24 Sep 2010

In search of a new direction for the contemporary Chinese theatre aesthetics: review Lun Xiju 論戲劇 (On Theatre)

This book review was originally written in Chinese and published on Wen-Hsun 文訊, 298, August, 2010. After reading Lun Xiju, I find it necessary to write a review since what Gao Xingjian 高行健 proposes is something so basic but meaningful that in fact endows the contemporary Chinese theatre with strong aesthetic concepts deriving from traditional Chinese aesthetics and thoughts which would further open up new possibilities for contemporary theatre presentation and appreciation. Moreover, his concept of Chinese theatre and literature is not limited to the production of arts for Chinese only, but a well-developed theory for both artistic creation and aesthetic appreciation. Although what he has developed is closely related to Chinese theatre, his great concern for human beings makes his concept applicable to the production of arts in general. Therefore, with the intention to share Gao's precious thought with those who are unable to read Chinese, I translated my own work into English as follows.

Lun Xiju 論戲劇 (On Theatre)
By: Gao Xingjian 高行健, Fang Zixun 方梓勳
Taipei: Lian Jing 聯經, 2010, 216 p., NTD 270
ISBN: 978-957-08-3582-3

In one of his poems, Gao Xingjian implies that playwrights are like flying birds looking at this world from up in the sky. In the preface of this book, Fang Zixun explains that Gao’s works embody through his created figures a wisdom that is brought about by deep contemplation; they are not preaching but aesthetic. (p. 4) Aesthetic is an artistic experience one obtains from contemplation, and certainly it is nothing about preaching. However, aesthetic in theatre always has such implication aiming to speak to someone and teach about something; in theatre, what is spoken is the feeling of the playwright, and what is taught is the idea and meaning shown in the performance. In Gao’s mind, theatre aesthetic lies in the disclosure of what life is, and theatre must achieve this so as to bring the audience a “clear awareness” of humanity, of life, and of the society they live in. This “clear awareness” makes the beauty of theatre so appealing and generates deep meanings to the audience. Based on this understanding of theatre, Gao states that theatre should have the depth of thought as its support, a deep thought that recognizes and discloses all dilemmas and conflicts that can be found in life.

Gao’s theatre is an art of performers. In this book, he elaborates two important ideas: the “omnipotent theatre” and the “omnipotent performers”. The former relies on the existence of the latter whose actions and representations are, as he conceives, the practice of the “theatrical suppositionality”, a term he invents to indicate the necessary condition in playwriting. Although Gao admits he is influenced by Brecht’s concept of theatre, he makes it quite clear in this book that their concepts are in fact different from each other. He says his performers are required to have the “clear awareness of the third party”, a concept he developed from his understanding of Zen Buddhism and his rediscovery and reception of the art of acting in traditional Chinese theatre. This “omnipotent performer” is always clam and in contemplation, and he is equipped with the feature of the “triplicity of acting” – again, a concept deriving from the acting of traditional Chinese theatre that considers performers as having three psychological conditions that formed the “triplicity”: me as myself, me as a performer (the role), and me as the character in performance – that turns him into a “neutral actor” who can go in and out of his roles freely, control his performance precisely, and capture the instant reaction of the audience. As he states, this “neutral actor” is in fact in the second psychological condition having a “clear awareness” to act as the third party. Having done so, the communication with the audience is achieved. His concept of acting is based on the art of traditional Chinese theatre, and he reinterprets traditional concepts according to contemporary perspectives.

“Clear awareness” is originally a Buddhist term, but Gao turns it into a means for aesthetic practice to depict and explore “the interrelationship between an individual and the group”. Not only the performers should do so, but the playwright must also base his creation on such concept. According to him, when such aesthetic representations are shown on stage, the audience will naturally contemplate, in a calm and sensible way, what they have seen, heard and experienced in theatre. Fang says this abstract thinking runs through Gao’s overall concept of theatre. (p. 15) Gao explains that the depth of thought is a thorough understanding of human beings and life embedded in plays that can only be achieved by means of “clear awareness”. (pp. 154-7) Gao further points out that this “omnipotent performer” is always sincere whose attitude and vivid performance is the benchmark for aesthetic appreciation and the charm of theatre. He says that lacking the depth of thought and the required “theatrical suppositionality” in plays would easily make a performance become an empty vehicle for certain ideas or simply a game of language. These are what he considers the problem of contemporary theatre. He observes that contemporary performances usually lack theatricality and any necessary dramatic features, and it is common to see in these performances the dissipation of characters, or simply the cancellation of characters. This trend only turns performances into a simple written text or, worse than that, a speech. (p. 98) He believes the reason why theatre is theatre relies on the sense of calling of the playwright to reveal the truth of human life, and also on the performers’ actions in theatre “to hold tears in their palms, to crumble the world with their hands, to pull their hearts out of their bodies, and to expose their true souls”. (p. 142) His words are not just a serious criticism to contemporary theatre. His calling truly serves as a fine antidote bringing our attention back to the essence of theatre and aesthetic.

In the last chapter, Gao combines the form of manifesto and essay to declare his concept of “omnipotent theatre” and its required artistic expressions. Except this chapter that shows us a formal attitude, all others adopt the form of dialogue by using colloquial words and phrases. This form of dialogue makes reading interesting and easy to understand, and thus it allows the reader to explore easily Gao’s creativity and aesthetic concept. This book is truly an important resource for further researches on the theatre and literature of Gao Xingjian, but we should also acknowledge at the same time that the importance of this book is more than its being a resource for research. What this book offers is a new direction for contemporary Chinese theatre aesthetic that is not just for theatre practitioners and researchers but for whoever is interested in this art. By means of its logical presentation using plain spoken language, the general public can also achieve a lucid understanding of how theatre and its means for representations talk about human nature and sensibilities. Through this understanding, readers will realize that theatre is an art that teaches human beings to recognize again what “Humanity” is.