"In the physically grubby Moscow theaters of the twenties and early thirties," writes John Fuegi in Brecht and Company, "Meyerhold, Stanislavsky, and Tairov rubbed shoulders with Mei la-Fan from China, Piscator, Gordon Craig from England, French writer André Malraux, and a host of Americans including Joseph Losey, Hallie Flanagan, Harold Clurman, Lee Strasberg, and Stella Adler -- all visibly dazzled by what they saw and heard." On this trip Brecht also met film director Eisenstein -- master of epic non-naturalism and what Brecht would later call the "quotable gesture" -- and the literary critic Viktor Shklovsky, who framed the concept of ostranenia, or making-strange. These encounters, made in the still-progressive Soviet Union, would prove crucial turning points not just for Brecht but for art in the West. It was the moment when two collective cultures (communism and traditional Chinese culture) impacted on Western individualism -- apparently the final state of human history, the convergent outcome of all modernity -- and became its future.
To give you a brief, silent impression of what this decisive encounter must have been like, here's the film Eisenstein shot of Lanfang in 1935:
And here's a much later film of Lanfang playing a female role in Peony Pavilion, in colour and with sound:
What struck Brecht is probably also what strikes us today: the undisguised artifice of the acting. It's not just that this is a man playing a woman, or that the vocal mannerisms sound so strange to our ears. It's not just the fact that Mei Lanfang could become a woman whether or not he was transformed by elaborate makeup and costumes, just by changing his movements. There were also different theatrical conventions to absorb -- the fact that instead of getting swept towards identification, tears, catharsis, sorrow and pity (as Aristotle put it), the audience at the Beijing Opera will interrupt even the saddest moments to shout the actor's name and remind everyone that it's a performance, or that the whole house stays lit (rather than plunging "some in darkness, the others light", as Brecht put it in The Threepenny Opera), or that Beijing Opera, like kabuki, consists not of unified plots building to a climax, but a series of episodes which can be chopped up and presented on their own.
Above all, there was the absence of the fourth wall illusion, the actors' constant awareness of the audience, the audience's awareness of the play, visible stagehands, the communication of emotion through the structure of movement, the domination of convention over innovation and collectivity over individuality.
When Brecht got back to Europe he combined the revelations he'd experienced watching Lanfang with ideas of estrangment he'd gleaned from Shklovsky. He wrote an essay entitled "Verfremdungseffekte in der chinesischen Schauspielkunst”; Alienation Effects in Chinese Acting. Published in the winter of 1936 in the London review Life and Letters, it was the first appearance of the famous Brechtian "alienation effect", and it came out of the “strangeness” (Befremdung) Brecht felt as he watched Lanfang in Moscow.
Of course, it's always possible that what was "defamiliarization" for Brecht was very familiar indeed to the Chinese. "Was it ethnocentric for Brecht to assume that the feeling of strangeness he experienced watching Mei Lanfang was intended by Mei?" asks Douglas Robinson in The Spatiotemporal Dialectic of Estrangement. "Can one talk about the Verfremsdungeffkt at all without generalizing from audience response to artist intention, or from artist intention to audience response?"
Brecht was certainly using the Chinese theatre as a stick to beat lazy Western actors and audiences with -- and therefore being "ethnocentric" in the way the Zen cooking in the film How to Cook Your Life is; like chef Edward Espe Brown, Brecht had work to do tackling the ills of the West, and Chinese theatre -- seen through the refracting prism of Russian Formalism -- was a useful alternative world.
"Only those familiar with - or who have in mind - the typical, superficial creations of Western actors," Brecht wrote, "who create their characters from lots of tiny nervous traits of little significance, more or less private in origin and devoid of any typical quality, will find it impossible to imagine that modifications in gestures can inspire fundamental innovations in the process of creating a character. The Chinese show not only the behaviour of people, but also the behaviour of the actors. They show how the actors, in their manner, perform the gestures of the people. For the actors translate the language of daily life into their own language. Watching a Chinese actor, one sees no fewer than three people simultaneously: one presenting and two being presented."
But, as Georges Banu points out, the Lanfang performance was only the flashpoint for formalist-realist arguments the West -- and Russia -- were already debating. Brecht later said that "the new German theatre developed the technique of distanciation in complete independence, without submitting in the least to the influence of Asian dramatic art". Meanwhile, in Moscow the progressive theatrical audience secretly saw Lanfang's style as a triumph for the formalist ideas of the early Soviet Union and a defeat for the socialist realism school already beginning to win favour under Stalin.
"Mei Lanfang arrived with his opera troupe in Moscow in March, 1935, at a critical moment for Soviet art and theater," writes Haun Saussy in Modern Chinese Literature and Culture review, "the beginnings of the imposition of an orthodoxy of "socialist realism" and the condemnation of such avant-garde movements as Formalism and Futurism. The reactions of the Soviet theater intelligentsia to Mei's performances, recorded at the time, show that their interpretation of Chinese theater made of it a covert means of defending such Formalist ideas as "defamiliarization" and the autonomy of art. Bertolt Brecht's theory of the "alienation-effect" in performance, developed at this moment, draws on both Mei's example and the Formalist precedent."
"The Russian interpretation of Mei as a Formalist artist--or at least as Formalism's happiest example--pairs strangely with the critique of classical Chinese theater in China some two decades before Mei's voyage to Moscow. That critique had condemned the classical theater as a relic of an earlier stage of literary evolution. Classical theater was branded as being, among other sins, "formalist," that is, of failing to imitate prosaic reality as a proper modern genre of art should. The very techniques that so impressed Russian audiences by their non-representational modernity had been ridiculed by Chinese modernists for their failure to resemble real life."
Saussy concludes that we need to define what we mean by "modernity" -- a question that comes up often here on Click Opera too, especially when the West's avant garde has more in common with other cultures' antiquity than their modernity. The idea that the future of the West might be the past of the East still freaks us out as much as it excited Brecht back in 1935 in Moscow.