Backstage Musical and Chen Kaige’s “FAREWELL” — to what?

A third reason might very well be the low literacy level of the players themselves. Since they are usually “orphans” delivered to the training “school” by down-and-out mothers, and since the school itself lacks the teachers and the time, reading seems not to have been taught. Thus, absorption of new or alternate script material at the somewhat demanding level of chuanqi-based stories is virtually out of the question for the players. Not to mention rewriting, extension, or innovation. (This self-scripting bottleneck seems also, by the way, to be the reason why learned patron-connoisseurs, able themselves to perform in amateur shows, but capable also of making informed choices at the literary level, seem to dog this otherwise rather downclass art form from its inception – as a kind of guarantee of its adherence to tradition).

All these barriers to spontaneous innovation don’t totally eliminate the “folk” element embedded deep within all Chinese opera forms. In the clapper and drum backups, there is much in common with village processional music and ritual dance. And in the makeup and costumes, one intuits a link with puppet or shadow-play theatre, – which in a sense makes jingju a distant cousin of Japanese kabuki. Elaborate silhouette, such as we see in PO performances, is often used, for example, to distinguish characters in a paper puppet show: and the marvelously intricate designs of jingju face-painting may be as they are because of their distant origins in shamanic folk theatre.

To return to our main point, however: “fidelity” in PO is to scripted, more or less inherited routines. Artistic purity is at loggerheads with spontaneity, the lack of which, in turn, will hasten the diminution of the box office appeal of the PO in the mid 20th century, and force its practitioners even more into the mold of “kept women” than had been the case before.

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