TDR: The Drama Review 45.2 (2001) 129-144
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Sino the Times
Three Spoken Drama Productions on the Beijing Stage
In May 2000 I saw three productions in Beijing, the only spoken drama performances running then. 1 They were: Qinchai dachen (The Inspector General) by Nikolai Gogol, produced by Zhongguo qingnian yishu juyuan (The China Youth Art Theatre [CYAT]), Fengyue wubian (Boundless Love), a new play, produced by Beijing renmin yishu juyuan (Beijing People's Art Theatre [BPAT]), and Qie Gewala (Che Guevara), an experimental production by a group of artists from different institutions, working together under the aegis of the Zhongyang xiju xuyuan, yishu yanjiusuo (Research Institute of the Central Academy of Drama). Each work is interesting on its own, but the three become more meaningful when considered together. On the one hand they demonstrate considerable qualities as theatre, spotlighting emerging new ideas and new talents. On the other hand, they show weaknesses--both residual influences of earlier spoken drama practices and styles, and new problems deriving from the uncertainties of a society undergoing continuing change and major challenges. These productions reveal a lot about contemporary mentalities during what is perhaps the most intriguing transitional period in Chinese history. The government's dual-track system--referred to in blunt Marxist terms as "the market economy base and the communist ideological superstructure" 2 and in euphemistic shorthand as "socialism with Chinese characteristics" (Deng 1992) 3 has introduced confusion, conflict, and resentment, which are reflected in the three productions.
The Inspector General
The theme of Gogol's classic Russian satire--the exposure of a rotten, corrupt system--is extremely topical in today's China. There are reports almost daily in the national and local media of flagrant cases of corruption. Frequently, high-ranking officials who have taken huge sums in bribes are executed. Ordinary Chinese are no longer shocked to hear, for example, that in one notorious smuggling case, a deputy mayor of Zhanjiang, who was heading the anti-smuggling team, and senior customs officials were all major criminals in the case (Wei 2000). Everyone in China talks about how bad corruption is, 4 and everyone [End Page 129] hates it, though ironically, most people seem to contribute to it, by using the "art of connections" (Yang 1994) to obtain goods, services, or positions. It was alleged that Zhu Rongji, the current premier, once said that when he retires, he hopes only to be acknowledged as a qingguan, an honest and upright official. It might sound ridiculous that the premier of China should have such modest aspirations, but this illustrates how dire the situation is.
Thus at this particular historical moment, The Inspector General "made us think of ourselves and of our society" (Qiao 2000:10). Gogol's satirical-allegorical story of greed, fear, pride, incomprehension, and the need for a confession by municipal officials of a Russian provincial town in the 19th century cleverly mirrors today's China. The program note explicitly draws the analogy:
Today, the troïka, drawn by three horses, comes onto the Chinese stage again carrying the true/false inspectors. The heavy noise of the hoofs attacks Chinese audience's hearts. Once again, laughter echoes in the auditorium. But this time, it is black laughter. (CYAT 2000)
But the producers were cautious with how they presented their views in the program. Instead of the usual practice of printing the director's words, the program contained comments by the performers, turning individual responsibility into collective responsibility.
The play was staged in a small studio in central Beijing because CYAT's own theatre was being refurbished. On entering the studio, the basilica dominating the set symbolically proclaimed, "this is Russia." A huge relief sculpture of a smiling Gogol was hung on the wall at the back of the stage. The set, the period costumes, and the blocking indicated that Chen Yong, 5 the director, wanted the mise-en-scène to place the production in the Russia of the 19th century. No matter, the contemporary relevance of the production was lost to...