An Age of Transition: Restaging Brecht’s Encounter with Beijing Opera
The scene is Moscow, 1935. A who’s who of the European avant-garde has gathered to see the work of their foremost Chinese colleague: the Beijing opera master Mei Lanfang. Among them is the German playwright Bertolt Brecht, who sees in Mei’s performances the aesthetic effect he aims to develop in his own work: an effect he will soon call the ‘alienation effect.’ In 1936, Brecht pens his famous essay “On Chinese Acting,” in which he argues—approvingly—that Chinese theatre alienates the actor and audience from a play’s narrative by smashing the fourth wall and championing symbolism over realism. But did Brecht get it right? In this essay, I examine this remarkable episode in global theatre history. I argue that Brecht misunderstood Beijing opera’s theatre aesthetics, yet nonetheless meaningfully engaged with Chinese culture. A renewed encounter between Brechtian theatre and Beijing opera, I suggest, opens up intriguing possibilities in dramatic performance and theatre aesthetics.
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