America Through the Spectacles of an Oriental Diplomat
Chapter 14. Theaters
The ideal of China is sincerity but an actor is a pretender.
He appears to be what he is not. Now our ancient wise men felt
that pretense of any sort must have a dangerous reactionary influence
on the character. If a man learns how to be a clever actor on the stage
he may be a skilled deceiver in other walks of life. Moreover,
no one to whom sincerity is as the gums are to the teeth,
would wish to acquire the art of acting as though he were some one else.
Hence actors in China have from ancient times been looked down upon.
Actresses, until the last decade or so, were unknown in China,
and a boy who became an actor could never afterward occupy
any position of honor. He, his children and his grandchildren
might be farmers, merchants or soldiers, but they could never be teachers,
literary men or officials. The Chinese feeling for sincerity,
amounting almost to worship, has caused the profession of an actor in China
to be considered a very low one, and so until the new regime
the actor was always debarred from attending any literary examination,
and was also deprived of the privilege of obtaining official appointment;
in fact he was considered an outcast of society. No respectable
Chinese family would think of allowing their son to go on the stage.
As a natural consequent the members of the Chinese stage have, as a rule,
been men who were as much below the level of moral respectability
as conventionalism had already adjudged them to be below the level
of social respectability. Regard anyone as a mirror with a cracked face
and he will soon justify your opinion of him. If the morals of Chinese actors
will not bear investigation it is probably due to the social ostracism
to which they have always been subjected. The same phenomenon may be seen in
connection with Buddhism. As soon as Buddhism in China ceased to be a power
the priests became a despised class and being despised
they have often given occasion to others to despise them.
I am aware that quite a different view is held of the stage
in America and Europe, and that actors and actresses
are placed on an equal footing with other members of society.
This does not, of course, mean that either America or Europe
lays less stress on sincerity than China, but simply that we have developed
in different ways. I have heard of the old "morality plays",
I know that English drama, like the Egyptian, Greek, and Indian,
had its origin in religion, but this alone will not explain
the different attitude assumed toward actors in the West
from that taken up in China.* I am inclined to think that the reason
why actors are not despised in the West as they are in China
is because the West considers first the utility of pleasure,
and the East the supremacy of sincerity. Here, as is so frequently the case,
apparent differences are largely differences of emphasis.
The West would seem to emphasize the beauty of the desire to please
where Chinese consider the effect on character or business.
The expensive dinners which no one eats and which I discussed
in a previous chapter are an illustration. No one in China
would spend money in this fashion excepting for some definite purpose.
We Chinese like to flatter, and to openly praise to their faces
those whom we admire. Most Westerners, would, I think,
please rather than admire; most men and women in America and Europe
enjoy applause more than instruction. This recognition
of the delicate pleasure of being able to please some one else
naturally attracts quite a different type to the Western stage
from the material usually found in Chinese dramatic companies,
and in a society where everyone acknowledges the beauty of pleasing another,
the position of the actor naturally becomes both envied and desirable.
When therefore a man or woman succeeds on the European or American stage
he or she is looked up to and welcomed in fashionable society,
e.g., Henry Irving had the entree to the highest society,
and his portrait was always found among the notables. Newspapers published
long notices of his stage performances, and when he died he received
as great honors as England could give. During his lifetime he enjoyed
the royal favor of Queen Victoria, who conferred a knighthood upon him.
After his death his biography was published and read by thousands.
All this is quite contrary to the spirit of the Chinese who,
no matter how clever a man may be as an actor, can never forget
that he is a pretender and that the cleverer he is the greater care exists
for guarding one's self against his tricks.
Actresses are no less respected and honored in the West,
whereas in China there are positively no respectable women on the stage.
Yet in the West it is a common occurrence to hear of marriages of actresses
to bankers, merchants, and millionaires. Even ballet-girls have become
duchesses by marriage. The stage is considered a noble profession. Often,
when a girl has a good voice, nothing will satisfy her but a stage career.
A situation such as this is very difficult for a Chinese to analyze.
The average Chinese woman lacks the imagination, the self-abandon,
the courage which must be necessary before a girl can think of herself
as standing alone in a bright light before a large audience waiting
to see her dance or hear her sing. Chinese actresses were quite unknown
until very recently, and the few that may be now found on the Chinese stage
were nearly all of questionable character before they entered the theater.
In the northern part of China some good Chinese women may be found
in circuses, but these belong to the working class and take up the circus life
with their husbands and brothers for a livelihood.
The actresses of the West are different. They are drawn to the stage for
the sake of art; and it must be their splendid daring as much as their beauty
which induces wealthy men, and even some of the nobility,
to marry these women. Man loves courage and respects all who are brave enough
to fight for their own. In a world where self-love (not selfishness)
is highly esteemed, manhood, or the power of self-assertion,
whether in man or woman, naturally becomes a fascinating virtue.
No one likes to be colleague to a coward. The millionaires and others
who have married actresses -- and as actresses make plenty of money
they are not likely to be willing to marry poor men --
meet many women in society as beautiful as the women they see on the stage,
but society women lack the supreme courage and daring of the stage girl.
Thus, very often the pretty, though less educated, ballet-girl,
wins the man whom her more refined and less self-assertive sister --
the ordinary society girl -- is sorry to lose.
The suffragettes are too intent just now on getting "Votes for Women"
to listen to proposals of marriage, but when they succeed in obtaining
universal suffrage I should think they would have little difficulty
in obtaining brave husbands, for the suffragettes have courage.
These women, however, are serious, and I do not think that men in the West,
judging from what I have seen, like very serious wives.
So perhaps after all the ballet-girl and actresses will have more chances
in the marriage (I had almost written money) market than the suffragettes.
I may be mistaken in my theories. I have never had the opportunity
of discussing the matter with a millionaire or an actress,
nor have I talked about the stage with any of the ladies
who make it their home, but unless it is their superb independence
and their ability to throw off care and to act their part
which attract men who are looking for wives, I cannot account
for so many actresses marrying so well.
What, however, we may ask, is the object of the theater? Is it not amusement?
But when a serious play ending tragically is put on the boards
is that amusement? The feelings of the audience after witnessing such a play
must be far from pleasant, and sometimes even moody;
yet tragedies are popular, and many will pay a high price
to see a well-known actor commit most objectionable imitation-crimes
on the stage. A few weeks before this chapter was written
a number of men of different nationalities were punished
for being present at a cockfight in Shanghai. Mexican and Spanish bullfights
would not be permitted in the United States, and yet it is a question
whether the birds or the animals who take part in these fights
really suffer very much. They are in a state of ferocious exaltation,
and are more concerned about killing their opponents
than about their own hurts. Soldiers have been seriously wounded
without knowing anything about it until the excitement of the battle
had died away. Why then forbid cockfighting or bull-baiting?
They would be popular amusements if allowed. It is certain that animals
that are driven long distances along dirty roads, cattle, sheep, and fowl
that are cooped up for many weary hours in railway trucks,
simply that they may reach a distant market and be slaughtered
to gratify perverted human appetites, really suffer more than the cock or bull
who may be killed or wounded in a fight with others of his own kind.
What about the sufferings of pugilists who take part in the prize-fights,
in which so many thousands in the United States delight? It cannot be pity,
therefore, for the birds or beasts, which makes the authorities
forbid cockfighting and bull-baiting. It must be that although these
are exhibitions of courage and skill, the exhibition is degrading
to the spectators and to those who urge the creatures to fight.
But what is the difference, so far as the spectator is concerned,
between watching a combat between animals or birds and following
a vivid dramatization of cruelty on the stage? In the latter case
the mental sufferings which are portrayed are frequently more harrowing
than the details of any bull- or cockfight. Such representation, therefore,
unless a very clear moral lesson or warning is emblazoned throughout the play,
must have the effect of making actors, actresses and spectators
less sympathetic with suffering. Familiarity breeds insensibility.
What I have said of melodrama applies also, though in a lesser degree,
to books, and should be a warning to parents to exercise proper supervision
of their children's reading.
Far be it from me to disparage the work of the playwright;
the plot is often well laid and the actors, especially the prima-donna,
execute their parts admirably. I am considering the matter, at the moment,
from the view-point of a play-goer. What benefit does he receive
from witnessing a tragedy? In his home and his office has he not enough
to engage his serious attention, and to frequently worry his mind?
Is it worth his while to dress and spend an evening watching a performance
which, however skilfully played, will make him no happier than before?
It is a characteristic of those who are fond of sensational plays
that they do not mind watching the tragical ending of a hero or a heroine,
and all for the sake of amusement. Young people and children
are not likely to get good impressions from this sort of thing.
It has even been said that murders have been committed by youngsters
who had been taken by their parents to see a realistic melodrama.
It is dangerous to allow young people of tender age to see such plays.
The juvenile mind is not ripe enough to form correct judgments.
Some time ago I read in one of the American papers that a boy
had killed his father with a knife, on seeing him ill-treat his mother
when in a state of intoxication. It appeared that the lad had witnessed
a dramatic tragedy in a theater, and in killing his father
considered he was doing a heroic act. He could, by the same rule,
have been inspired to a noble act of self-sacrifice.
After all, the main question is, does a sensational play exercise
a beneficial or a pernicious influence over the audience? If the reader
will consider the matter impartially he should not have any difficulty
in coming to a right conclusion.
Theatrical performances should afford amusement and excite mirth,
as well as give instruction. People who visit theaters
desire to be entertained and to pass the time pleasantly.
Anything which excites mirth and laughter is always welcomed by an audience.
But a serious piece from which humor has been excluded,
is calculated, even when played with sympathetic feeling and skill,
to create a sense of gravity among the spectators, which, to say the least,
can hardly be restful to jaded nerves. Yet when composing his plays
the playwright should never lose sight of the moral.
Of course he has to pay attention to the arrangement
of the different parts of the plot and the characters represented,
but while it is important that each act and every scene
should be harmoniously and properly set, and that the characters
should be adapted to the piece as a whole, it is none the less important
that a moral should be enforced by it. The practical lesson
to be learned from the play should never be lost sight of.
In Chinese plays the moral is always prominent. The villain is punished,
virtue is rewarded, while the majority of the plays are historical.
All healthy-minded people will desire to see a play end with virtue rewarded,
and vice vanquished. Those who want it otherwise are unnatural
and possess short views of life. Either in this life or in some other,
each receives according to his deserts, and this lesson
should always be taught by the play. Yet from all the clever dramas
which have been written and acted on the Western stage from time to time
what a very small percentage of moral lessons can be drawn,
while too many of them have unfortunately been of an objectionable nature.
Nearly everyone reads novels, especially the younger folk;
to many of these a visit to a theater is like reading a novel,
excepting that the performance makes everything more realistic.
A piece with a good moral cannot therefore fail to make
an excellent impression on the audience while at the same time
affording them amusement.
I am somewhat surprised that the churches, ethical societies
and reform associations in America do not more clearly appreciate
the valuable aid they might receive from the stage. I have been told
that some churches pay their singers more than their preachers,
which shows that they have some idea of the value of good art.
Why not go a step further and preach through a play? This does not mean
that there should be no fun but that the moral should be well thrust home.
I have heard of preachers who make jokes while preaching,
so that it should not be so very difficult to act interesting sermons
which would elevate, even if they did not amuse. People who went to church
to see a theater would not expect the same entertainment
as those who go to the theater simply for a laugh.
In China we do not expend as much energy as Americans and Europeans
in trying to make other people good. We try to be good ourselves
and believe that our good example, like a pure fragrance, will influence
others to be likewise. We think practice is as good as precept,
and, if I may say so without being supposed to be critical of a race
different from my own, the thought has sometimes suggested itself to me
that Americans are so intent on doing good to others,
and on making others good, that they accomplish less than they would
if their actions and intentions were less direct and obvious.
I cannot here explain all I mean, but if my readers will study what
Li Yu and Chuang Tsz have to say about "Spontaneity" and "Not Interfering",
I think they will understand my thought. The theater, as I have already said,
was in several countries religious in its origin; why not use it
to elevate people indirectly? The ultimate effect, because more natural,
might be better and truer than more direct persuasion. Pulpit appeals,
I am given to understand, are sometimes very personal.
Since writing the above I have seen a newspaper notice of
a dramatic performance in the Ethical Church, Queen's Road, Bayswater, London.
The Ethical Church believes "in everything that makes life sweet and human"
and the management state that they believe -- "the best trend
of dramatic opinion to-day points not only to the transformation of theaters
into centers of social enlightenment and moral elevation,
but also to the transformation of the churches into centers
for the imaginative presentation, by means of all the arts combined,
of the deeper truths and meanings of life." Personally,
I do not know anything about this society, but surely
there is nothing out of harmony with Christianity in these professions,
and I am glad to find here an alliance between the two greatest factors in
the development of Western thought and culture -- the church and the theater.
The newspaper article to which I have referred was describing
the "old morality play, Everyman" which had been performed in the church.
The visitor who was somewhat critical, and apparently unused
to seeing the theater in a church, wrote of the performance thus:
"Both the music and the dressing of the play were perfect,
and from the moment that Death entered clad in blue stuff
with immense blue wings upon his shoulders, and the trump in his hand,
and stopped Everyman, a gorgeous figure in crimson robes and jewelled turban,
with the question, `Who goes so gaily by?' the play was performed
with an impressiveness that never faltered.
"The heaviest burden, of course, falls on Everyman, and the artist
who played this part seemed to me, though I am no dramatic critic,
to have caught the atmosphere and the spirit of the play.
His performance, indeed, was very wonderful from the moment when
he offers Death a thousand boons if only the dread summons may be delayed,
to that final tense scene, when, stripped of his outer robe,
he says his closing prayers, hesitates for a moment to turn back,
though the dread angel is there by his side, and then follows
the beckoning hand of Good Deeds, a figure splendidly robed
in flowing draperies of crimson and with a wonderfully expressive mobile face.
"At the conclusion of the play Dr. Stanton Colt addressed a few words
to the enthusiastic audience, `Forsake thy pride, for it will
profit thee nothing,' he quoted, `If we could but remember this more carefully
and also the fact that nothing save our good deeds shall ever go with us
into that other World, surely it would help us to a holier and better life.
Earthly things have their place and should have a due regard paid to them,
but we must not forget the jewel of our souls.'"
I have, of course, heard of the "Passion Play" at Oberammergau in Germany
where the life of Jesus Christ is periodically represented on the stage,
but I say nothing about this, for, so far as I know, it is not performed
in America, and I have not seen it; but I may note in passing
that in China theaters are generally associated with the gods in the temples,
and that the moral the play is meant to teach is always well driven home
into the minds of the audience. We have not, however,
ventured to introduce any of our sages to theater audiences.
The theater in China is a much simpler affair than in America.
The residents in a locality unite and erect a large stage
of bamboo and matting, the bamboo poles are tied with strips of rattan,
and all the material of the stage, excepting the rattan,
can be used over again when it is taken down. Most of the audience
stand in front of the stage and in the open air, the theater generally being
in front of the temple; and the play, which often occupies three or four days,
is often performed in honor of the god's birthday. There is no curtain,
and there are no stage accessories. The audience is thus enabled
to concentrate its whole attention on the acting. Female parts
are played by men, and everything is beautifully simple. There is no attempt
to produce such elaborate effects as I have seen in the West,
and of course nothing at all resembling the pantomime,
which frequently requires mechanical arts. A newspaper paragraph
caught my eye while thinking of this subject. I reproduce it.
"The Century Theater in New York City has special apparatus
for producing wind effects, thunder and lightning simultaneously.
The wind machine consists of a drum with slats which are rotated
over an apron of corded silk, which produces the whistling sound of wind;
the lightning is produced by powdered magnesium electrically ignited;
thunder is simulated by rolling a thousand pounds of stone, junk and chain
down a chute ending in an iron plate, followed by half-a-dozen cannon balls
and supplemented by the deafening notes of a thunder drum."
Although, however, Chinese play-goers do not demand
the expensive outfits and stage sceneries of the West, I must note here
that not even on the American stage have I seen such gorgeous costumes,
or robes of so rich a hue and displaying such glittering gold ornaments
and graceful feathers, as I have seen on the simple Chinese stage
I have just described. Western fashions are having a tendency
in our ports and larger cities to modify some things that I have stated
about Chinese theatrical performances, but the point I wish especially
to impress on my readers is that theatrical performances in China,
while amusing and interesting, are seldom melodramatic,
and as I look back on my experiences in the United States,
I cannot but think that the good people there are making a mistake
in not utilizing the human natural love for excitement and the drama
as a subsidiary moral investment. And, of course, all I have said of theaters
applies with equal force to moving-picture shows.
Chapter 13 Chapter 15
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