In 1931, a federation of Chinese left-wing dramatists was founded to break the power of the small drama circle that existed in city theaters, with the aim of extending theater to factories and the countryside. The playwright Xiong Foxi together with his company traveled to Dingxian County in Hebei Province to live with farmers there for five years, during which time he wrote and staged a batch of farmer dramas.
Produced sometime between 1927 and 1935, Snow on Lushan Mountain, in which many of the original cast were high-ranking military officials, is considered China's first "red drama." It was among the many revolutionary dramas that were staged by the Chinese Communist Party at its revolutionary base in Jiangxi Province.
Chinese drama reached a peak in July 1934 when Thunderstorm was published in a literature journal. The author, Cao Yu, who later became China's most renowned drama artist, was just 22 at the time and the play was his debut drama work. It's estimated that Thunderstorm is the most performed play in China. Chinese filmmaker Titan Zhang Yimou borrowed the story and made it into the blockbuster movie Curse of the Golden Flower in 2006.
Set in the early 20th century in China, the play chronicles the intriguing relationship among members of a large, well-off family. Cao Yu, influenced by ancient Greek tragedies and Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, told a soul-touching story about eight characters from two families over the course of one day, looking deep into human nature.
Modern drama was used as a spiritual weapon to boost patriotism during the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression in the 1930s and 1940s, as the art form is easy to understand. Artists like Guo Moruo performed one-act plays such as Drop Your Whip, which told a story of the struggle between a father and daughter in an area occupied by the Japanese.
Chinese modern drama was revived after the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949. Various theaters and drama institutes were established to explore stage art, which they were unable to do during wartime. Also, the Stanislavsky System, an approach to acting developed by Russian director Konstantin Stanislavsky, was introduced to China to guide Chinese drama.
In 1950, Lao She, one of China's greatest writers and dramatists wrote a play script called Dragon's Beard Ditch. In the same year, Jiao Juyin, a famous director and drama theorist, directed Dragon's Beard Ditch for the Beijing People's Art Theater. With its vivid characters and local flavor the play proved popular with audiences.
Jiao stressed the importance of examining life. For him, "psychological experience" and realistic acting were indispensable to a good performance.
In 1957, Lao She wrote the three-act masterpiece Teahouse. The drama is set in a typical old Beijing teahouse and follows the lives of the owner and his customers through three stages of modern Chinese history. The play spans 50 years and has a cast of over 60 characters drawn from all levels of society, reflecting the changes that have taken place in Chinese society.
Much of the play's strength and appeal lay in Lao She's masterful recreation of the characters and language of the streets of old Beijing, but at its core is his vision, his unerring choice of significant detail, and his familiarity with the old society he was describing, with its strengths, weaknesses and ironies. It is this which carries Teahouse beyond the borders of social criticism and makes it a complex and living work of art.
The play was invited to be staged in Europe in September 1980, the first time the Chinese drama traveled abroad. Afterwards it played in Japan, Canada and the United States, where on one occasion it was staged in English.
Chinese drama almost disappeared from the stage during the calamitous Cultural Revolution (1966-76), with many talented actors, writers and director, including Lao She, persecuted or killed.
Two years after the Cultural Revolution ended In the Silence was staged in Shanghai. The play reflected the true story of the Chinese people commemorating Zhou Enlai, the country's former premier who died in 1976 and condemning the Gang of Four, a group of leaders who were arrested and removed from their positions in 1976, following the death of Mao Zedong, and were primarily blamed for the events of the Cultural Revolution.
The same year another play, The Song of Loyalty, starring Yu Shizhi, who also played the hero in Teahouse, provoked strong reactions.