Focus: The Everyman of Taiwanese Theatre
In recent years, Taiwanese Theatre has made an attempt to reach out to ordinary people in Taiwan. Trying to span the crevasse between the traditional theatre-going audience, mainly consisting of the upper middle-class and the imaginary of the Taiwanese "everyman", those who have never set foot in a theatre before. This has led to a new cacophony of theatrical forms aimed at removing the esoteric elitist reputation. In this month’s focus, we take a closer look at some new theatrical forms in Taiwan, and influences from abroad.
In recent years, Taiwanese Theatre has made an attempt to reach out to ordinary people in Taiwan. Trying to span the crevasse between the traditional theatre-going audience, mainly consisting of the upper middle-class and the imaginary of the Taiwanese "everyman", those who have never set foot in a theatre before. This has led to a new cacophony of theatrical forms aimed at removing the esoteric elitist reputation. In this month’s Focus, we take a closer look at some new theatrical forms in Taiwan, and influences from abroad.
Wang Molin （王墨林）is clad in a Che Guevara t-shirt, the same one angry teenagers and naive politics students across the world are probably wearing at that same moment. His manner is distracted during the Q&A, and, as in the interview we conducted with him previously, he brushes off any difficult questions with a sneer and a "Do I have to explain everything a thousand times?", seemingly a smoke and mirrors technique to evade addressing any of the arguments directed against him. The assumption that anyone who disagrees with him is illiterate or locked into a capitalist ideology that only he and people who agree with him are able to see through makes conversation with him tiring. This was mirrored in the way the play was presented, tiring.
There were a few very basic errors from a practical point of view that, given the director's long career in the "Little Theatre" (小劇埸), were preventable. These were little details, like a semi-transparent cloth hanging mid-stage with a light shining from behind it, that made the subtitles of the Korean dialogue in the play (the play was performed by a Korean theatre troupe) difficult to read, and resulted in people stretching their heads in different directions to try and look past the cloth. This wasn't aided by the reams of dry ice that were pumped out at random intervals throughout the performance, that made the subtitles slightly more difficult to read and triggered the asthma of a guy in the row behind me.
The play was about an iconic protester in 70s' South Korea who fought for the rights of labourers and died at the protest and his mother's reaction to his death. Although the topic was interesting, it was delivered stiffly and the attempt to humanize the hero through the mother/son relationship didn't move me as it must have attempted to. The play read like a union propaganda film, with martyrs of the protest flashing up on the screen with rhythmic drums. It was then unsurprising to learn in the Q&A that the actors were in fact not actors but social activists and that the play had a very one sided political message to preach. This was then reinforced when Taiwanese "labourers" (I put quote marks around this word because in Taiwanese popular usage the word for labour "勞工" includes white collar office workers), who were basically people who had been hired by the government to do the same job as civil servants without the benefits of being a civil servant, bemoaned their plight. At one point one of them stated that their situation was worse than Korea in the 70s and worse than the plight of foreign labourers (外勞) and workers (工人) in Taiwan. Although to be fair I don't understand completely the nature of their situation, even though it has been quite high profile in the media, to be honest this seemed like a massive exaggeration as many of the plethora of documentaries about foreign workers in Taiwan can attest to. The preaching style of the play, did no justice to the issue, and the images and dialogue were cliche, reminiscent of the early works of Taiwanese literature and mainland socialist literature. The cliched dialogue and symbolism reinforced the image of the protagonist as an idealized hero, and had none of the depth of understanding of the disenfranchised classes of society of works like Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman or John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath and Cannery Row. This suggests the distance of Wang Molin from the working class in Taiwan, as he only seems to conceive of them from a theoretical, iconic ideal as opposed to exploring them as more complex human beings with aspirations and vices.
On my way home from the theatre I saw the director again, grabbing a beer by the roadside with a group of youths that I supposed to be members of the stage crew, still wearing his Che Guevara shirt, and most likely still spouting the half-baked idealism of a 1st year politics university student.
In the sixties, Taiwan’s main ideology was determined by Cold War ideology and the fight against communism. In such a dry and discouraging intellectual atmosphere, the youth aspired to a radical and subversive modernism which would acknowledge their existence. At that time, the only opening for modern art was probably at the United States Information Agency which would provide information on modern art and exhibitions, so most events involving the arts were held there.
It is in that context that Theater Magazine (1965) was created by Huang Hua-cheng, Kang Chien Chiu and Chen Yingzhen. There was no concept of Taiwanese modernism at that time but the Theater Magazine was already offering critiques and reflections on modernism in articles on Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty and Fellini’s 8 ½. Even today, almost 50 years later, one can say that the content and the lay-out of the magazine are still very subversive and avant-garde.
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.
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.
For the fifth consecutive year, Avignon Off Festival, located in the South of France, welcomes several Taiwanese groups. Among the invited companies are WC Dance Company created by Lin Wen-Chung, who used to work with the famous Taipei Folk Dance Theatre, and the internationally recognized Ten Drum Art Percussion Group, led by the talented percussionist master Chiu Ya-Hui. This year, for a better understanding of the shows by the French audience, the Cultural Center of Taiwan focused on dance and music. The previous year, they presented more theatrical performances, which though beautiful one, were however more difficult for non-Chinese audiences.
Act I: The challenge Artaud
On the 6th of April 1933, Antonin Artaud (1896 -1948) gave a lecture at the University of La Sorbonne. This lecture, entitled “Le Theatre et la Peste”, would become an important chapter of his main essay on theater theory (Le Theatre et son Double) and was a total experience for the audience, the majority of whom left before the end, laughing and booing Artaud. He had started his speech in an academic way, explaining first to his audience that many masterpieces of art and marvelous plays emerged during the Great Plague in Europe; men whipped by the fear of death would search for immortality and surpass themselves with desperate creativity and quest for the sublime. The writer Anaïs Nin who attended the lecture described it in her diary:
“But then, imperceptibly almost, he let go of the thread we were following and began to act out dying by plague. No one quite knew when it began. To illustrate his conference, he was acting out an agony. "La Peste" in French is so much more terrible than "The Plague" in English. But no word could describe what Artaud acted on the platform of the Sorbonne... His face was contorted with anguish; one could see the perspiration dampening his hair. His eyes dilated, his muscles became cramped, his fingers struggled to retain their flexibility. He made one feel the parched and burning throat, the pains, the fever, the fire in the guts. He was in agony. He was screaming. He was delirious. He was enacting his own death, his own crucifiction.” (Anaïs Nin, The Diary, 1931-1934, New York, 1966)
So, where are the children of Artaud now? And what are they up to? To introduce Artaud, to read his work, to listen to his voice seem more relevant than ever in the context of the time being when art is fully marketed and omnipresent on TV, on the Internet and in the streets. Something similar is also at stake in the importance of theater per se. Some think that cinema can replace theater or that theater is too elitist and too intellectual. But real theater, “pure theater” as Artaud would say, is nothing but life; on stage, a gesture can never be repeated the same because it is live and because of that special link with the spectator who experiences the action simultaneously. Theater, like dance is part of the most primitive and intuitive living arts and this is precisely what Artaud advocated in the radicalism and extremism that characterized his life and his work.
Antonin Artaud bequeathed a prolific written work composed of poems, essays, letters and a play but also drawings, paintings and recordings. Artaud might not seem easy to read or to approach and he can even be strongly disturbing. But this is also precisely why we should want to know about him, why we should reach towards his work, because he challenges our certainties and our subjective markers, he puts us in contact with the “danger zone”.
Act II: Life and death, beauty and pain
First of all, the story of his life was at the same time tragic and dazzling with pain. Born in 1896 in Marseille, he died from cancer in 1948 in Paris at the age of 51 years old. He spent almost 9 years of his life in several asylums from which he was released in 1946. In the last asylum, he received 58 sessions of electroshock treatment which made him lose all his teeth; at his exit from the hospital, he looked like an old man. If one compares two photos of him from his prime youth and from his last years, the contrast is even more striking between the beauty of the young actor who could embody the lover in romantic movies and the wizened man with the wrinkled forehead, the twisted hands and the toothless mouth… It is notorious that Artaud had several mental problems even since his childhood; he also abused drugs either in order to “cure” himself (ease his pain) or to experiment with shamanic journeys. Artaud always had an ambiguous relation to his own “state” as he would both claim to be conscious of the potential given to him by his “mental illness” while he was also always protesting against the treatments he received at the asylums.
So, the young Artaud who came to Paris in 1920 wanted to be a poet at first. He also knew how to draw and about critiquing art. He was outstandingly handsome and also wished to become an actor. He published his first collection of poems in 1923. At the same time, he joined different theater companies and acted in several movies, one of which was Carl Theodor Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc. He also wrote the scenario for the first Surrealist film, The Seashell and the Clergyman, directed by Germaine Dulac.
Meanwhile, Artaud was excluded from the Surrealist group in 1926 after publishing his first manifesto on theater which gave the premises of his theater theories. He affirmed then that theater must be a dangerous act from which neither actors nor spectators should come back intact. Together with two other French writers, he created the Theatre Alfred-Jarry which marked the first important step in Artaud’s career and development on stage. He continued writing several essays on theater and in 1932, he published his first manifesto on Theater of Cruelty which targeted “the magic sources of a sacred theater, the theater of a poetic, musical and plastic use of space…”
In 1938, his collection of texts on theater was published: The Theatre and Its Double (Le Théâtre et son Double).
Artaud travelled, he discovered Mexico in 1936 where he spent one month in the Sierra with the Tarahamura Indians and was initiated to their shamanic rites. In 1937, as he returned from a stormy trip to Ireland where he got jailed for vagrancy, he was committed without consultation in a psychiatric institution near Rouen. He then spent 9 years in 4 different asylums. He was finally released in 1946 and warmly welcomed by his friends in Paris who organized sales by auction for his profit. Artaud wrote and published numerous texts, he participated in projects such as radio shows and gave his last lectures in the theater of le Vieux Colombier in Paris where, once again, he puzzled his audience by telling in his unique style the story of his life in the asylums and his struggle with evil forces… A writer present that day would later comment that “when he appeared on the stage […], when he started to declaim with his hoarse voice, interrupted by tragic sobs and stutters, his poems barely audible – we felt dragged in the danger zone…” (Justin Saget (aka Maurice Saillet), Combat, 24 January 1947).
Act III: Cruelty
Thus, Artaud’s name is often associated to violence, scandal and all sorts of clashes with his peers, as for example his violent polemics with the surrealists, or his provocative statements such as “All writing is pigshit” and “I write for the illiterate”. Artaud seems to question the completeness and the finishing of artwork, he explores all forms of writings and prefers the ones similar to the burst of the speech, a speech then similar to a cry, which converges to create the dissonance necessary to the act of cruelty. In 1947, he recorded for the French radio a show entitled “To Have Done with the Judgement of God” (Pour en finir avec le jugement de dieu) which was censored before its first broadcast: even without understanding French, one can already feel the organic explosion of Artaud’s voice. This is more than a scansion, this is also an eruption of cries, screams and all sort of noises that the body can produce, one is not even sure anymore if it is Artaud uttering this voice or this voice filling up Artaud.
So the theater of cruelty could be first of all about surpassing the anatomic limits of the body, create on stage a “hiatus”, a new human body which would not be anymore only the vessel of language but a language itself. Indeed, Artaud reproaches to the traditional theater of his time its imprisonment in a fossilized language which becomes then only an empty form of a meaningless representation. When Artaud sees some Balinese theater in 1931, he receives a real aesthetic shock, for him, the Balinese theater represents the purest expression of a physical language: “In this theater all creation comes from the stage, finds its expression and its origins alike in a secret psychic impulse which is Speech before words” (The Theatre and Its Double). Then, Artaud formulates his project of an art, a poetry and a theory of theater that would shatter the false reality by expressing on stage the mystery and the sacredness of existence. “The theater of cruelty is not a representation. It is life itself, in the extent to which life is unrepresentable. Life is the nonrepresentable origin of representation. ‘I have therefore said “cruelty” as I might have said “life”’ (The Theater and Its Double).
Artaud finds the essence of life and the expression of the living in the transgression, the experimentation and somehow also the destruction of life itself. Artaud conjugates at the same time beauty and ugliness, madness and genius. In fact, he is dually a disturbed and a disturbing writer; in the first place because of his own madness which was never clearly diagnosed by his psychiatrists, in the second place because despite the destabilizing form of his thinking, we can still relate to his work and his views; would it be possible that no artist, poet, performer or director could find a resonance or a call in his provocative ideas? Without exaggeration, one could say that Artaud has set a milestone in the theories of theater and its performance; whether we like it or not, whether we know it or not, we are all Artaud’s children.
“To Have Done with the Judgement of God” (Pour en finir avec le jugement de dieu) is available at the Pacifica Radio Archives
At the end of April of this year, the Dark Eyes Lab launched their new collaborative production ‘A Crash Course in Modern Theatre: Theatre of Cruelty, Absurd Theatre and Anti-Theatre’, a part of which was the stunning Beauty 2011, which was put under the label of Theatre of Cruelty, a play that was first performed in 2000 by the Oz Theatre Company and was performed several times until the dissolution of the company in 2004. This is the first time it has been performed since then.
I'm not sure exactly why, but I started liking the Dark Eyes Performance Lab a while ago, perhaps it was because, without dialogue or scripts, it is the actions and expressions of the actors which allow the audience to experience their performance in a very physical way. In a similar way to Charlie Chaplin's silent movies, they use exaggerated movement and expressions to make the audience laugh, but we don't really question why we are laughing. Are we laughing at the pain of others? Is the nature of laughter cruel in itself? In Modern Times Chaplin falls onto a conveyor belt of a production line, he rolls back and forth comically. But is it funny? In the world after the Industrial Revolution, humanity is pushed towards standardization, humanity becomes but a screw holding together the machinery of the production line, the symbolic，the symbolism of the big gears lead to his insane behaviour. When the mask of humour drops, the cruel reality is revealed.
When I was watching Beauty 2011, some of the audience was laughing out loud, this laughter is just the same as the laughter at Chaplin's silent films, rending and piercing, which reveals its latent cruelty. The first actor to come out on stage chewed a steamed bun with an ecstatic expression on his face, the steamed bun looked (fragrant and sweet), as if the flavour came out more and more with every chew, enough to make you hungry for a taste. After undergoing a series of rituals, the other actor is at last ready to receive the sacred steamed bun, one mouthful at a time, enjoying the feeling of her mouth being stuffed full of it. However, her mouth, full to overflowing makes it hard for her to swallow, completely stopping up her mouth, with not a sliver of space remaining. She still forces a smile as she is force-fed more steamed buns. If in the pursuit of beautiful things we manage to chase down our prey, is it not akin to that crazy scene of excess; Wanting to vomit, but not wanting to waste the hard-earned steam bun? Even having regurgitated it and spat it out, the impulse to pick it back up and stuff it back into her mouth overpowers. The scene repeated ad infinitum, attains the nuance of cruelty. How is it cruel? The cruel is something that goes beyond physical pain, a kind of extreme psychological torture. In an interview with director Zheng Zhizhong, he said: "In 2004 when I was putting my actors through the Yuquan special training program, I already thought that their bodies did not have the tension required. They had to hold 1.8 litre milk bottles in both hands, and raise them above their heads; this kind of training program trained their bodies to have more endurance." The weight of 1.8 litre milk bottles to an untrained body seems cruel; it requires one to overcome psychological barriers. Like the psychological wall people report running into at a certain stage of a marathon, the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. When the will and the body become at odds with each other it is also has a nuance of cruelty. In Beauty 2011, the will of the actor drives them to keep swallowing the steamed buns, but their body is unable to take any more. If the actors had not gone through the Yuquan special training program, perhaps their performance would not have attained the desired goal.
Rather than analysing to what extent Beauty 2011 conforms to Artaud's concept of the Theatre of Cruelty, it would almost be better to take Beauty 2011 as an embodiment of Artaud's condition: a condition in which the will is split from the body. This split shrouded Artaud for the whole of his life, inside his mind roamed free, but this resulted in the imprisonment of his body in a mental asylum, which made the split between the two only more pronounced. Although Artaud only ever suggested the concept of a Theatre of Cruelty, and that it has never been put into practice in performance, I think that Artaud in himself was an instance of this theatre, any attempt to represent the Theatre of Cruelty on stage signals the return of the unremitting spectre that is Artaud.
Article by Ida Yang, translated by Conor Stuart
Taiwanese director Zheng Zhizhong discusses his recent performance of "Beauty 2011" in a recent three-part introduction to Modern Theatre.
Sakurai Daizō, director of the Haibizi theater troup, discusses his tent theatre performance in the video below. Touching on issues such as the perils of capitalism in postmodern society and the simulated world and life choices of the youth of the 21st Century: