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  • Mrs. Warren's Profession in China:Factors in Cross-Cultural Adaptations1
  • Kay Li (bio)

The failure of the first productions of Shaw's plays in China—performances of Mrs Warren's Profession—inOctober 1920 by the New Shanghai Theatre, had a far-reaching influence on modern Chinese drama. The producer, Wang Chung-hsien, reflecting on the failure, argued that the performances drew attention to the need for new adaptations in Chinese drama to accommodate China's new sociocultural ideals and the needs of a Chinese audience. Writing in his "Youyou Shi Jutan" ("Wang Chung-hsien on Drama"), he explains that the first Chinese production of Mrs Warren's Profession was, in a narrow sense, the first encounter between purely realist Western drama and Chinese society and, in a broad sense, the first meeting between new culture drama and Chinese society.2 Thus, the production had the task of bridging not only Eastern and Western dramatic forms but also the East and the West as geopolitical and cultural entities, linking the traditional and the modern, art and everyday life, in Chinese society.

It also gave some clues to how Shaw's play in particular, and Western plays in general, could be adapted to China. After the failure of the first productions of Mrs Warren's Profession, some Chinese theater critics concluded that drama should be aesthetic and not ideological. Other critics advocated for an amateur rather than commercial theater, and yet others supported expanding and developing professional Chinese theater. The whole experience of staging Shaw's play in China was a catalyst that drove Chinese theater to devise new ways to produce, perform, and watch modern Chinese plays attempting to bring the East and the West together.

The first performance of Mrs Warren's Profession in China has been dated variously. Qian Li-qun, Wen Yu-min, and Wu Fu-hui date it October 1920,3 while Hong Shen dates it Spring 1921.4 None of these theater critics provides the exact dates, but the actual advertisements in Shenbao, which [End Page 201] was the most influential newspaper in Shanghai, announce the performance of Mrs Warren's Profession on 14, 16, and 17 October 1920. In actuality, Mrs Warren's Profession was first performed on the Chinese stage on the evening of Saturday, 16 October 1920, the fifth day of the ninth month according to the Chinese lunar calendar, and again on Sunday evening, 17 October 1920, the sixth day of the ninth month according to the Chinese lunar calendar. The venue was the Xin Wu Tai (New Shanghai Stage) in Shanghai.5

Those first performances of Mrs Warren's Profession were a flop in spite of producer Wang Chung-hsien's advertising. As Wang Chung-hsien states in "Youyou Shi Jutan" ("Wang Chung-hsien on Drama"),6 all efforts had been made by the production to ensure a large audience for Shaw's play. For example, the performances were scheduled on a Saturday and Sunday. This choice was deliberate since Wang, himself a famous Chinese actor, knew best that "this day is a Saturday: the day when theaters in Shanghai grossed most."7 According to Wang, on every Saturday for the past two years, the traditional Chinese play Huo Fo Ji Gong (Live Buddha Ji Gong),a comic play on the legendary living Buddha, had been staged, grossing from $500 to $1,400 (in Chinese currency) per day. Unfortunately, Mrs Warren's Profession grossed only $300 on the first day and $313 on the second day, a 40 percent reduction from the lowest attendance of Huo Fo Ji Gong.8 Clearly, since the actors and the day of the week are similar, the difference in the theater receipts suggests that the Western play failed to capture an audience accustomed to traditional Chinese drama.

Still, what did Mrs Warren's Profession's gross of $300 and $313 mean in 1920 in China? According to the 17 October 1920 Shenbao advertisement of the performance, a second-class ticket cost $0.15, a first-class ticket cost $0.25, a special-class ticket cost $0.50, and a box cost $0.60. Although the exact number of tickets sold is not known...


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