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Meyerhold Meets Mei Lanfang: Staging the Grotesque and the Beautiful Min Tian [T]he theatre itself is essentially an example of the grotesque. ... the grotesque [is] the basis of its existence. —V. E. Meyerhold1 Chinese classical song-dance drama (gewuju), like other art forms, has its own aesthetic basis. . . . Whether the character in the play is truly mad or is just feigning madness, the artist must see to it that all the movements and postures on the stage are beautiful. —Mei Lanfang2 Mei Lanfang's 1935 visit to Russia has been considered one of the most important events in the twentieth-century intercultural theater. This historical meeting between Mei and a host of renowned Russian and European theater artists brought about significant repercussions both in the West and in China. After observing Mei's performance, Vsevolod Meyerhold predicted in 1936 that after twenty-five to fifty years, "a certain union of devices of Western-European and Chinese theaters will occur," and he argued that "the glory of the future of the theater" and the Soviet "socialist realism" would be based on the techniques of the Chinese theater.3 Today with the flourish of intercultural theater, Bertolt Brecht, Meyerhold, and Sergei Eisenstein have been recognized for their "insight" into the Chinese and Asian theater traditions and their "fusion" of them in the formation of their new theater aesthetic. Elsewhere,4 I have examined Brecht's interpretation and incorporation of Mei Lanfang's art and Chinese xiqu.5 This article will be focused on Meyerhold's. Long before his experience of Mei Lanfang's performance, Meyerhold had been initiated in Chinese xiqu through reading. In 1914, talking about the actor's movement and gesture as "the most powerful means of theatrical expression," Meyerhold advised the members of his Studio to "read about the Chinese travelling companies."6 He might also have learned about the 234 Min Tian235 Chinese and Japanese theaters through Valéry Inkinzhinomov, a Mongolian expert of the Asian theater and one of the founders and best teachers of Biomechanics in Meyerhold's theater.7 As we shall see, time and again Meyerhold referred to the Chinese theater, sometimes along with the Japanese theater, in his writings , lectures and letters. But it was Mei Lanfang's tour that had the most direct and immediate impact on Russian theater, not only because Mei and his troupe brought an authentic Chinese xiqu performance to Russian audience for the first time8— attracting such notable theater artists as Stanislavsky, Eisenstein, Tretyakov, Tairov, Nemirovich-Danchenko, Gordon Craig, Piscator , and Brecht, as well as Meyerhold—but also because Mei, seen by Eisenstein as "the greatest master of form,"9 arrived at the crucial moment when alleged formalism could suffer denigration and prosecution. The Russian avant-gardists saw in the Chinese master, who was officially invited by the Ail-Union Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries for enhancing the Soviet-Sino friendship, a potentially powerful alliance in their on-going campaign against the naturalist theater and struggle for artistic freedom. Meyerhold acutely sensed the significance of Mei's appearance. He asserted in 1935 in a speech on Mei's performance: "Now already we have clearly seen that Mei Lanfang's arrival will be terribly significant for the future destiny ofthe Soviet theater."10 Mei's performance drew unanimous acclaim from leading Russian theater artists. Their comments, especially Meyerhold's and Eisenstein's, testify to the perception of Mei's art as commensurate with the vision of the Russian avant-gardists. But it is my contention here that, in essence, Chinese xiqu as crystallized in Mei's performances does not conform to the ideas and visions of Russian avant-garde theater. The fundamental difference between them can be best summarized in terms of Meyerhold's art of the grotesque and Mei Lanfang's art of the beautiful, the former capitalizing on contrast, incongruity, contradiction, improbability , alienation, disharmony, physicality, and mechanism, and the latter stressing harmony, clarity, familiarity, spirituality, organicity, and perfection. I am not assuming any value judgement on the concept of the grotesque in a negative perspective as it was treated in its earlier history, but consider it essentially as "a basic esthetic category" as Wolfgang...


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