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

By good luck, or historical necessity, these troupe issues are tentatively resolved by the arrival of NEW and more modern sponsorship elite, in the form of the Japanese officer- dilettante as represented by Gen. Aoki. (Who also keeps, one notes, an all male kabuki troupe under his protection – revealing his sexual preferences) . Sadly, it is the non-Chinese who have had to rescue the traditional art of PO from its indigenous frailties. But for the time, at least, offshore patronage has “solved” the problem of providing an audience that understands the threatened critical standards of the past(3). While also , we note, providing security for the performers – mainly, one notes, against out-of-control patriotic students, a nightmare that prefigures the Red Guards).

Clearly, however, this too is an unstable situation. With the Japanese expelled and the KMT (and later, likewise theCCP) in power, survival-by-export is not longer an option: nationalist (and later revolutionary) sentiment are too powerful to permit this to continue.
Thus we are not really surprised that, in 1949 or 1950, the “owners” of the troupe and its theatre hall are “encouraged” to donate what remains of their capital and performance rights to the state. Nationalization is the fashion of the hour. All of Xiaolou’s and Dieyu’s dreams of independence have vanished: Cheng and Duan have no choice but to give up even the right to have a say in the choice of a playscript, though before the C Revolution both parties are still trying to find a middleground.

Obviously, “democratic” nationalization has not solved the problem of reconciling “ liberal” ownership structure with the narcissistic loyalty of the troupe leaders to past standards. The threats of vulgarization and adulteration will all too soon reappear in the CR, this time under terms that will brook no argument. The Revolutionary State wants control first of the words, then of the costumes, then finally of the very playscripts that have so far guided the troupe through its long journey. It wants this control so that it can experiment with politically sanitized “pop” versions, ultimately political propaganda pure and simple. And, on a related note, we are also warned that another of the preconditions for purist survival – an acceptance of discipline by age and experience – is about to be challenged as well. Xiao Si, the trainee of modern times, is not the obedient student of yesteryear. He craves success without tutelage, and, again as with the Red Guards, uses his political status to bypass the rituals of education.

Then, to make matters even worse, the “new” devil of electronic loudspeaker amplification comes along to complete the subjugation of the players. As connoisseurs by now ourselves, we cannot but shudder to think that the hard-learned vocalizations of traditional performance will be “suppressed’ – drowned out – by the horrendous powers of the non-stop public broadcast, whose din is everywhere, repeating endlessly. (fn 5) .

What all of this is leading to, the CR, is now soon upon us: under its exigencies the heroes (?) betray not only their art but themselves in a vicious set of “confessions” that triggers the suicide of Xiaolou’s ex-prostitute wife, Juxian , and prompt the exile of the troupe leaders into rural anonymity, where what remains of their skill will be drained away once and for all.

The price of nationalization, we finally, see, has been forbiddingly high. Just as their predecessors have learned in Yen’an, the politicized “state” is no better than the mob. That owned (obliged) performance is the death knell of “pure” art has had to be relearned at a terrible cost, In the (false) hope that matters would turn out otherwise, Dieyi and company have ignored their true curatorial responsibilities: to accepting the slow demise of their craft, while providing a high level of training and acting know-how to the next generation. (What one might call the “Lu Xun solution”). (Fn 6).

But there is still more sad irony to endure. Unlike in the movie, in the book the dan (Ji Yu) cannot even achieve the honorability of self-immolation in homage to tradition. When he tries to reproduce the original, suicidal ending of FMC, Chen Dieyi turns out to be too old, weak and befuddled to do it ”properly”: the attempt is botched. Symbolically, the last redeeming ethic of the traditional artist – – loyalty – has now proven out of reach also. Stage art cannot even be saved by its sacrificial recapitulation in real life.

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