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Romeo + Juliet = Dysfunction

The title of this post is taken from a sign on the Odwalla freezer at the Daily Grind.  I couldn’t agree more

Constantly Writing...

Constantly Writing...

Time flies by quickly.  My colloquium was Monday and I just finished putting together my first cohesive draft 10 minutes ago.  It is encouraging to think that even though I felt a little scattered and all over the place a few months ago, now I’m directed and driven.  I even put together a “Romeo and Juliet” playlist that has helped me power through a number of intense writing sessions.

Don’t let anyone tell you that writing a thesis isn’t demanding!  The constant revisions and persistent issues with communication take their toll.  I feel like I’m under a special kind of pressure since my thesis involves such a dense amount of background information.  I’d rather my thesis not contain paragraph upon paragraph of exposition but I may not have too much leeway.

This coffee shop is my new muse of inspiration.  I have revised/ rewritten 35 pages of material in the last 2 days.  Now onto Spring Break!

A kunqu Production of mu dan ting (Peony Pavilion)

A kunqu Production of mu dan ting (Peony Pavilion)

So lets address the elephant in the room: Chinese opera.  It’s essential to my survey of Chinese drama (and really, any broad examination of the Sinophone culture) but a lot of people outside of China really dislike Chinese Opera.

Why?  The reasons I’ve heard for this rejection of Chinese Opera are endless

– the music sounds like whining/screeching/moaning

– the stock characters and traditional plots fail to entertain

– there is no sense of realism.

Well, fair enough!  I’ll admit that Chinese Opera is an acquired taste; one that I only became comfortable with after exposing myself to an excess of information and performances.  However, it is important to realize that when Westerners react so strongly to this genre of performance, we  (for at times I can include myself in this category) are responding to a media that emphasizes qualities just as skillfully produced but diametrically opposed to Anglo-American conceptions of drama.  Chinese opera values the essence of truth, beauty, and spectacle.

That being said, how can you enjoy a Chinese opera after watching drama from the world of Stanislavski realism for your whole life?  Masterpiece theatre, Law & Order, the Royal Shakespeare Company, and  even Sci Fi films like the Matrix aim to show actors responding to each other in the most believable way possible.  Chinese Opera wants to illuminate the most beautiful method of interacting.  Here lies the conflict.

As is almost always true in cultural studies: more information -> more understanding -> more appreciation.

So let me share my own personal transformation from shrinking audience member to fervent opera devotee.  I realize that a lot of my comments are pretty surface-level and may make broad generalizations…. not really what I’d like them to be.  However, this was my truthful path to appreciation and if it led me to a point where I can happily dive into a Chinese Opera, I hope it can open doors to deeper knowledge to others.

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Clock Graveyard in the Liangshan bo yu Zhu Liye Music Video

Clock Graveyard in the Liangshan bo yu Zhu Liye Music Video

Winter Break is over, Spring semester has officially begun, and all of the wonderful research opportunities that are involved with writing a thesis are falling into.

While I was enjoying staying cozy and warm this Winter (whether it be inside under a blanket, or at a comparatively warm island in Florida), I spent a lot of time retooling my thesis.  I’ve decided to focus on the influence nostalgia and historicization have in creating a comic or light-hearted tone in Chinese “Romeo and Juliet” productions.

Enjoy some background information and lots of pictures under the cut!

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Baz Luhrmann's 1996 Movie

Baz Luhrmann's 1996 Movie

Production Theory

  • RE: Reconsidering the assumption that there is one “true” text of Romeo and Juliet. “Indeed, it is for this openness, and for its capacity to re- and outlive and stage infinite variations upon its protagonists’ story, that Derrida has described Romeo and Juliet as an ‘anthology’ or ‘palimpest’ or ‘open theater of narratives’, terms that come very much to mind when we consider the experience of the play in recent years on the stage (Evans, 55)
  • Ironically… we know more about performances on the continent of Europe than we do about those in England, since the play was included in the repertoire of groups known as the “English Comedians” who toured with German or Dutch versions.” (Halio, 97)
  • Most recently, a literal updating of Romeo and Juliet, both on stage and the screen, has become increasingly apparent” (Halio, 110)

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    The Butterfly Lovers: Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai

    The Butterfly Lovers: Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai

    Of course Chinese directors do not approach the text with Romeo and Juliet with a blank slate.  They, and their audiences, have prior conceptions of what romantic literature and theatre should entail.  Many of those assumptions will have been constructed by Chinese folk stories, popular songs, high literature, movies, TV, you name it.  I have narrowed my focus to two sets of lovers that are most commonly epitomized as the region’s purest lovers.

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    As mentioned in my previous post, I am trying to structure my own research around a skeleton of Western theory.  I want my thesis to be accessible and usable to my (dare I call them??) colleagues in the fields of Comparative Literature and English.  One of the great aspects of working off a platform of well-known theory is that my comments will be easily understood!  Of course, the even deeper value is that a thorough comprehension of how adaptations are made, perceived and analyzed will lead to much stronger conclusions.

    Shakespeare Text in a Wangfujing Bookstore, Beijing
    Shakespeare Text in a Wangfujing Bookstore, Beijing

    Professor Blank recommended that I start with a 2000 collection of adaptation essays edited by James Naremore titled Film Adaptation.  Now, a valid question would be… why *film* adaptation?  Here are my answers.

    1)  I am dealing with adaptations of Shakespeare.  That in itself is a different challenge than a usual lit -> stage adaptation. Shakespeare is from an era so long ago that it is difficult for us to achieve the “faithful” adaptation that so many people who speak casually of adaptations want to reach without some level of transformation.  Additionally, the media we define as “theatre” is so radically different from the conditions of that of Elizabethan England that I feel a discourse of lit -> film adaptation is more useful

    2)  To add to that first level of transformation, the productions I will be discussing have made a cultural and geographic journey to China.  The discussions of ‘fidelity’ and ‘matching’ inherent in film theory are vital to my thesis.

    Of course, I can only absorb the most useful points into my thesis so I’m going to summarize the most relevant portions of each argument (mostly for my own benefit)

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    What’s a Montague?

    ‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy:
    Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
    What’s Montague? It is nor hand nor foot,
    Nor arm nor face, nor any other part
    Belonging to a man.  (II.2. 38-42)

    My thesis work was thrown off briefly because I had the rare opportunity to present a paper at the British Shakespeare Association Conference in London!


    I submitted an abstract In June, learned I had been accepted in July, edited throughout August, and presented and collaborated with an exciting group of scholars in September. My paper for my seminar, entitled Asian Shakespeares in Europe (led by Professor Alexander Huang), concerned a production inspired by Hamlet, located in the Danish castle where Hamlet was supposedly set, performed by an international cast, and directed by the Singaporean director Ong Keng Sen.  I wrote about his efforts to prevent his work and his cast from being viewed strictly as “Asians performing Shakespeare”.  It was an incredibly opportunity and even though it derailed my thesis a bit, I could not have been more thrilled to attend.

    "The solemn temples, the great globe itself" - Tempest, IV, 1, 153
    “The solemn temples, the great globe itself” – Tempest, IV, 1, 153

    So, where is my thesis?

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    My erratic posting has resumed!  My goal for this semester is to post an entry summarizing my progress after each of my advising meetings with Professor Paula Blank.

    Professor Blank has recommended that I begin my research by grounding my work within the text itself.  I suddenly realized that it’s been too long since I did a close analysis of Romeo and Juliet and I think it will give my research a good deal of context.

    The point I keep returning to is that I want my thesis to be **useful** for other Shakespearian scholars, and for all the members of my audience.  My goal in conducting a year of close analysis is not to throw my work into an abyss and be happy in purely the sense of achievement (although I do expect some satisfaction from completion).  In order for my analysis of these Chinese Shakespeare productions to be of use to an audience that may not be accustomed to the cultural context or performance language in which they have been produced, I need to root my own analysis in some of the Western scholarship of Romeo and Juliet.  With that structure, I can best illuminate what is noteworthy about the cultural markers in Chinese productions.  The ideal result of my thesis would be that scholars would realize both new ways to look at Romeo and Juliet and the Chinese speaking world but I need to learn the best way to incorporate the new information I want to introduce with the current body of scholarship.

    I’ve come up with a few questions about R&J that have made me think of new platforms with which to analyze Chinese Shakespeares.

    When in the play’s production history did the families of Romeo and Juliet suddenly become so divided?  The first line of the text describes “two families both alike in dignity” meaning their social rank is identical. However, recent productions frequently portray the families as comprising of clashing cultures or races.  The best example is West Side Story.  Now, a “Romeo and Juliet” relationship means an intercultural one.  It’s even a term in intercultural marriage counseling.  However my reading of the play indicates that the differences between the Capulets and Montagues are invisible to everyone but the inner members.  I’m interested to see how this trend is comparable in Asia where racial and cultural differences are not the highest source of social tension.

    Polish Jets vs. Puerto Rican Sharks in West Side Story (1961 Film)
    The Polish Jets vs. the Puerto Rican Sharks (West Side Story Film, 1961)

    I’ve set up my travel blog, named A Dream of Red Mansions, that I will use during my 7 week trip to Beijing.


    This blog will contain more personal reflections of travel, accounts of culture shock, and stories of daily life than I hope to include in my academic discourse here.  I am also confident that blogspot is not censored in Mainland China, but I cannot say the same for this server.

    Ah yes, censorship is still alive and well.  In fact when I posted to blogspot last summer I could write freely but couldn’t read anything I published or anyone else’s blogs and comments.  It’s a fact of life you have to learn to cope with when you’re researching in a restricted society.

    I have retuned to this blog after an entire year of absence!!  In this (second) introductory post I just wanted to re-accustom myself to posting and unveil the topic of my upcoming project to the anonymous masses on the internet.  

    Even if my contributions to this blog stopped, my research really never did.  In fact I’m hoping to use this blog to document my work on my thesis which also relates to Chinese Shakespeare performance.  Titled  “For ne’er was a story of such wit”  Tragicomedy in Chinese Romeo and Juliets, my thesis will pick up on my previous work in the localization of Chinese Shakespeares. 

    My interest in this topic started when I noticed that many of the Romeo and Juliets performed in China are either parodies or rewrites where one of the lovers survives in the end. China has their own pair of star-crossed lovers who tragically die for love and their plight is described in a much more mournful tone that Shakespeare’s version.  Some Chinese theatre companies state in interviews that their audiences have too much sadness in their lives so Romeo just can’t die in the end of their performance.  This philosophy contradicts the Anglo American vision of ‘serious’ Asian lives.  Just look at the title of the Western film about Asian gangsters, Romeo Must Die. [ Trailer http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4R7O2A8R63A ]  

    The work will really start in June when I return to Mainland China for two purposes 1) studying at Beijing’s Beida university 2) researching for my thesis.  I went to the Chinese embassy yesterday to get my visa so my excitement has reached all new levels.

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