Thewilderness, Tale of Revenge
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
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.”
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