Western Influence on Asian Theatre: Taiwan

July 20, 2014

Written by Alexa Huang

Western influence on Taiwan’s theatre, felt in both performance styles and repertoire, did not start until the 1960s, when theatre artists and scholars began returning from the West, and when censorship became less strict. Theatre artists not only appropriated Western performance idioms (such as illusionist and environmental theatres) but also adapted plays by Western playwrights, including Brecht, Maeterlinck, and Pirandello. Shakespeare in translation—the majority directed by Wang Sheng-shan (Wang Shengshan, 1921-2003)—played an important role in popularizing Western classics and stagecraft, which laid the groundwork for more innovative adaptations. Lee Man-kuei, the first serious Western-conscious playwright and director, pioneered the introduction of Ibsenian realist and illusionist theatre to Taiwan. She founded the Huaju Promotion Committee in 1962, starting a local tradition of adapting Western dramas. It organized and sponsored annual World Drama Festivals that produced as many as 236 performances of Western plays (in English or Chinese) between 1962 and 1974. Not only were such plays adapted and performed, new ones were written under the influence of Western performance theory. Yao I-wei’s Jade Bodhisattva (Nian yu guanyin, 1967) used non-illusionist expressive modes inspired by Brecht’s epic theatre and xiqu. Ma Sen’s Flies and Mosquitoes (Cangying yu wenzi, 1967) was influenced by the Theatre of the Absurd.

In the 1980s, Lee’s successors, notably Yao I-wei, extended her project to create hybrid performing idioms by bringing Western and Chinese (both xiqu and huaju) theatres together. Yao launched five annual Experimental Theatre Festivals between 1980 and 1984, where a wide range of Western performing methods, such as Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty, were tested out on stage. At the first Experimental Festival, Lanling Theatre Workshop (Lanling Jufang, 1976-1990) staged a romantic comedy, Hezhu’s New Match (Hezhu xin pei, 1980), to critical success. Using a hybrid style taken from both illusionist and jingju theatres, the play reframes the jingju Hezhu’s Match (Hezhu pei) in modern language (Mandarin) and context (Taipei). While Lee Man-kuei believed that playwriting, not performance, is the key to developing a proficient theatre culture, Yao and his followers emphasized the contingency of performance.

The 1990s saw more varied and successful engagements with theatrical interculturalism. Godot Theatre (Guoduo Juchang, founded 1988), a major musical . theatre company(gewu ju), staged retitled adaptations of classics, such as Kiss Me, Nana (Wenwo ba Nana, 1995) and Oriental Rock Midsummer Night’s Dream (Dongfang yaogun zhongxiaye, 1999). The Contemporary Legend Theatre (Dangdai Chuanqi), a Westernized jingju company, has innovatively staged a series of jingju adaptations of Greek tragedies and Shakespearean plays since it was founded in 1986. These productions are not confined to small audiences as are many experimental works but are very popular both at the local and global levels. They have created new local traditions of engaging Western theatre cultures.

Further Readings:

Huang, Alexa “Impersonation, Autobiography, and Cross-Cultural Adaptation: Lee Kuo-Hsiu’s Shamlet.” Asian Theatre Journal 17:2 (Spring 2005): 122-137.

Weinstein, John B. “Multilingual Theatre in Contemporary Taiwan.” Asian Theatre Journal 17:2 (Fall 2000): 269-283.

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