Talks on Literature and Art (1942). Politicization of drama reached its height during the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), when the stage was turned into a battleground under the direction of Mao’s wife, Jiang
Qing. As noted by one scholar, “no country believes more deeply in the power of drama” or uses drama more frequently “in ideological feuds, political purges, and mass campaigns” than the People’s Republic of
China (Tung and Mackerras 1987: 1).
This study examines the relationship between politics and theatre in the People’s Republic of China by focusing on a masterpiece of modern Chinese drama by Lao She (born Shu Qingchun 1899–1966),
Chaguan (Teahouse, 1957) (see Plates 1 and 2). Set in an old-style Beijing teahouse, the play chronicles fifty years of political changes from the final days of the Qing dynasty to the eve of the communist victory.
Through an analysis of Lao She’s dramatic text and two of its major stage productions first presented in 1958 and 1999, respectively, this investigation seeks to answer the following questions: How are historical events represented in the play? How does the playwright use history as a commentary on his contemporary political conditions? How have changing political climates affected the production and reception of this play from the 1950s to the present?
The Hundred Flowers Movement and the Writing of Teahouse
Lao She began his literary career as a fiction writer, and, with the publication of his novel Luotuo xiangzi (Camel Xiangzi, 1936), established himself as one of the leading Chinese authors of his time.
His conversion to drama was directly related to the War of Resistance to Japan (1937–1945): he felt spoken drama could reach a wider audience and help the war effort. His wartime playwriting—he wrote and coauthored a total of nine plays—paved the way for his switch to drama after the war. He was on a lecture tour in America when the Chinese
Communists came to power in 1949. At the invitation of Premier Zhou
Enlai, he came back to China, pledging to transform himself from an old-style writer to a revolutionary one (Ke and Li 1982: 65–72). From this time, Lao She walked a tightrope between political duty and artistic integrity. His sense of duty compelled him to produce a steady stream of plays, drum songs, and comic skits as the current political situations
92 Yu demanded, and he was honored with the title of “People’s Artist.” Just when it appeared that Lao She would live out his life writing “followthe- orders literature” (zunming wenxue), the Hundred Flowers movement of 1956–1957 gave him a new lease on life.
This liberalization movement came about because of domestic and international politics. On the home front, the party leadership decided to offer greater freedom to intellectuals to encourage their participation in socialist construction and to ensure the successful completion of the first Five Year Plan (1953–1957). In the international arena, Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin at the Soviet…