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

Symbolic of this frustrating latent dependency is the troupe’s need to oblige its connoisseur patrons with birthday and other celebratory performances in private – i.e. at their masters’ compounds. Moreover, these patrons are of the old school: they have inherited the rather oppressive traditions of Late Empire connoisseurship and homosexuality. The first such patron we get a glimpse of (in the upstairs box stalls) is Master Ni, a formerly powerful (Manchu?) eunuch surviving from the Empress Dowager’s court, who provides unwelcome private entertainments in which he (symbolically) plies his actor playthings with vintage wines “from the Guangxu era” (1861-1908). From Ni we move on to the even more insidious patron-erudite Yuan Siye, the apparent seducer of Cheng Dieyi. A stickler for “tradition” as was Ni, Yang is very much the amateur “expert”, the kenner, (as we are shown in the debate over how many steps Gen.. Xiang Yu is to take on stage entry). The status to which this reduces Cheng and Duan is symbolized by a scene set at Yuan’s home, where we see him collecting and encaging song-birds…much as he collects and encages the performers.

Having discovered that financial independence is only half the problem, and that critical approval is still very much the property of the “erudites”, the 2 lead-actors enter a third stage: a stage of rebellion and the quest for full final spiritual independence. This change is most evident in the spectacle of Duan Xiaolou RESISTING even SCORNING the homosexual advances of Yang Siye. This at the same time that he is becoming the heterosexual patron and eventually husband of a prostituted woman (Ju Xian) enjoying her newly won freedom (!). (fn4)

In terms of the what we already know about the spirit of romanticism in China and Europe, this quest for and acting out of total spiritual independence is only to be expected, no matter that it conveys a certain ambivalence about how well the original art will survive. As the traditional forms of ownership and approbation collapse or are delegitimated, the artist inevitably competes for the role of impresario, and the for the freedom to defy an outdated and depraved form of connoisseurship/patronage. Ultimately, audience recruitment will now be direct (unintermediated): ie, by photo advertisements, with the protagonists even donning modern Western costume to signal their ascending social status. In one way or another , Peking Opera is to become a genuinely “democratic” art, cementing a relation between actors and their audience that is never non- consensual. Privatization is virtually complete, and Mssrs Guan, Ni and Yuan are pushed entirely into the background.

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