Chinese Theatre and the Actor in Performance (review)
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Chinese Theatre and the Actor in Performance. By Jo Riley. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997; 348pp.; illustrations. $64.95 cloth.
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In one sense, I may not be the most appropriate reviewer for this book, as I am not a specialist in the field of Chinese drama but rather have done my research in Japanese theatre in both the medieval drama as well as in the postwar avantgarde. Yet on the other hand, perhaps my comments may prove useful, as this fascinating study also sets out to inform and enlighten the reader who is not a specialist. The book is written with enthusiasm and clarity; all those interested in the central function actors can play in representing their culture, as well as in the vital interplay between performer and audience, will find themselves caught up in what is the first study of depth and resonance in the English language.

The author’s work was not known to me previously and, unfortunately, the dust jacket (at least on the copy provided to me) does not contain her biography. There are several articles of hers listed in the bibliography, but it is clear that a work of this comprehensive scope can only be the result of many years of study, observation, and reflection. Early in the book, Riley sketches out her felt need for extensive travel in China, then indicates how she has come to juxtapose the various strands that make up the body of the book. Her many sources cited in Chinese as well as in Western languages, plus her extensive field notes, make her conclusions convincing, however provocative some of them might appear to be.

The purpose of her book, Riley indicates, is to answer the question:

[W]hat does the Chinese spectator, an initiate, or insider, expect to see even as he stands outside the theatre before the performance has begun? Is there a body of shared knowledge about each actor—his heritage, his training—and what about the play itself? Is it known? Does it have a performance history, and how does the Chinese spectator apply this knowledge to the performance he observes? (3)

Riley sets out in the course of her study to answer these questions from a variety of points of view. Such a focus, she rightly asserts, is central to an understanding of Chinese traditional theatre, but such concerns are not, as she points out, the ones that Western writers and theatre artists such as Brecht and Mnouchkine have usually pursued.

The author’s organizing principle for this lengthy study is evocative and effective. She chooses a performance by the most famous actor of jingju (traditionally referred to in the West as Peking Opera) in the 20th century, Mei Lanfang (1894–1966) in one of the classic dramas of the genre, Guifei zuijiu (The Favorite Concubine Becomes Intoxicated). Mei’s own published notes on his performance exist, and there is evidently a film record as well, so a close study can be made of the actor’s actual performance. Riley begins with that performance, and in each of the eight sections of the book she circles back to it. But her concerns lead her from a close visual analysis of the actor’s work to historical and anthropological aspects of traditional Chinese theatre which, in the end, make this composite art form as practiced in various ways around the country into a virtual symbol of the deepest spiritual attitudes and concerns of traditional Chinese culture and civilization. In this sense, the audiences as well as the performers become her object of study. Her generalizations are striking, but for me, at least, the remarkable accomplishment of the book lies in the aptness with which she has chosen significant details to advance her general arguments. [End Page 179]

The first section of the book, “Family,” provides perhaps the most familiar means of theatrical analysis, since it focuses on historical details. She sketches out Mei’s life and expresses her conviction as to the importance for an actor in any given generation of the past centuries of Chinese performing traditions: “Mei Lanfang can be described as...


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