Friday, November 11, 2011

Heaven is High and the Emperor Far Away, a Play

About this blog/script, Aug. 26, 2011


PREFACE

This is the story of Shopkeeper Wang and the friends, the regulars, and the transients who visit the Yutai (Abundant Peace) Teahouse, a Beijing neighborhood institution, during the tumultuous decades of the early twentieth century.  The setting is intimate and the atmosphere, action and themes, Dickensian; it is as if someone might write about life in the American Colonies during the second half of the eighteenth century from the point of view of the working class.  We would see the toll house clerks, the tradesmen, the longshoremen, and other regulars at a neighborhood tavern in Philadelphia—as opposed to those frequented by the Sons of Liberty or by the Virginia aristocracy. 

I have reduced Lao She’s original from three acts, set over fifty years with nearly seventy characters, to a play in two acts set about twenty-five years apart with a cast of twenty (some multiple casting). The play tries, however, to reproduce as much as possible the characters and actions that Lao She created for a world of those living at the bottom edge of civility and into which corruption and exploitation roughly intrude.  This is a world of the poor and exploited caught up in the spin-cycle of world historical change.  Although the Chinese were (are) not much given to introspection, this adaptation attempts to explore the hopes, fears and concerns of the characters.  Lao She wrote in what is said to have been a distinct Beijing dialect;  I have resisted the temptation to transpose this into any modern day inner city dialect.  The adaption itself required changes to the characters and their dialog; this I have attempted to translate and adapt into standard modern English.

Act I (set in 1923) shows the Teahouse as it achieves a modest success in surviving for over twenty-five years since its founding by the Shopkeeper’s father.  Political chaos and economic uncertainty raged outside the walls of the teahouse. China under the Manchu Qing dynasty was singularly unprepared for its confrontation with the West.  This confrontation became nakedly obvious with the Opium Wars of the mid-nineteenth century.  The court divided among conservatives, pragmatists and reformers; each faction was used more or less temporarily by the British, the French, the Germans, the Russians, the Japanese and the Americans to further their own respective interests.  The fall of the Qing dynasty and foundation of the Chinese Republic in 1911 did little to clarify the national debate.  By 1923, Yuan Shikai, the most forceful leader of the Chinese Republic was dead and civil war among the warlords and provincial leaders, always simmering, came to a full boil.  The Shopkeeper strenuously tries to keep some normalcy within the walls of the Teahouse.  We meet an assortment of regulars, as well as those that prey on them, and in particular Kang Shunzi a woman now in her late 30s returns—she had been  sold about twenty-five years ago as a young girl by her desperate family to be a concubine to a Eunuch.

In Act II (set in 1948), the Teahouse has visibly succumbed to the deterioration of the economic and political conditions in China.  During that year, inflation reached 3,000 percent.  Some of the characters are now replaced by their respective offspring who continue in similar pursuits.  The Shopkeeper and two or three others are still active, including the woman Kang whose adopted son, off stage, has left to join the Communists, while the Nationalists still retained control of Beijing.  There has been consolidation among the main national contenders for wealth and power—the Nationalists and the Communists dominate although there are factions and warlords within each Party, and of the foreigners only the Americans, the Russians and the Japanese have significant roles by this time.  The play takes on a more political tone, but not so much as to obscure the human drama of making the right choices and making ends meet.

Each Act consists of four or five scenes; there is an Intermission between the two Acts.

Heaven is high and the Emperor is far away was a familiar saying in the provinces of China, especially those to the South.  It reflects, I hope, the sense (for the regulars at the Teahouse) of how remote are our ideals from our mundane reality.  Giving this drama a Chinese face does not at all suggest that China had an exclusive on exploitation, poverty and suffering.  The characters in the Teahouse, however, show how some manage to maintain their hope, fellow feelings and even humor.


Act I, Scene 1 can be viewed in the page "Excerpts from Heaven."

Friday, October 14, 2011


Staged reading -- now to print

On October 10, 15 volunteers capped four weeks of light rehearsals (once a week) with a "performance" at the Stone House (Old Brewery) in Nevada City.  It was gratifying to have about fifty in the audience and to hear laughter and applause.  For me, it was most critical to get feedback from actors and audience.

Most comments related to the absence of a "main character" and to the absence of "action" or "conflict" to spark the drama.  My own feeling is that there are action or conflict driven drama and there are dialogue and values driven drama.  Lao She's original is clearly of the latter sort.  Chinese drama and all non-Western literature (to make a bold assertion) emerged out of cultures that have not idealized "agon" (Greek for "contest"). these cultures have never been influenced by any school of thought remotely like Western Romanticism with its "Sturm und Drang" aspect. To "act without desiring the fruit of one's actions" is perhaps the antidote to "survival shows culture."

Regardless of the above, the play is on track for publication as an eBook as well as in hard copy --see "How to Purchase."

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