Thursday, December 31, 2009

Salesman in Beijing

I keep a list of the books I've read through the year, and one that's just going to sneak into the list before 2010 comes along I picked up yesterday for $2 in a secondhand bookshop a few doors away from where I work. It was a kind of serendipity acquisition - the book was probably in the bargain bin because the shopowner thought no one would want it at any higher price. I thought it was a great find, and having read it since lunchtime yesterday, and finished it this evening, have had that confirmed.

The book is by Arthur Miller, the playwright, and is entitled, Salesman in Beijing. I always enjoy books that relate to the making of a play or a movie (for instance I have books on the making of Titanic, Sense and Sensibility and Casablanca, and one interesting one on the making of The Glass Menagerie, a film directed by Paul Newman, and starring his wife, Joanne Woodward, and John Malkovich)

Miller's book is a day-by-day account of the production of Death of a Salesman that he was asked to direct in Beijing in 1983. This was only six years before the tragedy of Tiananmen Square and it's not hard to see how such a disaster could be so close at hand when you read this book. The people in China were coming out of the long years of Mao's reign - and that of his viciously ignorant wife - but things were still in a great deal of transition, and no one knew quite where they stood. Intellectuals (a category that included artists of all sorts) had been treated not just with great disdain during the period of the Cultural Revolution, but were often subjected to unspeakable horrors (there's a brief story in this book of a woman imprisoned in a cupboard for two and a half years, with no means to go to the toilet, and the threat of having her children executed. I remember seeing From Mao to Mozart a number of years ago. It was filmed in 1981 and in it a professor of music tells of having the same thing done to him: the cupboard became his 'home' for a similar period of time. Isaac Stern, who is the focus of the movie, listens in bewildered silence.)

The actors who became the cast of Miller's production had also been subject to privations: made to work at menial tasks such as being sent to the country to pick rice. Ironically, because they were part of a state company, they were also paid their normal wages during this time - not that those wages were anything to write home about. The main female actress had only managed to keep her daughter from being raped by hiding her under a blanket. All through the book is this strange twenty-year history just behind these people, a history none of them have quite come to terms with yet.

Miller speaks no Chinese (although his artist wife speaks it very well, along with several European languages) and has to work mostly through interpreters. The main male actor speaks very good English and was one of the people who got the production off the ground. But language isn't the only barrier: Miller sees the play itself, initially, as primarily American in tone and nature and not adaptable to a Chinese environment, in spite of an excellent translation by the actor just mentioned. However, as the rehearsal period progresses, Miller comes to see that the universal aspects of the play far outweigh the American ones, and his biggest difficulty is in getting the cast to work naturally. At this point in their theatrical history there are lots of grand gestures, a lot of playing to the audience, many signs and signals and other paraphernalia that get in the way of a straightforward playing of the piece. Once the cast grasp this, the performances become as good as any Miller has ever seen.

There are other frustrations: the Chinese are used to making themselves up heavily for performances - Miller has to discourage this. They would usually all wear wigs; again he has to find a way around showing them that these aren't, for the most part, necessary. He has to search his brain for Chinese stories to help them interpret the script. The lighting system is so antiquated it can only have so many cues before a blackout is necessary. The sound system consists of one elderly tape recorder. Many of the costumes have to be worked out from photographs in American magazines. Some of the props required are of objects that the Chinese don't even recognise; and some of them are made out of papier mache - including a fridge that is so well constructed and painted that it's not obvious to the audience that it could be picked up with one hand. Everywhere in the corridors of the theatre you can smell the ammoniac stench of urine, and the theatre itself, a large place seating 1300 people, has seating whose fittings are so worn that when a seat is put down the noise is like a pistol shot.

All these difficulties are somehow overcome - the actors and the backstage people may seem to exist on a different planet, but they know their stuff, and when push comes to shove, they produce the goods. Miller is often humbled by the odds they overcome.

A couple of quotes from right towards the end of the book to finish:

When I visit the dressing rooms, where they are getting into makeup, the behaviour of the actors reminds me again of the replication of human life that a production represents. The actor begins in helpless dependency, gradually grows up to feel strength, often rebels against the director/author, and finally in maturity faces the world as though he had invented himself. Where once they loved me like a parent, now they can't help overdoing gestures of affection to their onetime leader, for whom they have no real need anymore. The hairdo's the thing now, the eyebrow, the necktie, the fingernail, and the teeth. Now I am rather in the position of a beloved aunt who taught them as children to play the piano; they are overjoyed to see me, and to see me go. [page 246]

The art of acting is the mastery of a contradiction: its object is to place the actor in 'the now,' the moment, but at the same time he has to be planning his next move, building his climaxes with modulations of voice and emotional intensity. By virtue of training and temperament the Chinese actor creates feeling by acknowledging his debt to his objectifying techniques. He does not 'throw himself into the part' but builds a performance by pieces of knowledge, as it were, of story, character, and specific circumstances. [page 251]
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