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  • Theater of Transposition: Charles Dullin and the East Asian Theater
  • Min Tian (bio)

In the first half of the twentieth century, Charles Dullin (1885–1949) was not only one of the prominent figures of modern French theater, but also played a pivotal role in the French theater’s interculturation of the East Asian theater. Dullin incorporated the ideas of the East Asian theater into his productions and, more importantly, into his theory of “theater of transposition.” In so doing, he also directly inspired the next generation of French theater artists (Antonin Artaud and Jean-Louis Barrault) to take an interest in the East Asian theater. Dullin’s theory has not been appreciated and studied in the English-speaking world as thoroughly as Jacques Copeau’s, Bertolt Brecht’s, and Vsevolod Meyerhold’s. Nor has his interest in the East Asian theater. But the role of the East Asian theater in the formation of Dullin’s theory, not in the least less important than it was in the formation of Copeau’s, Brecht’s, and Meyerhold’s, merits a comprehensive and in-depth approach. [End Page 333]

Dullin’s Experience of the Chinese Theater in His Early Career

Charles Dullin’s contact with the East Asian theater, specifically, the Chinese theater, began as early as 1908 when he performed as an actor in L’Avare chinois, a comedy in four acts and six scenes, translated and adapted by Judith Gautier from a thirteenth-century Chinese Yuan variety play (zaju), Khan thsian-nou (Kan qian nu, The Slave to the Treasures He Guards), by Zheng Tingyu. The adaptation was first produced by André Antoine at the Théâtre National de L’Odéon on January 30, 1908. In the Odéon production, Charles Dullin played a “Sorcier” (Sorcerer) who appears and speaks only once.1 In the original play, however, there is no such character. In the Yuan drama, the role type “Bu-er” refers to an old woman. In this play, it refers to the wife of the miser Gu Ren (or Kou-jin) when she first appears in the play. In this instance, Gautier apparently misread the Chinese character “bu” in the role type, as the same character also has the meaning “fortune-telling” that led to Gautier’s translation of it as “Sorcier.” But in the text of the play that follows, Gautier translated the role type correctly. Had Gautier translated the role type correctly the first time it appears in the play, the character’s speech would have been assigned to the actress who played the miser’s wife. Accidentally, Gautier’s innocent mistake made possible Dullin’s first performance in a Chinese play and his first taste of the Chinese theater and the East Asian theater as well.

The production of L’Avare chinois was hailed as a great success not only for Gautier but also for the Odéon, its director André Antoine, and its players.2 A revival of the play was scheduled shortly afterwards on February 6 to meet the demands of the audience.3 Prior to the productions of the play, Gautier spoke extensively to the audience about the play and the Chinese theater in general. French critic Maximin Roll was greatly impressed by Gautier’s thorough familiarity with her subject.4 Gautier reminded her French audiences of the long history of the Chinese theater that had produced countless dramatic works as well as China’s Molières and Shakespeares whose genius had not been fully acknowledged by the Europeans.5 Gautier’s lectures must have benefited Dullin in his first encounter with the Chinese theater.

As the director of the production, André Antoine “took pleasure in presenting with very particular care this curious comedy.”6 Antoine’s production was characterized, as usual, by his meticulous attention to [End Page 334] historical authenticity and local color and by his care for picturesqueness and for truth.7 It was claimed as “the precise reconstitution of a theatrical performance in the Celestial-Empire.”8 Maximin Roll affirmed as a matter of fact that the artists at the Odéon had dedicated themselves to making the production “truly Chinese” from its mise en scène to...


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pp. 333-370
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