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  • When Marco Leaves the Building: Intercultural Performances and Other Audiences

During Peking opera star Mei Lanfang’s visit to New York City in 1930, expectant crowds packed the Broadway theaters where he performed for a firsthand look at the dramatic skills that were eliciting resounding acclaim. The praise lavished on Mei did not extend, however, to the other productions of Chinese opera available in New York at the time: in various theaters downtown, Cantonese opera had been staged on and off since the nineteenth century for Chinese immigrants and Chinatown tourists. Contemplating the differences between these performances, a New York Times article published soon after Mei’s visit describes in detail the experience of attending the Chinatown theater1 and bemoans that its productions are far less refined than Mei’s exhibition. The title hints at the objections elaborated in the article: “Mr. Mei and the Local Chinese Drama, His Engagement Has Had Little Effect on the Troupe Downtown, Which Is Indifferent to Occidental Patronage.”2 The writer, Grace Lynn, explains,

Besides serving as a purveyor of the most finished and modern in the theatrical art of China, Mr. Mei also threw the spotlight on the Chinese theatre now permanently in our midst. And so it is through his visit that one becomes cognizant of the amusing fact that here in New York, the most modern city in the world, the Chinese theatre, despite its compromises with American influences, adheres more rigidly to the old classic traditions in its methods of production than did the offerings of Mei Lan-fang.3

The amusing contradiction, according to Lynn, is that the Chinese theater in New York is less modern than the performances [End Page 677] of Mei. Her observation thus implies that while one might expect the cultural products of New York to be more modern than those of China, the Chinese immigrant theater is a backward anomaly within “the most modern city in the world.” Migration and displacement have, it seems, paralyzed the theater’s growth.

The apparent stasis of the immigrant theater is notably linked in the article’s title to the performers’ indifference to Western audiences. Notwithstanding the limited understanding of Chinatown theaters suggested by these assertions, the article’s insinuation that a performance’s claim to modernism can be gauged by the degree to which it responds to the presence of Western spectators suggestively locates modernizing influences in the seats, as well as on the stage. What the article identifies as modern is the recognition of a Western audience, rather than a performance that explicitly incorporates Western aesthetic conventions, styles, or narratives. Thus, while allowing the Chinese theaters their own modernism, the article nevertheless insists that they respect “Occidental patronage.”

Echoing Lynn’s interests if not her conclusions, this article constellates what might broadly be called three performances of contact between China and the West in New York City in the early twentieth century. In particular, it compares the distinct relationships that the performances cultivated with their various viewers. The original Theatre Guild production of Eugene O’Neill’s Marco Millions in 1928 and 1930, Mei Lanfang’s presentation of Peking opera in 1930, and ongoing performances of Cantonese opera for residents and tourists of Chinatown all deliberately accentuated an East/West binary as a response to the pressures of materialism, nationalism, and migration, respectively. These performances moreover exaggerated this binary by playing to a particular kind of spectator, one that finds explicit literary embodiment in the unusual epilogue of O’Neill’s script for Marco Millions. As I will demonstrate, however, what distinguishes the latter two performances from Marco Millions is their recognition and flexible accommodation of audiences across a presumed East/West divide, even as they wittingly intensified this split on the stage.4

Both Mei and the immigrant theater used their multiple audiences as the very condition of possibility for developing performances that responded to the particular demands of modernity weighing most heavily on them. My understanding of modernism as it applies to these performances draws from Susan Friedman’s generously expansive conception of modernism as “the expressive dimension of modernity, one that encompasses a range of styles among creative...

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