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  Literature and Artistic Development

The History of the Development of Modern Drama in the R.O.C. (Fang-Ying Chen)



        The term “drama,” used in contrast to “opera” which is composed of dance and music, refers to the performance art that relies heavily on dialogue. In the early 20th century, drama, incorporated into the New Cultural Movement, was an important entertainment form and cultural activity carrying an ideological point of view and reflecting the social issues of the time. It was often called “Hua Ju” (“dialogue drama”) in the beginning, and the name was gradually changed to “Wu Tai Ju” (stage play) or modern drama in the 1980’s.


The first two sections of this article discuss the development of drama in China from the initial stages in the late Ching Dynasty to 1949; and followed with three sections being dedicated to the development of drama in Taiwan from the period of the Japanese occupation to the present.

The earliest appearance of drama in China can be found in connection with two instances. The first was the performances presented by the Amateur Dramatic Club, which was established in Shanghai by western foreigners after the First Opium War and those of the performing art troupes from Japan traveling in China. The second was the performance of religious and classical plays in English, French or other foreign languages by students at church schools. Student performances during this period were influential in the later development of modern drama, including that of the Little Theatre Movement in the 1980’s in Taiwan. Also worthy of mention in this early period was the rise and fall of crude stage plays and amateur drama, and the contribution of Shen Hong and Han Tian to the maturity of modern drama.

The first boom in modern drama occurred around the 1920’s. It was a productive era full of diverse themes and styles, and the first professional school of drama in history, which later on cultivated many exceptional actors and playwrights, was established during this period. However, as the war with Japan broke out, many dramas were produced to promote patriotism or in support of the war. Civil War followed soon after the end of the war against Japan, and resulted in the relocation of the Republic of China to Taiwan. Consequently, the stage for the drama of the Republic of China was also moved to Taiwan.

The development of drama in Taiwan was launched with a discussion on new drama in Taiwan during the Japanese occupation. Taiwanese new drama referred to all forms of drama other than traditional operas. Although the new dramas of different periods were distinct from each other, they could be categorized into three types, “professional new drama,” “modified new drama” and “intellectual new drama.” After 1949, new drama started to decline, and the modernization of drama was interrupted when television arrived in the 1950’s. The development of drama in the 1950’s was led by military productions, and featured the themes of “anti-communism” and “opposition to Russia.” In the event, policy-oriented drama failed to attract support from the public, and, as audiences turned to movie theaters, and television took over living rooms, drama gradually lost the spotlight. Despite an environment which appeared against all odds, Professor Lee Gui-man established the Department of Theatre Arts in the Chinese Culture University in 1963. She strived to sustain modern drama during this waning period. In addition to drama education, she organized performance art troupes and art movements, and established organizations devoted to modern drama.

After the hibernation in the 1970’s, drama started to draw attention again in the 1980’s. The Peony Pavilion, adapted from Kenneth Hsien-yung Pai’s novel of the same title and produced by the New Aspect Arts Center and the yearly performances at Christmas and the New Year by the Christian Arts Fellowship were the keys during the transition in this time and indicators to drama’s later revival.

When the economy took off in the 1970’s and 1980’s, intellectuals who went abroad for advanced education and afterwards settled overseas began to return to their motherland. Unlike the intellectuals of the May Fourth Movement who chose to learn from the west, they emphasized the importance of tradition and created a trend of reviving local culture. Under such atmosphere, the National Institute of the Arts (Taipei National University of the Arts, TNUA today), being the first art academy in Taiwan after 1949, was founded in 1982. In particular, the establishment of the School of Theatre Arts was the turning point for theatre art and drama education in Taiwan. Under the leadership of Yao Yi-wei, the School of Theatre Arts played the leading role in the revolution of theatre arts education. From the founding of the school onwards, a new page for arts education was unveiled -- new approaches were adopted for teaching, and innovative courses were offered. Furthermore, later in the 1990’s, several universities or colleges launched master and doctor programs, and some high schools began to offer drama courses or majors to students.

After a hundred years of search, development and experiment, efforts were finally rewarded in the 1980’s. More and more troupes were established, such as the Performance Workshop (established in1984), the Ping-fong Acting Troupe (1986), and the Godot Theatre Company (1988), etc. Additionally, modern drama became a popular art form and leisure activity for the public. Further into the 21st century, several local mainstream troupes have stepped out of the island, traveling overseas to find their global audience. Diverse, creative and experimental, there is not the least doubt that the drama of Taiwan will continue to shine.


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