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  • Brecht, Feminism, and Chinese Theatre
  • Carol Martin (bio)

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Figure 1.

Mei Lanfang performs as the fisherman’s daughter in the Peking “opera,” The Fisherman’s Revenge. (Photo courtesy of Carol Martin)

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Figure 2.

Mei Lanfang as Lady Yang in The Drunken Beauty. (Photo courtesy of Carol Martin)

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Figure 3.

Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn were among the many international artists Mei met over the years. Here, they appear in costume for a joint performance in Beijing. (Photo courtesy of Carol Martin)

Bertolt Brecht’s theatrical techniques are commonly cited as a useful means for feminist revisions of theatrical realism. Two articles in particular—one historical, the other theoretical—have connected Brechtian techniques to the sources of feminist theatre, proposing an intersection between Brechtian theory and feminist theatre practice: “Brechtian Theory and the American Feminist Theatre” by Karen Laughlin (1990) and “Brechtian Theory/Feminist Theory: Toward a Gestic Feminist Criticism” by Elin Diamond (1988). Focusing on Brecht has been important for feminist theatre theory and practice, but it has also obscured the fact that the political complexities of traditional Chinese acting were already well-articulated by the Chinese, especially Chinese women, long before Brecht’s famous article “Alienation Effects in Chinese Acting” (1964). Dissenting readings of traditional Chinese acting make the alliance of feminism and Brecht worth additional consideration. 1

Brecht spelled out his theory of Verfremdungseffekt (alienation effect) in “Alienation Effects in Chinese Acting,” written in Moscow in 1935 after he saw an impromptu demonstration of Chinese acting—known in the West as Beijing “opera”—by Mei Lanfang (1894–1961). In his essay, Brecht articulates a relationship between actor and spectator wherein both become critical observers (not without empathy) of the actions the actor performs. Instead of “real life,” Brecht saw in Mei’s acting a manipulable system of signs and referents. He celebrated the Chinese theatre’s ability to manufacture and manipulate Gestus, actions that were both themselves and emblematic, if not symbolic, of larger social practices. Brecht’s particular twist on acting—driving a wedge between actor and action—opened a space in which the actor could communicate with the spectator both about the character and about the actions being performed. What Mei demonstrated for Brecht was the transparency of the relationship between actor and character. This is the crux of contemporary feminist interest in Brecht. When Brecht saw Mei perform the female (dan) role in Moscow, it was without costume, theatrical lighting, or any apparent interior preparation. Seeing Mei confirmed for Brecht what was already taking shape in his own thought and practice: that “character” in the theatre can and must be manipulable independent of the actor. No total amalgam or identification of actor with character need take place onstage. The Brechtian actor, like Mei, does not live the role, he demonstrates it. [End Page 77]

Traditional Chinese actors do not pretend there is a fourth wall; they show their awareness of being watched. This awareness is shared with the audience who consequently must also abandon the illusion of being unseen (Brecht 1964:92). Together actors and spectators acknowledge that what is taking place is real only in the theatrical sense: an awareness of representation replaces a “willing suspension of disbelief.” For Brecht this is not a metaphysical or mysterious process; the Chinese actor’s alienation effect is “a transportable piece of technique” (1964:95).

Brecht’s reading of Chinese acting is only one possible reading. A notorious international incident involving Chinese acting revolved around the French diplomat Bernard Bouriscot’s love affair with a Chinese actress who, in fact, turned out to be a man. When questioned about confusing his lover’s gender Bouriscot responded that he had never seen what he thought was his girlfriend naked, explaining, “I thought she was very modest. I thought it was a Chinese custom” (in Worthen 1995:987).

In M. Butterfly (1986) David Henry Hwang, inspired by a two-paragraph newspaper article in the New York Times about Bouriscot’s mistake, explores Western fantasies and stereotypes and a very different reading of Chinese acting. Bouriscot did not...

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