I hadn’t got to even the first half of “Salesman in Beijing”, the book Arthur Miller wrote after his second visit to China in 1984, when he was invited to stage his own “Death of a Salesman”, when my hands were already reaching for the keyboard to type about every sentence I had been reading.
Miller’s text is a whole document on an era of Beijing and on theatre in general, but at the same time it revealed the experiences I’ve had in Beijing after 3 years of living here. I didn’t come to do theatre, I came to China to live it, to explore it, and to write about it and its performing arts, to get to know it; I came to learn Taijiquan and to find myself in the strange idleness of the start of my maturity; I haven’t written nor done any theatre since I’ve been here, so I’ve become another spectator of Asian performing arts and, in this case, another reader of Miller’s book.
The first impression the text gave me was one of surprising freedom with which people back then would talk about the Cultural Revolution, which nowadays is a completely taboo subject in China; actors, writers, ordinary people shared their opinions on what had happened, who they’d lived through it, and what damage it had caused while, today, in 2008, starting a conversation on the subject would only provoke complete silence, and maybe deeply intellectual sentences that would try to steer the subject away.
Even though the subject is fascinating, especially during the time it was written, reading about it sounds somewhat outdated and only seems to be of value to those interested in the China that existed during the 80’s. That China doesn’t exist anymore, and is now living the results of its change; now it’s rich and powerful, tells the world what to do, economically invades Africa and Latin-america in search for resources for its expansion. There aren’t many studies that review this transition stage, and maybe that’s reveals the importance of the kind of comments from the heirs to the revolution, comments that Miller brings to us, a revolution that extinguished Chinese cultural life for a decade.
The description of a world outside the theatre and a world within the theatre of that China from the spring of 1984 is at times delicious, an enjoyable read and full of pleasant moments and simple but deep disquisitions. What he describes about life outside the theatre is so interesting (and unique) that I remembered the documentary Antonioni made during the cultural revolution: “Chun Kuo Cina”. Chinese style service, hygiene, the ordinary Chinese spectator, the twists of language, intellectuals and food. Miller is a professional narrator of ordinary life and a spokesperson for the bewilderment of Westerners confronted by Chinese customs.
As for what he describes about life within the theatre, it’s fascinating for someone who’s done theatre or who’s lived it. I consider it a theatrical document because in this text I see direct information on how a sincere representative of the empire of realism (1), in an honest and sincere way, tries to conquer a world that does not handle realism yet (even 100 years after its birth). It’s a document because of the way is presented, it’s a work diary and travel impressions; it’s a document because of its way of presenting the staging of the play, because of its reflections and its means to reach its goal. It’s not just a document about theatre in China, but about how Americans in the end of 20th Century viewed the requirements for their theatre through one of their most important representatives.
The play, which at the time was already almost 40 years old, was going to have its premiere in the recently opened up China. In the years where theatrical postmodernism teared realistic discourse apart in Western World, Miller was trying to “teach” a new way to Chinese actors. But the realism that was being destroyed, leaving behind new forms, inevitably remained (and remains still) with its imposing commercial presence in those post-modern Western cities.
Miller was at the same time a salesman, American theatrical realism with its own “need” for Stanislavski and the ‘interiorisation’ of the actor was being sold where their was no knowledge about it. And I remembered that tale (or real-life story) where a fridge salesman becomes rich in the North Pole selling fridges as boxes for keeping food. I have witnessed, by reading Arthur Miller’s book, how he sold his “Salesman” with the currency of personality, intellectuality, cultural exchange, and the values of non-fiction. At the end, it would seem he’s victorious, that he makes the sale, but, as it happens with the main character of his play, the former successful salesman, he fails.
More than 20 years after that text was written and after that experience, we know that the revolution in the acting of modern Chinese actors was not won by Miller’s realism, it was won by cinema and TV, the bastard or next-of-kin product of realism, realist melodrama (much more suitable to Chinese tradition). Theatre in 2008 is, in China, just a handful of stupid musicals, trite comedies with TV stars and remakes of Chinese classics from the 50’s. The ever present Chinese Opera has found its new place as an adaptation through “national pride” and gets its income from touristic interests; big directors make their modern versions of traditional opera, cause scandal in the country, go abroad and are applauded as innovators and modernisers of China’s new and burgeoning market economy. But the theatre Miller came to revolutionise, the theatre of the word, of characters, of real and deep characters, a theatre of ideas (even if he denies it), that theatre remains empty, it was killed by TV and cinema, it was killed by commerce, it was killed by Tian’anmen and Falungong.
In Beijing’s theatres I’ve seen Ibsen’s, Strindberg’s and Laoshe’s (China’s “modern” author par excellence) plays, and I don’t want to see more. Modern authors have not plays to stage or don’t want to write for theatre, the theatrical spaces (those allowed by the government) are few, the public does not exist, the government reviews (censors?) and adapts every text, foreign stars (who inherited the theatre of Miller and his co-revolutionaries) are not invited to come anymore. There’s something in our way of doing theatre that makes the managers of Chinese culture nervous, “something” about words and ideas, about “reality”. How I wish I could see one of Heiner Müller’s plays in Chinese! Müller is no realist, yet none of his plays are staged.
Then, maybe there’s nothing against realism, but against truth in one of its artistic expressions.
I found the book in London, in October 2007, but I didn’t read it until I came back to Beijing, with the required state of mind to enjoy it. I was never an unconditional fan of Miller, and I think I’ve made that clear, but I must accept that the adventure he narrates is marvelous and that his text is a true treasure.
(1) You can call it 'Realism" or 'Naturalism", it doesn't matter here.