A Dedicated Playwright
The former residence of Cao Yu (1910–1996, a modern Chinese playwright) is a two-storey, wood-and-brick building facing west in Tianjin, where he spent his childhood.
The former residence of Cao Yu (1910–1996, a modern Chinese playwright) is a two-storey, woodand-brick building facing west in Tianjin. He spent his childhood here.
“On the two sides of the living room, one door leads to the dining room and another to the study. A wire gauze door in the middle is open, through which one can catch sight of the lush trees amid the singing of cicadas. On the right side of the room stands a wardrobe, covered by a yellow table cloth with all manner of ornaments on it. The most striking one is an old photo, contrasting sharply with the other delicate articles. A clock and an oil painting hang on the wall to the right. Two round-backed armchairs are in front of the stove. In the left-centre of the room, a glass-frame cabinet is stuffed with antiques. A stool sits in front of the cabinet. At the left corner, there is a long sofa with three or four silk cushions. A smoking set and other items are on the tea table. At the right-centre part of the room, there are two small sofas and a round table. Luzon cigars and fans can be seen on the table. The draperies have antique colours, and the furniture is very clean. All metal articles are lustrous...”
The delicate and emotional description in the play Thunderstorm might make readers wonder if it is a description of Cao’s old house.
Today, when one enters the wellrenovated residence, one may feel as if they are in the old days. The fireplace, windows with wooden blinds and toon trees tell stories of the past that are related to the playwright.
A Witness to His Youth
The residence witnessed how Thunderstorm took shape and how Cao embarked on his artistic career. It was here that young Cao was learning Confucian classics. He also found time to read Romance of the Three Kingdoms, A Dream in Red Mansions, Heroes of the Marshes and other classics in his room. He exposed himself to the Chinese versions of The Lady of the Camellias and other foreign literary works as well. Extensive reading sharpened the thinking and imagination of the sensitive, intelligent boy.
In 1922, 12-year-old Cao was admitted to Tianjin Nankai High School. New ideas prevailed at this campus. Modern drama appealed to him greatly. He took every opportunity to devour translated works of Shakespeare (1564– 1616, the English poet, playwright and actor), such as The Merchant of Venice. With the help of a dictionary, he read through the English versions of The Complete Works of Henrik Ibsen (1828–1906, a Norwegian playwright) and Eugene O’neill’s (1888– 1953, an American playwright) Desire Under the Elms, Anna Christie and others. Under the guidance of his teachers, Cao tried to translate and adapt Moliere’s (1622–1673, a French playwright) The Miser, Galsworthy’s (1867–1933, an English playwright) Strife and other plays. He also enjoyed acting and played both male and female roles.
“I am quite nostalgic about my youth in Tianjin, when I gained knowledge of drama from the Nankai New Troupe,” recalled Cao. He still remembered that the first play staged by the troupe was Yong Fei Suo Xue ( Mismatch between Knowledge and Practice), which Mr.
Zhang Boling (1876–1951, a Chinese modern educator) wrote, directed and acted in. Cao’s drama mentor was Zhang Pengchun (1892–1957, a Chinese diplomat) at Nankai High School, the brother of Zhang Boling. “Under his guidance, I played Nora and many other roles, which were all well received. From then on, I came to grasp the essence of performing arts and scriptwriting...”
Shooting to Fame
In 1929, at age 19, Cao transferred to Tsinghua University’s Western Literature Department from Nankai University’s Department of Political Science. The Tsinghua University Library was a treasure trove for him and satisfied his appetite for books. He read works by Shakespeare, Ibsen, Chekhov (1860– 1904, a Russian playwright) as well as classical Greek tragedies over and over again. He sought to gain a systematic understanding of Western drama theory and entered a wonderland.
Twenty-three-year- old Cao had mastered the ins and outs of dramatic writing. He was good at depicting the personalities and destinies of his characters, conflicts, plots, the overall structures, style, setting, props and costumes. He felt a surge of passion when creating Thunderstorm and poured his indignation, joy and aspiration into the play.
He revised the play again and again, weighing each character and punctuation mark. Whenever he finished a paragraph, he would recite it aloud as if he were the character. In his view, “a play should be well designed in both plot and rhythm.” With his strong expertise and sharp artistic sense, he was able to spot problems with rhythm and meaning and revise them. Everything in Thunderstorm was revised many times to ensure its perfection.
Ultimately, Cao shocked the drama circles with the play.
“The house is so hot and stuffy. I wish to become a volcanic vent to burn everything and then dive into a glacier to get frozen. My past life was as good as dead. Hum! I am ready to confront everyone, those who hate me, those who let me down and those who make me envy. I am here waiting for you.” This is part of a long monologue of the character Fan Yi in the second act. It is evident that Cao expressed his resentment and passion through Fan. He used profound, thought-provoking and meaningful poetic language to denounce things that are unfair in society and his aspiration for a better world.
Eighty years later, people are still overwhelmed by the drama when the young Beijing People’s Art Theatre actors stage it.
In order to gather creation materials for Sunrise, Cao hung out around lowend brothels and inns in Tianjin. He was even beaten by local ruffians. He was outspoken regarding the reason for its creation. “Bloody facts pierced into my heart like blades, which made me outraged,” he stated. He wished “to see a thunder come and destroy all nasty things.” He swore “to write something to vent the indignation and protest.” Pekingese, The Savage Land, Home and other works are all realistic offerings that crystallised his passion and feelings. He was a playwright who dedicated his heart and soul to his works.
He blazed a new trail for China’s drama scene with excellent plays. He knew only too well that there was much to be done to nurture more drama talents. From 1936 to 1941, he taught at the first national drama academy. After 1949, he had worked as the responsible person of the Central Academy of Drama for many years. He was also a passionate teacher. His classroom was always packed with students. His hard efforts in education paid off. Most of his students emerging as top scriptwriters, directors and performers.
Cao was a playwright born for drama and drama creation. He made great achievements as a result of his efforts. On December 12, 1996, Cao passed away serenely, with his family and The Critical Biography of Tolstoy at his side.
Cao’s works were a milestone in Chinese drama. His death provided people with food for thought. Cao Yu’s Drama Museum was created in his hometown. Cao’s life and works are showcased here for everyone to enjoy.