In the summer of 1924, Soviet playwright Sergei Tretyakov took up a one-year appointment as Professor of Russian at the University of Beijing. He returned with material that resulted in the 1926 play Roar, China!, based upon a historical incident in Wanhsien in which an American businessman drowned after an argument with a local boatman. The captain of the British gunboat Cockchafer, which happened to be in the area, demanded that when the ferryman could not be found and executed, two other men be executed instead or he would bombard the town.
In what seems today like an extraordinary degree of success and acceptance for a piece of revolutionary theatre, the play reached New York (and Canton) in 1930; this very anti-British play was performed in India in 1942, as well in Yiddish in the Czestochowa concentration camp in 1944.
Roar, China!, translated by Stephen Holland, appears in a new collection of Tretyakov plays. It is a fascinating period piece. This is a China of white villains—Americans, English and French all come in for a shellacking. There is of course the bombastic English captain, and the arrogant American businessman, but also two clueless American tourists, a smarmy journalist, a whiny French trader, his wife and spoiled coquettish daughter. The Chinese are similarly made up of types: the put-upon proletariat of dock-workers, an old woman who trades in young girls, an honorable mayor who must nevertheless deliver up two innocent men for execution in order to save the town, a hot-headed student intellectual.
If one hadn’t known that Sergei Eisenstein had directed two of Tretyakov’s early plays, one might have guessed at a relationship: Roar, China! has revolutionary and reactionary set pieces and the play careens along like a pram falling down a flight of steps. The play, while Socialist, is pre-Mao: the political invocation is to Sun Yat-Sen. It ends with the student declaiming:
Roar China! Roar in the ears of all the world. Let these crimes be known across the earth. Roar! Now! Out, out of our China!
One cannot help but wonder what the reception was like at its premiere in Shanghai in 1933 by the Shanghai Art Theatre Society which reportedly used on-stage cannons aimed at the audience; it was revived in 1949 after the Communist victory.
Tretyakov fell foul of Stalin. He was arrested in 1937 and charged with spying for the Germans and Japanese. Sentenced to death, he jumped from the fourth floor of his prison.
The availability of this play in a new translation elicits the question of what the reaction might be if the play were revived today. Despite some colloquial Americanisms in the translation (“gotta”, “dough”, “kiddin’”, etc.), it remains a product of its times: the characters are types (and were meant to be), some are just foils—and overall, there are probably too many characters for a relatively short play. From a production standpoint, the scenes shift back and forth between the riverfront and the ship some eight times.
But it remains powerful: it is propaganda, but the events it portrays actually happened.