'Blue Dragon' explores globalization and Canadian culture

Robert Lepage's enchanting play "Blue Dragon" was performed at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto from January 10 to February 19. Lepage is one of the world's greatest experimental directors: this production -- and perhaps all of his work -- is characterized by his unprecedented technological wizardry that sets the stage for tales of fragmented individuals longing for an end to the impermanence of love, living their ambivalent desire for Otherness, while permeated by the inexhaustible drive for immortality. Like all great works of art, the play unfolds along multiple lines of interpretation, each of which could take a dissertation to fully elaborate. One of those lines concerns the most important cultural-normative question that contemporary globalization presents to us.

In their book Globalization/Anti-Globalization, David Held and Anthony McGrew contend that our era of world integration is characterized by an overarching ethical argument between cosmopolitans and communitarians. The former propose that we should move towards a singular global community while the latter believe in a world of multiple national or local communities. To put it too simply: one could say that the former believe that "another world is possible" whereas the latter's focus is on "other worlds are possible." Both emphasize an imaginative leap -- but with the first stressing an overall coherence while the latter emphasizes plurality, specificity and difference.

Lepage of course is not beholden to any one side of a dichotomy: the play is cosmopolitan, communitarian, and critical of a monolithic focus on either side of the argument. The harshest overt criticisms are certainly towards the latter -- specifically Quebec nationalism. One of the characters -- Pierre, a French Quebecker who left the province to live in China -- explains why, after a recent visit to Quebec, he decided to stay in Asia rather than return to his native province: "And it dawned on me that Quebec hadn't changed. The same provincial people all wrapped up in their own affairs, the same fear of anything foreign, the same nationalism that never goes anywhere..."

Later in the play, another character, Claire, also a French Quebecker, who is visiting Pierre in Shanghai, goes to an art exhibit put on by a Chinese artist named Xiao Ling. Claire points to one of the paintings and states, "That one is my favourite. It's like ... a prism of all of the other paintings," except she mispronounces the word "prism". Xiao Ling interrupts to correct Claire's English by accurately articulately the word. Lepage's point is clear: China's up and coming educated class is racing to learn English and express themselves on the world stage, while Quebec's insularity is inhibiting its members from benefiting from the advantages of cosmopolitanism. The former's nationalism is powerful because it is not afraid of the advantages of globalization while the latter remains locked in its narrow provincial navel.

Unlike many universalists, Lepage does not run away from the richness of particular languages and experiences: the play is performed in English, French and Mandarin. The music, the set, the painting and the child that will eventually shape the futures of the characters, are all a mix of East and West. At the end of the play Pierre considers returning to Quebec precisely because Lepage understands that the relationship to one's community of origin is as ambivalent as one's desire for alterity: both cosmopolitanism and communitarianism need to be valued in our abundant, discordant era

While this dazzling play just closed its run in Toronto, a fine English graphic novel of the script is available from Anansi Press. The novel, however, does not contain Xiao Ling's correction of Claire.

Thomas Ponniah was a Lecturer on Social Studies and Assistant Director of Studies at Harvard University from 2003-2011. He remains an affiliate of Harvard's David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies.

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