Thewil­der­ness, Tale of Re­venge

Beijing (English) - - CONTENTS - Trans­lated by Zhang Weix­ing Edited by David Ball

Of­ten re­ferred to as “China's Shake­speare,” Cao Yu is the most ac­claimed play­wright in the coun­try. In his mas­ter­piece The

Wilder­ness, Cao tack­les the themes of re­venge and guilt in his only play set in the coun­try­side of north­ern China.

Play­wright Cao Yu (1910–1996), of­ten re­ferred to as “China’s Shake­speare,” wrote many clas­sic works. In 1936, he wrote the mod­ern play, The Wilder­ness, set in the coun­try­side of north­ern China. In 1937, the drama caused a sen­sa­tion when it was per­formed in Shang­hai. In 2010, to mark the 100th an­niver­sary of the birth of Cao Yu, the Bei­jing Peo­ple’s Art The­atre staged this fa­mous play again to great ac­claim.

Story of Re­venge

In 1933, a young Ts­inghua Uni­ver­sity stu­dent whose pen name was Cao Yu wrote the mod­ern drama Thun­der­storm. With its grip­ping plot, con­cise and im­plicit lan­guage and dis­tinc­tive char­ac­ters, the play was lauded as the “cor­ner­stone of re­al­ism in Chi­nese mod­ern dra­mas” and its writer was recog­nised as the most ac­com­plished play­wright in the his­tory of mod­ern Chi­nese drama. In 1935, Cao Yu wrote the mod­ern drama Sun­rise whilst teach­ing at He­bei Women’s Nor­mal Col­lege in Tian­jin. These two works made Cao Yu fa­mous and marked the mat­u­ra­tion of the art of mod­ern drama in China.

In 1936, Cao Yu got en­gaged to Zheng Xiu, his class­mate at Ts­inghua Uni­ver­sity in a cer­e­mony held in Nan­jing. Later on dur­ing his time in Nan­jing, Cao Yu lived near Si­pailou op­po­site a Kuom­intang prison. He of­ten heard hor­ri­ble shrieks em­a­nat­ing from in­side the prison and wit­nessed some tragic events out­side. As a re­sult, the im­ages of many op­pressed peo­ple filled his mind. Fi­nally, he wrote a play in which he cre­ated a char­ac­ter bent on re­venge by the name of Qiu Hu. When it came to nam­ing the work, Cao Yu re­mem­bered a poem by the Per­sian poet Omar Khayyam: “Here with a loaf of bread be­neath the bough, a flask of wine, a book of verse—and thou be­side me singing in the wilder­ness—and wilder­ness is par­adise enough.” There­fore, he named his play, The Wilder­ness.

The Wilder­ness is the third of Cao Yu’s clas­sic works and was also the first and only time that he set a story in the coun­try­side rather than the city. In the work, Cao not only per­ceived so­cial tragedies more deeply, but also made a play about the coun­try­side un­prece­dent­edly thought­pro­vok­ing. The Wilder­ness was a ma­jor de­par­ture from his re­al­is­tic plays such as Thun­der­storm and Sun­rise. How­ever, whilst on first ap­pear­ance it ap­pears to be a sim­ple story of re­venge, in fact it fea­tures pro­found char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion and hu­man emo­tions, re­veals the dark­ness of feu­dal so­ci­ety and ex­plores the com­plex­i­ties of hu­man na­ture.

The Wilder­ness is a story of one man’s bit­ter­ness. Qiu Hu’s fa­ther is buried alive by the lo­cal tyrant Jiao Yan­wang, who once served as a com­pany com­man­der for a war­lord many years ago. Jiao also forcibly took the Qiu fam­ily’s land, burned down their house, sold Qiu Hu’s younger sis­ter to a brothel and took his fi­ancée Jinzi as his daugh­ter-in-law. Mean­while, Qiu Hu him­self was put in prison and his sis­ter died a tragic death in the brothel.

In the vast wilder­ness, Qiu Hu, shack­led, jumps from the prison van. He breaks open the shack­les, deter­mined to find and take his re­venge on the man who killed his fa­ther. How­ever, he finds that Jiao Yan­wang has died and his fi­ancée has been forced to marry his child­hood friend Jiao Dax­ing, the son of Jiao Yan­wang. Dax­ing loves Jinzi but is afraid of his blind mother, who is cal­lous and treats Jinzi cru­elly. The sud­den ap­pear­ance of Qiu Hu makes Jiao Dax­ing’s mother very anx­ious.

Late one night, Qiu Hu sneaks into Jinzi’s room and tells her that he will flee with her af­ter tak­ing his re­venge. Just at that mo­ment, Dax­ing re­turns home and his mother asks him to flog Jinzi. Dax­ing is at a loss about what to do when sud­denly Qiu Hu bursts in. Dax­ing and Qiu Hu have a drink to­gether and soon the for­mer is ex­tremely drunk. Be­liev­ing that Dax­ing and his mother will harm him, Qiu Hu kills Dax­ing, a man with a fee­ble per­son­al­ity. Jiao Dax­ing’s mother then vis­its Qiu Hu’s bed, strik­ing the per­son sleep­ing there with her iron walk­ing stick. How­ever, she in­ad­ver­tently kills her grand­son who was ly­ing there. Qiu Hu flees with Jinzi; and Jiao Dax­ing’s mother, car­ry­ing her dead grand­son, yells out into the dark­ness. Qiu Hu’s con­science pricks him and he loses his mind. On that dark night, Qiu Hu and Jinzi run away into the wilder­ness. Fi­nally, un­able to han­dle the guilt, Qiu Hu com­mits sui­cide by ly­ing down on the rail­way tracks.

Through a tragic story of re­venge, this play deeply re­flects Cao Yu’s con­fu­sion about “life’s dilem­mas” and his phi­los­o­phy on the mys­te­ri­ous uni­verse. To dra­mat­i­cally con­vey his thoughts, Cao Yu com­bined western ex­pres­sion­ism and re­al­ism in The Wilder­ness, ref­er­enc­ing the sym­bol­ism and ro­man­ti­cism in Amer­i­can writer’s Eu­gene O’neill’s play The Em­peror Jones, and ex­plor­ing new nar­ra­tive tech­niques whilst con­sid­er­ing the tastes of Chi­nese au­di­ences. At that time, Cao Yu was fa­mil­iar with life, yet did not write about tri­fles. He also un­der­stood the struc­ture of lit­er­ary works well but chose not to stick to

es­tab­lished prac­tices.

In 1937, The Wilder­ness pre­miered in Shang­hai. The end­ing of the play seems de­press­ing and hor­ri­fy­ing: in the deep, dark for­est, Qiu Hu and Jinzi are flee­ing the scene of the crime. Fi­nally he lets Jinzi go on alone and he com­mits sui­cide. How­ever, this fa­mous play was only per­formed three times in Shang­hai.

In 1939, Cao Yu di­rected and staged The Wilder­ness in Kun­ming, caus­ing a sen­sa­tion and be­com­ing one of the three milestones in Yun­nan’s mod­ern the­atri­cal his­tory. Cao Yu said: “An or­di­nary troupe can put on suc­cess­ful per­for­mances of Thun­der­storm and Sun­rise, but not The Wilder­ness; it’s too chal­leng­ing.” There­fore, dur­ing re­hearsals for play, he once said: “The theme should be prop­erly and in­no­va­tively adapted with new el­e­ments added.”

Mas­ter Play­wright

On Septem­ber 24, 2010, the 100th an­niver­sary of the birth of Cao Yu, the Bei­jing Peo­ple’s Art The­atre staged a new pro­duc­tion of The Wilder­ness at the Na­tional Cen­tre for the Per­form­ing Arts (NCPA). The play was di­rected by renowned di­rec­tor Chen Xinyi who was in seven­ties at the time, and starred Hu Jun, Xu Fan, Pu Cunxin and Lü Zhong. Af­ter a month and a half of prepa­ra­tions, these four stars per­formed their ver­sion of The Wilder­ness whilst manag­ing to re­tain its orig­i­nal spirit.

Of all of Cao Yu’s plays, The Wilder­ness, which has been un­der at­tack since its birth, is be­lieved to be the most chal­leng­ing in terms of act­ing as it fea­tures ex­ten­sive sym­bol­ism to cre­ate an at­mos­phere of mys­tery and deeply ex­plores hu­man na­ture, mak­ing it a feat of stage act­ing. Although The Wilder­ness had pre­vi­ously been staged in other forms of drama, di­rec­tor Chen Xinyi ex­plained that pre­vi­ous ver­sions were not what she wanted. In­stead, her new pro­duc­tion aimed to re­ject many of the old ideas and re­flect the spirit of the orig­i­nal work as much as pos­si­ble. To this end, she dis­carded all of the “ugly” im­ages, cre­at­ing a beau­ti­ful el­egy filled with a po­etic sense of dis­il­lu­sion­ment which ex­pressed the idea that: “Man is only a reed, the weak­est in na­ture; but he is a think­ing reed.” In ad­di­tion, she also made the stage de­sign more po­etic—the an­i­mal masks no longer ap­peared on stage and the play’s fa­mous dark for­est was changed into a dimly-lit ex­panse of weeds, giv­ing au­di­ences an im­mer­sive ex­pe­ri­ence.

This time, Hu Jun re­turned home like a tiger filled with ha­tred. Hu Jun put in a re­mark­able per­for­mance, singing and per­form­ing along­side Xu Fan, Lü Zhong and oth­ers. Xu Fan, play­ing the part of Jinzi, ap­pear­ing beau­ti­ful, af­fec­tion­ate and staunch with mo­ral in­tegrity. Lü Zhong, in her role as Jiao Dax­ing’s mother, vividly pre­sented a vi­cious old woman who pur­sues fam­ily in­ter­ests at all costs. Lü Zhong be­lieved that the play showed Cao Yu hoped peo­ple could live happy lives. Pu Cunxin, in the part of Jiao Dax­ing, ex­pressed his be­lief that when stag­ing Cao Yu’s plays, play­ful in­ter­pre­ta­tion, de­con­struc­tion and copy­ing were no longer fea­si­ble; in­stead, ac­tors should present how they were en­light­ened and moved by the play, and in­te­grate the di­rec­tor’s feel­ings to­wards the work into their per­for­mances. The di­rec­tor aimed to present the “good, evil, help­less­ness, ig­no­rance, stub­born­ness, weak­ness, love and ha­tred of hu­mans.” The Wilder­ness marked an­other break­through with the per­for­mance of Pu Cunxin. He put in a won­der­ful por­trayal of Jiao Dax­ing as a weak yet kind per­son, which was most no­tice­able in the mo­ment of his death, done us­ing just his heartrend­ing voice.

The pro­duc­tion brought in fa­mous com­poser Dong Wei­jie to com­pose sev­eral pieces of mu­sic based on the play’s sto­ry­lines and char­ac­ters. Be­sides the theme song run­ning through the play, each char­ac­ter had his or her own back­ground mu­sic. Even Jiao Dax­ing’s cruel mother sings “Cradlesong,” with its peace­ful and slow melody. The mu­sic in the play shifts be­tween mys­te­ri­ous, in­tense and even ro­man­tic, vary­ing with each char­ac­ter to show their dis­tinc­tive­ness.

Af­ter see­ing the new ver­sion of The Wilder­ness, vet­eran per­former Zheng Rong of the Bei­jing Peo­ple’s Art The­atre said that he was very ex­cited by the hu­man­ity re­flected in The Wilder­ness.

He ex­plained that although film and TVstyle act­ing is pop­u­lar on the stage to­day, the per­for­mances in The Wilder­ness were like a sym­phonic poem. He added that the stag­ing of this new ver­sion of The Wilder­ness on the 100th an­niver­sary of the birth of Cao Yu not only rep­re­sented a break­through for the Bei­jing Peo­ple’s Art The­atre, but also showed the the­atre group’s re­spect to the mas­ter.

On the Bei­jing Cap­i­tal The­atre’s stage, an aside spo­ken by Pu Cunxin was added to the pro­logue of The Wilder­ness. Chen Xinyi ex­plained that this was to help in­ter­pret the spirit of play and present Cao Yu’s sym­pa­thy for hu­man­ity. The per­for­mance opened with Pu Cunxin read­ing Cao Yu’s mono­logue aloud: “I like writ­ing about peo­ple. I like peo­ple… I feel that peo­ple have a strong need to be un­der­stood, yet they’re very hard to un­der­stand. No writer would dare say that they know and de­pict peo­ple very well.”

In 2012, to mark the 60th an­niver­sary of the found­ing of the Bei­jing Peo­ple’s Art The­atre, the mod­ern drama The Wilder­ness was staged in Shang­hai to great ac­claim. Dur­ing re­hearsals, how­ever, Bei­jing was hit by a heavy rain­storm. On hear­ing the news, the cast and crew of the Bei­jing Peo­ple’s Art The­atre, who were in Shang­hai at the time, made do­na­tions, rais­ing 200,000 yuan be­fore The Wilder­ness was staged to help those af­fected by the dis­as­ter. Vice pres­i­dent of the Bei­jing Peo­ple’s Art The­atre Pu Cunxin said that although they were not in Bei­jing and so could not par­tic­i­pate in dis­as­ter re­lief, the mem­bers of the Bei­jing Peo­ple’s Art The­atre had a re­spon­si­bil­ity. For that rea­son they de­cided to do­nate the per­for­mance fee of the pre­miere of The Wilder­ness to those af­fected.

Cy­cle of Life and Death

The Bei­jing Peo­ple’s Art The­atre’s pro­duc­tion of The Wilder­ness changed the con­ven­tional theme of ha­tred to sym­pa­thy. Pas­sion and dra­matic con­flict helped make this mod­ern drama suc­cess­ful. At the be­gin­ning of the per­for­mance, Qiu Hu sang from off in the dis­tance, vividly pre­sent­ing the vast­ness of the wilder­ness. The per­form­ers’ keen sen­si­bil­i­ties and emo­tions truth­fully re­pro­duced the essence of Cao Yu’s play. Qiu Hu’s de­ter­mined­ness and ten­der feel­ings, Jinzi’s bold­ness and dain­ti­ness, and Jiao Dax­ing’s cow­ardice and sim­ple-mind­ed­ness were bril­liantly in­ter­preted by the cast.

As early as 2006, the Tian­jin Peo­ple’s Art The­atre pro­duced a ver­sion of The Wilder­ness di­rected by Wang Yan­song. Its stag­ing, in­clud­ing clay fig­ures, was both highly ex­pres­sion­is­tic and very im­pres­sive. Along with the clay fig­ures, the stage was covered with a layer of sed­i­ment, set­ting off the fig­ures and cap­ti­vat­ing au­di­ences. Cao Yu’s daugh­ter Wang Fang said: “Af­ter see­ing Wang Yan­song’s The Wilder­ness, I felt that the story re­ally is a great tragedy.”

In 2017, a mod­ern ver­sion of The Wilder­ness by young di­rec­tor He Nian of the Shang­hai Dra­matic Arts Cen­tre was staged at the Shang­hai Grand The­atre. The drama, which is orig­i­nal in con­cept and form, brought a new al­lure to this clas­sic and at­tracted many young au­di­ence mem­bers. The Shang­hai Grand The­atre opened in 1943, stag­ing Cao Yu’s mas­ter­piece The Wilder­ness, the same year. To mark the re­open­ing of the Shang­hai Grand The­atre in 2017 and pay homage to its his­tory, a new pro­duc­tion of The Wilder­ness was staged. Di­rec­tor He Nian said that they wanted to echo his­tory and al­low more young peo­ple to see this clas­sic, how­ever the end­ing of this ver­sion was al­tered. Jinzi dies, whereas Qiu Hu sur­vives and then en­coun­ters him­self re­turn­ing to take re­venge. He wants to kill “him­self” to prevent the tragedy from re­oc­cur­ring, but re­peat­edly finds that his ef­forts are fruit­less and his des­tiny is pre­de­ter­mined. As a di­rec­tor of many pop­u­lar mod­ern plays, He Nian con­tin­ues to be an in­no­va­tor who is es­pe­cially liked by young au­di­ences.

He Nian be­lieved that one of his big­gest chal­lenges was the rel­a­tively sim­ple story—its streams of con­scious­ness mak­ing it dif­fi­cult to present on stage. He con­sid­ered the val­ues and philo­soph­i­cal think­ing re­flected in The Wilder­ness to be its es­sen­tial el­e­ments. He had the cast watch all pre­vi­ous staged ver­sions of the drama, hop­ing that the best parts could be re­tained and new el­e­ments added. There­fore, with­out chang­ing the spirit or the lines of the orig­i­nal play, He Nian made ad­just­ments to its struc­ture as well as adap­tions of char­ac­ters, start­ing with Qiu Hu. He dis­carded the orig­i­nal lin­ear nar­ra­tive and re­or­gan­ised the scenes, us­ing ex­pres­sion­ist meth­ods to di­vide the play into three cy­cles and in­cor­po­rat­ing el­e­ments from dance the­atre, adding to the aes­thet­ics of the play. Ad­di­tion­ally, he paid par­tic­u­lar at­ten­tion to the ex­pres­sion of the char­ac­ters’ psy­chol­ogy, kin­dled the imag­i­na­tion of the ac­tors by hav­ing them “read aloud” and strength­ened ex­pres­sion­ist meth­ods such as sus­pense, ges­ture and stream of con­scious­ness to in­ter­pret and ex­plore hu­man na­ture. In terms of forms of ex­pres­sion, three cy­cles were used. The first cy­cle was the out­line of the story; the sec­ond was more de­tailed nar­ra­tion; and the third cy­cle was an “end­less cy­cle.”

The fate of Qiu Hu is one of the big­gest changes. He Nian him­self said that he was in­spired by the film The But­ter­fly Ef­fect, in which the lead­ing char­ac­ter trav­els back in time to redo parts of his past and change the present. Like the Qiu Hu in the orig­i­nal play who com­mits sui­cide, the avenger in He Nian’s ver­sion also doubts whether tak­ing re­venge is right or not, feels re­gret for what he has done and suf­fers a ner­vous break­down in the dark for­est. He never wanted two gen­er­a­tions of the Jiao fam­ily to die trag­i­cally, but his des­tiny is pre­de­ter­mined and can­not be re­sisted. There­fore, Qiu Hu goes crazy and be­comes stuck in an end­less cy­cle. This adap­ta­tion does not go against Cao Yu’s ex­plo­ration into hu­man na­ture. A per­son’s des­tiny is not an ac­ci­dent, in­stead it is deter­mined by mul­ti­ple fac­tors.

This ver­sion of The Wilder­ness made bold at­tempts in terms of stag­ing. Ex­pres­sion­ist el­e­ments were added into a re­al­is­tic space; stylised colours were used; and stage light­ing—bright, dim or mov­ing—were used to de­pict the psy­chol­ogy of the char­ac­ters. Sang Qi, the Na­tional Class-a Stage De­signer with the Shang­hai Dra­matic Arts Cen­tre who de­signed the stage sets for this pro­duc­tion, said: “The stage sets are black, white and grey, with colour added through the light­ing.” Many young au­di­ence mem­bers praised this mod­ern drama af­ter see­ing it.

Dur­ing the 80 years from 1937 to 2017, The Wilder­ness has been per­formed on a whole host of stages. This lively work tells the heartrend­ing story of re­venge and af­fec­tion and presents the hard choices a man faces in his life­time. The Bei­jing Peo­ple’s Art The­atre’s ver­sion of this play has be­come a clas­sic with eter­nal charm.

The drama The Wilder­ness staged by the Bei­jing Peo­ple’s Art The­atre

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