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Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. VIII, No. 3
Winter, 1984


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REVIEWS OF O'NEILL PLAYS IN PERFORMANCE

2. ANDI (ANNA CHRISTIE), directed by George White. Theater of the Central Academy of Dramatic Arts, Beijing, China, October 16-21, 1984. [A scene from the production appears on this issue's cover, and Mr. White's New York Times report on the venture is synopsized on a later page. --Ed.]

Andi, a Sino-US hybrid of O'Neill's Anna Christie, was enthusiastically received and quite well attended here in Beijing. It opened on October 16, to commemorate O'Neill's 96th birthday, and ran for twelve performances, which was a respectable run by Chinese standards. Though in the later performances the theater was not quite full, those who attended seemed quite carried away by what they saw on the stage, for there was none of the whispering or departure during the performance that is usually found in Chinese theaters when a production is considered less than satisfactory. As a matter of fact, a large number of spectators were even moved to tears when the heroine, in Act III, screamed out her past as the two men around her both claimed to own her like a piece of property.

The title Andi is in fact an abbreviation, the first and last syllables of the Chinese translation of the title Anna Christie. Likewise, the other characters were given familiar Chinese names of two or three syllables, all easily traceable to their O'Neill originals. More significant changes were in the setting and year of the story. Instead of the waterfront in New York, Provincetown and Boston around 1910, the action of Andi was moved to the harbors of Shanghai and Ning Bo, two major seaports along the mid-east China coast, in the 1930s.

The idea to present in China an adapted rather than a translated version of O'Neill's play came from the American director, Mr. George White of the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut. The producers--China's Theater Association and the Central Academy of Dramatic Arts--and even Mr. Huang Zhongjiang, to whom Mr. White entrusted the adaptation, had been wary of the effect of such temporal and geographical trans-plantation. Mr. White insisted on the change, though, and his reasons were understand-able: to prove the universality of O'Neill and to make the play more easily accessible to those barred by historical and cultural gaps. Besides, a translated version of the play was produced just two years ago in the same theater by the same Academy, though with a different cast. And Andi is by no means the first attempt at adaptation.

Born of the influence of Western theater, modern Chinese drama has in its record a number of excellent adaptations of foreign plays, such as Hong Shen's Young Mistress' Fan, based on Wilde's Lady Windermere's Fan, and Ke Lin's Night Lodge, modeled on Gorky's The Lower Depths. These are works restructuring their models and well fitted to the Chinese cultural context.

But this adaptation of Anna Christie had to be different, for it was to be directed by someone who did not speak Chinese. Therefore, the production had to follow closely the original in structure, dialogue sequence and imagery, whereas the characters' nationalities and milieu were to be entirely transformed. Consequently one finds a number of incongruities inherent in the adaptation. For instance, the family entrance of the saloon in the first act was a bewilderment to the Chinese spectators, who were left at a loss as to why Lao Gui (Chris) and Mei Sou (Marthy), pronouncedly arriving together, should, and could, walk in through different entrances. Religion was another source of incongruity. That Ma Haiseng (Mat), a young Chinese sailor, should be a devout Catholic and, in Act III, insist in all seriousness on Andi swearing an oath on a cross: this seemed alien and arbitrary.

However, the most serious incongruity, one lying in the characters' temperaments,
came mainly from the difference between the Chinese and American temperaments in general. A ready example is the way people express their emotions. In China it was, and still is, bad form to show emotion too openly. So, while American audiences were tickled and puzzled by the constraint and subtlety in dialogue and gesture between a couple on their wedding night in Family, a Chinese play recently produced at the University of Missouri and at the O'Neill Theater Center, the Chinese found Ma Haiseng's open and passionate display of his love un-Chinese, if not "unnatural." Actually, Mr. White had made several concessions to Chinese modesty: in Act II, Ma Haiseng appeared, not "stripped to the waist," as O'Neill had dictated, but in a tattered shirt; and the passionate kiss between him and Andi near the end was replaced by an embrace with some tender caresses. These alterations, however, helped little in changing the audience's impression that what they saw on the stage were but Americans wearing Chinese masks.

Mr. White, on the other hand, certainly has an eye for the kind of people he wants. Not only were the performers first-rate, but Huang Zhongjiang is unquestionably the best one could get for the adaptation. A well-known screen writer and a long-time admirer of O'Neill, Mr. Huang had, in his early life, experiences not unlike O'Neill's. For years he was a sailor roving around the world. In this play, he did all he possibly could to recapture in Chinese the sailors' life and O'Neill's spirit.

The cast for this production was exceptionally strong. Even the supporting roles were taken by famous actors and actresses of the Academy, who had earlier played leading roles in great plays like Peer Gynt. Lou Naiming as Mei Sou (Marthy Owen) was every inch an old-time prostitute, reminiscent of the excellent performance of Marie Dressler in the American film version of 1930, The opening scene in the saloon before any of the principal characters appeared was so well performed that, for a time, the audience were made to believe that they were seeing a real Chinese play in the style of Lao Shi's Tea House. (Ironically, this scene made the later incongruities all the more conspicuous.)

Mr. Ban Guo'an in the role of Lao Gui (Chris) was certainly a caution, and his acting won the greatest praise of all. Ma Shuyun, in the title role, is also a performer to watch. She caught well the transitions from a cynical, worn-out prostitute to a sea-refreshed, innocent girl and then to a vulnerable, true lover. Xue Shan (Ma Haiseng), a young and less experienced actor, is. smaller than the Mat described by O'Neill, yet he somehow managed to make up in youthful awkwardness for what he obviously lacked in size and strength.

The set design and lighting effects were both good, to the credit of Mr. Ming Cho Lee and Mr. Ian Calderon, especially in Act II, where a big barge was set against a black backdrop, with projected shades of colors creating the special mood the scene calls for. If anything, the settings in the other acts seemed a bit too realistic and familiar, which again accentuated the "misfit" in the action's transplantation.

All in all, Andi was a well-intentioned, well-cooperated and interesting production, though if Mr. White had given his complete trust to O'Neill and to present-day Chinese theatergoers, who are well exposed to Western drama, it might have been even better received. But the meaning and importance of this production reach well beyond the production itself. It is hoped that this kind of Sino-US joint venture will be widely echoed--both within and without the sphere of drama.

--Haiping Liu

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