Asian Theatre Journal 18.1 (2001) 117-119
[Access article in PDF]
In Misreading the Chinese Character, Dave Williams analyzes a series of plays written for performance in the United States which feature one or more Chinese characters. Williams begins his study with the first such play, Arthur Murphy's The Orphan of China, presented in Philadelphia in 1767, and terminates it in the mid-1920s when "the rise of the cinema greatly and permanently weakened the stage as a site of image production." As his title suggests, the author indicts the playwrights for having misread and purposely misrepresented true [End Page 117] Chinese character--though he admits that "representing the Chinese with complete accuracy, even had the Euroamericans desired to do so . . . would have been impossible."
For the theoretical underpinnings of his study, Williams turns to Edward Said, from whom he adopts the perspective of "the Other" marginalized by representatives of the hegemonic culture (in this case "Euroamerican"), and to Kenneth Burke, from whom he has learned to treat each playwright he studies as a "complex of motives" and to describe the group of playwrights as shapers of a "common paradigm." From one of the leading students of American melodrama, Bruce McConachie, Williams borrows the concept of "theatrical formation," according to which the theatrical event or "play" is a product of negotiation between playwrights seeking to please audiences and spectators who see the plays that please them (and shun the ones that don't).
Though Williams gives us an interesting chapter of mid-nineteenth-century social history ("Engagement and Souring: The Chinese Come to California"), his analysis of the theatrical audience is sketchy and his depiction vague. As he is clearly much more interested in the playwright's side of McConachie's dialectic, Williams' treatment of the playwrights and their motives comprises the largest part of his book. Although Williams accepts the inescapable reality that nineteenth-century American playwrights were in the entertainment business and their preeminent motive was economic success, he holds the playwrights responsible for the image of the Chinese in America.
Williams tells the story of playwrights caught in a dilemma. From the performance of Murphy's The Orphan of China in 1767 until about 1870, they had been able to ignore the very existence of China and the Chinese. But following the substantial immigration of Chinese to America in the 1850s and 1860s, playwrights, according to Williams, were "forced to acknowledge the existence of Chinese." Yet the typical spectator of the day desired to be "spared the effort and stress of acknowledging the existence of such seemingly alien beings as the Chinese." To keep the paying customers paying, the playwrights were compelled to develop a strategy to provide their audiences with a comfortable psychological distance from the Chinese characters. Williams breaks this grand strategy into a series of tactics chosen by individual playwrights and manifested in their plays. From simply ignoring China, no longer a viable alternative, the playwrights moved to marginalizing, ridiculing, demonizing, and idealizing the Chinese.
With this book and a companion anthology, Williams has done the scholar of American drama a true service in drawing attention to this series of plays. Not only are his synopses of plot and descriptions of characters succinct and readable, but he sets the plays in the history of American theatre and society in helpful ways. Murphy's heroic tragedy, The Orphan of China, for instance, received ten performances in New York and Philadelphia between 1767 and 1842. Williams traces the provenance of this play back through several authors to the Yuan drama The Orphan of Chao (Chao-shi-ku-erh) by Chi Chun-hsiang. But Williams' overriding purpose in Misreading the Chinese Character is to attribute extracommercial motives to the authors. Even as "Euro-americans" [End Page 118] became more familiar with China, Williams writes, "playwrights continued to distort [the facts] to fit their audiences'...