Theaters of Reform and Remediation: Xiqu (Chinese Opera) in the Mid-Twentieth Century

Author: 

Anne Elizabeth Rebull

PhD defended at: 

University of Chicago

Summary: 

This dissertation excavates performance practice from the study of the literary, transcultural and intermedial adaptation practices of xiqu (Chinese opera) in the mid-twentieth century. Xiqu reform was the politically fraught adaptation of both text and technique, driven by engagement with the idea of indigenous theater as the public face of Chinese culture. Whether before or after 1949, xiqu remained a shifting target, battered by pressures towards political weaponization in content and what I term ‘vernacularization’ in technique, reflective of a move away from theatricality and towards a relative mimeticism. I focus on the connections of the Xiqu Reform Movement of the 1950s to the wartime era that preceded it, in order to demonstrate that its ideological agenda was not a project of simple repression, but inextricably tangled with both the politically inflected aesthetic debates of the previous decades and long-standing trends in the theater industry.
While one line of inquiry is how Republican discourse of how and how far to hybridize with foreign forms haunted state interventions in the industry, I also pursue how artists themselves used performance practice to direct reform. Experimentation with the use of a director, new acting and staging techniques, and the continual refinement of play content towards audience tastes were all characteristics of the late Republic that the state attempted to co-opt after 1949. These elements of performance constitute the specific expression of xiqu aesthetics, and the project to reform them was colored by dynamic concerns for the balance of adaptation with preservation. Reform was oriented toward defining ‘China’ for foreign audiences and also for itself, investing xiqu with the weight of national tradition to counteract the foreignness of other theatrical forms and media. Examining the archive of these adaptations, this dissertation considers reform through the lens of remediation, divided into chapters by print, stage performance, and film. In reassessing 1950s theater, I demonstrate that reform was the dialogue of state intervention in national xiqu culture with pressures from developments in theater arts initiated by practitioners; it is through the refraction of adaptation to other media that traces of performance practice emerge.

Defended: 

2017