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Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Vol. 37, No 21. August 28, 1974

Theatre, for whom ? the Chinese answer

page 13

Theatre, for whom ? the Chinese answer

Chinese characters

A steamy summer evening at the Cultural Park in Canton. Brightly coloured lights are hung from poles, and music pours out of loudspeakers as our delegation passes from fine arts exhibitions to basketball courts. After a quick game of pingpong and a look at the ferris wheels we are led past the refreshment stand to a large soundshell where a theatrical performance is in progress.

A huge crowd — perhaps 2000 people — is gathered, some seated in folding chairs, most standing around the edges in a semicircle, drinking bottles of soft drink, smoking cigarettes, restraining small children and talking in loud voices.

It is as if we have wandered onto a huge fairground where an annual carnival is taking place. The difference is that this carnival is continuous, for the Cultural Park is open every night of the week. If this evening was any indication, the public makes full use of it.

As we take our places in the front row seats that the holders insist upon vacating for us, we wonder what exactly is going on. This is a performance — but where is the hushed respect that we observe in our own theatres at home? People are behaving as if they are spectators at a small town rugby match.

Perhaps they are bored with what is happening on the stage...but the performance continues, and no one makes any effort to leave. Our translators later explain to us that it is customary for a Chinese audience to watch a performance with only one eye. The plays, or at least their form, are generally familiar, and the audience is able to combine play-watching with social gathering.

Perhaps the Chinese are able to watch these plays with only one eye, but our eyes are soon glued to the stage as we attempt to absorb fully and understand the strange movement and language and song that is being presented. The play, it seems, was written and performed by an amateur group of high school students. Its form and its content have fully answered the question raised by Chairman Mao 32 years ago at the Yenan Forum on Art and Literature: "Theatre? For whom?"

But what, ask jaded veteran patrons of Mercury and Downstage, can theatre hold for a factory worker, for a housewife, for a farmhand? The performance that captured the imaginations of 2000 people that evening in Canton held no universal themes. There was none of the elements of frothy bedroom comedy; no attempt was made to delve deep into the psychology or interpersonal relationships.

Instead, the group had adapted a local opera to depict a theme that is extremely important in China today — finishing high school and moving to the countryside for two years to "learn from the poor and lower middle peasants".

Makeup was heightened; voice and movement were stylised. Many of the conventions employed by the group were identical to those found in traditional Chinese drama. Only the content had changed. "We must temper ourselves in the countryside"...."Chinese youth can help build the new society with their own hands", was the rough translation offered to some of the lyrics, "Simplistic" we cry from behind our critical cool.

But the movement was intricate, the voice production was melodious, and the performance was presented with more conviction and confidence than one would dare to expect from New Zealand high school students stumbling their way through "A Man for All Seasons" or "The Mikado".

The performance we watched that evening in Canton was actually the indirect result of a conscious movement carried out by Chinese "theatrical workers" during the past ten years. Following liberation, Mao Tsetung and members of the Communist Party realised that the cultural revolution was failing to keep pace with the country's political and social revolutions. Unlike political leaders of the West, the Chinese have not failed to account for the importance of performance within a society. "An army without culture is a dullwitted army, and a dull-witted army cannot defeat the enemy," wrote the Chairman in 1944.

While Chinese technicians, peasants and workers were startling the world in the early 1960s with their innovations upon the technology of the West, Chinese dancers were sweating at the barre striving to emulate Anna Pavlova, and actors were hidden away in corners practicing Stanislavski's method. The cultural dominance of the Soviet Union was nearly complete and many artists, composers and writers began to decry their own cultural traditions as primitive, while striving to adopt a set of European conventions. Chinese music was temporarily discarded in favour of Dvorak and Liszt; Chinese theatre was left to die a lingering death in the countryside while professional actors worked on Ibsen, Strindberg and Brecht.

Photo of a man jumping while holding a sword

It was in this atmosphere that Chairman Mao reissued his call to the artists and writers of China: "Our literary and art workers must shift their stand; they must gradually move their feet over to the side of the workers, peasants and soldiers...Only in this way can we have a literature and an that are truly for the workers, peasants and soldiers, a truly proletarian literature and art."

In answer to this call, a group of actors and writers led by Madame Chiang Ching, a former film actress and now the third wife of Mao Tsetung, began to evolve a theatrical style which would incorporate the intricate conventions of traditional Chinese theatre with the needs of a modern revolutionary society. The group did not blindly hack away at 2000 years of Chinese culture.

Following the Marxist/Leninist/Maoist dictum of selecting from the old what can be coupled with the new, Chinese opera and ballet troupes created such original pieces as "Red Detachment of Women", dealing with a young peasant woman who joins the People's Liberation Army during the revolution; and more recently "On the Docks" and "Azalea Mountain".

Working together for many months, combining rehearsals with research and training at communes and military bases, the Peking Revolutionary Ballet Troupe established a style of production for "Red Detachment" that quickly became a model for other ballet and operas. Rather than discard the Traditional Chinese acrobatic movement in favour of naturalism, the troupe has adapted its stylised movement to suit modern times.

For example, the hand movements executed by Wa Ching-Hua, heroine of "Red Detachment of Women", have been adapted from a traditional women's hand gesture, suggesting the languid tranquillity of a summer flower into gestures of firmness and strength, suggestive of a clenched fist.

Photo of a woman in shackles

Understandably enough, that simple adaptation has done much to raise the previously feudal consciousness of Chinese women.

The major cities, however, are not the only places where theatrical innovations are being made. Although most amateur performers will admit that they receive much of their inspiration from the work of the Peking Revolutionary Opera Troupe, admiration has not prevented them from experimenting with original works of their own. At every school, factory and farm we visited, an amateur theatrical group presented a programme of original work. The workers at Sian's Number One Cotton Mill sang about the wefr and the warp of the cotton loom that weaves the nation's cloth; peasant women in the Chi-Li-Yen commune of Chengchow presented a dance based upon the movements used to plant rice.

Performance not only draws its materials from everyday life experience in China, it is an integral part of everyday life experience. The intensified experience of theatre, with its bright colour and unexpected sounds has become a tremendous release from the sell restraining necessary in productive life. But theatre, rather than becoming an outlet of escape, has become a further avenue for channelling enthusiams about the new society.

Concluding an article dealing with the necessity of technical excellence in the creation of popular art and literature, Chairman Mao once wrote: "A dull sword can never draw blood." The enthusiasm, the conviction and the absolute finesse of Chinese revolutionary drama makes us only too painfully aware of the absence of life blood in our own professional theatre.