The Peony Pavilion

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The Peony Pavilion

The great classical stage art of Kunqu is an ancestor of Peking Opera that first became popular in the 16th century. Kunqu was to remain China's dominant national theatrical form for some 300 years, and although it lost its place as the nation's preeminent form of theatre with the rise of Peking Opera, a number of Kunqu troupes still perform regularly. They not only stage the great classics and create new ones, but they also make imaginative adaptations of some of those time-honored pieces. The Shanghai Kunqu Troupe's production of The Peony Pavilion is one of these.

The Peony Pavilion (牡丹亭), written in 1598, has long been considered the greatest Kunqu opera of all time. Its author was Tang Xianzu, who lived from 1550 to 1617. A native of Jiangxi Province, Tang was widely recognized as a man of immense learning, yet he failed to thrive as a government official. Exile, demotion and poverty marked his official career, but he left behind five Kunqu operas, among them The Peony Pavilion.

Tang Xianzu originally wrote the work as part of a collection called The Four Dreams of the Jade Tea Studio. He reportedly once said, "I have had four dreams in my life, and the dream of The Peony Pavilion is my favorite." It proved an immediate favorite with Ming Dynasty audiences as well, and records indicate that the work was well known in virtually every household. A number of other well-known writers were quick to make adaptations of it, most of which are now long lost.

A distinguishing characteristic of Kunqu dramas that was maintained throughout the Ming and Qing dynasties was their enormous length. A complete performance of these works could take as long as several days. The refined music, intricately woven plots and elegant language of Kunqu won it favor far and wide. Eventually, however, it was the length and the abstruse nature of the language that were to cause Kunqu to lose favor. Forms such as Peking Opera had far wider popular appeal, and eventually won over the literati as well.

Few people nowadays, even the most stage-struck, have the time to spend long days at the theatre that watching full-length performances of the Kunqu classics would require. Highlights or abbreviated forms of the older plays are normally staged. But the Shanghai Kunqu Troupe drew worldwide attention when it was invited to revive The Peony Pavilion and present it in its entirety at New York's Lincoln Center.

Such an undertaking would have been virtually impossible had not the Lincoln Center offered to fund the entire venture. Shanghai's traditional theatre troupes appear quite affluent compared with most of their counterparts in other parts of China, but the budget for the 20-hour-long New York performance of The Peony Pavilion was at least 10 times that of the most lavish domestic production.

The Lincoln Center performance was a success, but upon its return to China the troupe had to find a workable way to continue staging the spectacular piece at home. It was absolutely essential that it be scaled down: neither the troupe nor the Shanghai Bureau of Culture could afford to stage continued performances on a par with those of New York. While it's true that private disposable income in China, particularly in the coastal areas, has steadily risen in recent years, few people are willing to spend the amount of money on tickets that a profitable run of the full-length Peony Pavilion would have cost.

The Shanghai Kunqu Troupe came up with a mini-version of the work. Although "mini" might be the wrong adjective, since even the downsized version is still some seven hours long and consists of 30 scenes, spread over three nights in performance. But it is a brilliantly staged production that drew a full house throughout its run in Beijing.

The plot of the long work is, of course, quite complex, but the overriding theme is the power of true love. Du Liniang is the young daughter of a wealthy official. Believing that in order to be the best wife possible to whatever educated young man she will eventually marry, her father hires a tutor for her. Liniang is a good girl and applies herself to her studies, but often finds her ridiculously stuffy teacher quite unbearable. Her fun-loving maid, Chunxiang, is of no use whatsoever in helping her to concentrate; she would far rather play practical jokes on the pretentious old scholar than study.

It is, in fact, Chunxiang who runs in to tell her mistress how lovely the garden is one day. Liniang is normally not allowed to go into the deserted garden, but she is struck by spring fever and cannot resist the lush greenery and colorful blossoms. The girls wander along the paths for a time, then Liniang sits down to rest in the Peony Pavilion while Chunxiang wanders off.

In what is doubtless the most famous scene in the opera, Du Liniang falls asleep and dreams that a handsome young scholar comes to the garden, bearing a sprig of willow in his hand. The two fall in love and spend a romantic afternoon under the trees.

Upon awakening, Liniang finds herself alone, but she cannot forget her scholar. Bereft, she slowly pines away. Despite all the care her parents and her maid lavish upon her, she dies and is buried in the garden. Her father receives an imperial edict ordering him to Huaiyang to see to its defense against the invading Kin troops. The family must leave immediately for the new post, and they ask a Buddhist nun to tend Liniang's grave in their absence.

Some time later, a poor young scholar named Liu Mengmei is on his way to the capital to take the imperial examinations. He falls ill during his journey, and is given shelter by the Buddhist nun. One day while he is recuperating from his illness, Mengmei happens upon a portrait of Du Liniang. He immediately recognizes her as the young woman he fell in love with in a dream, so he takes the painting home to gaze at every day.

Meanwhile, Liniang has awakened in the underworld. She pleads with the magistrate of hell to release her. When he hears her story and sees what a young and innocent girl she is, he agrees to investigate her case. Indeed, he learns, she is fated to marry a man by the name of Liu Mengmei. She must be allowed to return to life.

The ghost of Du Liniang appears to Mengmei, although he at first believes that she is a normal human being. When she is certain of his love, Liniang tells him the truth and says that if he exhumes her body from its grave her spirit will be allowed to rejoin it and she will be alive once again. With the help of the nun, Mengmei follows Liniang's instructions and the two are united at last. Liu Mengmei eventually takes top honors in the imperial examinations and, after encountering many other trials and tribulations, the happily married couple is reunited with Liniang's parents.

Many Kunqu fans feel that the art form's relative lack of popularity is the fault of modern audiences. Those of the MTV age, they say, lack the attention span and cultural sophistication to appreciate an art like Kunqu. This is true in many countries: facing budget constraints, schools often ignore training in the arts and art appreciation, and without exposure young people never learn the value their traditional culture.

Others blame the performers, saying they don't set their sights high enough. They aim only to emulate their teachers, and as a result they fall short. The members of the Shanghai Kunqu Troupe have proved themselves capable of aiming far beyond this, incorporating the skills of past masters but pushing their art to even greater heights.

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