A Liberating Theater

Stumbled across this lovely little passage from Li Yu’s Casual Expressions of Idle Feelings (how amazing is that title, by the way?):

 Of all literary endeavors, playwriting is the most heroic, most magnificent, and most satisfying, and it even does wonders for one’s physical well-being. Without this genre, the gifted and talented would feel stifled, the brave and the gallant would feel trapped. I was born into turmoil and accompanied by hardship from childhood to old age. Worries and anxieties temporarily leave me only when I write plays. On those occasions, I feel not only that I am ridding myself of my grievances, but also that I am secretly becoming the happiest man between heaven and earth, reveling in so much luxury and glory that what is desired in real life all seems paltry compared to the illusions I create. If I fancy being a mandarin, I am gloriously promoted to the top at once. If I desire to leave office and live like a recluse, in a wink I am transported to the wooded mountains.

Writing in other literary genres, you can make an allegory only through various implicit means. If you have ten points of grievance, you can express only three or four directly. If you have eight buckets of talent, you can only pour out two or three. If you are just a bit unconventional and unhampered in expressing yourself, you are considered lacking in proper Confucian composure, accused of being reckless and frivolous, thus ruining our chances of having your work reach every household. To write a play, on the contrary, is to say what you mean to say and to say all you want to say. The worst enemy for a playwright is the implicit and restraint. (185*)

His dismissal of other literary genres aside (weird, I know), this hits on one of the currents in writings about theater that I find particularly moving—the liberating effects of theater. That a freer, truer expression seems possible in theatrical fictions. That as we yearn for better, different worlds, we write plays. It reminds me, if a little tangentially, of my favorite Chekhov quote (you know it wouldn’t be long before this got dropped in):

Write a story, do, about a young man, the son of a serf…brought up to respect rank, to kiss the hands of priests, to truckle the ideas of others—…write how this young man squeezes the slave out of himself, drop by drop, and how, on awakening one fine morning, he feels that the blood coursing through his veins is no longer that of a slave but that of a real human being. **

It speaks to our human need to make theater. It speaks to why theater has both thrived in repressive societies and why it has been squelched or strictly regulated in them. It is why theater is viewed both as scared and profane, why it is valued and feared. Because in making theater we are challenging our world and actualizing our dreams.

*As per usual, selection taken from Theater/Theory/Theatre edited by Daniel Geroud

**Anton Chekhov, Letters of Anton Chekhov, trans. and ed. Avrahm Yarmolinsky. (New York: The Viking Press, 1973), Moscow, January 7, 1889. 107.

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