Adaptation and Staging of Greek Tragedy in Hebei Bangzi

By Tian, Min | Asian Theatre Journal, Fall-Winter 2006 | Go to article overview
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Adaptation and Staging of Greek Tragedy in Hebei Bangzi


Tian, Min, Asian Theatre Journal


This article is a critical study of the adaptation and staging of Greek tragedy in hebei bangzi (Hebei clapper opera). It examines the rationale for these adaptations and contrasts their dramaturgy, staging, and performance with the premises of Greek theatre. The author argues that because of the inherent differences in dramaturgy, staging, and performance between hebei bangzi and Greek tragedy, these adaptations, conceived as a "fusion" of these two theatrical traditions, are, in fact, a displacement of Greek tragedies from their theatrical and artistic contexts and an appropriation of them as raw materials to meet the dramatic, scenic, and performance prerequisites of hebei bangzi. The significance of these adaptations is twofold: first, as they use a complete and authentic form of Chinese xiqu and the stories from Greek tragedy, they are effective in facilitating the understanding of Chinese xiqu in the West; second, they provide yet another approach to performing Greek tragedy and help materialize our modernist imagination of its performance style.

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During the last two decades of the twentieth century, adaptations of Greek tragedies drawing on Asian traditional theatres have made significant contributions to the modern and contemporary staging and interpretation of Greek tragedies. Productions such as those by Suzuki Tadashi, Ninagawa Yukio, and Ariane Mnouchkine have drawn international acclaim and have brought about critical debate. During the same period of time, Chinese adaptations of Greek tragedy in traditional Chinese theatrical forms have become important intercultural theatrical events. The first adaptation of Greek drama in a traditional Chinese theatrical form was the 1989 hebei bangzi (a) (Hebei clapper opera) production of Medea by Hebei Bangzi Theatre of Hebei Province. Productions by hebei bangzi theatre troupes based in Hebei Province and Beijing have toured European countries such as Greece, Cyprus, Italy, France, and Spain, and South American countries such as Argentina and Colombia. In contrast to those by Suzuki, Ninagawa, and Mnouchkine, Chinese productions have not drawn the critical attention they merit outside China. (1) This study undertakes a critical analysis of these productions by examining the rationale for them and contrasting their dramaturgy, staging, and performance with the premises of Greek theatre.

For many artists adapting Greek tragedies in Chinese traditional forms, the raison d'etre is that there are similarities in staging and performance between Greek and Chinese forms. But for me these surface similarities are only constructed rationales for the "fusion" experiments, which overlook the inherent difference between traditional Chinese theatre (including hebei bangzi) as performed today and the Greek tragedy: the former is a performance-centered theatre of physical gestures and movements whereas the latter is a drama centered on dramatic text. Antonin Artaud's imagination of a theatrical "physics" of "concrete gestures" for Aeschylus and Sophocles that has "an efficacy strong enough to make us forget the very necessity of language" (Artaud 1958: 108) is an assertion of his own avant-gardist ideal rather than an affirmation of the existence of such a theatrical "physics" in ancient Greek theatre. The dramatic agon is a good example to show the primacy of words in Greek tragedy as exemplified in the "war of words" (Euripides 1998a: 15) between Medea and Jason or a messenger's "torrent of words" (Aeschylus 1991: 47). Oliver Taplin concludes that in Greek tragedy, "Virtually all the significant action is signposted by the words" (Taplin 1978: 19).

The development of staging and acting in Greek tragedy is just the opposite of that of Chinese theatre. The impulse of Greek theatre deviated from the earlier simple theatrical forms and geared toward realism and psychology, from Aeschylus' ritual performance to Euripides' realism and psychological approach.

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