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Spoken Drama: Shakespeare Since the 1970s

In 1979, little over two years after the end of the Cultural Revolution, Hu Dao's Much Ado About Nothing bravely appeared in Shanghai. Shakespeare had not been staged for nearly two decades, and the publicity was very low key as the time remained sensitive. Chinese cultural circles were still shrouded by the "lingering fear" of the notorious Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, and the stage and media constantly adulated the new leadership and denounced the "Gang of Four". [Note 7] Much Ado, a revival of a landmark production in 1957 by a Russian director, opened a bright and colourful world in front of Chinese audiences who embraced it unhesitatingly. The success of this production led to a resurgence of Shakespeare performance in China.

Most spoken drama Shakespeare performances followed the model set up by Soviet experts who had been invited to work in the Chinese theatre academies in the 1950s. The accepted style of performance was characterized by an intricately realistic but cumbersome scenography: grand scenery in the Renaissance style with high pillars and broad arches, artificial make-up including wigs and prosthetic noses, and elaborate costumes. In addition, the understanding of Shakespeare evinced in these productions was greatly influenced by Soviet Shakespeare scholarship and guided by the commentaries of Marx and Engels. Using analyses based on Marx's dialectical materialism, Chinese Shakespeare studies concentrated on how Shakespeare's works reflected the social and economic background of the Renaissance and Elizabethan periods, especially the emergence of the new bourgeoisie from mediaeval feudalism. On the stage, the leading roles were perceived as representing the progressive forces of the Renaissance, and were monumentally portrayed and stereotyped. For example, in the 1984 Hamlet, director Chen Mingzheng emphasized what he saw as the bright ending of the play: "Though four people die in the last scene, this is a demonstration of the victory of humanism." His interpretation followed the conventional understanding that Hamlet is a sublime masterpiece eulogizing Renaissance humanism: "What [a] piece of work is a man, ... the beauty of the world; the paragon of animals; ..." (II ii 303-307). In this portrayal, Hamlet was a romantic but hesitant, handsome yet melancholy hero. The performers were in period costumes with wigs and prosthetic noses.


Hamlet (1984), translated by Zhu Shenghao, directed by Cheng Mingzheng & An Zhenji, produced by the Shanghai Theatre Academy. Courtesy: Shanghai Theatre Academy.

Nonetheless, productions that would seem in almost every respect to have followed the 1950s model might still prove controversial. Two of the first three Shakespeare plays to be staged in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution: The Merchant of Venice directed by Zhang Qihong; and Macbeth directed by Xu Xiaozhong, provoked considerable debate, although for very different reasons as will be discussed below.

Zhang Qihong, who staged the 1980 Merchant of Venice, had trained as a director in Moscow in the1950s. In the conventional manner, Portia was portrayed as a symbol of Renaissance humanism. Thus, in the court scene, Portia's entrance was accompanied by the sound-effect of a cheering crowd backstage, and she immediately stepped onto a platform so that she stood clearly above the Duke, who was seated, and the rest of the performers. (video) Zhang's version entirely ignored the issue of racism in the confrontation of Jews and Christians. Instead, the conflict between Shylock and Antonio was presented solely in terms of the class struggle between feudal exploitation and bourgeois morality. (video the court scene) Many scholars and critics disagreed with the director's interpretation. In particular, Professor Sun Jiaxiu, a seventy-year-old Shakespearean who taught at the Central Academy of Drama, commented: "had Heine been alive, would he still have cried for Shylock in this version?"

Zhang Qihong had chosen to emphasize themes in Shakespeare that would be familiar to Chinese people - especially universal love, friendship, and fighting against the cruel usurer - and audiences generally were enthusiastic about the 1980 Merchant. Moreover, like the Shanghai audience for the 1979 Much Ado, they were appreciative of the exotic scenery that evoked images of sixteenth-century Italy, the richly embroidered costumes, blonde wigs, and Western make-up including prosthetic noses and blue lines drawn on the eye-lids to suggest blue eyes. This offered such a contrast to everyday life, dominated by the Communist ideology, where the vast majority of men and women still had to wear ill-fitting blue or grey Mao costumes. The 1980 Merchant could thus be seen as escapist entertainment. (VIDEO) Yet in the boldly presented kissing scene and the lines concerning Nerissa's ring in Act V, the director challenged traditionalist critics who condemned this production for being "harmful to public morals." [Note 8] One declared that some lines in the play "were too vulgar and dreadful for our ears." The controversy certainly stimulated interest amongst the public, and the play ran for over 200 performances and toured six cities.

In the 1980 Macbeth, Xu Xiaozhong, another 1950s Moscow-trained director, drew a parallel between the socialist new China and the Renaissance idealized by Engels. Xu's vision of Macbeth was as "a giant" who "wanders, stumbles and eventually drowns in ... whirlpools of blood." [Note 9] The "giant" image derived from Engels, and the image of "stumbling" came from Marx's description of Louis Napoleon. [Note 10] Xu followed Shakespeare in showing that Macbeth "is destroyed by his own individual ambition." Xu's interpretation emphasized, however, that Macbeth had the potential to become a revered national hero. Yet Macbeth, in addition to ruining himself, ruined his country: "Macbeth is also a tragedy of the people. Shakespeare reveals that a careerist and tyrant like Macbeth can bring disaster to his ancestral land and its people" (Xu Xiaozhong 1996, 243). Citing Marx and Soviet Shakespeareans, Xu declared: "Shakespeare not only wrote a tragedy about an individual, it was more a tragedy of history at a turning point" (1996, 240).


Macbeth (1980), translated by Zhu Shenghao, directed by Xu Xiaozhong & Li Zibo, produced by the Central Academy of Drama. Courtesy: Central Academy of Drama.

In China, theatre is expected to propagandize the government's policies, and there were suggestions that Xu's production represented an attack on the "Gang of Four" whose trial was then in progress. Although this would have been politically astute, Xu rejected such "high praise." Xu had a strong social consciousness and wanted to deal with the serious questions facing China. As a sincere believer in Marx and Engels's writings on realism, he would not simply echo current Party propaganda. Nor, however, was he content with Kott's idea of "Shakespeare our contemporary," since Xu accepted Marx's view that dramatic characters should not be reduced to "mere mouthpieces of the spirit of the times." Nonetheless, striking parallels emerged through Xu's staging between Macbeth and the leaders, not excluding Mao himself, whose hubris had been responsible for so many disasters in China.



[7] Coined after Mao's death, this term refers to a political alliance between Jiang Qing (Mao's wife), Zhang Chunqiao, Yao Wenyuan and Wang Hongwen. The official position is that the "gang" effectively dominated China in the closing years of the Cultural Revolution. They were arrested in October 1976. [Back]

[8] Fang Ping, He Shashibiya jiao ge pengyou ba [Making Friends with Shakespeare], (Chengdu: Sichuan Renmin Chubanshe 1983), p. 289. [Back]

[9]Xu Xiaozhong, "Makebaisi chu tan -- Makebaisi de paiyan yu jiaoxue [Elementary Explorations: My Rehearsals and Teaching of Macbeth]", in Xiang biaoxian meixue tuokuan de daoyan yishu [Arts of Directing and Aesthetics of Expression], (Beijing: Zhongguo Xiju Chubanshe, 1996), pp. 239-257 (p. 246). [Back]

[10]Xu said in his article "Makebaisi chu tan [Initial Explorations in Macbeth]" that the image of stumbling came from the following description of Louis Napoleon in Marx's A Historical Parallel: "He may recoil before the storm he has raised, and again receive the benedictions of the Pope and the caresses of the British Queen; but neither will be more than lip-service. They know him now, what the people knew him long since -- a reckless gambler, a desperate adventurer, who would as soon dice with royal bones as any other if the game promised to leave him a winner. They know him as one who, having, like Macbeth, waded to a crown through human gore, finds it easier to go forward than to return to peace and innocence" ("A Historical Parallel", Karl Marx/Frederick Engels, Collected Works, 47 vols., vol. 16, London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1980), p. 273. [Back]