Monday, March 16, 2015

Female Protagonists in Traditional Vietnamese Theater

                                                               by Jim Goodman

       Theatrical performances have been part of Vietnamese culture since ancient times.  Even under Chinese occupation they were included in Buddhist festival programs.  Skits depicted vignettes of everyday life, local myths, religious stories and, after the re-establishment of independence, tales of national heroes.  A particular type of indigenous drama, called chèo, originated in the 10th century, when the national capital was at Hoa Lư, credited to Đào Văn Sở, who organized with his friends semi-annual performances re-enacting the lives of famous personalities.
modern-style chèo theater in Hanoi
       In what would become a basic feature of chèo drama, the troupes used an open stage with few or no props, flanked on three sides by the audience, simple costumes (generally everyday clothing), accompanied by musicians with their instruments, mostly percussion, in recent times augmented by monochord and 16-string zither, who sat in the rear.  The plays followed a basic plot but improvised freely while engaging with the spectators.  Originally all the words were spoken, but after the late 13th century introduction of tuồng, Chinese-style opera, the chèo tradition adapted by mixing both spoken and sung verses in the dialog.  The type of singing employed in chèo differs from tuồng and requires at least as much vocal training.  And the spoken parts demanded precise pronunciation, in the local vernacular but with a particular rhythm, enunciated in a way that left no doubt about the meaning in the listener’s minds.     
Stories of heroes were common chèo material.
       This was because, with such a spare stage and no scenic backdrops, some of the narrative action had to be conveyed by words. Chèo artists developed a set of conventional gestures, signals, songs and speech to convey a sense of space and time, weather and surroundings.  For example, if the story requires the characters to ascend a mountain, the actor will sing a song about the arduous climb to the summit, following up with a song describing the view.  A walk several times around the stage suggested a lengthy journey.
       Thus the performers themselves are responsible for creating the illusions of different kinds of scenery, settings and backgrounds, the crossing of spaces and the passage of time.  They achieve this through the power of suggestion evoked by the way they talk, sing and move the different parts of their bodies.  To do this properly and effectively they must master a range of specific gestures and movements and particular styles of walking and talking, singing and sighing.  These are all standardized to convey specific meanings that the audience can instantly recognize.  These conventions fill the stage with an imaginary topography, tick away the time and reveal the emotions and personality traits of the characters
fatal encounter in a chèo dramatic scene
       After the capital moved to Thăng Long (Hanoi) chèo continued to enjoy royal patronage, with professional troupes part of the court’s entertainment, throughout the Lý and Trn Dynasties.  But with the inauguration of the very Confucian-oriented Lê Dynasty in the 15th century both chèo and tung dramas were banned at court.  Tung theater later made a comeback with the Nguyn Dynasty but chèo survived only in the villages, where it maintained its popularity right down to modern times.  Nowadays traditional theater as an entertainment option, thanks to competition from TV, films and modern music, is less attractive for urban dwellers.  But many villages continue to include traditional theater in their annual festival programs.
Clowns and jokers added comic relief.
       Like the tung operas, chèo dramas are also didactic and carry a strong moral message, imbued with Buddhist virtues and Confucian standards of ethics and social harmony.   Good ultimately triumphs over evil.  Steadfast heroes overcome all difficulties.  Faithful spouses find and support one another.  Infidelity draws punishment.  Friends regard each other as family.  Stepmothers love their husbands’ children as their own and in-laws live harmoniously together.  Characters are type-cast and their standardized personalities change little in the course of the story.  They reappear in the same conventionalized roles in play after play:  aristocrats and prime ministers, students and teachers, drunks, flirts and clowns.
       Occasionally though, chèo plays feature strong characters whose personalities dominate the action, rising above convention to leave an indelible impression of themselves on the audience.  The most memorable of these characters are women:  the “monk” Kính Tâm and her would-be seductress Thi Mâu, the adulteress Thit Thê, the scholar’s bored wife Xúy Vân and the beautiful widow Th Hến.
       The play Quan Âm Th Kính begins with Th Kính’s husband falling asleep over his studies.  His faithful wife Th Kính spots an ingrown facial hair on his neck, which was widely believed to be a bad omen.  She takes a knife and is about to remove it when her husband suddenly wakes up and sees a knife at his throat.  Assuming the worst he screams for his parents.  They see the situation as one of attempted murder and banish Th Kính from the house.  Despairing of convincing them otherwise Th Kính disguises herself as a man and enters Vân T Pagoda to live as the monk Kính Tâm.  
Historical dramas were part of chèo tradition.
chèo drama of a classical hero
       Visiting Vân T Pagoda the rich girl Thi Mâu spots Kính Tâm at prayers and falls in love.  But even when Thi Mâu flirts openly the monk pays her no mind.  Thoroughly vexed, Thi Mâu returns home, seduces a house servant and when obviously pregnant accuses Kính Tâm of being the father.  The head monk at the temple then expels Kính Tâm.  After Thi Mâu delivers her baby she abandons it at the gate of the pagoda.  Kính Tâm happens to pass by, picks up the baby and raises it to adulthood.  Only when Kính Tâm dies does everyone discover that Kính Tâm was actually a woman and therefore innocent of the charges against her.
Thị Kính disguised as the monk Kính Tâm
       Th Kính/Kính Tâm is a strong character bearing injustice with admirable fortitude, which means that she is eventually vindicated, even if posthumously.  But Thi Mâu is a more colorful personality, who shamelessly flaunts her sexuality, so hungry is she for the tender affections of love.  Unrequited, she then schemes like a jilted lover to have her revenge.  It is a role packed with emotional expression and over the years chèo actresses have made their reputations by the skill with which they handled the role of Thi Mâu.
       In Chu Mãi Thn, the character after whom the play takes its name is a dedicated student who earns a living gathering firewood while he pursues his education.  His bored and lazy wife Thiệt Thê, fed up with their poverty, runs off to become the concubine of a prosperous mandarin from central Vietnam.  Now Thit Thê enjoys a life of luxury until the mandarin’s wife finds out about this relationship and confronts her husband just as he is buying jewelry for Thit Thê.
       He quickly repents, begs her forgiveness and sends his concubine packing.  On her way back home Thiệt Thê witnesses the triumphal procession of a new laureate who has just passed the royal exams.   Upon inquiring she learns it is her own husband Chu Mi Thn.  She calls upon him to renew their relationship, but he refuses.  Scorned and humiliated, the arrant wife takes to the road again, but is soon struck by lightning—the gods’ punishment for unfaithful wives.
mandarin's wife reacts to his affair with ThiệtThê
       Just as unfortunate is the fate of the female protagonist Xúy Vân of the play Kim Nhan, named for the man who marries Xúy Vân and then goes to Thăng Long to study for the royal exams.  Left to live with her in-laws, she is at one point forced to carry the tray of the traditional offerings of betel and areca to the family of the girl who is to be her husband’s second wife.  But there she meets and falls in love with a rich, handsome merchant.  To escape the clutches of her in-laws she feigns madness and then absconds with the merchant.  Like Thit Thê, she now lives better than her wildest dreams imagined she would.  But he soon tires of her and sends her away.
       Wandering on her own, Xúy Vân chances to meet her husband Kim Nhan again.  Far from chastising her, he takes pity on her and gives her a ball of rice.  When she bites into it she discovers he has put inside of it, as a gift, a tablet of gold.  So ashamed is she for having been unfaithful to such an obviously good man, whom she had never really gotten to know, she throws herself into the river.
       The moral of both plays is the same.  Both Thit Thê and Xúy Vân must come to bad ends because the prevailing code of ethics insists that transgressors pay for violations of the code.  In a patriarchal, Confucian-oriented society a wife’s infidelity was a heinous offense that could not pass unpunished.  In both plays the husbands are morally upright characters whose dedicated efforts earn them success and honors.  The wives are morally weak, self-centered and impatient.  Their deaths may be read as a warning to young wives not to waver in their fidelity to their husbands no matter what the circumstances.
       Yet many village women in the audience found themselves in sympathy with these doomed heroines.  They may have likewise been trapped in arranged marriages and a life of poverty like Thiệt Thê or forced to accept a husband’s concubine like Xúy Vân.  These two protagonists, as well as Thị Mâu, are skillfully drawn portraits of strong-minded women seeking out of life what the rigid, male-dominated society denies them.  In the stories they come to unhappy ends, but they have all the best lines in the dialogs, the most important scenes and sing the most beautiful, soul-stirring songs.  Audiences do not see Xúy Vân’s suicide as just punishment for her unforgivable adultery, but as the tragic ending of a woman who failed in her quest for love and dignity.
Thị Sến's first visitor
Strongly etched female characters did not necessarily come to a bad end in all chèo plays, though.  One of the most delightful heroines is Th Hến, a beautiful young widow in a play named for her, a scheming, unscrupulous merchant in stolen goods, but so self-assured and vivacious that it is impossible not to like her.
       In dire straits after the death of her husband, her only way to make a living without compromising herself is to be a fence for stolen goods.  Then the local authorities discover her secret and the court clerk and a local mandarin each make plans to blackmail her into having an affair with him.  Th Hến arranges to meet them, as well as the monk and the village chief, in secret at her home, one at a time, each of them unaware of the others’ invitations.  The first comes, but his visit is interrupted by the arrival of the second official, so he hides under her bed.  Then the third visitor arrives and Th Hến has the second one hide in the big paddy basket.  The next comes and also has to hide when the fourth one arrives.  Finally come their wives, whom Thi Hen has also secretly summoned, who catch their husbands at her house and all the scheming and corruption of these four is now out in the open.
       The actress playing Th Hến portrays her as a suave, clever and charming woman who easily outfoxes her would-be seducers.  Shuffling the men around like toys, hiding them from one another, gives her many opportunities to poke fun at them and get them to utter things they will soon regret having said.  The short play abounds in comedy and satire and ThHến is an attractive, eminently likable heroine, making this a favorite play down to our own times.
Thị Sến hides her first visitor while entertaining her second.
       Lampooning pompous and venal officials and other “pillars of society” was not restricted to occasional plucky heroines like Th Hến, but was an integral part of most chèo plays.  Even serious stories of classic heroes had scenes of comic relief, with the humor based on social satire.   And the sympathetic depictions of characters like Thit Thê and Xúy Vân, who go beyond the norms of society, all but encourage “subversive” thoughts in the audience.  No wonder the grave, seriously conservative Confucian authorities banished chèo from the Court.
       But they didn’t try to extirpate it from the countryside. Kings and courtiers could do without artificial entertainment, especially the social criticism and satire, but it remained essential to village life.  Like the movies of contemporary times, traditional chèo dramas could offer its audiences not only escape into fantasies from the pressures of everyday life, but characters they could emulate and, for the women in the audience, perhaps identify with as models for seeking “subversive” improvements in the conditions of their own lives.

the clever and attractive Thị Sến
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