Despite his passing in 1996, Cao Yu, the foremost pioneer of modern drama in China, lives on in Ann Arbor. The University’s Confucius Institute currently features an exhibition on his life and career.
Open for public viewing every day from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. until March 15, the exhibit is located in Building 18 of the North Campus Research Complex. Visitors learn about Yu through vivid images and detailed descriptions that catalogue his impressive body of work as a groundbreaking Chinese artist.
His work exemplifies the dilemmas and difficulties faced by generations of Chinese intellectuals throughout the 20th century, and the exhibit provides a revealing narrative of China during that time period.
Joseph S.C. Lam, former chair of the Department of Musicology, currently serves as the director of the Confucius Institute, which officially opened in November of 2009. He crafts and implements programs promoting Chinese arts and culture on campus.
When Li Ruru, a senior lecturer at Leeds University in England and Yu’s stepdaughter, developed the exhibit and approached Lam about bringing it to the University, her offer was instantly accepted.
Lam commented on the significance of Yu’s contributions and unique playwriting techniques.
“He’s one of the founders of Chinese spoken drama,” Lam said. “He made his readers and his audiences see Chinese realities in a new light. Before that, Chinese dramas were performed with song and dance — more like operas. Many of the more traditional dramas — the more entertaining ones — could be seen as more ‘fluffy’ and could be a good style of show, but this is serious stuff.”
Lam hopes visitors to the exhibit will recognize “the humanity that Chinese and non-Chinese people share, such as family relationships, sacrifices for loved ones, social injustice and so forth.”
Yu’s exploration of human complexity continued to impact audiences. According to the exhibit, “He is the only spoken drama playwright whose works have been constantly revived since they were first staged in the 1930s.”
As a feature of the exhibit, a screening of “Thunderstorm,” arguably his most famous play, will show on Friday, Feb. 15. “The Savage Land,” a film by Liang Zi based on a play by Yu of the same name, screens on Friday, March 1. Both events begin at 7 p.m. in Angell Hall Auditorium B.
A presentation will also be given by Steven Liu, president of the Association for Asian Performance and assistant professor in the Department of Theatre and Film at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. Audiences can hear Liu’s lecture entitled “From Aristotle to O’Neill: Western Influence on Cao Yu,” on Friday, Feb. 8 at 4 p.m. in the NCRC dining hall.
Liu, originally from China, received his Ph.D. in theatre and performance studies from the University of Pittsburgh and now teaches theatre at UBC where he researches 20th century Chinese theatre. His book, “Performing Hybridity in Colonial-Modern China,” which comes out in March, examines wenmingxi (civilized drama), the first form of modern Chinese theatre.
Long before the Yu exhibit arrived at the University, Liu led the original effort to bring it from England to North America. In November 2011, UBC held the first showing, for which Liu directed a staged reading of the celebrated “Thunderstorm.”
The exhibit calls this four-act play “a complex story involving family hierarchies, adultery, incest, threatened murder and labor unrest.”
“It was the first major show that launched the genre of spoken drama in Chinese history,” Lam said. “It is really a reflection of early 20th century China facing all of these modern human relational and emotional problems all condensed into one. It’s like Arthur Miller’s ‘The Crucible.’ I think they are very comparable.”
“Thunderstorm” follows the twisted relationships that form between members of a wealthy, upper-class family and a destitute, lower-class family, and the physical and psychological destruction caused by forbidden fraternization.
“I’ve directed and acted in ‘Thunderstorm,’ and it’s really surprising how theatrically powerful that play is,” Liu said. “I feel Cao Yu’s concerns over human relations and anxieties transcend ideological divides. That’s certainly one of the reasons behind his staying power.”
According to Liu, due to the controversial subject matter, “Thunderstorm” vacated the stage for 30 years after the Communist takeover. But Liu mentioned that editing the play in subsequent productions fosters a much greater ideological problem.
“When it was first produced in 1935 in Japan, they took out the prologue and the epilogue because the play was three-and-a-half hours, and it was so long. But the problem is that without those, the (themes) of Cao Yu’s plays like fate, forgiveness and suffering become restricted.”
As the president of the Association for Asian Performance, Liu featured the Yu exhibit at their annual conference, held together with the Association for Theatre in Higher Education conference last August in Washington D.C.
Liu attends conferences often, but he seldom travels for lectures, which makes his presentation in Ann Arbor a rare and special occasion. He commented on the opportunity to speak about Yu as part of the exhibit at the University, and gave a quick preview of his upcoming presentation.
“I want to emphasize that the time when Cao Yu was most active — the early decades of the 20th century — he was very much aware of world theatrical traditions and was fearless with his formal experiments that allowed him to best express his angst of life around him.”
Liu described how contemporary productions of Yu’s work as a whole haven’t reached their full creative capacity.
“For a variety of reasons, the mainstream reading and staging of his plays have been unable to fully realize the potential of his works. I will present one director, Wang Yansong, who has in the past decade staged impressive reinterpretations of Cao Yu’s three masterpieces that have the potential to bring a new understanding of Cao Yu, seven decades after he burst into the scene.”
The Yu exhibit, featuring two screenings of his most famous work and a promising presentation by Liu, illuminates the rich history of drama in China during the 20th century — onstage and off.