In 1996, the Chinese National Jingju (Beijing Opera) Theatre and the American New York Greek Drama Company collaborated on a cross-cultural production of Euripides’ Bacchae which was presented in both China and the United States and funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities with its largest grant ever given up to that point. With the intention of both breaking conventions of Beijing opera and using Chinese practices to gain access to the original fifth-century Greek practices, this 1996 Bacchae featured actors trained in Beijing opera, music based on reconstructions of ancient Greek music with choral passages sung in ancient Greek, and traditional Chinese instruments modified to accommodate ancient Greek music. The costumes were modified versions of those typical of Beijing opera with full masks.
At a time when cross-cultural productions of Greek tragedy were becoming quite popular with audiences in China and Taiwan (e,g. Hebei Bangzi Theatre of Hebei Province’s 1989 Medea or Contemporary Legend Theatre’s 1995 Oresteia), the Beijing debut of Bacchae was met by Chinese critics with great skepticism and concerns over the dynamic of cultural imperialism at play in this production. Tang Xiao-bai, for example, wrote that the production could not be seen as equal cooperation, because it “(took) for granted that a theatre form from the periphery must orient itself toward the theatre form of the (West)…The West cooks its own soup, in which (Beijing opera) is thrown as a suitable ingredient.” Administrators with the Chinese Ministry of Culture expressed concern that the production departed too far from tradition. On the other hand, this production was quite popular with audiences, who gave it a standing ovation at its debut in Beijing.
Looking at this production in the context of other Chinese opera productions of Greek tragedy from the same period, this paper will explore the ways in which cross-cultural productions of ancient plays can “fail”. In the case of Bacchae, I consider various aspects of each theatrical tradition: how Greek tragedy is treated as raw material for adaptation against the aspects of Bejing opera (the “host” tradition) that were preserved. I focus on what it means to treat the performance conventions of a living theatre tradition as analogues for ancient practices and how assumptions of Greek tragedy’s intrinsic value contribute to the exoticizing and decontextualizing of these practices. Finally, I will trace responses to this production by both Chinese and American critics and audiences to examine how different groups can receive cross-cultural productions and how a production can succeed for one group while failing in the eyes of another.
Problems in Performance: Failure in Classical Reception Studies