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Lonely Search Into the Unknown: Tien Han’s Early Plays, 1920-1930 Constantine Tung I No modem Chinese dramatist enjoyed greater popularity in the 1920’s than T ’ien Han. One reason for T ’ien Han’s popularity was his ability to identify his plays with the mood and temperament of those times of chaos, confusion and uncertainty. T ’ien Han’s plays not only reflected the times, but they also did much to influence them, a fact acknowledged by Yuan Muchih of the Hsin Yu Drama Society, an eminent figure in the development of modern drama in China: At this time [in the 1920’s] such decadent fictions as Yu Ta-fu’s Sinking (Ch’en Lun) and such a play as T ’ien Han’s A Night in a Coffee Shop (Chia-fei-tien chih i-yeh) had become very popular. Members of the Hsin Yu Drama Society were so much infected by these works that they also became degenerate and melancholy. A new member of the Society, Yuan Lun-jen, was a typical example. His melancholy mood and performance in A Night in a Coffee Shop at Fu Tan University [in Shanghai] achieved extra-ordinary success. . . . In the meantime on North Szechwan Road, a Shanghai Coffee House had just opened for business. A group of writers, artists and most members of the Hsin Yu Drama Society frequently gathered there. Everyone felt gloomy, and drama activities consequently stopped.1 Both as mirror and as maker, T ’ien Han prophesies a new mode of life for the romantic, melancholy, aimless and self-pitying poets, artists, and disillusioned, lonesome young “Bohemians.” In varying degrees his important plays— all one-act— reflect their disenchantment: A Night in a Coffee Shop (Chia-fei-tien chih i-yeh, 1920), The Night a Tiger was Caught (Huo hu chih yeh, 1921), Talks in a Soochow Night (Suchou yeh hua, 1928), Tragedy at the Lake (Hu-shang-te pei-chii, 1929), Return to the South (Nan kuei, 1929), Echoes of the Ancient Pond (Ku-t’an-li-te sheng-yin, 1929) and Shiver (Chan li, 1929).2 His initial success and popularity were achieved with A Night in a Coffee Shop, which presages the dominant themes of his later plays and also exhibits a lyricism that was to become his unique style. With Chekhovian undertones, it captures the mood of the Twenties and presents a microcosm of the Bohemian life of the young Chinese intel­ 44 Constantine Tung 45 lectuals. But beneath its surface excitement, the coffee shop exudes an oppressive mood of despair and loneliness. The central character is Pai Ch’iu-ying, who comes to work in the shop as a waitress, hoping that she will meet her boyfriend who has come to the city to study. At first, she is only a passive observer, deeply puzzled by her cus­ tomers’ melancholy but not personally involved in it. When her lover comes to the shop with another woman, however, her “boundless hope” and “inexhaustible courage” evaporate, and she herself joins the drinkers in their despondency. The other alienated figure is Lin Tse-ch’i, a student. Like thousands of other young intellectuals, Lin is the son of an old-fashioned family caught in the cross-current of the new and old, and neither strong enough to challenge the tradition nor passive enough to accept it. Lin’s dilemma, however, is only a minor variation of the dominant theme: the loneliness caused by the absence of love in a loveless society. And for a fleeting moment, that despair is relieved when Lin and Pai meet at the shop. Their loneliness melts under their new­ found friendship, and in this mutual understanding and sympathy, hope returns to them. But only for a moment. When the young couple say goodbye, the elated mood, which should be the logical ending of the play, is unexpectedly shattered, and the curtain falls with Ch’iu-ying alone on stage, her former vitality displaced by the drudgery of her work: Pai: (Slowly closes the door, cleans up the tables and chairs. Gaslight is only half on. Then sits alone and drinks the remaining whisky and seems to enjoy it. At...


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