A Ded­i­cated Play­wright

Beijing (English) - - CONTENTS - Trans­lated by Li Xia Edited by Justin Davis

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.

A Mile­stone

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.

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