‘Revolutionary Theater in China’ by Agnes Smedley from New Masses. Vol. 6 No. 4. September, 1930.

Smedley, right, with the Eighth Route Red Army seven years, and many events and much experience, after this.
‘Revolutionary Theater in China’ by Agnes Smedley from New Masses. Vol. 6 No. 4. September, 1930.

Shanghai, which as early as 1905 was the home of the first modern Chinese theatre on the western plan, again has the honor of claiming the first revolutionary art theatre. In the first week of January the “Shanghai Art Theatre”, which hopes to tread in the footsteps of the Moscow Art Theatre, made its bow to the world in a cold, unheated hall filled with cheap, hard chairs to seat 700 people -provided they jammed in like sardines. This they did, and more. The Theatre consists not only of actors, but of a whole theatrical association which now has some sixty young men and women, all of them revolutionary intellectuals inside and outside the universities. Their first performance, given in the mandarine, or national language, consisted of three one-act plays, The Game of Love and Death, by Romain Rolland -which they had radically abridged-, The Second-Story Man, by Upton Sinclair, and The Coal Miners, by the German, L. Maerden. Their next production will be Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, the manuscript for this having been translated into Chinese from the Japanese version.

‘The China League for Civic Rights, 1930. From left to right: Lin Yutang, Lu Xun, Song Chingling (Madame Sun Yat-sen), Smedley and Li Peihua.’

Since the establishment of the Republic there have been a number of attempts in Shanghai, Peking, and other leading cities, to establish modern theatrical groups, but for one reason or another they have been unable to live for long. The Shanghai Art Theatre hopes to succeed where others have failed. It may, for it is more social than its predecessors, most of whom were Bohemian intellectuals and individualists. The Shanghai Art Theatre is also composed of intellectuals, but they have been almost completely proletarianized by poverty, like so many of their kind, that they are at least revolutionary and have strong proletarian sympathies. They use a brilliant red curtain across the stage, and the vim and enthusiasm with which they emphasize every revolutionary line in their plays is worthy of their cause. In their first production they certainly lived up to the general opinion that the Chinese are “born actors”, and they just as definitely refuted the statement of so many foreigners that the Chinese “have minds like corkscrews and faces like walls.” It is doubtful if any European actor could teach the Chinese anything in the way of emotional expression.

In the plays of the new art theatre, one can not do what one does in the traditional Chinese theatre: recline back in comfortable seats, eat watermelon seeds and fruit, drink tea, and gossip about the private lives of various dancing girls, noted kidnappers, officials, and other powerful personalities in the audience. Instead, the audience in the cold, unheated hall of the Ningpo Merchants’ Guild, the use of which the actors had secured on the strength of the Ningpo origin of some of their leaders, resembled very much a Russian audience. The seats wreathed back and forth across the hall and sometimes two persons were miraculously balanced on one chair. Their clothing was dark, drab, and poor, there was the careless disorder, good-nature and intellectual curiosity of Russian audiences, and nobody objected if you jammed him almost out formality was gone. The audience bore a look of distinctive intelligence. In the freezing hall men and women crouched down in their chairs, their hands in their sleeves, their intense black eyes showing from over turned-up collars and mufflers. Apart from the writer and a friend, not another foreigner was in the hall. The gulf between most foreigners and Chinese in Shanghai is as deep as infinity. When the foreigners go to or produce plays in Shanghai, they choose such heavy intellectual food as Charley’s Aunt, or Baby Mine, and any suggestion of a play with a social theme would brand you as a Bolshevik who ought to be locked up. Chinese occasionally go to see the foreign plays, but some of them explained their presence there in these words: “We go to study the social morality and ethics of the capitalist world.”

Most of the actors in the new Shanghai Art Theatre speak only Chinese and Japanese, many are returned students from Japan, but one young actor who spoke English introduced himself and discussed the plays. “They are petit bourgeois,” he began apologetically and a bit shame-faced. “The only one whose ideology is proletarian is the German play.” With the suppression of every revolutionary thought today, he continued, they had to be careful about what they present, and even as it is they cannot play in Chinese territory.

The three one-act plays of their first performance had been translated into Chinese by their own members; they had also built and painted all their own furniture and scenery, prepared their own costumes, and produced the film that accompanied one of the plays. The theatre is a cooperative association and its members work together and starve together. The acting was most uneven, but on the whole the men were better than the women. Some of the men and all the women lacked voice training. The girl cast in one of the leading roles, beautiful and willowy enough to enchant any Chinese aesthete, nevertheless retained the traditional high, thin, “canary voice”, and one or two men retained the artificial intonations of the traditional stage. The make-ups were generally excellent and in the German play it was remarkable to see how easily a Chinese can be changed into a German face; the strikers might have been workingmen in any city in Germany. The acting was excellent in places, but at one time it broke down and every man on the stage -about a dozen of them- was weeping at the top of his voice at the tragedy that had overtaken the beloved strike leader. The audience, which was very critical throughout, watched this extravagant display of emotion in interested silence, perhaps wondering why Germans bawl so loud. At other times they expressed themselves in no uncertain manner. When Upton Sinclair’s play was given a man near me growled from behind his high collar, “Sinclair is a sentimentalist!” This play was, however, technically interesting, for it had been cleverly combined with the film in the fashion of the Piscator Communist stage in Berlin. This clearly showed that these young Chinese actors were in touch with the latest stage technique in Europe. Another instance of the audience expressing itself whole-heartedly was when the hero in Rolland’s play made tempestuous love to the heroine -and she a married woman at that- even embracing and kissing her right before the 700 pairs of eyes unaccustomed to such sights. The audience rocked with laughter. A girl in a French cap next to me rocked back and forth in astonished merriment, holding her hands over her mouth, but keeping her eyes free to see what was coming next. When the handsome hero at last gave up love for the revolution, the audience gave him its most enthusiastic support. The actor who drew up an indictment against the government in the same play was so heartily applauded that it seemed the audience had in mind a government nearer home. Every actor who uttered one revolutionary sentence could depend upon the determined support of the audience. In the last play, the old German strike leader cried out that he had lost all his loved ones, and that he would now give his life in an uncompromising fight for the revolution. The audience sprang to its feet in excitement and shouted “Hao! Hao!” (Good! Good!)

The deep response of the audience to the plays, which kept them sitting in such a cold place from seven to eleven at night, is typical of Chinese audiences of this kind. No one takes the modern theatre lightly. One recalls an incident in the past year when another group of players, but of a bohemian nature, produced Oscar Wilde’s Salome in Shanghai. The mother of Salome sat quietly in the audience and she was broad-minded enough to watch her daughter dance and half undress on the stage; but when the enraged voice of John the Baptist came from the dungeon calling Salome the daughter of an adultress, the mother got up and left the theatre in trembling indignation!

The new Shanghai Art Theatre may sound insignificant to Occidentals with any knowledge of the modern social theatre. But in China it is an achievement of no little significance. Until very recently no respectable woman could appear on the Chinese stage, and actors were among the four despised social groups. But today modern educated women are slowly adopting the stage as a profession, and actors in Shanghai have organized into a trade union to raise their social position and protect their profession. Old prejudices about such things are being broken down in the cities, but despite the new theatre the old traditional theatres are jammed each night with men and women of every class. Men still impersonate women, using the falsetto voice, and the four most famous actors of China are women impersonators. As an abstract art, and as a study of feudalism, the old theatre is fascinatingly interesting; but as a social institution it is a reactionary force. The plays they give, based chiefly on ancient history, cultivate and preserve the feudal virtues of filial piety, personal loyalty, the subservience of servant to master, of subject to sovereign, of wife to husband. The general plot, in which good men always succeed and bad men always fail, is a powerful weapon in the hands of rulers who successfully establish themselves over the people.

Mao Zedong, Zhu De and Smedley after the Long March.

The modern theatre, with its realism, its revolutionary introduction of tragedy, its new social virtues, and its use of the natural voice and gestures, seems as a hard, cold, primitive and colorless world to most Chinese. But despite this, the Shanghai Art Theatre is trying to strike firm roots, and it hopes to eventually have a theatre of its own where it can experiment with foreign and Chinese social dramas. Having nothing to lose, but possessing instead a flaming spirit, a revolutionary conviction, it is perhaps able to succeed where others have failed.

Shanghai, China.

The New Masses was the continuation of Workers Monthly which began publishing in 1924 as a merger of the ‘Liberator’, the Trade Union Educational League magazine ‘Labor Herald’, and Friends of Soviet Russia’s monthly ‘Soviet Russia Pictorial’ as an explicitly Communist Party publication, but drawing in a wide range of contributors and sympathizers. In 1927 Workers Monthly ceased and The New Masses began. A major left cultural magazine of the late 1920s and early 1940s, the early editors of The New Masses included Hugo Gellert, John F. Sloan, Max Eastman, Mike Gold, and Joseph Freeman. Writers included William Carlos Williams, Theodore Dreiser, John Dos Passos, Upton Sinclair, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Dorothy Parker, Dorothy Day, John Breecher, Langston Hughes, Eugene O’Neill, Rex Stout and Ernest Hemingway. Artists included Hugo Gellert, Stuart Davis, Boardman Robinson, Wanda Gag, William Gropper and Otto Soglow. Over time, the New Masses became narrower politically and the articles more commentary than comment. However, particularly in it first years, New Masses was the epitome of the era’s finest revolutionary cultural and artistic traditions.

PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/new-masses/1930/v06n04-sep-1930-New-Masses.pdf

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