China and Inner Asia

Organized Panel Session

2 - Failures of Performance: Audience and Actor in Yuan Urban Theater

Friday, March 23
10:30 AM - 12:30 PM
Location: Johnson, Mezzanine Level

Compared to the abundance of late imperial writing on Chinese dramatic arts, what survives in the form of reaction and critique to urban performances by theater-goers before about the 15th century is fairly sparse.  Apart from prescriptive manuals on song writing and biographical sketches of authors and actresses, much of our insight about urban performance through the Yuan and early Ming derives from attendant historical materials, such as capital diaries, and from depictions of theater in literary works, including poetry, songs, fiction and plays.  Among the surviving literary works are a handful of lyrics (sanqu) that recount not successful, but rather, examples of failed theatrics.  While scholarly attention to these works has tended focus on concrete information about the details of urban performance, the status and life of actors, and habits of vernacular usage, these songs reveal much about Yuan appreciation for theater.  As these pieces demonstrate, a performance can fail in multiple ways, and an exploration of the modes of failure and the implicit articulation of requirements for success on the stage reveal values and concerns obscured in other contemporaneous critique of dramatists and performers.  Satiric reflections on the failures of both acting troupes and audience members engage not only issues of class, linguistic facility, cultural refinement, and professional skill, but also trace the boundaries of theatrical perception.

Karin Myhre

University of Georgia, Georgia

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