“All the world’s a stage”, said Shakespeare, “ and all the men and women merely players.” His near-contemporary, Chinese dramatist Li Yu goes one step further and says that even in love, or perhaps especially in love, we can only play out our roles.
Li Yu’s vehicle for illustrating this truth is an opera buffa of the most artless premise. Handsome young scholar Tan falls in love with a beautiful actress, Fairy Liu, and swallows his pride to join her acting troop as the male lead in order to court her. Vicissitudes intervene in the form of wild beasts, greedy lechers, suicide and transfiguration, but it’s no plot spoiler to reveal that the loving couple consummate their bliss.
Tan and Fairy Liu act the part of lovers on stage, where they can express their sincerest passions for each other. Off stage they must pretend to be just actors. Fairy Liu’s mother admonishes her to “act” interested in her crowd of admirers, to keep them in assiduous attendance. The daughter replies that the right “role” for a young woman is needlework and chastity. Tan resents the comic, “painted face” role initially reserved for him and negotiates to get the lead role. At a crucial moment the troupe puts on another opera, The Thorn Hairpin. Only in this play within a play within a play do Tan and Fairy Liu behave as their true selves. One is reminded how the Kamasutra asserts that all love making is play acting. Here play acting is love making.
Li Yu, like Shakespeare, was a successful impresario as well as publisher and popular man of letters. He wrote a detailed guide for stage directors, which allows us to relive the world of Ming-era theatre. A Couple of Soles shows Li Yu’s deep concern for the dignity of the acting profession. In Chinese literary tradition, theatre was considered a low form of entertainment, often bawdy and slapstick (and there is a lot of that in this play). Actors and actresses had to be registered with the authorities as “degraded” people, along with prostitutes. Fairy Liu’s mother exemplifies the sordid side of the acting business, as she panders her own daughter, explaining to her how to sell her charms to accumulate a fortune. The young girl, though, is a paragon of Confucian virtue. Her unwillingness to abase herself for money, her fidelity to her freely chosen partner, set against her supernatural beauty, beguiling voice and acting talent, provides Yu Li with an ideal example of the artist who, like Tosca, lives for art and love alone.
It is difficult at this remove of time to imagine how the audience would have reacted to the role of the virtuous Fairy Liu. The pleasure-loving, late Ming era witnessed the apogee of glamorous courtesan-actresses. Countless operas retold in different combinations the loves of talented young scholars and matchless divas of the stage. Some of the most prominent divas earned the reputation of probity and loyalty, disdaining many suitors and uniting themselves with worthy partners, or retiring to Buddhist nunneries. It’s possible Fairy Liu’s character is simply the idealization of real actresses who rose above the bawdy reputation of the theatre. That bawdy reputation led to women being forbidden to perform in public, just as in Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre.
One of Fairy Liu’s virtue-signalling capabilities is her erudition. Having mastered the classics of poetry, she can recite verses, read obtuse allusions and argue her point of view with reference to Confucius and Mencius. This gives Li Yu the opportunity to embroider the text of his play with a thousand years of puns, citations and references, delighting his learned audience.
The translators, Shen and Hegel, follow in the tradition of Cyril Birch, who translated the well-known Ming operas, The Peach Blossom Fan and The Peony Pavilion a generation ago. This approach to translation seeks to preserve the distinction between spoken lines, rhythmic recitation, and song. 400 footnotes guide the reader through the puns and allusions of the original text. Some of the explanations are snippets of poetry on their own. “Pepper pavilions” refers to the use of mixed-pepper and plaster to cover the walls of the imperial pleasure quarters. Nothing to sneeze at!
It’s understandable why Shakespeare comes to mind in connection with A Couple of Soles. Despite the difficulties of the exotic literary tradition, there is still the same freshness of these theatre characters of the early modern stage. Fairy Liu is as innocent but as determined as Beatrice or Rosalind. She learns to play many roles to realize her most noble dreams of happiness. And we are happy for her.