The great difference, between the Chinese theatre and the Western theatre seems to me to spring from the Chinese sense of realism. Life as it is lived must be treated in an absolutely realistic way. The Chinese requires diversion from it, just as the Westerner does, but his diversion must be utterly unrealistic. A play with us, even a play which is a fairy-tale, is presented as actual happening. With the Chinese play everything possible is done to ensure that you do not forget for a moment that you are watching something fantastic. The Chinese must see something unreal and traditional.
Although most of the audience are in their seats before the curtain goes up, they are there not from any sense of necessity for seeing the play all the way through, but as part of the way of spending an evening in diversion. There is a lot of coming and going throughout the performance, the price of seats is reduced at half-time, and children come in free. You bring food, or you buy it (very good) from continually circulating attendants, you chew melon seeds and scatter the refuse cheerfully, you talk in loud tones, you take as much or as little notice as you like of what is going on on the stage. The children stand about in the aisles or sit on laps impassively gazing at the stage as though mesmerized by the colour, light and noise.
Indeed, it is easy to become mesmerized by the noise of the clashing cymbals and gongs. They punctuate every entrance and exit and almost every utterance of the actors. Strangest of all to Western eyes is the sight of the shirt-sleeved, perspiring orchestra sitting to one side of the stage, smoking and talking among themselves. And the stage hands, too, who wander in singlets and trousers on and off the stage during the scenes, bringing on a 'prop', or carefully arranging the heroine's dress when she sits down, or quietly placing a cushion on the stage just where, a moment or two later, she must tall on her knees.
The actors and actresses wear the gorgeous robes of ancient China, and the modernly dressed orchestra and the stage hands increase the air of unreality. The audience are never led to believe that the actor is not acting, nor do they lose themselves in the story: their interest is maintained by the skill of the actor in acting, and they like their well-known actors to conform to conventional rules of acting. Amongst the actors and actresses we met was the celebrated Mr. Ma Si-Tsang, one of the most famous stars of the Cantonese school. He had introduced a kind of tremolo into his voice at certain passages, but as this was not traditional there was considerable criticism of it.
The costumes have to be conventional also, and you know whether a man is a soldier or scholar, rich or poor, by the type of costume he is wearing. Rich young women, good or bad, dress in gloriously sequined jackets and long skirts, the handmaid wears silk and sequined pyjamas, and the poor woman a plain blue blouse and black trousers.
Behind the scenes there are no dressing-rooms. The space back-stage is curtained off so that the leading actors and actresses may have separate cubicles, while the supers and small parts make up in very cramped and crowded conditions. The wonderful clothes and headdresses are hung on wires that run from one end of the dressing space to the other. The stars have their own dressers and they provide their own costumes. Smallpart players may be lent their clothes, or they can be hired for a night. One of the signs of increasing stardom is the number of costumes an actor or actress possesses, and leading stars may own a theatrical wardrobe worth thousands of dollars.