Revolutionary Illumination:
Stage Lighting, Politics, and Play in 1930s Shanghai Theater

By Tarryn Chun

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 30, no.2  (Fall 2018), pp. 87-140

This essay examines developments in Chinese stage technology in the late 1920s-1930s and argues that these developments played a central role in shaping modern Chinese theater during this period. Anchored by a discussion of the 1933 production of Roar, China! (Riuchi, Kitai! or Nuhou ba, Zhongguo!) by the Shanghai Theater Society (Xiju xieshe), it chronicles the rise to prominence of stage lighting theory in the critical discourse surrounding huaju and shows how technical elements of the theater became aligned with its political efficacy in the minds of many theater artists. The essay then turns to performances of Roar, China! and the publication of materials related to its production design in the journal Play (Xi) to illustrate the ways in which the technical elements of a performance could be choreographed to align with the political message of its script. It situates this unique case study in relation to both a broader trend of educating audiences about modern stage technology through popular and specialist publications, which developed in the early 1930s, and to the maturation of huaju dramaturgy in the same decade. Concluding with a shift from the stage back to the page, the essay argues for the far-reaching impact of stage technology by demonstrating how prominent dramatists such as Tian Han (1898–1968) and Cao Yu (1910–1996) began to script dramatic worlds and actions in ways that relied on the successful deployment of modern stage technologies. The early 1930s thus mark a significant technical turn in modern Chinese theater wherein employing and illuminating the inner workings of the stage became a central part of its dramatic text, performance practice, and political mission.