- Adapting Western Classics for the Chinese Stage by Shouhua Qi
Shouhua Qi's current monograph, Adapting Western Classics for the Chinese Stage, is, as the author describes, a "comprehensive, interdisciplinary study of … adaptation of Western classics" (p. xv) for the Chinese stage from the early twentieth century to the present. It is a valuable addition to the literature on theatrical performance, drama reform, and transnational, translingual adaptation in the twentieth century. By analyzing many productions, ranging from an experimental 1998 "synthesis sequel" of Beckett's Waiting for Godot and Chekhov's Three Sisters to attempts at "faithful" adaptations, such as Huang Zuolin's 1959 production of Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage and her Children, Qi sheds light on how Chinese directors, artists, and writers have adapted Western theatre for Chinese stages.
Adapting Western Classics is comprised of seven chapters, most considering a cluster of plays and playwrights. Chapter 1, "First Contact," provides a brief overview of late Qing encounters with Western theatre, both from diplomats traveling abroad and Westerners performing in China. "Black Slave's Cry to Heaven" (chapter 2) considers the 1907 adaptation of Uncle Tom's Cabin by members of the Spring Willow Society in Tokyo and a 2007 performance of Search for Spring Willow Society. Qi's discussion of the latter—a play-within-a-play—is but one example of the nuanced, careful reading and analysis that is found throughout Adapting Western Classics. Chapter 3, "Guess who's coming," [End Page 596] tackles a number of adaptations, with a focus on the works of Brecht, Beckett, and Arthur Miller. This chapter in particular highlights the author's work on the challenges and triumphs of "transnational, transcultural, and translingual adaptations" (p. xvii) for Chinese stages. "Tragic hero and hero tragedy" (chapter 4) examines a number of productions of classical Greek drama, ranging from a jingju adaptation of Oedipus the King to bangzi versions of Medea and Antigone. Again, Qi provides a nuanced, in-depth analysis of the process of adaptation and experimentation. Chapter 5, "Old man Shakespeare, the all but forgotten Shaw, and the importance of being Oscar Wide," examines (as the title implies) the performance of plays by Shakespeare, Bernard Shaw, and Wilde, from the first Chinese performance of Shakespeare (The Merchant of Venice, 1913) to a 2015 experimental adaptation of The Importance of Being Earnest. The historical analysis in this chapter was especially welcome. "An old 'mentor and friend' from afar" (chapter 6) concerns adaptations of works by Aleksandr Ostrovsky, Maxim Gorky, Nikolai Gogol, and Anton Chekov. Rounding out this globe-trotting work is chapter 7, "The tragic, the comic, the absurd, and the 'grand feast' of French classics," from Molière to Albert Camus.
As evidenced by the brief chapter summaries, Adapting Western Classics covers an enormous amount of material. The sheer amount of information and analysis marshalled by Qi is impressive, and the volume will no doubt be a helpful resource for scholars interested in transnational adaptations, modern Chinese theatre, and Western drama. However, the amount of information contained within the volume comes at a cost. At times, the work reads more as an edited volume than a cohesive monograph; some of this is certainly due to the sheer amount of ground covered by the author (which is an achievement in and of itself). Repetition—particularly in regard to names, translation of terms, and dates—often reinforces this feeling that the monograph is a collection of loosely related chapters. Although Qi states in the epilogue that the study is "not meant to be encyclopedic and exhaustive" (p. 184), it can read as an encyclopedia in parts—for instance, including lists of productions that are not discussed except in the briefest terms (e.g., simply noting that Satre's The Victors "saw a notable Chinese production in 1997 and two revivals in 2005 and 2014 respectively" (p. 166), with no other commentary).
The most engaging parts of the study are when Qi devotes ample time to discussing specific productions; his analysis shines when given the room to. For instance, his...