I Love XXX

Here at the Mellon School we are unanimously abandoning our field specializations to focus on Chinese theater after Clare Conceison’s contagiously enthusiastic manifesto for the subject. 

Last evening Clare introduced us to the canon of contemporary theater in China and spoke of challenges in the field. As it turns out, government control of theatrical producfion is not a major problem — key playwrights who write subversive works (such as Clare’s favorite, Meng Jinghui) manage not to displease officials. In general, China seems eager to share its contemporary culture with the United States, and readily engages with contemporary Western theater in its own artistic spaces. After all, major works of Western drama — in particular, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, A Doll’s House, and Death of a Salesman — had a defining influence on Chinese playwriting. More pressing is the issue of how we in the West receive Chinese theater. Clare described the recycling of problematic plays such as M. Butterfly, Chimerica, and Chinglish — non-Chinese plays that perpetuate a one-dimensional view of China. She also criticized strange translation practices that occlude Chinese plays being staged in the West. As an alternative, Clare encouraged direct relationships with Chinese dramatists. And she gave us a fantastic reading list! Those curious about the most popular contemporary drama in China might start from Meng Jinghui’s Rhinoceros in Love or I Love XXX and Lao She’s Teahouse, while folks interested in 20th century modern drama should read up on Lu Xun. Clare’s powerpoint is available on this website, for instructors looking to add Chinese drama to their syllabi.

The most popular contemporary play in China

It might be said, indeed, that Wednesday’s theme was Love — love/hate, maybe, as we in the Dissertation Workshop discussed two dissertations on UK theater’s relationship with Shakespeare. If we had to give this relationship a facebook status, we’d say, “It’s complicated.” In her chapter on the Queen’s Men Elizabeth Tavares analyzed the life of a traveling theater company at the time of Shakespeare and the plague. Cat Fallow took us into the contemporary British theater, where the “tyranny” of Shakespeare can both guarantee or undermine an up-and-coming playwright’s success.

But the first event of the day had us talking about old-fashioned Americana. We arranged the Thompson room’s furniture into a giant circle and chatted with Sharon Marcus about scrapbooking theater spectators in Ohio, who got to feel connected to Paris and New York when they bought Sarah Bernhardt swag in a Columbus theater lobby, or saw their local production of a play produced on a metropolitan stage.

Sharon challenged the “Adorno vs. the rest of the world” paradigm of cultural consumption, arguing that theatergoers were anything but passive consumers hypnotized by mass culture. Scrapbooks, she said, are evidence of an active critical perspective being honed by individual people who made their personal education in the theater into a sort of craft. Imagine carefully cutting out figures and saving tickets and buying the expensive play program, imagine rating productions or writing detailed notes about what you saw. Sharon suggested that the future of Star Studies could move away from binary appraisals of production and consumption. “We’re doing a lot of other things besides reproducing and resisting ideology,” she remarked. What are some of the other ways to understand how and why we love theater? Are there modes of artistic interpretation that do away with binary notions of ideology but retain a political (structural) perspective? Share your favorite theories on art-love-hate-politics here!

 

See also: Ania Aizman