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Lao She and His “Teahouse”

For various reasons, some more obvious than others, the year 1979 has been remarkable for the number of revivals of feature films and stage productions in Beijing. These included not only productions from the fifties and early sixties, but also traditional pieces and world classics. A glance at the entertainments columns in the Beijing papers would convince anybody that something significant has been taking place in the performing arts world. Among these revivals, Lao She’s Teahouse produced by the Beijing People’s Art Theatre created perhaps the greatest sensation.

The reasons for this are manifold. Lao She was honoured with the title of “People’s Artist” in 1951, the only author to receive such a designation in the history of the People’s Republic. Up to the time of his tragic death in 1966 he more than lived up to it. His literary output after his return to Beijing from the United States in 1949 was prolific, by far surpassing all the writers of the older generation. Practically all his writing dealt with the life of the common people of Beijing. His love for this city and its glorious past was well-known, and, in return, the people of Beijing loved him dearly. His death and subsequent repudiation at the hands of the ultra-Leftists were never accepted by the common folk of Beijing. The revival of Teahouse was therefore regarded as a sort of spiritual triumph by many of his devotees. There is, however, another deeper reason for the phenomenal success of the 1979 revival. This play, written in 1957 at the height of the “Hundred Flowers ” period, had always been controversial. True, criticisms against it did not reach the dizzying heights they existed. These implied that in this play Lao She went too far in his sympathy for property-owners and petty shopkeepers, all more or less objectionable characters, and that there was a marked shortage of “positive” characters. Even staunch apologists felt that though the play was a gem artistically, politically speaking it was at best “harmless”. In fact, the Beijing People’s Art Theatre, which had a long history of close collaboration with Lao She as a playwright, decided to take Teahouse quietly off their repertoire twice, once in 1958 after its premiere and again in 1963 after its first revival. After Lao She’s death in 1966, Teahouse became a prime target of calumny as a matter of course, and the amount of slanderous attacks on both the play and its production would fill a fair-sized volume. But that is not the point I wish to make here, for in that respect Teahouse is but another of the numerous examples of good plays unjustly suppressed and banned during that period. Its subsequent rehabilitation should, therefore, be the end of the story.

But the remarkable thing about Teahouse is not only that its 1979 revival was an instant hit and widely acclaimed (as can be seen from the box-office records and critical articles), but also the fact that because of it people are now rediscovering Lao She and reappraising some of the criteria with which Teahouse and other theatrical productions were judged (or misjudged). As a literary critic put it in one of the symposiums on Teahouse, “We have not done sufficient justice to Lao She’s writing in the past. It took the upheaval of the last ten to twelve years to make us realize that. There is much we can learn from Lao She.”

As an actor, who has taken part in the production of many of Lao She’s plays and all the performances of Teahouse since its 1958 premiere, I fully agree with such an opinion. Teahouse has always been a popular play and the audience reaction has always been strong. But we were not quite prepared for the rapt attention and outbursts of spontaneous laughter we got in the 1979 performances. Was this due to the nostalgia and goodwill of our old fans? Not entirely. For one thing, a large proportion of the 1979 audience consisted of young people under thirty who have never seen any modern spoken drama, let alone Teahouse. The truth is that the revival of Teahouse served as a timely antidote to the kind of stereotyped ultra-Leftist fare crammed down people’s throat in the last ten to twelve years. For a large number of people to see life truthfully and naturally portrayed, to hear the everyday speech of Beijing turned into pithy, racy and expressive dialogue, were, in themselves exciting experiences. Even more significant is the fact that after so many years of turmoil, people are beginning to realize that the evils of the old social order die very hard indeed and that the phenomena Lao She depicted in this play as an indictment of the past social injustices have, in an uncanny and devious way, reappeared. The result is not only the audience but also the actors are reading new meanings into the text. To cite but two examples, the scene in Act One where Master Chang is arrested by the imperial secret police for the “crime” of having aired his worries about the future of the Qing Empire and the professional thug Erdez Jr in Act Three, who is all but illiterate yet who is made a college student overnight in order to suppress the student movement—both these remind people forcefully of what was happening a few years ago.

In order to understand the background of Teahouse it is necessary to go a little into the history of Lao She’s friendship and collaboration with the Beijing People’s Art Theatre. As is well known, by the time of the liberation of the whole country in 1949, Lao She was a well-established novelist. He did write a few plays in the late thirties at the beginning of the War of Resistance Against Japan, but they were not considered his principal works. It was only after 1949 that he began to take up play-writing in earnest. The reason usually given for this is that Lao She felt the performing arts as a whole had more access to the common people than novels in print, which required at least rudimentary literary from the readers. This was undoubtedly true, as one could see from the large amount of skits, comic duologues, songs and local operettas that he turned out in those years. Equally true, however, is the fact that he was strongly attracted by modern drama, which became his main vehicle in the last fifteen years of his life. And it is here that the Beijing People’s Art Theatre played such a crucial part. In 1950 he wrote Dragon Beard Ditch, a play about the life of destitute slum dwellers in the southern part of Beijing. The play, staged by the Beijing People’s Art Theatre in 1951, was an instant success and is now a classic of its kind. With the production of this play Lao she found in Jiao Juyin (1905-1975) the ideal stage director for his plays and in the Beijing People’s Art Theatre a young but promising company for the portrayal of his characters. Most of the actors in the company were in their twenties, inexperienced but willing to learn, and, guided by Lao She’s unique style of writing and Jiao Juyin’s sure hand, they soon acquired a reputation as the best interpreters of Lao She’s plays. Up to the production of Teahouse in 1958, the company put on more than half a dozen of Lao She’s plays, including the popular comedy Girl Shop Assistants, which was revived in 1979, also with great success, and a stage adaptation of his world-famous novel Ricksshaw Boy. Now, more than twenty years after its premiere, it is largely the same cast of actors who have taken part in the revival of Teahouse.

The circumstance leading to the birth of Teahouse are perhaps the best illustration of this close collaboration between the dramatist and the People’s Art Theatre. In the original version of Dragon Beard Ditch, there was a scene about a small teahouse. Lao She only wrote the bare outline of it, leaving the actors of the People’s Art Theatre did a thorough job. They went to the real slum district and made friends with the people, actually living there for a time. What Lao She put down merely as a crowd scene turned out to be an exciting spectacle of characters, each with his or her individual traits, background, profession and temperament. Lao She was delighted at the result and the idea of a play with a similar setting was born.

The actual writing of the play was also closely linked with the Beijing people’s Art Theatre. Lao She was deeply interested in the idea of constitutional democracy in China. In 1952 he wrote another play for the People’s Art Theatre, entitled A Family of Delegates, on that theme. The play was never produced at his own request, but the idea persisted and when the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China was promulgated in 1954, Lao She embarked on another play dealing with the history of constitutional democracy and how it had failed under all regimes before 1949. As was his habit at that time, he came to Beijing People’s Art Theatre to read the first draft and ask for comments. Unfortunately, or fortunately in this case, most of the people in the theatre were not too enthusiastic about this draft and Lao She was on the point of scraping the whole thing. However, everyone agreed that one of scenes, set in a Beijing teahouse at the end of the last century, and urged him to expand it into an entire play. Lao She accepted the suggestion and the result was Teahouse.

Teahouse is a play of great dimensions, with more than sixty characters and covering a span of fifty years, from 1898 to about 1948. It has often been asked why Lao She chose the particular years 1889, 1918 and 1948 for the three acts of this play. The answer is quite simple, if we bear in mind the original intention of the work. These were the years when attempts had been made to give China a modern constitution long Western parliamentary lines. All the three attempts ended in dismal failure. The first one, led by scholars and officials like Tan Sitong, Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao aimed at settings up a constitutional monarchy under the auspices of the Qing Emperor. The Empress Dowager proptly squashed it by staging a coup. Tan Sitong was beheaded, the emperor himself put in custody and Kang and Liang fled. The second had as its background the great scandal in parliament over the election of Cao Kun as president of the Republic. China had gone through the 1911 Revolution by which the rule of the Qing dynasty came to an end. There was on paper a constitution. The first president elect, Yuan Shikai, however, was bent on restoring the monarchy, with himself as emperor. Civil war ensured and Yuan, forced to abdicate, died shortly afterwards. The country was then torn apart by numerous warlord separatist regimes. One of these warlord cliques, which occupied Beijing, tried to give itself a semblance of legality by staging elections in the parliament with Cao Kun as the only candidate. A great majority of the members of parliament received bribes of 5,000 silver dollars each, and Cao Kun was duly elected. When news of the affairs leaked out, there was a huge scandal and China was plunged into a period of incessant civil wars. Parliamentary democracy was totally discredited in the eyes of the people. The third attempt was an even greater fiasco. After the war against Japan had ended in 1945, Chiang Kai-shek, feeling confident of his own strength and American support to wipe out the Communists by force, tore up all the agreements previously reached and launched into total civil war. As a political façade, he convened the “National congress” unilaterally and had himself elected president. The result was the total collapse of the KMT regime, politically, militarily and morally.

So much for the political background. Very little of it, however, emerged in the final product. Lao She seems to have adhered to the admonitions plastered on the walls in Wang Lifa’s teahouse: “Do Not Discuss Affairs of State”. In retrospect, this was a most fortunate choice and one which required quite some courage at the time. A large number of dramatic writing in China in the fifties was, for justifiable reasons, imbued with topical political themes and few make interesting reading today. Political struggle, after all, is often just one aspect in the overall economic, social and moral picture of a given period in history. By delving into what lay below the surface, Lao She succeeded in giving us a three-dimensional, convincing image of the periods he portrayed. In order to achieve this, he never tackled any of he momentous political issues head-on (a great temptation for dramatists then) as long as it provided what he felt was necessary to bring out more of the spirit of a particular period. Some of the most memorable scenes in the play, such as the old eunuch taking a young girl as his wife, the pimp getting his head chopped off on the strength of false scene accusations and a mistaken identity, the three old men in the final scene throwing paper money into the air at their own imagined funeral, all verge on the bizarre and the ridiculous. Yet it is precisely these seemingly preposterous episodes that give Teahouse such an inner truth. After seeing Teahouse for the first time in its present revival, more than one theatre worker of the younger generation expressed the same idea: they never thought a play could be written in that way and, moreover, they are beginning to feel that this might be the right way. This, I think, will prove to be the greatest contribution of Lao She’s Teahouse to the development of modern Chinese theatre.

Finally, a word about the language of Lao She. Lao She has been hailed as one of the greatest stylists of modern Chinese, and with good reason. After the May 4th Movement in 1919, vernacular Chinese gradually replaced classical Chinese as the mainstream in literature. At the same time the movement to unify the spoken language throughout China slowly got under way, and it was generally agreed that the pronunciation should adhere to the Beijing dialect and the grammar roughly follow that of north China. It is in this field that Lao She occupies a special position. Being a native of Beijing, he was thoroughly familiar with the language as it is actually spoken and he made full use of this in his writings. The early novels of Lao She attracted many readers for that very reason; for here was a writer who was capable of writing in the language of the man in the street, of coolies, shopkeepers, artisans and petty officials. After 1949, when Lao She devoted himself to the writing of plays, this became even more important. Spoken drama, perhaps more than any other literary form, requires language to achieve an instantaneous auditory effect, and this is where Lao She excelled. This is not to say, however, that Lao She simply took the Beijing dialect as it is and put it in his plays. Far from it, The Beijing dialect under the pen of Lao She has become a language rich in meaning and expressive in nuances, at the same time succinct and pithy. What’s more, since Dragon Beard Ditch, Lao She had been careful to divest his writing of the more obscure colloquialisms of Beijing but preserve the syntax. The result was that a new kind of putong hua(common speech), intelligible to most yet retaining a strong local flavour and a distinct personal style, evolved. As an actor, I must say that I, like all my colleagues, very much enjoy delivering lines written by Lao She because of their expressiveness, clarity and resonance. With Teahouse, I think, Lao She reached the height of his power in this field. As a translator, alas, I am afraid I have quite different sentiments. Someone once said of poetry that it is untranslatable, and I am very much tempted to say the same of Lao She’s language. My only consolation is that inadequate as it may be, this is the first time that Lao She’s masterpiece Teahouse has been introduced to the world.

In reply to Some Questions About “Teahouse”

After Teahouse was put on the stage, my friends took the trouble to write to me inquiring about such things as how I came to write this play. Being busy I was unable to answer their letters individually. So I’ve picked out the more important questions to answer briefly here.

Question: Why did you choose a teahouse, of all subjects, to write about?

Answer: A Teahouse is a place where people from all walks of life meet; it can admit vastly diverse characters. A large teahouse is a microcosm of the society. Although the play Teahouse consists of only three acts, it covers over half a century of changes. In describing these changes, one cannot avoid politics. But as I was not acquainted with high officials and bigwigs in the political arena, I could not directly portray the way they accelerated or obstructed the march of history. Besides, I do not know much about politics. I had only known some unimportant persons, who frequented teahouses. Then, I thought, if I brought them together in a single teahouse and social changes through the changes in their lives, wouldn’t I be revealing indirectly some political message? So I decided to write Teahouse.

Question: How did you tackle the characters and the plot?

Answer: Since the play has so many characters and covers such a long period, it was difficult to find a central theme. So I restored to four devices: (1) The main characters are present throughout the play, aging as the play progresses. In this way, although the plot is loose, the central characters provide a kind focus which prevents the play from digressing too far and losing a scene of continuity. In writing this play I used these characters to develop the plot. This may seem rather like a skit, yet it is not the same. This play concentrates on the characters, while a skit often concentrates on an incident. (2) The secondary characters are hereditary and are played by the same actors. This also helps give the plot a sense of continuity. It is merely a device and not based in any theory. In real life the son need not carry on the father’s profession. In the theatre, however, having the same actor play both father and son makes it easier for the audience to see the connection between the acts, which are set many years apart. (3) I have tried to make all characters tell their own stories, but at the same time I have tried them in with the historical circumstances. Thus, the cook is like a cook and the story-teller is like a story-teller, for they talk about their own problems. Yet these problems are linked to the times. For example, the skilled cook, who has been reduced to cooking for the prison, reveals that it is overcrowded. While complaining that there is little interest in his art, and the story-teller indicates that the country is going to the dogs, and speak about their own lives, they reveal something of the age in which they were living, so that the audience is confronted with different types of people and also sees glimpses of their times. Even though some of them have only a few lines, they nonetheless indicate their fates. (4) As for the minor characters, they are brought on stage and removed as required, without much ado.

The characters having been thus laid out, the plot can be easily tackled. Since the characters are there, you can always find things for them to talk about. Some consider that this play lacks an intricate plot, and suggest that if I could build the story around Kang Shunz’s misfortune and Kang Dali’s involvement in the revolution, I would probably write a better play than the existing one. I am grateful for such a suggestion, but cannot accept it, because to do so would make it difficult to achieve my aim of “ burying” once and for all those three bitter historical periods. If I had developed the play around a single incident, I’m afraid that the teahouse would have collapsed long before it was taken over by the Kuomingtang. In writing this play, I did not allow myself to be restricted by established convention, but I tried some new devices.

Question: Will you discuss the language used in the play?

Answer: There is not much that can be said about it. All that I would like to point out is that without life there can never be living language. I had some experience of the old society and I am familiar with those people who frequented the teahouses. I know how they lived, and therefore how they talked. Proceeding from this, I exaggerated a character’s words here and touched up those of another there, so that their lines are both their own and mine. For example, Tang the Oracle says, “ I’ve given up opium…. I’ve taken up heroin instead. ” These are actually his own words, for he is a cheeky person. But I put into his mouth the following comment— “British imperial cigarettes and Japanese heroin! Two great powers looking after poor little me. Aren’t I lucky?” This shameless statement is quite believable from this impudent character, but at the same time I made him reveal the viciousness of the imperialists at that time, who were out for our wealth and blood!

Question: One more question, please. Is there any basis in real life for a character like Director Shen, who appears on the stage only to mouth his few “okay’s ” with an affected foreign accent?

Answer: Yes, there is. I’ve observed many high officers and officials of the Kuomingtang. They put on airs, always wearing a sullen expression on their faces. They disdained to shake hands with others, or offered only a few cold fingers ( cold because they suffered from general debility), which were quickly withdrawn. They were pretentious and conceited. They were voluble when cracking dirty jokes with people of their own type, but when cracking dirty jokes with people of their own type, but when speaking to those below them, they said as little as possible, in order to emphasize their own importance. Yes, there are grounds for those “okay’s ” too. In short, one cannot master language without experiencing life.

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Nov 27-Dec 1, 2005