If modern Chinese drama has come of age in the 1930s,
then Cao Yu and his dramatic trilogy of Thunderstorm, Sunrise and The
Wilderness are a hallmark of this maturity. Rich in implications and
excellent in techniques, these dramatic works are regarded as the classics of
modern Chinese drama.
Cao Yu (1910-1996) is a renowned modern
Chinese dramatist who is regarded as "the Shakespeare of China". His original
name was Wan Jiabao (alias Xiaoshi). He was born into a declining bureaucrat
family in Tianjin. His ancestral
home was Qianjiang Country,
Hubei Province. Just before
graduation in 1933 when he was only 23 years old, he finished his virgin play
Thunderstorm, to be followed up by Sunrise (1936) and The Wilderness
Thunderstorm is a tragedy involving complicated blood relationships and numerous
inevitable tragic coincidences. It is a dramatic feat with profound connotations
and heart-stirring artistry.
As the chairman of the board of directors of
a modern coal-mining company, Zhou Puyuan, a male character in the play had been
to German to study. Cold-blooded, selfish and hypocritical, he was like a
dictator of a dark dynasty in his home. The story unfolded around him. Thirty
years earlier, his parents drove away Shiping, a maidservant whom he loved and
who had born two sons for him in order to take as his wife for him a girl of an
influential family. He thought she must have drowned herself in a river.
However, she was saved and married Lu Gui, a lower-rank manservant.
By a quirk of fate, thirty years later, Lu
Gui worked at the Zhou's as a servant. Furthermore, his daughter Sifeng also
became a maid of the Zhou's just as her mother had been three decades ago.
Sifeng fell in love with Zhou Ping (the eldest son of Zhou Puyuan and Shiping)
and was pregnant. Yet their love was filled with internal anguish because
Fangyi, the young mistress of the Zhou's, did not give up Zhou Ping with whom
she had an illicit relationship. At the same time, Sifeng had to face the love
of Zhou Chong (a son of Zhou Puyuan and Fanyi), the second eldest son of the
To look for Sifeng, Shiping came to the
Zhou's. Here, something that she hated most to see happened. She met Zhou Puyuan
again although their old love could no longer be rekindled. Her daughter
followed her suit and fell in love with her elder brother and got pregnant. Her
two sons Zhou Ping and Lu Dahai could not put up with each other due to their
different social status. Everybody present was in the dark except her who knew
the truth inside out and thus complained of the unfair fate.
As soon as the cloud over the blood
relationships was cleared, a terrible tragedy occurred -- Sifeng was
electrocuted and Zhou Chong died the same way in trying to save her; Zhou Ping
shot himself with a pistol and Fangyi went mad. Shiping was dumbfounded in the
face of all these tragic scenes. As the arch- criminal for all these tragic and
sinful events, Zhou Puyuan was doomed at the end of the play to swallow all
these dismal results.
Zhou Puyuan is a well-portrayed character in
Thunderstorm. All sinful acts were attributable to his domestic
autocracy. The profound significance of Thunderstorm lies in its exposure
of the close political and ideological bond between Chinese capitalists and the
deep-rooted feudal traditions. Through his mind filled with complicated
conflicts and his superficially humane appearance, we can see the dark soul of a
ghastly feudal despot.
Cao Yu once said that Fanyi was the
stormiest character in the play. She was eccentric and capricious all along --
sometimes calm and sometimes wild. In addition, her freak love and strong lust
drive reminded the audience of a sudden and violent thunderstorm. As Zhou
Puyuan's second wife, she wanted very much to hold her own life. Despite a
boring, apathetic, lonely and gloomy family life, a flame of love was still
burning at the bottom of her heart. Because of her love for Zhou Ping, she was
"neither like a mother as a mother nor like a sweetheart as a sweetheart". Her
pursuit for dreamy happiness rendered destruction to herself and others.
In Thunderstorm , Shiping is a very
important role. She was a simple and kind workwoman who had suffered much pain
and humiliation. The unfair fate exerted tremendous pressure on her soul.
Sifeng, her chaste and pretty daughter who should have her own love, followed
her miserable lot.
Thunderstorm achieved great success in art. This results possibly from the
inspiration of Greek tragedy, the influence of Ibsen's plays or Cao Yu's
familiarity with well-made plays. However, rather than an imitation, the play
derives from the playwright's anger at the Chinese family and society and his
thunderstorm-like poetic sense. In particular, the dramatic language used in the
play is refined, pure and full of undertones.
Shortly after the publication of
Thunderstorm, Chinese students in Japan put it on the stage. In China, China Travel Troupe included it in its
repertoire and staged it many times in Beijing, Tianjin and Shanghai. Guo Moruo called it "a rare weighty
work". Mao Dun praised it as something that "shocked me like a violent storm I
encountered at sea". Since the 1980s, it has generated a new upsurge of interest
and has been staged all along.
Sunrise appeared less than two years after the publication of
Thunderstorm. In this play, Cao Yu turned his attention from family to
society. He chose a grand hotel and a third-class whorehouse as the stage
settings, which formed a striking contrast.
In the first setting, the play described the
luxurious and dissipated life of the upper class with the plot developed around
Chen Bailu, a party girl and those banking managers, rich women, handsome men
and foreign professors around her. In contrast, in the second setting, by
depicting the fate of Cuixi, a prostitute and a girl named the Shrimp sold to
Precious Harmony, the playwright exposed the infernal society. Cao Yu intended
this contrast structure to flagellate the corrupt social system.
Chen Bailu is a clever and pretty young
woman. As her family came down in the world, she had to work her own way into
the society and became a star with her beauty. She pursued love and had fallen
in love with a poet. But she parted with him finally in pain. Her life as a star
and party girl brought her money, vanity and anguish of being betrayed. She
enjoyed a luxurious life in the hotels, which also corrupted her at the same
time. Not until Fang Dasheng who once loved her very much came to her did she
have time to review herself and question her own soul. She was not a completely
depraved woman. When seeing a girl named "the Shrimp" being beaten hard by some
hooligans, she stepped forward boldly to defend the poor girl. Yet when she
realized that "the Shrimp" could not escape death, she came to know that she was
unable to change the reality and her own miserable fate of "being permanently
possessed by this place".
She could not advance along the way pointed
out by Fang Dasheng. So she became even more depressed. The downfall of Pan
Yueting with whom she had played together illicitly exacerbated her depression.
In fact, her clear thinking and reasoning had enabled her to realize that an
inevitable tragedy was approaching her So she decided to end her miserable life.
Compared with Thunderstorm,
Sunrise went a step
further in exhibiting Cao Yu's talent in characterization. For example, he could
still present the audience with penetrating descriptions of such characters as
Li Shiqing and Huang Xingsan who appeared only a few times on the stage. His
depiction of Mistress Gu, a rich widow and Zhang George, a flunkey of a foreign
boss was concise but incisive.
In Sunrise Cao Yu employed many dramatic
techniques on the basis of tragic keynote, such as comic and even farcical
made more use of metaphors and symbols. At the end
of the play, against the scarlet morning sun was a resounding and exciting work
song of the pile-driving workers. This represented the playwright's praise of
work as well as his longing for the ideal. What's more, through depiction of
different characters, the play exposed the harmful effects of money on the
society and man.
Unlike his other two famous plays
describing urban life, Cao Yu told us a story of revenge that happened in the
countryside in The Wilderness.
As a prison breaker, Chouhu returned to his
home village in secret. Many years ago, the local tyrant Jiao Yanwang buried his
father alive, forcibly took possession of the land of his family, sold his
younger sister into prostitution and took Jinzhi (his sweetheart) as his
daughter-in-law When Chouhu appeared in front of the Jiao's home, Jiao Yanwang
was already dead and his wife had become blind. Only Daxing, the coward son of
Jiao who was Chouhu's friend in childhood, was there to support the family.
Chouhu's reunion with Jinzhi resulted in an
interlude of strange and wild love. Driven by his distorted and depressed soul,
Chouhu was anxious to kill Daxing so as to prevent the Jiaos from having any
successors. It was not easy for him to summon up the courage to do that.
However, he did kill Daxing and even tricked Daxing's mother into murdering
Daxing's child. Notwithstanding this, he could not take any delight in achieving
his revenge. Chased by the detective squad, Chouhu escaped into the forest where
he felt violent terror and became deranged. As a result, various illusions
flashed across his mind constantly: Jiao Yanwang, terrifying masks, his sister
who died miserably. In addition, the shooting sounds and the drumbeats disturbed
his soul and made him more confused. In the end, he did not walk out of the dark
forest and died there.
This play was influenced by Emperor
Jones, a play by Eugene O'Neil -- a renowned American dramatist. With
expressionism, O'Neil hoped to externalize man's sub-consciousness, inner
conflicts on the stage. The Wilderness is not a mere imitation. Here Cao
Yu combined expressionism and realism. The most unique significance of the play
lies in its presentation from a fresh point of view of the heavy burden on the
peasants and the complex and circuitous psychological process they go through
from revolt to awakening.