Aesthetic Alteration and Its Discontent

During his rewriting, Fenton also wove Western dramatic aesthetics with those of Chinese opera. As the RSC intentionally eschewed to integrate Chinese opera’s formal performing elements, the following part will focus on the dramatic structure. Before analysis, it is necessary to elucidate several of the dramaturgical features of Chinese opera.

In traditional Chinese opera, lyricism was a fundamental aesthetic pursuit. To borrow Hegel’s (1975, p. 1193) definition, lyricism is ‘a series of different modes of expression by the degree and manner in which the subject-matter is more loosely or more tightly interwoven with the person whose inner life that subject-matter reveals.’ Besides other stylised performing forms such as

dance and acrobatics, an immediately effective means of lyricism was poetic songs with musical accompaniment. Aural enjoyment in Chinese opera, argues Fu Jin (2003, p. 91), ‘was superior to other theatrical elements.’ The prioritisation of musical lyricism led to the following results. Firstly, in terms of performance, singing accounted for the majority of a play’s duration, although the words of narration and dialogue might outnumber those of lyrics.

Secondly, in terms of plot, singing was very important in the allocation of stage time, therefore events with no impact on characters’ subjective feelings would not be performed. If necessary, they were communicated either by dialogue or monologue. The plot consisted of a series of emotions rather than necessary actions. Even if unrelated to the plot, an event could be deemed necessary as long as it was emotionally coherent to other parts; even if the plot was emphasised by theatre theorists such as Li Yu and Lti Tiancheng, ‘their real concern was not the story itself, but its function as means to arouse intense emotions that playwrights intend to express’ (ibid., p. 118). Thirdly, lyricism was always interwoven with Chinese opera’s allegorical/didactic function, for in order to teach through theatre, it is easier to appeal to the audience’s emotions.

These three features were marked on almost all Chinese opera versions of The Orphan, especially those that Fenton might have consulted. According to Letwin et al. (2008, p. 11), ‘The inciting incident of a story creates a far bigger disturbance in the leading character’s life than these “thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.” It is the signal event that, through its disruptive power, acts as the catalyst that sets the plot in motion.’ The constant inciting incidents in the source play were accompanied by poetic lyrics to express immediate feelings. By studying the lyrics in Ji Junxiang’s play, one cannot help noticing that Tu’an’s primary function was to bring misfortune to people who responded with all kinds of emotions: Zhao’s hatred, Han and Gongsun’s indignation and determination of self-sacrifice, Cheng’s anxiety, sorrow and fury, the Orphan’s regret and rage. Fenton (Royal Shakespeare Company 2012b) was quite aware of Chinese opera’s lyricism by saying that ‘the emotional effect is like a steam roller.’ Besides, the musical enjoyment from the good/evil dichotomy was so emotionally strong that logical coherence and reliable characterisation seemed less important.

Shakespeare’s influence was imprinted on the shift of dramatic structure. Besides staging, poetic language, and passages of soliloquy, Shakespearean characterisation was no less eminent. Tu’an’s only function in the original was to be the antagonist, a stereotyped power-crazed minister, and there was no deeper exploration of his psychology and personality. The RSC’s adaptation supplemented Tu’an’s scheme of ascending the throne by corrupting the emperor and eliminating his enemies. This reminded audiences of typical Shakespearean villains: Richard III, Edmund or even Iago. Tu’an’s conspiracy and ambition were underlined to unite all other actions in the story, for he was central to all relations in the play. More than an antagonist to inflict decent people in Zhao’s clan as the original depicted, Fenton’s Tu’an became like

Richard III by implementing a series of political intrigues. Therefore, much more emphasis was devoted to political realities rather than emotions, and Aristotelian mimesis which valorised logic actions had the advantage over sometimes irrational lyricism.

This change altered the play’s structure. Ji’s play comprises six parts: one prologue and five acts. The first four parts were devoted to events before the Orphan’s adulthood, and the last two parts were set during his adulthood. The fifth part emphasised the Orphan’s rage after discovering the truth, and the sixth concerned his act of revenge. The schemes of Tu’an’s usurpation and Zhao’s revenge were briefly mentioned because lyrical songs accounted for the majority of stage time. However in pre-modernist Western theatre, unity of action is emphasised: as Aristotle (1991, p. 10) proclaimed, ‘an imitation of action, must represent one action, a complete whole, with its several incidents so closely connected that the transposition or withdrawal of any one of them will disjoin and dislocate the whole.’ Therefore scenes had to be coherent and logical. This was in line with Aristotle’s law of probability: ‘whenever such- and-such a personage says or does such-and-such a thing, it shall be the necessary or probable outcome of his character’ (ibid., 15-6). Different versions of this story exemplified this very difference between Chinese and Western aesthetics. For example, a vital factor was missing in all source plays: the Orphan’s motivation to kill his adoptive father. Lyrical tradition in Chinese opera determined that after the brutal death of many good characters, which aroused intense outrage and sympathy, audiences needed a resolution to pacify their emotions. In other words, they expected to see justice restored and the villain punished, rather than investigate the Orphan’s psychology. It was completely another matter why the Orphan would believe Cheng and suddenly change his attitude towards his adoptive father. However, this seemed to be a big problem to Aristotle’s followers. Many scenes were therefore added in the RSC’s adaptation to justify the Orphan’s decision as discussed before. Fenton’s adaptation also bridged some other logic gaps in the military and political aspects related to the removal of Tu’an’s power, by adding scenes about Wei Jiang’s secret meeting with the emperor and Wei’s deployment of soldiers, etc. This functioned to make the actions more logically plausible - a ‘problem’ neglected by many Chinese adaptations.

Nevertheless, Fenton’s emphasis on unified actions in part two rendered it far less intense than part one, in which he made few changes. Ji Junxiang’s play, uncharacteristic of traditional Chinese opera which featured derivations from the main plot, was condensed to a series of inciting incidents; namely, each new scene was marked by some unexpected new incidents, which made the plot extremely gripping. This intensity was, however, downplayed in Fenton’s adaptation. While part two was indeed coherent and logical, it was neither emotionally touching nor gripping. After the performance in Stratford- upon-Avon on 28 March 2013, I asked several Chinese directors and theatre scholars who went to the theatre about their impression, and a common complaint was the loosening of dramatic intensity in the second part, especially compared with the suspenseful first part. According to Smiley and Bert (2005, p. 75), a plot is predominantly driven forth by a series of suffering, discovery, and reversal,[1] scenes without these elements should be put offstage. Few of these new scenes revealed interior or exterior conflicts, and there was also almost no discovery or reversal since audiences were already informed of the Orphan’s identity and Tu’an’s atrocity. The new scenes were distractive and unnecessarily-staged background information. William Archer (1912, p. 199) cautioned, ‘An audience has an instinctive sense of, and desire for, progress. ... [I]t does not like to feel at the end that nothing has really happened.’ Fenton could have put new information in dialogues or soliloquies, so that the second part would not risk boring audiences with a series of eventless scenes. The lag damaged the tempo and tension for the forthcoming ending because it took so long to reach the point of revenge.

Furthermore, despite Fenton’s attention to the unity of plot, there were problems that he failed to notice. Of the scene in the RSC version in which the torture of the Princess’s maid was replicated, a critic from Theatrical Geographies (2013) complained that her actions ‘have zero impact on what happens next.’ He was judging this scene according to an Aristotelian principle: ‘that which makes no perceptible difference by its presence or absence is no real part of the whole’ (Aristotle 1991, p. 10). Seen from the lyrical perspective, the torture of the maid aroused audiences’ compassion for her and hatred for Tu’an, and didactically it eulogised her loyalty and integrity. But Western audiences, as represented by this critic, might not grasp this point due to aesthetic differences between the two cultures. On a technical level, Fenton seemed to know little about Chinese dramaturgy and not enough about Western playwriting. He relied more on his artistic intuition than on research, which proved to be occasionally misleading.

There were even more examples of his lack of knowledge of Chinese theatre. Having perceived Chinese opera’s feature of directly addressing audiences and constantly introducing the self, such as repeating ‘I am Tu’an Gu’, he failed to see the cause. In Yuan zaju, such recurring self-introduction worked to effectively inform new audiences of characters and plot on stage because they were constantly included. More importantly, due to a shortage of actors, characters were allocated different role types. That is, since Han, Gongsun and the Orphan shared a role type in the source play, they were performed by the same actor. In order not to confuse audiences, they had to restate their identity whenever appearing on stage. Such a convention hardly exists in contemporary plays. Fenton argued that the reason he preserved Chinese styles was that they were characteristic of Chinese opera, yet he failed to see their historical specificity and instead universalised them. The hybrid dramaturgy which emerged from his lack of knowledge about Chinese opera rendered this adaptation an inconsistently woven piece of occasionally unreflective literal translation and interpretation. Regarding William Hatchett’s and Arthur Murphy’s renditions of this play, Fan Cunzhong (1984, p. 119) observed that ‘Yuan zaju's tradition of singing and recitation, structure, and performing strategies were as difficult to understand as to transplant.’ His words anticipated Fenton’s adaptation. As a poet, Fenton had no experience of playwriting before The Orphan. Therefore it is possible that he followed what was most conventional in Western theatre (Aristotelian and Hegelian convention) to guide his writing. The mixture of deep-rooted Western and Chinese aesthetics that were insufficiently informed undermined this adaptation’s stylistic coherence and theatricality.

  • [1] Suffering is ‘anything that goes on inside a character;’ it ‘isn’t only the basic material for everycharacterization; it’s also the condition of each and the motive for the activities of each’(Smiley and Bert 2005, p. 76). Discovery is ‘change from ignorance to knowledge and is amatter of internal action for both characters and the story. Discovery is a major source ofaction in drama’ (ibid.). And a reversal is ‘is a violent change within a play from one stateof things to a nearly opposite state’ (ibid.), which is in fact what Archer calls peripeteia.
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