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Mei Lanfang in Moscow, 1935: Familiar, Unfamiliar, Defamiliar

Mei Lanfang in Moscow, 1935: Familiar, Unfamiliar, Defamiliar
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   • Mei Lanfang in Moscow, 1935  Mei Lanfang in Moscow, 1935: Familiar, Unfamiliar, Defamiliar † aun aussyProogue A Chinese princess, wearing a tunic and trousers of white satin embroidered with flowers and a tall white headdress hung with ribbons and medallions, tands to the left, smiling slightly. On the right, two Russians, wearing heavy wool suits, are gazing at her with intense curiosity and, in the case f the bald one with glasses, what seems to be concern. She, all poise and ymmetry, is not speaking; they seem about to speak.he image is familiar to anyone who has followed the history of Chinese theater or the cultural ties connecting China and the rest of the world. The princess is a man, the accomplished actor and director Mei Lanfang, and the two transfixed Russians are Aleksandr Tairov and Sergei Eisenstein, two prominent Soviet theater and film directors. The occasion is a visit by Mei’s opera troupe to Moscow in March 1935. 1  similar image endures in one of the most influential pieces of ultural criticism in the twentieth-century canon, Bertholt Brecht’s “Verfremdungs-effekte in der chinesischen Schauspielkunst” (Alienation ffects in Chinese acting, 1936). Brecht sees in Chinese theater a form f acting that acknowledges its own artificiality, that seeks to create not A first version of this paper was prepared for the conference Orentasm an Moernsm: Cross-ultural and Interartistic Connections,” rganized at Cambridge University by Dr. Jut Green at n June 2004. In te interval, Liu Dong, Janne Risum, Eric Hayot, an two anonymous reaers have greatly helped me to clarify my thinking. Mei staged performances in Moscow n Lenngra an e scussons with local theater people (among them Stanislavsky, Meyerhold, Tret’iakov, Eisenstein, and Brecht, then an xile from Germany). The visit and scussons are ocumente ary opiously. On Mei’s Moscow tour and its aftereffects, see Mei Lanfang 1984: MCLC 18.1.indd 87/7/06 3:33:01 PM  oern nese terature an uture • an illusion of reality but the deft execution of a convention. Audience response, accordingly, is allowed to depart from Aristotelian “empathy” and become critical: rather than putting themselves in the place of the haracters represented, the spectators question and judge the situations mimed onstage. The performer portrays incidents of utmost passion, but without his delivery becoming heated. At those points where the character portrayed is deeply excited the performer takes a braid of hair be-tween his lips and chews it. But this is like a ritual, there is nothing eruptive about it. It is quite clearly somebody else’s repetition of the incident: a representation, even though an artistic one. . . . And so lack of control is decorously expressed. . . . [The actor] is careful not to make [the character’s] sensations into those of the spectator. Nobody gets raped [ vergewaltigt   overpowered] by the individual he portrays. (Brecht 1967: 622–623; Brecht 1964: 93–94)For Brecht, then, “going through the motions” can be the actor’s highest calling. Brecht fused his experience of Mei Lanfang’s classical acting with his own previous theater practice to form the doctrine of the “alienation-effect.” As Janne Risum (2001 b : 198) has pointed out, the term “Verfremdung,” though often translated into English by the more lassically Marxist-tinged word “alienation,” corresponds to the  stranenie (“estrangement”) named by Viktor Shklovsky in 1917 as the main goal of works of art. This double appropriation by Brecht—of Chinese theater and f the aesthetics of 1920s formalism—has some rather ironic implications in the political context of 1935.The role that this Chinese princess plays in the story of aesthetic modernity is a complex one, involving several layers of antithetical meanings. Not only was the future of modernism (for modernism is nothing if not a prediction of the future) urgently contested in the USSR of 1935; the very art the princess incarnated was taken, in China, to be hopelessly resistant to modernization, making it all the more paradoxical that she 6–56; Me Saowu 1984: 126–159; Ceng Pei-kai 1994 and 1995. On Mei’s earlier areer, see Goldstein 1999. Mei Lanfang’s memoirs (Mei 1987) go only as far as the arly 1920s; a draft of some subsequent apters was estroye y Re Guars in 1966. Lars Kleberg 1998 [1981] offers n imaginative reconstruction of the Moscow discussions around Mei Lanfang. Kleberg subsequently discovered and puse an actua transcrpt o te iscussions (Kleberg 1992). On Mei’s Russian tour as an exemplary instance f cultural interchange, see Banu 1986; hen 1995; Tian 1997; Saussy 2001; Hayot 004; an Rsum 2001 Brecht 1967: 619–631; 1964: 91–99. For ommentares, see Tan 1997; Rsum 001 b  Saussy 2001: 164–168; and Hayot 004: 74–88. MCLC 18.1.indd 97/7/06 3:33:02 PM   • ei Lanfang in Moscow, 1935  hould be made to stand for the possibility of an utterly modern theater. Modernity, modernism, modernization: three overlapping terms without precise definition, or better yet, three battlegrounds. The meaning of Mei Lanfang’s Russian tour in the spring of 1935 occurs at the intersection of at least three contradictory models of modernity: the Futurist/Formalist, the Marxist, and the Realist. That is why the princess’s brow is so smooth, and those of her interpreters so furrowed. Te Rigt Man in te Wrong Pace Mei’s visit came at a moment of crisis for Soviet theater. The great figures of the early twentieth-century avant-gardes were still active, but increasingly under political scrutiny. At the All-Soviet Congress of Writers in 1934, the aesthetic policy of “socialist realism” presented by Andrei hdanov had received Stalin’s approval and would become the standard by which performances and compositions were judged. If earlier artistic and political avant-gardes had shared concerns and personnel, now the “advanced” artistic movements of the period 1910–1930 were declared potcay “acwar.” Te reversa amounts to a sagreement over te meaning of modernity. Despite the difference of art forms and subject matter, symbolism, futurism, constructivism, suprematism, agitprop, formalism, and the new art of cinematic montage all had in common a certain way of putting forth the new: the freeing of artistic process from service to realist representation. The very young Roman Jakobson, friend of poets, critics and linguists, gave a definition of modernism in 1919 that expresses well what the protagonists f these artistic movements saw themselves as achieving in all media:he emancipation of painting from elementary illusionism entails an intensive elaboration of various areas of pictorial expression. he correlations of volumes, constructive asymmetry, chromatic ontrast, and texture enter the foreground of the artist’s onsciousness. The results of this realization are the following: (1) MCLC 18.1.indd 107/7/06 3:33:02 PM  oern nese terature an uture • the canonization of a series of devices, which thus also allows one to speak of Cubism as a school; (2) the laying bare of the device. Thus the realized texture no longer seeks any sort of justification for itself; it becomes autonomous, demands for itself new methods of formulation, new material. Pieces of paper begin to be pasted on the picture, sand is thrown on it. Finally, cardboard, wood, tin, and so on are used.As the objects of representation receded from the field of the maker’s and the audience’s attention, the means of representation took on new prominence. Materials began to speak for themselves. Scenery related not to an imitated outside world, but to the inner world of the characters. Futurist poetry was composed as phonetic and calligraphic orchestration. A painting might be entirely black or white, or include an actual hammer lued to the canvas. The futurist opera Vctory over te Sun , prouce n 1913, staged a ritual of deconsecration in which the sun (image of familiar, veryday, consensus perception) was replaced by a new vision that did not epend on its light. Modern art in this mode sought to “defamiliarize” the real. Its being, often, about its own production-process might (but did not infallibly) touch off a critical understanding of extra-artistic perception and judgment. Critics such as Shklovsky (1965 [1917]) and Tynianov (1985 [1927]) rewrote literary history as a sequence of technical discoveries and xhaustions in which subject matter and Zeitgeist played a subsidiary role, if any.This is one definition of the modern, and it is structured around a break: the break with representation, the abandonment of realism as a program for literary discovery. The Zhdanovian program for Soviet literature (promulgated in 1934–36), on the contrary, denounced nonrepresentational art as a bourgeois, decadent formalism, counterposing to it an ideal of “revolutionary romanticism”: “truthfulness and historical concreteness . . . ombined with ideological remolding and education of the toiling people in the spirit of socialism” (Scott 1935; for background, see Gutkin 1999). Such “Futurism” (1919), in Jakobson 1998: 147. The autonomy thesis appears in many canonical vindications of modernism, such as Clement Greenberg’s, repeate many tmes over a ong career: The history of avant-garde painting is hat of a progressive surrender to the resistance of its medium” (“Towards a Newer Laocoon” [1940], in Greenberg 1986. 1: 34. “When the avant-gardists demand that rt become practical once again, they o not mean that the contents of works art sou e socay sgn cant. Te emand is not raised at the level of the ontents of individual works. Rather, it irects itself to the way art functions in ociety, a process that does as much to etermne te eect tat wors ave s does the particular content” (Bürger 1984: 49). MCLC 18.1.indd 117/7/06 3:33:02 PM   • ei Lanfang in Moscow, 1935  pposition to the aesthetics of “defamiliarization” was not new: in 1924, Lev Trotsky’s iterature and Revolution  had condemned Formalist literary theory and Futurist art for aestheticism, solipsism, and lack of practical political engagement—a series of libels that continue in good health to this day. Trotsky and Stalin may not have agreed on much else, but their hared dislike for modernist music, painting, poetry, and kindred symptoms f “Bohemian nihilism” (Trotsky 1924: 131) was notorious. n 1935, then, the turn against nonrepresentational, “formalist” art had just begun to make itself effective. The narrowing of aesthetic ptions announced political consolidation. The beginning of the Moscow how trials—a grim form of theater in themselves, where Old Bolsheviks rovelingly accepted guilt for crimes they had never even imagined ommitting—was a year off. Many of the theater people who arranged Mei Lanfang’s visit, welcomed him to Moscow, and wrote about him in the press would soon find themselves in exile, under house arrest, sent to labor camps, and in some cases shot.ll this makes a visit by Mei Lanfang, and its sponsorship by the former avant-gare, exceptonay uney. Tat te vst appene at a was an ffect of external politics. The KMT government in China kept up relations f mutual assistance with Bolshevik Russia, and Soviet agents, some of them quite gifted writers and cultural figures, were active in China. Sergei Tret’iakov, a leading advocate and planner for the visit, had spent two years as a professor in Beijing. The fact that China was, as ravda  put it in reviewing Mei’s performances,“a country that is both progressive and ympathetic to the Soviet Union” (Tret’iakov 1935) gave political cover to any possible artistic subversion.For subversion there was. If one applies a Zhdanovian standard to the record of the conversation between Soviet theater people with Mei Lanfang, it becomes apparent that by praising the properties of Chinese traditional theater, Mei’s interlocutors were also, more or less covertly (and ften, in their enthusiasm, nearly openly), reintroducing the aesthetics of MCLC 18.1.indd 127/7/06 3:33:03 PM
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