Early Modern Times – from bad to verse

Early Modern Times - from bad to verse

Dear readers,

Canadians were stunned by the appearance of photographs and a video of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appearing in brown- and blackface on at least three separate occasions in past decades. One of the few positive outcomes of these shameful revelations is some conversation, for now, around the history of blackface particularly in Canada. Unsurprisingly, the early modern period in Europe also provides plenty of examples of non-European cultures depicted for the sake of mockery and derision. Yet even where non-European cultures are held up as admirable, questions linger about such cultural appropriation in the early modern arts. In my current research, I have examined the case of early modern European adaptations of the Chinese play The Orphan of Zhao (the European versions were performed exclusively by white European actors). These adaptations tell us more about European preoccupations than they convey any interest in cultural fidelity.

The Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) play The Orphan of Zhao was based on actual incidents in 7th c. China. The play recounts a massacre orchestrated by a wicked minister upon the noble house of Zhao. The newborn Zhao heir is rescued by the allies of the family, and unaware of the baby’s lineage, the minister raises the child as his own son. Twenty years later, the orphan of Zhao learns of his family history, and takes revenge upon his surrogate father. For Chinese audiences, this is an ‘heir-raising’ story.

This popular play was translated into French by a Jesuit missionary, and included in Jean-Baptiste Du Halde’s four-volume Description of China (1735). Du Halde’s work brought the play to the attention of European thinkers and playwrights. William Hatchett’s 1741 English adaptation was a ‘Hatchett job’ on the notoriously corrupt British Prime Minister Robert Walpole, but was never performed.

More famous was Voltaire’s neoclassical verse drama L’Orphelin de la Chine of 1755 (the painting above depicts the first reading of the play in the salon of Madame Geoffrin). This play, which was very successful at the time, shifts the events of the drama to the era of the Mongol invasions. The minister is transformed into none other than Genghis Khan, who seizes the imperial capital and seeks the blood of the royal heir. Pitted against the Mongol conqueror is the Confucian scholar Zamti and his wife Idamé (names which are a form of French pseudo-Chinese). Only this Confucian power-couple stand between Genghis Khan and the imperial orphan of China; and to complicate matters further (a detail of Voltaire’s invention), the Mongol invader harbours an unrequited passion for Idamé ever since his youthful stay at the palace many years ago: speaking in the third person, he could very well inform the horrified Idamé that ‘Genghis “Khan” stop loving you.’

Zamti devises a pact to substitute his own newborn son for the royal orphan, but is stopped by his appalled wife; and in final despair, the couple swear to a double suicide pact: this is an action-pact story. The Khan discovers the couple on the point of committing suicide: shocked, he urges them to desist and swears to rule China wisely with the counsel of Zamti. The moral of the story is that their Confucian virtue has won over the barbarian invader, who will now be a reformed, though no less absolutist, ruler. This absurd recasting of Genghis Khan as an Enlightened monarch was meant to please King Louis XV of France and Vol-taire at your heartstrings.

The Irish playwright Arthur Murphy thought that Voltaire’s adaptation was a whole lot of Louis-phooey. His English version, produced in 1759 by the famous actor-producer David Garrick, was written in the context of the Seven Years War between Britain and France. The anti-French message of his Orphan of China was specifically directed at Voltaire’s remark that his play improves upon the barbarous aesthetic qualities of The Orphan of Zhao (i.e., its lack of adherence to the neoclassical theatrical unities of time, place and action), characteristic of both Chinese drama and the works of William Shakespeare. Murphy, then, sought to defend the honour of English (but not Chinese) theatre against Voltaire’s view of Shakespeare as ‘Bard-barian’.

Instead of a neoclassical drama with an implausibly happy ending, Murphy’s Orphan of China is a patriotic historical play which, among other things, ditches the ludicrous romantic subplot between Idamé and the villain (now a Mongol named Timurkhan). The villain is a thinly-disguised symbol of French tyranny and religious intolerance. The Chinese heroes champion British-style liberty and constitutionalism in a violent Shakespearean-style revenge drama complete with a ‘smoking blade [which] hath drunk the tyrant’s blood’ by the conclusion. From a French point of view, this is a very British (and therefore brutish) drama, with much waving of swords and Shake-ing of speares.

To Voltaire’s dismay, Garrick’s production of Murphy’s Orphan of China at Drury Lane was a smash. In response, Voltaire wrote a bitter letter acidly denouncing the ‘Inconsistencies, Improbabilities, and Absurdities’ of the plot and heaping scorn on ‘an undiscerning Nation, that bestows uncommon Applause upon a Piece wrote by one of their worst Poets.’ In railing against what he saw as an excessive and vulgar play, Voltaire accused Murphy of turning poetic license into poetic licentiousness–perhaps an apt term to characterise all such European attempts to improve upon the Chinese original.

’til next week,

Simon Kow

Director, Early Modern Dramadness (yet there be method in’t) Studies Program

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