Masters Carve out Realistic Style

The pride of the Beijing People's Art Theater comes from the fact that for over 50 years, the theater has carved out a theatrical tradition and style of its own whose distinction stands out in the history of modern Chinese theaters.

On June 12, 1952, the Beijing People's Art Theater was established after the merger of two drama teams from the North China People's Art Troupe and the Central Academy of Drama.

Cao Yu (1910-96), one of the most celebrated Chinese dramatists, became the theater's first president. The other co-founders include Jiao Juyin (1905-75) and Ouyang Shanzun (1914-).

After a week of discussion, the goals were set for the development of the new-born theater. With the Moscow People's Art Theater as the model, the Beijing People's Art Theater set out to achieve "a first class theater " with "Chinese distinction" and "individual style."

With these goals, theater members explored ways to create modern, realistic-style dramas.

In its first two decades, the theater established its reputation with performances of plays written by renowned Chinese dramatists such as Guo Moruo (1892-1978), Lao She (1899-1966) and Cao Yu. Their works realistically reflected the change in the lives of Chinese people at the turn of and throughout the first 60 decades of the 20th century before and after the founding of New China.

Among the eight plays staged by the theater this June to celebrate its 50th anniversary, "Teahouse" by Lao She, "Thunderstorm" by Cao Yu and "Cai Wenji" by Guo Moruo are three classic plays of that period. It is not exaggerating to say that the three plays are the cornerstone in the history of Beijing People's Art Theater, and in the history of contemporary Chinese drama.

They have also helped form the theater's style of performing, a realistic genre that can be termed as poetic realism.

In its 50 year history, director Jiao arguably was the one who made the greatest contribution in shaping the distinctive theatrical style, combining routines and ideas from traditional Chinese opera with elements from the system developed by Brecht and Stanislavski.

"In traditional Chinese opera, like in painting, what people catch is an impression in which many details are deleted through selection," Jiao once wrote. "Traditional European performance is different. They are used to expressing the reality through realistic details. However, do we have to go through a great deal of less-important details to arrive at reality?

"At least, it is not necessary to us; we get our sense of reality through our imagination. Although the stage form and metaphorical set of traditional Chinese operas are very simple, our performing art is still a realistic art."

"Teahouse" (premiered in March 1958) and "Cai Wenji" (premiered in May 1959) are two of Jiao's most representative works.

Under Jiao's direction, the performers brought out Lao She's masterful recreation of the characters and language of the streets of old Beijing and vividly portrayed the old society that was riddled with weakness and irony.

At the height of the theater's success came the "cultural revolution" (1966-76).

During the 10 chaotic years, the old generation of dramatists and theater directors were persecuted. Jiao Juyin died in misery.

However, the public could not forget Jiao and the Beijing People's Art Theater.

When China emerged from the tumultuous years to reform and open to the outside world, the members of the Beijing People's Art Theater immediately returned to the rehearsal halls.

Creative spirit

The theater enjoyed its second golden decade in the 1980s. In addition to staging the classics by master playwrights, the theater staged several new works not only to revive its tradition but to expand the theater's boundary of creativity.

Among the eight plays that the theater is restaging as part of its anniversary celebration, "A Farmer's Nirvana" and "Top Restaurant" represent the succession and development of the theater's style by the second generation of playwrights, directors and actors in the 1980s.

In "Top Restaurant," one perhaps sees a succession of "Teahouse," and in "A Farmer's Nirvana," more development.

Like "Teahouse," "Top Restaurant" tries to display the changes of time and people's feelings through the prosperity and decline of a business.

"A Farmer's Nirvana" depicts China's recent social changes and the psychology of Chinese farmers in times of change.

"We should not cling to our old style," said Ren Ming, vice-president and stage director with the Beijing People's Art Theater. "It is more important to create new works of a new time."

The younger generation of stage directors have also introduced their own ideas into the classical plays, which star some of today's best young and middle-aged stage artists such as Pu Cunxin, Xu Fan and Liang Guanhua. "Cai Wenji" will be staged at the Capital Theater from June 19 to 23, and "Teahouse" from June 26 to July 1.

Take "Teahouse" for instance, its director Lin Zhaohua should not be neglected.

Lin, in his 60s, has made a name for himself as one of the most innovative stage directors in China, successfully reinterpreting such famous plays as "Hamlet," "Faust" and "Beijingers."

In 1999, Lin, who believed Jiao's adaptation was dated, was bold to restage the theater's classic repertoire "Teahouse."

Remounting a classic is no easy task and many critics opposed the choices of Lin as director. But in the end he won them over by his fluent and beautiful version of the play.

As a director of the third generation, Ren Ming's two works at the commemoration performance, "The First Intimate Contact" (to be performed at a small theater of Beijing People's Art Theater on Tuesday to Saturday) and "The Club," and another play "Wuchang Nudiao," are three recent works that can be seen as the new orientations of Beijing People's Art Theater.

"The First Intimate Contact" was adapted from a popular Internet novel; "The Club" is a contemporary Australian play; and "Wuchang Nudiao" is an experimental play which consists of parts of six stories by the great modern Chinese writer Lu Xun (1881-1936).

(China Daily June 17, 2002)

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