out that he married an American girl and they will visit Japan, and that event led to her dramatic end of sacrificing her self by committing suicide but not before saying good bye to her son from him. It is a story and myth located in the heart of the Western perceptions of the Japanese women as passive, selfless and dedicated completely to their husbands and families. The work reveals numerous stereotypes and prejudices of the Western world concerning oriental culture. It becomes a symbol and myth of the Japanese woman as the ideal of loving, devoting and self-sacrificing. Ma (1996) argues that The Western media contributed in stereotyping the Japanese women as Puccini's Madame Butterfly is considering the "prototype" for all of the stereotypes form of the Japanese women which significantly affected the perceptions of the Western men toward the Japanese woman.

There are many visual elements in Madame Butterfly performance that contributed in the stereotyping process of the Asian women in general as the hair style, white face makeup, scene graph of the place and most important, the costumes which are the kimonos of the main character of the play, Madam butterfly. "The West attempts to understand Japan through the metaphor of the kimono" (Martin, 1995). The kimono became an important element of forming the perception of the Western as they treated the kimono as an identity representation rather than as just a garment.

There are many types and styles of kimono which are worn depending of the formality of the occasion, the age of the wearer, time of day, and time of season. Also the way kimono is worn differs between whether it is a single or married woman. All of these factors come into play when deciding what kimono is appropriate to wear and how to wear it which means that the kimono is not just a dress but it's a culture. The West has treated this culture by great contempt, as any shape of kimono represent the Asian women regardless this kimono culture (Goldstein, 1999)

To conclude, Madam Butterfly helped stereotyping Asian women by surrounding them by the fence of isolation. It has become a representation of the cultural identity and a misrepresentation associated with submission, fragility, and femininity. And by dealing with the kimono as a representation symbol of that culture it became associated to these concepts. As if Madame Butterfly didn't wear the kimono many concepts and stereotyping perception could change.

Contemporary representation

History reveals that Western arts have humiliated, demonized, and eroticized Middle Eastern women. These images inherited Western pre-existing Middle Eastern stereotypes. In the eighteenth and nineteenth century's Western artists and writers offered fictional fantasy of women as bathed and submissive exotic object. The stereotype came to be accepted as valid and becoming a part of the Western popular culture (Alloula, 1986; Shaheen, 2001). Nowadays the Middle Eastern women in Western arts still trapped in the siege of being veiled, silent or a terrorist. While the Asian women representation changed a little as female characters in movies or TV dramas, they have been have shifted from obedient weak girls to strong, intelligent, working women.

In M. Butterfly, David Henry Hwang, who is a contemporary Asian American playwright deconstruct Puccini's opera Madame Butterfly. Hwang play shows that gender roles provide people with an identity based on determining the "other" and being the opposite. The actual categories of what we consider to be male and female exist only in our minds as ways to identify ourselves.

The plays events taking place during the cultural revolution in China in the mid-1960s, as a French diplomat Gallimard, falls in love with a singer in the Beijing Opera which will appear after, that he is a man disguised as woman. Moreover, he is spy for the Chinese government who will use his relationship with Gallimard to access important information. Eventually after twenty years, the truth was revealed, and Gallimard was convicted of treason and went to prison. Finally, he committed suicide by a Japanese style for not accepting the fact that the woman he loved is actually a man. M. Butterfly is not just a story about love relations or homosexuality; it is more than that, where it raises themes as sexuality, ethnicity, imperialism and race. This play make its Western audience to deal differently with Eastern stereotypes involving gender, sexual orientation and culture perceptions particularly, those stereotypes issued by the myth of Orientalism (Burns & Hunter, 2005).

In Hwang play, Gallimard failure in realizing that his lover was a man can be attributed to the cultural stereotype of the East from the West "Weak, delicate, poor but good at art…the feminine mystique." (Hwang, 1988). As the Eastern woman is expected to be submissive to the Western men as the West regards itself as masculine and the feminine East must always submit to it. Also the themes of racism and sexism are linked. Thus, even Eastern men are feminized. As the character, Song puts it, "Being an Oriental, I could never be completely a man." (Hwang, 1988).

Finally, Hwang reversed the roles of Gallimard and Song by making Gallimard sacrificing his life while song is watching. He began to demolish the racial and sexual stereotypes that he has been steadily exposing from the beginning as Gallimard becomes like Butterfly, the image that he fell in love with, while Song appeared as a deceiver like Pinkerton in's Madame Butterfly. Hwang explores the stereotypes that lies behind and distort the relations between Eastern and Western culture as well as between men and women. Hwang message to his Western audience was that stereotyping is dangerous and can lead to real problems.


It is worth mentioning that the East had fascinated the West and create a resource of inspiration for the artists, as painting, literature and performing arts. In the nineteenth century, Orientalism was created through the misconception of the East. As many stereotypes and distortions existed, and that led to the emergence of some criticisms from scholars like Edward Said who didn't agree of how the West stereotype the East without real understands to the Eastern cultures. The West treated the East as inferiors in order to have the right to colonize them; their justification was that the East has to be civilized by the hand of the West. The stereotypical images of the Eastern women which was and still promoted by the Western media has a great effect on the culture image in general and the economic mobility in particular, as this stereotyping had harmed the tourism in the Middle East as it a terrorists countries as well as created the sex tourism in the Far East as it is erotic countries.

Using the arts and the media to represent the orient had a great effect on misunderstanding and respecting the Eastern cultures. As in Salome, the Middle Eastern women became an image of nudity and seduction and the veil became a powerful symbol which is associated to belly dancing and striptease. Even in the contemporary world, the veil still has a negative representation of the Middle Eastern women as it becomes a symbol of silence and terrorism. Also as in Madame butterfly, the representation of the Asian women as passive and subservient promoted many stereotypical images which was associated with many misunderstanding to certain terms such as the Geisha as it was represented as a prostitute while she is an entertaining artist. Attaching the kimono to these representations allowed it to become a representer itself. The kimono represents the Far Eastern women and without it the stereotypical image of the Asian women is not completed. As in my opinion that if Madame Butterfly is preformed without wearing the kimono many of these stereotypical images of the Asian women will be completely shocking and unpredicted.

Finally, the arts and media have both a powerful influence on people's attitudes and perceptions as they consider being a means of communication between cultures. Therefore, the arts and media play a critical role in influencing public opinion as it could promote an incorrect images of " the Other" and therefore lead to stereotyping. But by challenging these images, many of the misconceptions of the East will change as well as the boundaries associated with the oriental concept between the West and the East will collapse.