Published on January 17, 2008
The University of Nottingham,Ningbo: The University of Nottingham, Ningbo Chinese and Western Theatre Traditions: A Comparative Perspective Colin Mackerras Aims and Introduction: Aims and Introduction Aim to draw some similarities and differences between Western and Chinese theatre traditions Not aim to cast judgments or say one is better than the other Structure is topical, so period not main focus However, most examples from 15th to 19th centuries Late imperial period (Ming and Qing) in China Renaissance to high imperialism (romanticism) Definitions: What Precisely Am I Talking About: Definitions: What Precisely Am I Talking About Focus on drama defined as a form of theatre in which: Actors perform and impersonate individual characters; There is a story; and There are interrelationships among the characters in the plot, even if they don’t appear on stage Not much on dance, song, clowning, acrobatics (unless within a drama or opera) Different Types of Traditions: Different Types of Traditions Plays and many genres Opera, European form beginning end 16th century, music being essential Xiqu and “opera” Xiqu is sung, but does that make it opera? The importance of Kunqu (the drama of the literati) The rise of the popular theatre Jingju (Peking Opera?) The Purpose of Drama: The Purpose of Drama A range of ideas found why one should perform a drama Confucian notion: promote social harmony, good relationships, performance accompanies ritual Worship God (Christian idea) Purify the soul Promote a particular political, cultural or ethical view Promote patriotism “To hold, as ‘twere, the mirror up to nature” (Hamlet) Entertainment Authorship and Composition: Authorship and Composition Kunqu practice (joined-song structure lianquti) of selecting the tune first (qupai) and then writing words for it Beat-tune structure (found in jingju) and clapper opera emphasizes the rhythm and a limited number of tunes Implication: the composer is not known Dramatist is known for Kunqu and many zaju but not for popular regional dramas; text adjusted by the director The Globe Theatre, London, 2006: The Globe Theatre, London, 2006 Drama and Literature: Drama and Literature Authors, composers in the West Strong development and change over the centuries under discussion Drama as a branch of literature Note regional popular Chinese xiqu take their plots from novels or earlier written dramas, but are not themselves regarded as literature, not even usually written down Contrast and comparison with the West Drama as a performed or read experience Always intended as performance But some advantages in reading without performance The Theatre and Stage: The Theatre and Stage Theatre as an outdoor entertainment Temporary or permanent Temple or outside churches Actually within the temple The proscenium stage and its features Audience sits facing the stage, and separated from it, different from the “thrust stage” with audience sitting three sides, possibility of curtain at the front (not at the back as in China) Originated in Europe, suitable for very large theatres The Globe did (does) not use proscenium stage The influence of the proscenium stage on world theatre, including that of China Décor Ancient Roman Theatre: Ancient Roman Theatre Hou Fangyu and Li Xiangjun in Taohua shan: Hou Fangyu and Li Xiangjun in Taohua shan Conventions: Conventions All theatres have their conventions Chinese theatre very tied to conventions: costumes, gestures, mannerisms Did Chinese theatre develop less fundamentally over the 16th to 19th centuries than did European? If it failed to develop as rapidly, was this partly because of the strength of conventions? Audiences: Audiences Popular theatre Gather for markets, religious ceremonies, festivals Aristocratic/literati theatre Private houses could use an open space for performance on a red carpet, perform between rows of diners Court theatres Women in the audience, all-female audiences? Children in the audience? Culture especially aimed at children Part of the audience, Wutai shan: Part of the audience, Wutai shan Scene, Temple Stage, Wutai shan: Scene, Temple Stage, Wutai shan Music, Singing, Speaking: Music, Singing, Speaking Purely spoken tradition not found in Chinese theatre until the twentieth century No specific composers of Chinese xiqu until quite recently Have regional musical styles, rather than products of particular composers The centrality of European musical development in opera Relate to equal tempered scale Plot: Plot Both give strong role to emotion Episodic versus climactic Affects length, can have either one scene (very short) or numerous scenes, a whole drama lasting several days Theory of plot development in the West, follows especially Aristotle: e.g. exposition, complication, climax, denouement, catastrophe etc. Must be tension, conflict Chinese drama subdivides into military and civilian Zaju has similar tension, but in general less central to Chinese theatre Setting in one’s own culture? History as a source The role of magic Tragedy: Tragedy Ancient Greek (Aristotelean) theory of catharsis or purging Lacking in the Chinese tradition, Chinese generally prefer happy ending A few dramas have sad ending, e.g. Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai (The Butterfly Lovers) Much argument in the European tradition on why somebody else’s suffering evokes such a response Also tendency to categorize and evaluate cultures according to their production of tragedy Wang Guowei (1877-1927) theorized that the lack of Western-style tragedy in Chinese drama, and the preference for happy endings, was due to the people’s worldly and optimistic nature Also claimed there were a few tragedies in Chinese literature, especially from zaju. Comedy: Comedy Features of comedy: Appeals to human wish to laugh Has a happy ending Often laughs at the silly features of people and societies in general Some have regarded comedy as inferior to tragedy, but there is another point of view All great dramatic traditions have comedy Note the prevalence of comedy in small-scale popular regional theatre Patterns of Characterization: Patterns of Characterization Role types in Chinese drama connected with characterization: e.g. laosheng, qingyi, dan, etc. Role types in Western opera and their reflection in character Western characters often reflect theories of tension Female characters Military female heroes in Chinese theatre: e.g. Mu Guiying, Hua Mulan Some major strong female characters in Western theatre: e.g. Portia, Lady Macbeth Mutual Influences: Mutual Influences Comparatively little mutual influence until the 20th century Spoken play (1907) derived from the West through Japan J.B. du Halde’s (1674-1743) Histoire générale de la China 1736 (The General History of China 1741) summarizes Zhaoshi guer (Orphan of Zhao), inspired Voltaire’s (1694-1778) L’orphélin de la Chine. Context of Western enthusiasm for China Carlo Gozzi’s Turandot, 1762 example of a play set in China, and C.W. Gluck’s (1714-87) little-known opera Le Cinese (Chinese Women). Actors and Society : Actors and Society Theatre as a social activity in China and Europe The status of actors Traditionally low, both in Europe and China, on the margins of law, slaves, in China could not sit exams Why so low? Often no fixed address, life of make-believe, associated with prostitution and low morals Gender and the acting profession, boys playing the roles of women, women playing the roles of men The emergence of the “star” Conclusion: Conclusion Differences outweigh similarities or vice versa Can or should we draw any general evaluation, and what criteria do we use? Or rather appreciate each in its own terms What we can say is that Western patterns have become more generally accepted and influential internationally Why? Possible reasons Extent of change? How important is this? What about other conventional ideas such as the stifling effect of official examinations in China by comparison with the West, with its emphasis on rote learning as opposed to analysis and inventiveness? Survivability in the modern world?