Erenlai - Displaying items by tag: Wang Chi Mei
Monday, 01 August 2011 14:07

Modern Drama in Taiwan: A Mirror for Taiwan’s paradoxes

Born out of 1980s’ Taiwan, modern drama nowadays is often based on Western theatre, including French, English, German and American contemporary drama. The work of playwrights such as Kantor, Koltes, Duras, Bond and Müller has been adapted to the Taiwanese stage over the course of the last few years. Experimental performances, dealing very openly with themes like sex and violence, love and loss, and homosexuality reveal the paradoxes that are lived by Taiwanese society, struggling between tradition and modernity.

Social issues in Modern Theatre: the weight of tradition on the individual

Modern dramatists born before the 1970s worked more with social issues than the younger generation. Chen Chia Yin [鄭嘉音], director of Puppet & its Dubble, who is involved in theatrical workshops for children in Tainan, explains that ‘the older artists were more concerned with political issues because they lived under martial law and did not have as many rights as artists today. […] So, in their artistic work there were attempts to claim more freedom and struggle for social change, which made it a lot more provocative. After Taiwan became a democracy there was a significant shift in the role of the social dramatist’. Since the 1990’s, theatre in Taiwan has increasingly represented the ordinary lives of common people; performances attempt a realistic rendering of the effect of history and social changes on Taiwanese families over the course of the last century, rather attempting to tackle contemporary political social issues.

The older generations of dramatists focus more on the subjectivity of a Taiwanese specific history, which had often been oppressed and ignored by the KMT military dictatorship. Playwright Wang Chi Mei [汪其楣], a retired professor at the National Taiwan University of Arts in Guandu, who has worked a lot with the deaf, focused her own theatrical research on Taiwanese women who had fought for civil rights and liberty. Her latest performance relates the story of the first Taiwanese woman who was both a feminist and a communist, the mother of Taiwanese independence, Hsieh Hsueh-Hung [謝雪紅]. She studied communist philosophy in Russia and fought the Nationalists in Taiwan but had to flee to China because of the military regime. Professor Wang’s struggled to find further information about Hsieh’s life and she has stated that ‘these are important parts of Taiwan history put to one side by scholars, it is Taiwanese artists that had to find out about her and tell her story’; For Wang, ‘the most important thing is to discover Taiwanese roots and not just mimic Western drama. Taiwanese artists need to be aware of the specificity of their own situation.’ She once attempted to stage a Western play but found the experience unsatisfying: ‘the Western way of thinking is different, more conceptual than the Chinese one and Taiwanese adaptations are rarely successful in rendering these concepts. It was only when she concentrated her research on Taiwanese history that her she was able to progress as Taiwanese artist. There are many figures from Taiwanese history that can act as examples to the younger generation in their attempt to assert their own rights.

However, in recent years few dramatists are committed to social or political issues or portraying the lives of historical figures: they are more interested in the more mundane themes and the history of everyday life. The Village, produced by Stan Lai [賴聲川], tells the story of those Chinese soldiers who followed Chiang Kai-shek to Taiwan in the 40’s/50’s. Posted in Taiwan “temporarily”, they spent decades waiting for their homecoming to China, and lived in ‘villages’, attempting to recreate their imaginary of China in Taiwan. Through the depiction of three generations living in this village, Stan Lai poses questions about this way of life, by showing how the younger generation’s choices lead them to more freedom than their parents. Many Taiwanese have Chinese ancestry and so can identify with the characters in the play. Although this play can be classified as ‘realistic theatre’ in that the art direction is very ‘sensitive and emotive’ and the actors embody the characters in a very natural way. The realistic narrative is underwritten with the experience of Taiwanese society making the audience focus more clearly on the emergence of the individual and his place in contemporary society.

The connection between society and the individual is a significant subject for the generation of dramatists currently in their 40s. The Creative Society’s last show Have Wok, Will Travel, presented last winter at the National Theatre’s Experimental Theatre, tells the story of director Katherine Hui-ling Chou’s [周慧玲] mother. She focuses on the main character’s emotions, letting the spectator feel the bold joy of her mother when she worked for the Army and contrasting this with the gloomy unhappy temper she keeps in her married life. To portray this change of temperament, which parallels the two distinct periods of Taiwan history, Chou incorporates dance into her performance based on martial arts, directed by her choreographer in a very poetic and sensitive way. This is interspersed with more realistic dialogue, which break through the magic of the dancing parts. The play poses seems to question if our life choices are dictated by the society we live in or if true self determination is possible. Her plays often combine tradition with modernity, as far as the stories she writes deal with changing times and places and how this affects the psyche of the characters. In He is my wife, he is my mother, based on an ancient story, Chou relates episodes of a man’s life, set in the periods before and after the Communist Revolution, in China and Taiwan respectively. The play is composed of two parts, a very dreamy first part and a very realistic second part to which seems to work to present what is strange as normal. She questions the weight of a social tradition that pushes one to live a conventional life. The protagonist, a man who casts off his masculinity to become both a “wife” to his lover and a “mother” to his lover’s son, chooses finally to let his lover’s son live in a homosexual relationship against established convention. This can be seen as a parallel to determination of the eponymous protagonist of Sophocles’ Antigone to bury her brother in contravention of King Creon’s command. In both plays the will of the individual acts in direct opposition to convention.

For members of the older generation of art directors, traditional Chinese culture and the daily realities of family life seem to be the starting point in describing the changes in Taiwanese society, and the paradoxes inherent in a modern society that still espouses some very traditional social and family values, as well as the difficulties for that an individual experiences in trying to live their own life according to their own values: this realist modern drama accurately depicts how difficult it is for Taiwanese to cast off the burden of traditional values that they never chose to carry, but which are still, whether consciously or not, anchored deeply in the Taiwanese sense of self , despite the yearning for a shift in these values.

Emotions and Entertainment in Modern Taiwanese Theatre

It is human relationships rather than social issues, however, that capture the attention of the younger art directors such as Baboo Liao [廖俊逞] or Hsu Yen Ling [徐堰鈴] from the Shakespeare’s Wild Sisters Group [莎士比亞的妹妹們的劇團]. These younger directors often adapt German, English and French Literature. Themes such as love, sexuality, violence, intimacy and gender predominate, reflecting the concerns of the younger generation. Avant-garde theatre deals with individual issues more than with social issues as confirmed Chen Chia Yin has confirmed: “The young artists don’t ask the same questions as the older generation: they are used to living in freedom. For them the ego is more interesting as a subject matter than society at large.” The politics of modern drama are less assertive and pushy than before; acting has come to the forefront with more surrealist and burlesque styles of theatre becoming more popular. Derrick Wei × Der Schönste Moment [魏雋展獨角戲《最美的時刻》] adapted from the novel by Michael Cornelius and directed by Baboo Liao [廖俊逞], a younger generation director, for example, although it confronts some social issues, with its ironic presentation of the modern way of life and its veiled criticism of the Taiwanese work ethic, it focuses mainly on the inner questioning of the protagonist. Alone in his toilet, which seems to represent for him a cage, he recreates the world of his thoughts, making love with a puppet or imitating Michael Jackson. The puppets, made with latex, were created by Chen Chia Yin, and represent the different parts of the anti-hero’s psyche. The stage design symbolizes the main character’s loss of self. The director gives a very modern treatment to the theme, in that as well as the dialogue it is the physical movements of the actor that give life to the play. Realism is abandoned for a more figurative representation, combining fantasy and humor, making the play closer to Avant Garde Theatre. In comparison with Modern Drama from the West, theatre in Taiwan is not as conceptual: retaining very visual stage techniques based on emotion and feeling. Western literature appears to be a good source material for Taiwanese artists in understanding and exploring the complexity of human nature. Hung Hung [鴻鴻], a contemporary director and poet explains “it is very thrilling and interesting to work on Western literature because it deals with deep emotions and inner feelings”. Western literature leads Taiwanese directors to ‘express their feelings in a new way’ even if in some of their adaptations, they face difficulties in showing inner violence or intimacy between characters because of Chinese culture.

Ann Lang [郎祖筠] adapted Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues last summer in an attempt to make Taiwanese women more aware of their bodies, in particular their vaginas, and asked renowned artists to take part in the performance. She asked Lai Pai Hsia [賴佩霞] to roam about naked on stage and that was a challenge for the naturally timid singer to act this part. In Taiwanese education, ‘one never talks about sex, many women don’t like their vagina and don’t know their body: they even don’t know how to get pleasure in their sexual relationships’ says Ann. As Chia Yin clarifies, ‘the parents raise their children to be hard workers and respect their familial and social duties. In family, we don’t speak about such affairs. Sex is taboo.’ This gives one an insight into why many young directors explore the Western literary canon. Baboo Liao has staged Heiner Müller’s Quartett, a play based on Dangerous Liasons written by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, which tells the story of two libertines, Madame de Merteuil and Valmont, and their sexual search for pleasure as well as their perverse relationship with each other. Even though the show was not well received, its interest lies in the presentation of their complex Sado-Masochistic relationship with each other: although they compete to prove whether man or woman is more capable of being a true libertine, they both fall into the trap of love and suffering. It shows the deep intricacy of human nature, its desires and contradictions. Many young artists seem to be interested in understanding this topic, all too often absent in Chinese literature or in everyday life.

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Hsu Yen Ling [徐堰鈴], in her shows, deals essentially with feminine issues. In Tracks on the Beach and Drifting, adapted from Duras’ Le ravissement de Lol V. Stein, she focuses on Lol, an eccentric woman that cuts herself off from life after her lover abandons her for another woman and she falls into apathy’. Hsu Yen Ling, also a famous actress in Taiwan, asked the actors to ‘search the feelings in the deep of their heart and express them in new ways’. This way of teaching, allows actors to act in a more corporal way; which is really different from French acting. French directors focus more on acting with words than on acting with the body. Take Care, her last show, which was performed in July 2011 at the Guling St. Avant Garde Theatre, questions the increasing number of abandoned animals in Taiwan and asks us how to take care of the other, telling the story of a lesbian couple, one a veterinarian, the other a teacher, and the difficulties they face in their jobs and in their sex life. The play is a comedy, and comedy seems like a good approach to help us reflect on these issues. Taiwanese directors do not appear to draw a dichotomy between comedy and tragedy. They often include funny elements to relax the atmosphere and combine tragic moments with humoristic ones. In France, humor is often considered as material for low class theatre audiences and this is confined to a very comedic style. Bluesy Lee – Welcome to the 70s [李小龍的阿砸一聲], performed by Shakespeare Wild Sisters’ Group in May 2011 at the National Theatre, relates the 70’s in a very visual way, with surrealist screenings and grotesque acting. It mocks the bad acting of the superhero and soap opera style movies on TV, as well as portraying with delicacy the beautiful love story between 7 and 11 and the tragic one between deaf Teresa and her lover in a very Taiwanese style.

The main difference between French and Taiwanese Modern Theatre reflects a deep cultural difference: French culture distinguishes and separates comedy and tragedy and is based around a thought out idea; on the contrary, Taiwanese Theatre incorporates different styles and its focus lies on feeling. Taiwanese modern drama is more emotional, either it is realistic or surrealist or deals with social or individual’s issues. Directors and actors have a more sensitive and expressive working behavior. Amazingly, the strength of their shows resides in the powerful feelings they dare to express on stage, a strength of feeling that is seemingly absent from their own lives. This creates a paradox, wherein Taiwanese modern drama is freer than Taiwanese modern society. Another main difference is that the audience and artists are more curious and open about certain issues when they are portrayed on the stage, especially homosexuality. To conclude, even if Taiwanese artists use western writings as material to understand human nature in a deeper way, they don’t need to copy Western arts, as sometimes their work can appear less structured and overdetermined. In France, we have lost this strain of emotional thinking and Taiwanese modern drama still touches one’s heart: yet if one does not speak Chinese, one still can garner an understanding of the plot of most Taiwanese shows.


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