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Lao Sheh: From People’s Artist to “An Enemy of the People” Walter J. Meserve and Ruth I. Meserve A writer who lived through the turmoil that determined China’s progress during the first half of the twentieth century, Lao Sheh (1898-1966) could remember the Empress Dowager and the Boxer Rebellion in which his father was killed. He had seen the birth of the Republic and the division of China by war­ lords; he had felt the growing bitterness between the Communists and the Kuomintang which led to inevitable civil war; he had experienced the terrors of the Japanese occupation of Chinese territory; and he had broadened his views through travel to places far beyond the Middle Kingdom. Throughout these years, he had lived under many governments and observed the suc­ cesses and failures of many philosophies—political, social, and personal. When he returned to China in October, 1949, after a three year visit in the United States, he was a recognized artist returning not so much to a political philosophy that he agreed with, but to a country and a people he loved. It was this love for his people, particularly the common man, that made him a gifted social playwright. And it was his love of China that drove him to become sufficiently agile, ideologically speaking, that he could maintain a personal and artistic integrity among poli­ ticians who demanded that art and literature be subservient to politics. The artistic life that the new political regime in China required of the older generation of writers would cause many of Lao Sheh’s colleagues to retreat into the past to write histori­ cal works or to write relatively little at all. Lao Sheh was the exception. Once settled in the newly formed People’s Republic of China, Lao Sheh accommodated to the new society rapidly and wrote Fang Chen-chu (1950).! A comedy in five acts dealing with 143 144 Comparative Drama the life of variety theatre artists, it opened on January 1, 1951, at the Youth Palace in Peking. When Fang tries to organize his theatre, he is beseiged by social leeches; and because he is a man of integrity and the time is pre-1949, his theatre is smashed. Then China is liberated. Immediately, every aspect of society changes. Variety theatre is a government favored popular art; all of the rascals turn out to be decent people when they are no longer forced to be corrupt; and in the final act the theatre company decides to serve the people better by playing in Peking and by touring to factories and villages. Vividly contrasting pre-1949 existence with an envisioned communist “utopia,” Fang Chen-chu was also a beginning in the revival of traditional theatre forms which the new govern­ ment of China would encourage and support with appropriate adjustments according to Communist ideas and ideals. Lao Sheh, along with the linguist Lo Chang-pei, had already encouraged government support for variety theatre through classes provid­ ing sixty-two blind street minstrels with political training before going out to tell new stories and sing new songs in the tea houses of Peking.2 Although Fang Chen-chu is marred by a weak final act which was added only at the suggestion of some opera and drama colleagues,3 Lao used the rich and colorful Peking dialect with a few well defined characters to dramatize the strong pro­ gressive forces in post-1949 China. His next play, Dragon Beard Ditch (Lung Hsu Kuo, 1950), emphasized the same pre-liberation—post-liberation conflict and introduced Mad Cheng, a singer of shu-lai-pao ballads in the variety theatre, and one of Lao Sheh’s most effective characters. In the original production Yu Shih-chih took the role of Mad Cheng which he embellished by modelling his performance on Anatole France’s essay entitled “Mad Folk in Literature.” Adding tremendously to the social-political impact was the fact that Dragon Beard Ditch dramatized an existing area in Peking. Essentially an open sewer in the southern part of the city, this small crowded district was the home of some 3,000 families of rickshaw pullers, coolies, and peddlers before 1949.4...


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