Local Pleasures Make a Global Comeback

Emerging one recent evening from a theater in downtown Chatham, Massachusetts, I felt again the appeal of conservatism in the age of globalization. I stood on this Cape Cod city’s Main Street, which is still dominated by small, family-run businesses of the kind that originally underpinned the strengths of both American democracy and capitalism. The play I had just seen, “Shakespeare in Hollywood,” takes a caustic look at the usually grisly fate of literary classics in Hollywood in the 1930s through the German director Max Reinhardt’s attempt to film “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” The actors were young drama students (with the exception of the writer Bernard Cornwell, a longtime resident of Chatham), reminding with their talent and energy how a play can be more engrossing and stimulating than a movie.

The large audience, which seemed to know Shakespeare’s subversive wit as well as it did the commercial imperatives of Warner Brothers, had responded enthusiastically. Indeed their keen intimacy with the play’s themes reminded me of spectators at “Ramlila,” the popular North Indian re-enactment of the life of Lord Rama. In both cases, viewers shared certain cultural codes and references, participating in, and prolonging, a tradition.

This was also how it had been for men and women in the past who watched Elizabethan tragedy at London’s Globe Theatre or sang Bach’s Chorales in Heidelberg, Germany’s churches. For centuries, such communal gatherings had helped transmit ideas, values and feelings from generation to generation.

Endangered Art

Standing outside Chatham’s Monomoy Theatre, which had begun hosting plays in the 1950s, the golden age of American drama, I couldn’t avoid the feeling that I had witnessed a still flourishing art form in an endangered habitat. The number of downtown theaters in the U.S. has dramatically dwindled, from 20,000 to about 250. For the first time in decades, there was no “Ramlila” last year near my village in India due to lack of performers.

Much of this is, of course, blamed on the easy dominance of the moving image, whether emanating from Hollywood or Bollywood. Worked harder than ever before, most people settle for pre-packaged entertainment in their leisure time. It is also true that for the jaded wielders of remote controls there is much more to choose these days, from Hollywood’s factory-processed products to suave Scandinavian political thrillers (“The Killing”) and bracing panoramas of inner-city breakdown (“The Wire”). For the more culturally venturesome, there are Turkish soap operas and startlingly good Brazilian and Iranian films -- all these offerings liberated from hermetic Film Club screenings and summoned up on your iPad.

But this quick availability of books and movies, while financially empowering for their makers, has come at a price. The global is now a standard, against which all aspiration, inevitably locally sourced, is to be judged. The actor in regional theater is haunted by dreams of success on Broadway, Hollywood and beyond. The writer of novels, even when blessed with a loyal readership in his language, hankers for translation into English, invitations to literary festivals in Patagonia, and the final benediction by the five wise men of Stockholm.

But those abandoning the unremunerative provincial for the abstract space, or the jackpot, of the global are often obliged to renounce the intricate web of shared experience and knowledge that binds audiences at Chatham or a village “Ramlila” together. Dramagoers around the world were often defeated -- I certainly was -- by the heavy Scottish accents of the actors in “Black Watch,” Scotland’s most successful and unexpected theatrical export. But the primary and unself-conscious loyalty to regional audiences that marked the films of Akira Kurosawa or Satyajit Ray is missing in the many artworks that travel to international metropolises today.

Global Trash

The local has been altered in the process of globalizing itself, and not usually for the better: Bollywood’s films were never as awful as when they were tailored for nonresident Indians in the U.S. and Europe. The awareness of a global audience has subtly distorted the work of, among others, the talented Hong Kong film director Wong Kar-wai. BBC television dramas that play up their exotic Englishness -- “Downton Abbey” is particularly cringe-making in this regard -- have an eye on the large U.S. market.

That said, it is too early to write off the local. One could even argue that we are experiencing a return to it, in culture as well as politics. I was surprised to find an overwhelmingly young and riveted audience at a performance in Taipei of Taiwan’s indigenous opera. Last year, the crowds at “Ramlila” in Shimla, the capital city near me, were bigger than ever; presumably many of them came from now defunct smaller venues. Dastangoi, the oral tradition of storytelling in Urdu, has experienced a mini-revival, following the worldwide success of the Sufi devotional music known as qawwali.

Bollywood has a new generation of indie filmmakers, whose engagement with the real texture of Indian life may yet rescue the prolific industry from mediocrity. Mumbai’s Prithvi Theatre, which has nurtured many of the country’s acting talents, remains as vibrant as ever. Even theater in Indian languages, such as Marathi, is making a comeback.

Demographic and political shifts are partly responsible for this: The immigrant in Mumbai from India’s coastal Konkan region wants an art form that addresses him directly. So do the Scottish, who also seek political distance from London, or, for that matter, the tony youth of Taipei who are not ready yet to embrace their philistine big brother across the Taiwan Strait.

Liberal arts education in the U.S. may continue to steep many people in the older arts, and ensure a significant enough number of patrons and performers for small-town theaters like Monomoy. Certainly, the currency of the global, so relentlessly imposed upon us in recent years, has suffered some depreciation. Things, you knew, had gotten bad when the word “cosmopolitan,” the name of the preferred cocktail of the ladies of “Sex and the City,” became the most commonly deployed adjective in the Times of India’s matrimonial ads. More people now suspect, after a series of crises, that the extensive flattening of the world, the thoroughgoing remaking of many societies, which was often justified by a rhetoric of endless and universal progress, benefited only a tiny minority.

Rootless Pleasures

A transnational elite embellished its pleasures of rootless cosmopolitanism, and made exaggerated claims for cultural and intellectual as well as economic globalization. “Some claim,” says a character in “The Brothers Karamazov,” “that the world is gradually becoming united, that it will grow into a brotherly community as distances shrink and ideas are transmitted through the air. Alas, you must not believe that men can be united in this way.” Dostoevsky registered his skepticism in 1880. We know now that it was well-founded. Despite the quantum increase in the connectedness of societies, the local remains the primary reality for most people, the place where they first know a shared sense of community, identity and culture. It is this experience of meaningfulness that has produced the world’s most enduring art; its preservation is what makes attractive, even necessary, a principled conservatism in our time.

(Pankaj Mishra is the author of “From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia” and a Bloomberg View columnist.)

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