Pacific Overtures

And here’s the long-awaited review! Without further ado:

Pacific Performances: Theatricality and Cross-Cultural Encounter in the South Seas is about the theory and practice of different types of theatre across the Pacific. I generally don’t read theory books for abject pleasure, but this one was thoroughly fascinating, in almost every chapter, plus I learned a lot about theory in general.

Take, for example, this information, gleaned from the introduction:

Performances provide an opportunity to examine power relations, “cultures in contact adopt each others’ performances for many different reasons” (Balme 6).

“Theatricality is a mode of perception that brackets moments of action or particular places in such a way that they are imbued with extreme concentration and focus” (Balme 6).

According to Stephen Greenblatt, “Mimetic capital = a set of images and image making devices that are accumulated, ‘banked’ as it were, in books, archives, collections, cultural storehouses, until such time as these representations are called upon to generate new representations. The images that matter, that merit the term capital, are those that achieve reproductive power, maintaining and multiplying themselves by transforming cultural contacts into novel and often unexpected forms” (Balme 7).

Woman dancing in “Mother Hubbard” dress (

My favorite chapter, however, was Chapter 4, on hula and haka and their roles in the identity politics of Hawaii and New Zealand. I had no idea about the history and types of the hula. According to page 96, the performance of the modern-day hula is a metonym of Pacific culture, a non-European performance produced for European. In 1897, a German medical officer called Augustin Kramer observed a type of hula called hula kahiko, or ancient hula, and noted that it was performed by women in “Mother Hubbard” dresses, not the coconut bras and grass skirts of TV/movies, postcards, and dashboard toys (102). Hula can also be performed seated, and when it is, it is called “hula noha.” According to Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimlett, aka BKG, cultural performances for tourists are more “presentation than markers of representation,” and furthermore, exude the impression of immediacy, the “illusion of cultural transparency in the face of undesired complexity” (97).

Another interesting piece of theory surrounds costume. For the hula, the costume is a gauge of cultural self-fashioning, and according to Roland Barthes, clothing is both a social and theatrical sign, a “kind of writing with the ambiguity of writing…an instrument in the service of a purpose which transcends it” (104).

Chapter 6 was the one that we’ve all been waiting for. It discussed American dramas about the Pacific, three in particular: The Bird of Paradise, Rain, and the ever-popular Rodgers & Hammerstein musical South Pacific.

The final chapter discussed modern-day representations of Pacific performance in Hawaii. It mostly revolved around the Polynesian Cultural Center, operated mainly as a theme park/living museum, one of the three kinds of modern-day performance techniques used in interpreting the South Pacific, the other two being hotel entertainment and the “fictionalized real encounter.”

And of course, no review of a theory book would be complete without the list of new words I learned and jumping-off points.

New words:

  • Propaedeutics: Pertaining to preliminary introduction, intro to science
  • Labile: Prone to change
  • Precis: Concise summary
  • Epigone: Undistinguished follower/successor
  • Propinquity: Similarity, close proximity
  • Atabrine: Brand of malaria medicine
  • Aporia: Confusion; being at a loss
  • Crepuscular: Relating to twilight; active at twilight

Books added to my list:

  • John Kneubuhl, Think of a Garden and Other Plays
  • Christopher C. Balme, Decolonizing the Stage
  • Jane C. Desmond, Staging Tourism
  • Rod Edmond, Representing the South Pacific

Works Cited

Balme, Christopher B. Pacific Performances: Theatricality and Cross-Cultural Encounter in the South Seas. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007. Print.

6 thoughts on “Pacific Overtures

  1. Pingback: Pacific Grooves | That’s So Jacob

  2. Good review. I spend a lot of reading time exploring how man adopted activities such as religion, art, singing, and acting. I’d probably get some good ideas from this one.

  3. Fantastic review, Jacob! 😀
    I have to admit that I don’t read enough theory books but this really sounds fascinating. I really liked how you incorporated the quotes and I’m think about doing that myself in my next review. And, surprisingly, I recognized one of your new words. Propinquity must come from the Latin word for propinquo, an adjective I had to learn in Latin when I was in high school. XD

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