MODERN AND WESTERN THEATER IN CHINA

CHINESE THEATER IN THE 20TH CENTURY

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote: The gradual decline of the Qing Dynasty led to a long period of political unrest and turmoil. During the period of the Republic of China (1912–1949) traditional forms of Chinese theater were still performed throughout the huge country. International contacts, particularly with the West, led, however, to new kinds of experiments and innovations in the big metropolises. They include, as discussed in connection with the period’s leading actor Mei Lanfang, modernised Peking operas, as well as completely new kinds of forms, such as the spoken drama or huaju and the song drama or geju. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki **]

As in most of the Asian cultures, no tradition of spoken drama existed in China either, prior to the era of the arrival of Western influence at the end of the 19th and at the beginning of the 20th centuries. In fact, the first production of Chinese spoken drama or huaju (hua-chü) was not even created in China, but in Japan, where the interest in Western theater bloomed slightly earlier than in China. In spring 1907 young Chinese studying in Tokyo performed the third act of La Dame Aux Camélias by Alexander Dumas fils. The positive feedback the production received in Japan encouraged the student group, called The Spring Willow Society, to further stage Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher. It was the beginning of the tradition of Chinese spoken drama, which also quickly spread to Shanghai. **

It is no wonder that Chinese spoken drama was born among young students and in Japan. Chinese society was in a chaotic state, because the imperial administration was unable to renew itself to respond to the Western commercial and political pressure which had transformed China into a kind of semi-colony. Chinese students were looking for solutions to the problems of their own society from the Japanese reform movement, while, at the same time, they absorbed elements from the Western ideologies and culture. **

In Shanghai there had already been earlier spoken drama performances by Western amateur groups and the Western colonial community had built there a Western-type theater house as early as 1866. Thus it was in Shanghai that the theater house with a proscenium stage first became popular. The first Western-type theater house, built by the Chinese themselves, was the New Shanghai Stage, which was opened in 1908. It had a semi-circular stage in which decors and new lighting technologies were employed. **

The new spoken drama in Shanghai was propagated from 1919 onwards by a group of young activists, many of whom had studied abroad, called the May the Fourth Movement. Popular among this circle of intellectuals were plays by Western, mainly realistic, dramatists such as Björnson, Strindberg, Ibsen and Chekhov. New plays were also written, often designed to illustrate one central theme, such as, for example, the oppression of women in China. The themes mainly covered social and political issues instilling patriotism and, during the War of Resistance against Japan (1937–1945), resistance to the Japanese occupation. **

The audiences of huaju or spoken drama were mainly limited to the educated intellectuals who already shared a common world-view and political ideology. A debate was going on as to whether spoken drama should completely replace the traditional forms of Chinese theater. Gradually, however, it was agreed that these two traditions could well live side by side. **

This also led to new experiments in the field of music theater. New plays with contemporary costumes were performed as geju song dramas. They employed melodies and conventions from, for example, the Peking Opera, the Canton Opera and the Sichuan Opera. As mentioned already before, Mei Lanfang also made his experiments in the field of geju. Similarly as in the spoken dramas, the themes of geju were also set in the present, often with anti-feudal, anti-imperialist and patriotic content. **

Spoken drama abandoned the stylised and symbolical theatricalism of traditional Chinese drama forms. Instead, the acting technique was often based on Stanislavsky’s method, in which the actors should try to express psycho-realistically the “inner truth” of the individuals portrayed. The spoken drama tradition, which has been popular mainly in cities and among the educated elite, has been vital throughout the decades, and important dramatists have worked in this field. **

20th Century Chinese Dramatists

Cao Yu (1910-1996) arguably the greatest of modern Chinese playwrights. “Pioneer in Modern Chinese Drama," created by Li Ruru of the University of Leeds, is an exhibition conceived to celebrate the 100th anniversary of his birth. The well-known playwright Yao Ke lived a life filled with desperation, obsession, betrayal and suicide.

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote: In the beginning, huaju plays had only one act, but gradually they came to include several acts. This process is apparent in the works of the well-known dramatist, Tian Han (T’ien Han) (1898–1968). He started with one-act plays but later his plays grew in length. One famous play is his three-act tragedy Death of a Famous Actor, which he wrote at the end of the 1920s. He also worked in the field of modern Peking Opera. In his libretto, Guan Hanqin, he portrays the life of a famous Yuan-dynasty dramatist. The story is set in a brothel milieu in which the dramatist rebels against Mongol rulers and the imperial bureaucracy. Tian Han himself was also a brave critic of social injustice, which led to his disgrace and imprisonment during the Cultural Revolution. During the early years of the People’s Republic, however, he acted as the chairman of the Union of Chinese Dramatists. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki **]

Hong Sheng (Hung Seng) (1894–1955) wrote a trilogy set in an agrarian context. It includes Wukui Bridge (1939), The Smell of Rice (1931), and The Pond of the Black Dragon (1932). In 1948 Guo Moruo (Kuo Mojo) (1892–1978), who was also a renowned historian, wrote a play called Qu Yuan (Ch’ü Yüan). It tells about the prime minister of an ancient state, who commits suicide by drowning himself. **

Maybe the most important Chinese dramatist who wrote for huaju is Cao Yu (Ts’ao Yü) (1910–). His best-known plays include the tragedy Thunderstorm (1933), which tells about the hardships of an authoritarian upper-class family, Sunset (1935), which is set in a brothel milieu, and Desert (1937), which was set in the countryside. Like Tian Han, Cao Yu was also persecuted during the Cultural Revolution, after which he acted as the chairman of the Chinese Theater Union. One of the most popular plays in the huaju repertory is Teahouse (1957) by Lao She (1899–1966). This almost epic play is set in a teahouse in old Peking. It portrays the life of seventy individuals and covers half a century of their lives during the final period of the Qing Dynasty. **

Modern Theater in China

The popular Communist play The March of the Foolish Man was based on a true life story of a poor peasant who turned a small business selling watermelon seeds into a big enterprise worth millions. Later he mistreated his workers and was taxed heavily by the government. The story ends with the man renouncing his millions and returning to his life as a peasant. [Source: "Riding the Iron Rooster" by Paul Theroux]

Today, Beijing is regarded the as home of the freest and liveliest theater scene. According to the New York Times, "The most innovative theater in Beijing is spoken drama, with a heavy emphasis on works by Western playwrights. Classic dramas or new adaptions of old stories are also easier to stage than original works." But as a whole it has been said Chinese prefer pirated movies to theater.

In 2006, playwright Zhang Guangtain staged a play “Yuan Min Yuan”, that was critical of the Cultural Revolution and for some unexplained reason it was not censored.

Western Theater in China

Didi Kirsten Tatlow, New York Times, Western-style ‘speaking theater,” as it is known here, isn’t indigenous to China, where opera and other forms have long dominated the theater scene. But that is now changing. Festivals, like the one in Chengdu, are part of a national drive to bring a new kind of theater to smaller cities in China. [Source: Didi Kirsten Tatlow, New York Times, December 14, 2011]

"After slow, painful beginnings in the late 1990s, when a theater company still had to be state-owned and finding private investors was almost impossible, Western-style theater in China has entered a period of remarkable richness, directors, producers and playwrights have said. Although government censorship remains, practitioners are adept at negotiating its boundaries and officials, anxious to promote culture, are increasingly funding even challenging productions and paying for private troupes to participate in festivals abroad, they said.

“Real development in theater began in 2005, when the government permitted private theater companies to set up, and in the last two years, people have really begun to pay attention,” Nick Rongjun Yu, deputy general manager and playwright at the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Center, said. “It’s a big time for theater.”

Liao Yimei, author of “Rhinoceros in Love,” a 1999 play often taken as the starting point of China’s contemporary theater boom, said: “The Chinese government is rich and really wants to promote culture. Things happen very fast in China. After the economy develops, a nation wants culture. That’s natural. The issue already isn’t “can we do theater or not” but, “how to expand to smaller cities.”

Yet audiences outside the major centers of Shanghai and Beijing are still unused to Western-style theater, Ms. Liao said. Fengchao Theater, the company founded by Ms. Liao and her husband, the director Meng Jinghui, recently toured the cities of Dalian and Shijiazhuang. “The audiences were terrible,” she said. “They talked and made and received phone calls all the way through the performance.” The audiences in those cities, said Mr. Yu of the Shanghai center, “are about where we were a decade ago.”

History of Western-Style Theater in China

Didi Kirsten Tatlow, New York Times, "In traditional Chinese theater, no plays were performed in the vernacular or without singing. But at the turn of the twentieth century, Chinese students returning from abroad began to experiment with Western plays. Following the May Fourth Movement of 1919, a number of Western plays were staged in China, and Chinese playwrights began to imitate this form. The most notable of the new-style playwrights was Cao Yu (b. 1910). His major works-- "Thunderstorm," "Sunrise," "Wilderness," and "Peking Man"--written between 1934 and 1940, have been widely read in China. [Source: Didi Kirsten Tatlow, New York Times, December 14, 2011]

“In the 1930s, theatrical productions performed by traveling Red Army cultural troupes in Communist-controlled areas were consciously used to promote party goals and political philosophy. By the 1940s theater was well-established in the Communist-controlled areas. In the early years of the People's Republic, Western-style theater was presented mainly in the form of "socialist realism." During the Cultural Revolution, however, Western-style plays were condemned as "dead drama" and "poisonous weeds" and were not performed.

“Following the Cultural Revolution, Western-style theater experienced a revival. Many new works appeared, and revised and banned plays from China and abroad were reinstated in the national repertoire. Many of the new plays strained at the limits of creative freedom and were alternately commended and condemned, depending on the political atmosphere. One of the most outspoken of the new breed of playwrights was Sha Yexin. His controversial play "The Imposter," which dealt harshly with the favoritism and perquisites accorded party members, was first produced in 1979. In early 1980 the play was roundly criticized by Secretary General Hu Yaobang--the first public intervention in the arts since the Cultural Revolution. In the campaign against bourgeois liberalism in 1981 and the antispiritual pollution campaign in 1983, Sha and his works were again criticized. Through it all Sha continued to write for the stage and to defend himself and his works in the press. In late 1985 Sha Yexin was accepted into the Chinese Communist Party and appointed head of the Shanghai People's Art Theater, where he continued to produce controversial plays.

Western Theater Production in China

“In the two decades that followed the revolution in 1949, China's theater groups were only permitted to stage government-approved plays written by the likes of Ibsen and Chekhov. But by 1968, thousands of local actors were exiled to the countryside by Jiang Qing, wife of the communist leader Mao Zedong, who sought to promote her own corpus of eight ‘socially improving” works.” [Source:David Stanway, The Guardian, December 24, 2008]

“The Sound of Music has been popular in Beijing for decades, and more recently, shows by Andrew Lloyd Webber have been drawing big crowds in both Beijing and Shanghai. In recent years, Beijing has had the opportunity to taste lavish productions by the Royal Shakespeare Company, as well as painstaking translations of Chekhov.” [The Guardian]

Shakespeare is periodically performed in China. Describing a production “MacBeth” in Shanghai, Erla Zwingle wrote in National Geographic, "The only characters recognized were the three witches. Otherwise the small group, dressed in leotards and capes, spent most of an hour running in circles, leaping and threatening to beat each other with long sticks...Language wasn’t a problems, as the actors mainly snarled and shrieked.

In 2002, a Beijing theater staged George Orwell’s “Animal Farm”. The move was considered quite extraordinary because the book is widely considered a critique of Communism and totalitarianism, which are still very much alive and well in China, and usually the Chinese government is no so receptive to being criticized. The book had been on sale since 1988. A Chinese website described it as satire of Russia under Stalin. The production lost money. Performances were only half full.

Chinese director Chen Shizheng collaborated with Damon Albarn of the rock groups Blur and Gorillaz, to do a stage version of “Journey to the West”. See Literature

Theater Festivals in China

The Beijing Fringe Festival was founded in 2007. It Shanghai counterpart, which runs for a month in November and December, was started in 2004. Today, these festivals are complemented by new ones opening almost yearly in second-tier, though still very large, cities like Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, where theater has been scarce. [Source: Didi Kirsten Tatlow, New York Times, December 14, 2011]

Didi Kirsten Tatlow, New York Times, “Watching from the front row at 8 Space, a new theater in the southwestern city of Chengdu, Lei Bing hooted with laughter as three actresses in panda costumes slapped playing cards on a table and, in wisecracking dialogue, laid bare their struggle for love, dignity and affordable housing in the play “Fight the Landlord.” Afterward, Ms. Lei, an insurance company worker, gushed about the Western-style play, which opened the inaugural Chengdu International Theater Festival in October 2011

“I felt the things they were talking about could have been my own life, all our lives. It’s like it walked right into my heart,” Ms. Lei said of the play, which was written by the Beijing writer-actress Sun Yue in 2010 and directed by Gavin Quinn of the Pan Pan Theatre in Ireland.

Even the theater that was showing the play, 8 Space had opened just three weeks before the festival’s opening. Housed in a former Soviet-built radar-parts factory in Music Park, a new cultural district, Li Jing, its manager, said that 8 Space was the first experimental theater in Chengdu.

Ms. Li said that the Chengdu festival, which she and her business partner He Boya sponsored, lost money this year. But she said that plenty of culture officials had given speeches at a pre-festival media conference, and that she hoped the government would offer financing next year.

The festival showed nine plays, including Harold Pinter’s “Betrayal,” and a production from Taiwan, “Cao Qi Qiao,” inspired by Eileen Chang’s novel “The Golden Cangue.” Next October, Ms. Li wants to stage more. But for now, she said, “We really want to focus on the real problems that people have in their lives, the practical issues they face, because that’ll sell tickets.” Still, next up may be the eastern city of Ji’nan in Shandong province, said Guo Qi, the executive producer of the Beijing Fringe Festival. In 2012, organizers plan to invite a struggling, private theater troupe from Foshan, a city in the southern Guangdong province known for its factories.

The Beijing festival, and its Shanghai counterpart are a “training ground,” Ms. Guo said. “It wasn’t about business, it was about art. We aren’t in the festival to make money. The government has money and is willing to spend it. We want to groom directors and playwrights,” she said, pointing out that about 25 of the 58 plays in the festival in September were locally written premieres. Seventy percent of 3.5 million renminbi ($550,000) in local financing for the festival came from the government, Ms. Guo said. Other, significant, support came from a dozen national cultural institutes, including those of Poland, Japan and France, and international companies.

Plays Written for a Chinese Audience

Mr. Yu added, “I think before people had to do plays that the audience would enjoy,” like shows about office politics and love. Those sorts of plays still dominate the billings outside the festival. “But now there are serious plays too,” Mr. Yu said. “Fight the Landlord,” named after a card game, for all its humor, is one.

In the play, three people spend an afternoon playing cards as their relationships shift---one moment they are friends, the next enemies; a love triangle, then a family of three or a couple getting counseling; house-hunters and match-makers, friends in life and just-Internet friends, in different combinations they collide and interact, eventually parting alone.

“Fight the Landlord” is a performance specifically looking at the role of recent history and memory in today’s China,” Mr. Quinn wrote in the notes for the Beijing festival, where the play was also presented. “Beneath the sleep of ideology the project intends to find a present day voice for individual conscience versus silence, using the card game as a virtual jumping off point.”

Censorship remains real, with municipal culture officials vetting every script and attending a rehearsal to check for visual offenses. “Then they discuss things very directly with us,” Ms. Guo said In Beijing the process takes about a week; in Shanghai, because of administrative factors, up to a month, Ms. Guo said. The guidelines---internalized by the Chinese---are, no anti-government or “anti-social” content, no nudity or overt sexuality, handle religion with care. While this may seem like a lot, “It’s better than before,” Mr. Yu remarked.

Ms. Liao said: “Theater is not a mass entertainment form, so it hasn’t been controlled as tightly as film or television. It has had more space and fewer political pressures.” Ms. Guo said the theater “is really very free now. You won’t really be shut down for a sentence any more.” But occasionally, something falls foul of the system. “At a recent production at our theater a pregnant actress, who was married to the director, took all her clothes off on stage. That kind of thing can cause real problems for us,” Ms. Liao said. Those mounting Western-style theater in China remain cautious, despite the rapid developments. “It’s a dangerous time,” said Ms. Li of 8 Space. “Because when you are the first person to do something in a city, there’s pressure.”

Meng Jinghui and Transfiguration of a Butterfly

Claiming to present a new form of performance, Meng Jinghui, the best-known avant-garde stage director in China, staged his latest work Hu Die Bian Xing Ji (Transfiguration of a Butterfly) in April 2011 at the Fengchao Theater in Beijing. The experimental work “was adapted from stories and images from many dramatic works and novels written by Swiss dramatist Friedich Dürrenmatt, and became a total different play after [the] actors and actresses' artistic recreation," said Meng, [Source: Yue Hongyan, Global Times, March 21, 2011]

As one of the most preeminent Swiss dramatists of the 20th century, Dürrenmatt (1921-90) has written avant-garde dramas, such as The Visit and The Physicists, which explore social problems with macabre satire, to superb dramaturgic effect. "The story is like The Visit, starting with a wealthy woman returning to her hometown to seek revenge on her ex-lover, but [we've] added more fantastic plots," 31-year-old lead Wang Longzheng, who plays Heibao, the ex-lover, told the Global Times. Wang also acted in Meng's previous musical The Love of Three Oranges.

Just like Meng's previous works, Accidental Death of an Anarchist and Rhinoceros in Love Transfiguration of a Butterfly is set to continue Meng's avant-garde style, turning original works upside down and hacking the classics into pieces, deconstruct familiar texts with satirical parody and loose storylines. "People become crazy with material lust and want to acquire money by hook or crook," Wang said, "Everybody is deformed as mad as a hatter to gain profit."

Meng defined this play as "Mania comedy," aiming to present "a kind of exuberant molder, a happy degeneration, a prosperous decline." "It is related to our reality. People have transformed from idealism to a fever for money in our society. And this play reflects the relationship between human nature and capital. In such a society, the actors are also poisoned, so we want to release it, to show it to audiences," Meng explained at a press conference.

Western Theater Producers in China

These days, interest in Western theater and opera is growing and becoming a symbol of sophistication among educated urban dwellers. Beijing has sent officials to New York to study Broadway and get some insight on how to create a successful musical. The Chinese have also begun staging their own Western-style operas such as an Western-style adaption of “Farewell My Concubine” and inviting big names in Western theater such as Cameron Mackintosh, the producer of “Cats, Phantom of the Opera” and “Les Miserables”, to China to stage Mandarin-language versions of Western shows.

“There are already plenty of western producers keen to play a part in China's cultural development, and claim a share in the gate receipts that might accompany it. British impresario Sir Cameron Mackintosh - the producer of Lloyd Webber's Cats as well as the West End blockbusters Les Misérables and Miss Saigon - signed an agreement with the China Arts and Entertainment Group last year to bring his musicals to China.”

“And the Beijing Shibo Group has entered into a separate agreement with Broadway company Nederlander to bring popular American musicals to China. Nederlander, has already showed its willingness to cross the cultural divide by staging a translated production of the hit show Fame, in collaboration with local partners.”

Pentagon Papers Play Tours China

Andrew Jacobs wrote in the New York Times, “As far as dramatic timing goes, the text message from the powers that be announcing the sudden cancellation of a post-performance discussion of “Top Secret: Battle for the Pentagon Papers” was, well, perfectly timed.The message, sent to the cellphone of the play’s producer on Friday night, warned of “unforeseen consequences spreading beyond the theater,” should the audience at Peking University be allowed to openly discuss the work, which delves into delicate matters like press freedom, power-hungry political leaders and the Nixon administration’s desire to quash information it deemed embarrassing. [Source: Andrew Jacobs, December 2, 2011]

“It was rather ironic but it drove home the issues in the play,” the producer, Alison Friedman, said moments after the house lights came up, and the crowd, many of them students at Peking, China’s most prestigious university, drifted away. “I can’t say we were surprised.” Perhaps the bigger surprise was that this spare, fast-paced docudrama, performed in English and financed partly by the American Embassy, was even staged in a country whose skittish cultural czars regularly block movies, books and plays they find objectionable.

Communist Party officials could be forgiven for viewing the play through their gimlet eyes as an unalloyed slice of American propaganda, even if the creators of “Top Secret” had no such intentions. Written by Mr. Cowan and Leroy Aarons, who died in 2004, it was first produced by L.A. Theater Works in 1991 as a radio play. Spanning several days, it dramatizes the showdown between the White House and The Washington Post as that paper balanced the threat of criminal prosecution against its desire to burnish its journalistic chops by publishing the Pentagon’s secret history of United States’involvement in the Vietnam War.

The story begins on June 17, 1971, after a federal court has enjoined The New York Times---which had already published three installments based on the documents---from publishing any more. The Post promptly gets its hands on copies of the papers, and what follows is an exploration of the role of the press in keeping a secretive and manipulative government in check.

Getting Pentagon Papers Produced in China

Susan Albert Loewenberg, the producing director of L.A. Theater Works, which shepherded “Top Secret” to China through a thicket of logistical, financial and bureaucratic obstacles, said there were many times during the two-and-a-half-year odyssey when she thought the production was dead.”Frankly, I’m amazed we got this far.” [Source: Andrew Jacobs, December 2, 2011]

If the journey of “Top Secret” holds any lessons for Western theater producers seeking to reach Chinese audiences, it is this: Have a seasoned guide, avoid the country’s most high-profile performance spaces and be prepared for countless frustrations and disappointments. American companies that had supported L.A. Theater Works in the past refused to back its China production; permits did not materialize until the last moment; and an earlier panel discussion planned for Guangzhou was also scotched.

But the rewards, as Ms. Loewenberg and Geoffrey Cowan, an author of the play, tell it, have been immense. During its 10-day run “Top Secret” has played to sold-out audiences in Shanghai and Guangzhou, with many performances punctuated by shouts of approval from the audience and standing ovations. Perhaps most gratifying for the producers was that those audiences were almost entirely Chinese and young, many of whom learned about the production through weibo, the Twitter-like microblog service that has revolutionized the way Chinese communicate with one another---including expressions of displeasure over government malfeasance.

To get as far as it has, L.A. Theater Works relied on Ms. Friedman, whose company, Ping Pong Productions, specializes in taking international performing arts to China and Chinese troupes to the West. After nearly a decade living and working here, she has learned how to navigate a maze of permits and egos, when to massage cultural bureaucrats and, perhaps most important, whom to call when roadblocks suddenly appear. Even though the unmistakable message of “Top Secret” is the importance of a free press and an independent judiciary in the face of a bullying government, the producers gingerly pitched their production as a Vietnam War-era contretemps between President Nixon and the press. “They put the play in the “American history” box,” Ms. Friedman said of the many officials who gave the production a green light. “We also chose low-profile partners. We didn’t want the government to think too heavily about the play.”

In the end it was low-level bureaucrats who stood in their way, especially when it came to the troupe’s final performances in Beijing. Although arranged months in advance, the Peking University show did not receive its required permit until the day before showtime. Even then, the producers were stunned to learn they could not sell tickets. The permit, they were told, also limited the audience to 1,000, ensuring the theater was less than half full.

Image Sources: Asia Obscura

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2012


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