Dou E in Madrid,
or how to enjoy classical Chinese theatre
The Spanish theatre group Tragaleguas, which means ‘quick or great walker’ and who are based in Castilla – La Mancha, recently put on an innovative and fascinating version of the play ‘La Injusticia Contra Dou E Que Conmovio el Cielo Y La Tierra’, or in English ‘The Injustice to Dou E’, at the Circulo de Bellas Artes in Madrid.
This play, also known as ‘Snow in Midsummer’, was written by the Yuan dynasty Chinese playwright Guan Hanqing. Brilliantly performed in Spanish, by Spanish actors, ‘Dou E’ transported the audience back to ancient China and was enthralling from beginning to end. Tragaleguas need to be applauded for this imaginative and ground-breaking production, in the best tradition of early-Shakespearian theatre.
The play cleverly combined comic elements with fight scenes, acrobatics and high drama. Costumes, background and music were minimalist, yet evocative of ancient China, while the scenes of Dou E’s death and resurrection lent the production a distinctively modern flavour.
Best of all, Tragaleguas treatment of the play made the characters and their psychological make-up and motivation, which can be fairly hermetic in a Chinese play or novel, easily accessible to Western audiences.
Dou E is a motherless girl from an impoverished family, whose father sells her as a future bride into another household, so that he can travel to the capital Beijing and take the imperial exams.
More misfortune befalls Dou E when her husband dies shortly after the wedding and she and her mother-in-law are left all alone. A couple of local hoodlums, father and son, try to force the two women into marrying them. Dou E stubbornly refuses, faithful to the memory of her husband.
Eventually, a sequence of tragic events leads to the death of the elder of the two men. Dou E is falsely accused, tortured and found guilty of murder. At her execution, she staunchly defends her innocence and issues a warning to the people of the town, claiming that Heaven will surely avenge her.
Three years later, her father returns to the region as a judge. On finding it was his daughter who was executed for murder, he re-opens the case and conducts a re-trail which clears Dou E of the false charge.
The Playwright :
Guan Hanqing, the playwright who is known as China’s Shakespeare, wrote during the Yuan Dynasty, 1271-1368, when China was ruled by Mongol emperors. Of the 64 plays credited to him, only 15 complete works remain today. ‘The Injustice to Dou E’ is his most famous work.
Guan Hanqing is credited for having started the Zaju dramatic art form. This form, which concentrated more on the problems and injustice faced by the common people, rather than on the lives of the elites, probably developed as a result of the Chinese literati themselves becoming second-class citizens under the foreign, Mongol emperors.
Guan Hanqing’s plays exposed the contradiction between the long- held assumption that the Emperors were to be regarded as the Sons of Heaven and the reality of the injustice many common people suffered under their reign. The last words Dou E spoke before her death probably sum up Guan Hanqing’s own bitterness towards the Yuan emperors: “Those who are kind are poor and die young, while evil-doers enjoy wealth and longevity. Heaven and earth both bully the weak and fear the strong, not daring to go against the flow. Earth, you make no distinction between right and wrong; and Heaven, you mistake the wise for the foolish.”
If you happen to live in Spain, you should check out ‘Tragaleguas’ programme, to see if you can catch another performance, it’s definitely worth it (www.tragaleguas.es).
Other readers should look out for any of Guan Hanqing’s plays being performed anywhere near them.