By John B. Weinstein and Carsey Yee[ 1 ]
“Flushed with Wine” is considered, and yet was not originally, a “spoken drama” (hua ju). True, it is written without music, neither pihuang nor any other kind. Ding Xilin’s elegant vernacular draws primarily from everyday speech, even though his characters speak with more grandeur than the average person on the streets of Beijing in the early 1920s. Moreover, the play is completely scripted; there is none of the improvisation emblematic of wenming xi, the so-called “civilized drama” that formed a bridge between traditional Chinese opera and the modern spoken drama. Looking at the text, “Flushed with Wine” looks very much like a hua ju, but when it was written in 1925, neither the term “huaju” nor the form existed yet. The genre of the day was “amateur drama” (aimei ju); the venues were assembly halls of academic institutions, and the casts consisted of students of any combination of sexes. This “amateur drama” reached its zenith in the mid-1920s, and Ding Xilin (1893-1974) was its greatest and most enduring playwright. The subsequent advent of spoken drama, and the professional theaters where huaju found its home, rendered the campus-based amateur drama largely obsolete. The quality texts, including Ding’s plays, were eventually subsumed into the newer genre. While Ding’s plays have endured, many of the original production characteristics distinct to amateur drama have been largely forgotten. Thus, in developing this translation of “Flushed with Wine” for a contemporary collegiate production together with “A Wasp” and “Oppression,” one of our major goals was the preservation and (re)-presentation of some of the basic distinguishing features of 1920s Chinese amateur drama.
In the resulting trilogy, which we entitled Acts of Marriage for our November 2002 production at Simon’s Rock College of Bard, “Flushed with Wine” made a visible contribution to the theatrical aura of the 1920s through its all-female cast (fig. 1). All-women’s theater productions are a historically significant yet little known and often overlooked aspect of amateur drama. Prior to 1923, the new modern theater echoed the traditional theater’s use of single-sex casting, which meant either all-male or all-female productions. As in the traditional theater, a key obstacle to integration of the sexes in casting was the long-standing association of the theater arts profession with prostitution. At a time when the idea of women and men performing together on stage would have been considered scandalous, an all-women’s performance at a women’s college was less controversial. The emergence of campus-based amateur drama would eventually help pave the way for mixed-sex casting. Amateur drama groups gave women an opportunity to perform in a collegiate environment, free from the stigma and sexual anxieties surrounding the professional theater. The establishment of modern academic institutions specializing in drama created even more possibilities. Founded as a coeducational institution where classes were not divided by sex, the Beijing People’s Art Theater Academy staged China’s first mixed-sex amateur drama performance on May 19, 1923 in Beijing . In September of that same year, the Shanghai Theater Art Club brought mixed-sex casting to Shanghai, in an evening using both women and female impersonators to portray female roles . Notably, the female impersonators were met with raucous laughter from an audience suddenly made aware of the less ludicrous alternative of gender-appropriate casting . After that evening, the Shanghai Theater Art Club would never again use female impersonators.
Despite these momentous events, the transition from single-sex to mixed-sex casting was neither instantly nor consistently adopted in either city’s theater arts community. Productions of Ding Xilin’s plays in the mid-1920s provide several concrete examples of the continuing diversity of casting practices. A December 1924 production of “A Wasp,” at the National Autonomous University in Shanghai, used an all-male cast . In 1925, Beijing performances of the same play at Women’s Normal University in January and the Youth Association in March used only women . In the same evening of performance at the Youth Association, “Flushed with Wine” made its world premiere with women playing both husband and wife . However, a Shanghai production the following year featured the male actor Yuan Muzhi, Ding’s most devoted disciple, performing opposite the first of four female co-stars . A production might even combine gender-appropriate casting and cross-dressing. A 1926 production of “Oppression” at the Beijing Arts Academy, another of the modern drama schools, was one such case. Men played the male guest and the policeman, and women played the female guest and the landlady, but the female maid was played by a male actor . In order to represent the full range of casting options in the mid-1920s, our November 2002 production at Simon’s Rock utilized all three options. “A Wasp” was presented with a coeducational, gender-appropriate cast (fig. 2). “Flushed with Wine” was performed, as it had premiered, with a cast of three women playing one female and two male roles. Finally, “Oppression” paid homage to the Beijing Arts Academy production of 1926, and the cross-dressed maid generated as much laughter in 2002 as his counterpart did three quarters of a century earlier (fig. 3).
The all-female casting of “Flushed with Wine” further informs the gender dynamic so prevalent in the text of the play. The clash of generations, Ding Xilin’s signature theme, is absent in this play where all three of the characters are modern youth. Instead, “Flushed with Wine” presents the clash between the sexes. The husband and wife must explore the implications of marital freedom when the wife’s request challenges her husband’s conception of that very freedom. If the thematic content of this play is more gendered and less generational than Ding’s usual fare, the reason may be that he drew his scenario from the eponymous short story by Ling Shuhua, a writer whose work was well known for its treatment of gender themes . In her original version, the wife controls the action, as befits a story about the power of women to make their own choices. Ding’s adaptation makes a similar point, yet his mode of presentation seems to subtly undermine female power. Noticeably, the husband repeatedly resorts to humor to gain the upper hand in the argument. The wife may make a better point, but the husband makes better jokes. She may win the battle of the sexes, but he wins the war of words. As the last lines of the play demonstrate unequivocally, in Ding Xilin’s comedic world, he who laughs best laughs last. Male control of laughter is hardly unique to “Flushed with Wine”;
Mr. Ji in “A Wasp” and the male guest in “Oppression” further illustrate the male domination of laughter in Ding’s plays. Yet male domination is not as complete as it might seem, since the very first time the husband’s lines were ever heard on stage in March 1925, they were spoken by a female actor. In Ding’s world, female characters may have had no opportunity to control the laughter, but female actors most certainly did (fig. 4). This is one instance where misreading an aimei ju as a huaju eliminates a rich layer of potential meaning.
5. Qin Xin 琴心, “‘Yizhi mafeng’ zai wutaishang de chengji bingzhi Xilin xiansheng” 《一只马蜂》在舞台上的成绩并质西林先生. Jingbao fukan (March 31,1925): 246. See also Xue Wen, “Wo chengren shibaile,”Jingbao fukan (March 27,1925): 215.
9. For an English translation of the story, under a different title, see Ling Shuhua, “Intoxicated,” Writing Women in Modern China: An Anthology of Women’s Literature From the Early Twentieth Century, eds. Amy D. Dooling and Kristina M. Torgeson (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998): 179-84.