Just as good theatre is a distillation of life, so a good book about a theatrical production can capture for us the essence of the theatre: its anticipatory fears, the joys and miseries of its necessary collaboration, the exhilaration of opening night, even the bitchy comments about colleagues.
Arthur Miller’s diary of seven weeks in the People’s Republic of China in spring of 1983, where he staged a landmark production of Death of a Salesman in Chinese, is a good book about the theatre. It tells us something of what Miller and his hosts hoped to accomplish with the production, a good deal about Miller and his working techniques, much about his views of the play—but not a great deal about the Chinese people with whom he worked. Backstage before opening night, Miller muses: “If I can’t claim to know my actors, I know them as well or as little as I would an American cast.” It is Miller’s tendency to intellectualize, as much as his inability to speak the language, which kept him detached from the people around him.
Despite misgivings that a “quintessentially American play”—with references to traveling salesmen, insurance and other facets of American life unknown in the PRC—might be incomprehensible to Chinese audiences, Miller accepted the invitation to do Salesman at the Beijing People’s Art Theatre with the aim of showing “that there is only one humanity.”
There’s evidence in the book that he succeeded. Miller’s account of the staging of the play, based on daily rehearsal notes, makes no attempt to edit out his early misconceptions; he records both successes and failures.
His continual, sometimes wearing attempts to find parallels between China and the West are countered by fascinating and revealing comments about the differences in dramatic styles and the organization of theatre institutions in the two cultures.
Here is Miller on a new Chinese play to which he was taken: “The blatancy of the overacting is so unabashed as to raise the possibility that it represents a consciously overwrought style in itself, which, like most other Chinese failures, one tends to ascribe to a kind of curdling of ancient tradition…It is merely a presentational account of moral and social meanings rather than a representation of the inner life of the characters…The melodramatic urge is basically an authoritarian one in art, as it tries to command what the viewer is to make of what he sees rather than give him choices as to what things really mean.”
Salesman, its producers hoped, would open “new territory” to China’s men and women of the theatre, rich territory from which they were completely cut off during the 10 years of the Cultural Revolution. The ambiguity that is central to contemporary Western theatre is totally outside recent Chinese tradition. As a Chinese professor told Miller, “‘Poetry is ambiguity; if not, why bother? And ambiguity is something we have not been accustomed to for some time?’ ” Miller later writes, “The problem for the Chinese now is that as they leave behind the ordered ‘naturalism’ of their recent regime-enforced infantilism and begin to deal with life’s complexities in the theatre as well as in other arts, a vacuum in their stylistic arsenal appears.”
Miller concludes, “the depth of ignorance in the United States about this country is depressing.” His important and stimulating Salesman in Beijing may play a role in alleviating that ignorance.
Edward Corn is the general director of the Minnesota Opera Company and a member of the boards of directors of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations and the Midwest China Center.
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