It was in 1907 that Chinese people put on the first western play, China then has its modern theatre called as hua ju (spoken drama). In the history of nearly 100 years, the prominent Chinese theatre professionals have devoted themselves to the career. Their dedication led to the emergence of a number of masterpieces, welcomed both at home and abroad. Beijing People's Art Theatre (BPAT), a first-rate national theatre company of China, its development in the last 50 years has been a miniature of the development of Chinese modern theatre.
As a national theatre company of China, Beijing People's Art Theatre possesses its unique performing style. The theatre was established on June 12th, 1952, and the dramatist master Cao Yu was the theatre's first president. Ever since its establishment, the theatre has put on nearly 300 plays in different styles and they are domestic works in different times as well as works from different countries. Its repertoire's great diversity in theme, superb and rigorous stagecraft, artistic style of great subtlety and emotional depth are very impressive to audience, and the theatre will be active, creative and advancing with the audiences' warm encouragement.
From 1950s to 1960s, the theatre was famous for putting on works by Guo Moruo, Lao She and Cao Yu. The representative productions include Tiger Tally, Cai Wenji, Wu Zetian, The Dragon Whisker's Ditch, Ricksha Man Xiangzi, The Teahouse, Thunderstorm, The Sunrise, Peking Man, The Death of a Popular Beijing Opera Singer, Guan Hanqing etc., and western plays like The Miser, Aesop, Even Wise Man Stumbles, People with Gun etc. The renowned dramatist master Jiao Juyin once was the director general of the theatre and had cultivated a large group of acting artists with the representative of Yu Shizhi.
The theatre has put on more than 80 plays since 1980s, with a group of excellent young actors appearing. The plays include Wang Zhaojun, Warning Signals, Xiao Jing Hutong, Weddings and Funerals, Uncle Doggie's Nirvana, The Top Restaurant, LI Bai, Birds Men, Ga Lan Hutong, Beijing Masters, Antiques, Beyond Romance, Myriad Twinkling Lights, and The Orphan of the Zhao's etc. The theatre put on the western plays including Der Besuch Der Alton Dame, Amadeus, Death of a Salesman, The Gin Game, and The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial etc. Among these, many has been performed for over 100 times, and given awards like the national "Wen Hua Award", "Five-one Best Works Award", and the Beijing municipal governmental "Gold Chrysthensem Award" and "Literature and Art Works Award" etc.
Beijing People's Art Theatre has performed all over the country in its half-century history, with its distinctive acting style rooted in the audiences. Besides, the performances of The Teahouse performed in Germany, France and Switzerland in 1980 was the beginning of Chinese spoken drama going abroad. Afterwards, The Teahouse, Wang Zhaojun, The Top Restaurant, The Death of a Salesman, Uncle Doggie's Nirvana, Birds Men, Ruan Lingyu, Antiques and Wuchang & Niudiao performed in Japan, Canada, Singapore, Korea, Egypt, Ireland, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macao.
The theatre company now has three theatres mainly for drama performances: the Capital Theatre, the Mini Theatre, and the Experimental Theatre. The theatre's stage art center has a professional producing base, which could make settings, costumes and props for the theatre itself and other performing troupes.
The “Yu Tai” teahouse in the ancient capital of Beijing was a witness and a microcosm of the times.
In the first Act, which takes place in the year 1898, the year of reform and the ensuing crackdown, we see the plight China has been reduced to: a weakened state, an impoverished populace, foreign aggression on the rise, foreign goods, including the infamous commodity, opium, flooding the market. The peasantry, mainstay of the nation, was forced into bankruptcy and selling off their own children. Residents in Beijing, as exemplified by frequenters of the teahouse, were apathetic to the national disastrous situation, but the discerning few, the better informed, began to get involved. Some advocated political reform, trying to persuade the reigning Emperor to head the movement; others pinned their hopes on industrialization as the only way to bring the nation to prosperity and the people to affluence. All these hopes were dashed after the crackdown. With the success of their coup, the die-hard ruling clique at the court was more arrogant than ever, even the Grand Eunuch insisted on the impossible, he wanted to by a young girl as his bride .The Imperial Secret police was more powerful than ever and the underworld barons had their heyday. All these, of course, leads to the inevitable conclusion: The Great Qing Empire is finished.
The Second Act takes us twenty years later. The Dynasty has fallen, a Republic has been set up, but the people are worse off than ever. In the same teahouse we see the manager trying his best to keep up with the times, but the incessant civil war waged by warlords of different factions and the general anarchy and lawlessness makes his efforts totally futile. In the distance, however, we begin to hear the rumble of a revolution, the younger generation, represented by the students, are restive and fomenting a protest under the banner of patriotism and democracy.
The Third Act takes us another thirty years later. After eight years of bitter war against the Japanese, the common people had hardly had time to celebrate China’s victory when the reactionary factions in the Kuomingtang instigated an all out civil war. The political situation became even more oppressive and corrupt, and we see even in this usually backwater gathering place, the Yutai teahouse, the seething discontent of the populace and the more vehement protests of the students. The manager of the teahouse now a man of over seventy, whose only ambition in life has one for survival, is finally reduced to despair and ends his own life.
The playwright, Lao She, who has been honored with the title of People’s Artist, (the only writer to be thus designated in the PRC) thus condemns and buries three crucial periods in China’s recent history, and transpires his hopes and love for the new society of which he was an active and ardent participant.
(China.org.cn September 22, 2005)