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Belles Lettres — The drama — Passion for theatrical exhibitions
Absence of scenic deception — Neglect of the unities - Stage costume -- Character of plays - Comparison with Greek drama • The Heir in Old Age' - Analysis of a tragedy -- Poetry -- Structure of verse — Character of poetry -- Ancient ode -- Poem on London – Romances and novels — The Fortunate Union.'
“The Chinese stand eminently distinguished,” says a writer very correctly in the Quarterly Review,'* “ from other Asiatic nations, by their early possession and extensive use of the art of printing—of printing, too, in that particular shape, the stereotype, which is best calculated, by multiplying the copies and cheapening the price, to promote the circulation of every species of their literature. Hence they are, as might be expected, a reading people ; a certain quantity of education is universal among even the lower classes-and, among the higher, it is superfluous to insist on the great estimation in which letters must be held under a system where learning forms the very threshold of the gate that conducts to fame, honours, and civil employment. Amidst the vast mass of printed books, which is the natural offspring of such a state of things, we make no scruple to avow that the circle of their Belles Lettres, comprised under the three heads of Drama, Poetry, and Romances or Novels, has always possessed the highest place in our esteem ; and we must say that there appears,
* Vol. xli. p. 85.
no readier or more agreeable mode of becoming intimately acquainted with a people from whom Europe can have so little to learn on the score of either moral or physical science, than by drawing largely on the inexhaustible stores of their ornamental literature.” We may therefore proceed to consider Chinese belles lettres, in the threefold division of Drama, Poetry, and prose Fiction.
In a moderate collection of Chinese books belonging to the East India Company, there are no less than two hundred volumes of plays, and a single work in forty volumes contains just one hundred theatrical pieces. The government of the country, though it does not (like that of imperial Rome) provide spectacles for the people at its own cost, gives sufficient countenance and encouragement to such amusements, by permitting them to be erected in every street by subscriptions among the inhabitants. On some particular days the mandarins themselves supply the funds. The principal public occasions of these performances are certain annual festivals of a religious nature, when temporary theatres, constructed with surprising facility of bamboos and mats, are erected in front of their temples, or in open spaces through their towns, the spectacle being continued for several days together. The players, in general, come literally under our legal definition of vagabonds, as they consist of strolling bands of ten or a dozen, whose merit and rank in their profession, and consequently their pay, differ widely according to circumstances. The best are those who come from Nanking, and who sometimes receive very considerable sums for performing at the entertainments given by rich persons to their friends.*
* The female parts are never performed by women, but generally by boys. “No women ever appeared on the Greek and the Roman theatres ; but the characters in the dramas of the latter, as (occasionally) in those
· To prove the rage of the Chinese for their theatrical exhibitions, we insert an account of the expenses annually incurred at Macao - which is partly a Portuguese town, and contains few rich Chinese-on account of play-acting. * In front of the large temple, near the barrier-wall that confines the Portuguese, twenty-two plays are performed, the acting of which alone amounts, without including the expenses of erecting the theatre, to 2200 Spanish dollars. At the Chinese temple, near the entrance of the inner harbour, there are annual performances, for which 2000 dollars are paid ; and various lesser exhibitions through the year make up the total expenditure under this head to upwards of 6000 dollars, or 15001., among a small population of mere shopkeepers and artisans. A circumstance, however, occurred at Macao in 1833, which must have impressed the Chinese with a notion that Europeans were fully as much devoted to such amusements as themselves. A party of Italian opera-singers from Naples, consisting of two women and five men, after having exercised their vocation with success in South America, proceeded on their way across the Pacific westward towards Calcutta, as to a likely and profitable field. Circumstances having occasioned their touching at Macao, they met there with inducements to remain some six months, until the season should admit of their prosecuting the voyage ; and a temporary theatre having been contrived, they performed most of Rossini's operas with great success. The Chinese were surprised to find what, in the jargon of Canton, is called a Sing-song, erected by the foreigners on the
of China, were sometimes played by eunuchs. The soft and delicate female characters of Shakspere had not the advantage of being played by a female during his life; Mrs. Betterton, about 1660, being the first, or nearly the first female, who played Juliet and Ophelia."-Brief View of the Chinese Drama, p. 14.
* Chinese Gleaner, 1821, p. 60.
shores of the celestial empire, and in that very shape, too, which most nearly resembles their own performances, a mixture of song and recitative. As the nearest way home from Calcutta, for these Italians, was by the Cape of Good Hope, they were a singular instance of the Opera performing a voyage round the world.
Before touching on the subject of their dramatic compositions, we will say a word regarding the mere scenic exhibitions of the Chinese, which may at any time be viewed by strangers who visit the country, and of which even persons ignorant of the language can form a sufficient judgment. “They have no scenical deception (observes the editor of the · Heir in Old Age') to assist the story, as in the modern theatres of Europe ; and the odd expedients to which they are sometimes driven by the want of scenery are not many degrees above Nick Bottom's “ bush of thorns and a lantern, to disfigure or to present the person of Moonshine'-or the man with some plaster, or some loam, or some roughcast about him, to signify Wall.'” Thus, a general is ordered upon an expedition to a distant province; he brandishes a whip, or takes in his hand the reins of a bridle, and, striding three or four times round the stage in the midst of a tremendous crash of gongs, drums, and trumpets, he stops short, and tells the audience where he has arrived. A tolerable judgment may be formed of what little assistance the imaginations of an English audience formerly derived from scenical deception, by the state of the drama and the stage as described by Sir Philip Sidney about the year 1583:-“Now you shall have three ladies walk to gather flowers, and then we must believe the stage to be a garden. By and by we have news of shipwreck in the same place; then we are to blame if we accept it not for a rock. Upon the back of that comes out a hideous monster with fire and smoke; and then the miserable beholders are bound to take it for a cave; while in the mean time two armies fly in, represented with four swords and bucklers, and then what hard heart will not receive it for a pitched field ?”
It is very true that the Chinese in their theatres leave more to the imagination than we do. They neither contrive that the action should all proceed on one spot, as in most specimens of the Greek tragedy, nor do they make use of shifting scenes. You can never bring in a wall,' says Snug the joiner,—so say the Chinese ; and though their contrivances are not quite so outrageously absurd as those in the · Midsummer Night's Dream,' they are scarcely more artificial. The truth, however, on this subject seems to be, that, though scenery and other adventitious aids of the kind no doubt tend to aid the illusion, they are by no means absolutely necessary to it; and in fact it is better to trust altogether to the imagination of the beholder than to fall into those palpable errors which even Dennis successfully ridiculed in Addison's · Cato,' resulting as they did from a rigid adherence to the unity of place. The best scenic preparation that ever was devised must still call largely on the imagination for assistance; and the whole philosophy of the subject is summed up in the words of the Chorus to Shakspere's · Henry V. :'
“But pardon, gentles all,
The vasty field of France, or may we cram