Hsi Shih is pregnant

"Return to Yueh"'s new image

Every time Ya Yin finished a run of an opera, even though the show was over and the audience were gone, the lingering sound had not ended, there was still a sense of achievement left warmly in Kuo Hsiao-chuang's heart. At this time, even though Hsiao-chuang was very tired and yelling that she needed to have a good rest for a while, in fact she was already impatiently looking for a subject for the next opera.

For Ya Yin's 14th year, there had to be an even newer show. She began again to set goals for herself. Every year Ya Yin had new requirements, aiming at breakthrough.

"Hsi Shih"'s appearance was not by chance. In the past few years Hsiao-chuang would think of the part of Hsi Shih in her mind. Every time she thought of Hsi Shih, there would appear images of how Kou Chien the vanquished King of Yueh achieved restoration of the nation, how he lay on firewood and tasted the hanging gall bladder (to remind himself of the shame of defeat and surrender). All too serious and heavy subject matter of patriotism. So she picked up the subject only to put it down again. Until Wang An-chi told her there was a script on "Hsi Shih Returning to Yueh" which was different and very innovative, hence worth reading for her. After reading it, she was no end excited. The high impact of the drama made her most appreciative. What thrilled her most was the realism of human nature, restoring to Hsi Shih the original face of a "human".

What was most attractive to her was that this Hsi Shih was the Hsi Shih after restoration of her nation, without the patriotic doctrine, and even pregnant! This was very stunning, a completely new concept. Once the idea arose, the conventional Hsi Shih had a new look. Not only was she freed from the burden of the War between Wu and Yueh, it was also a brand new creative tale after the war.

Hsi Shih (who was a beauty of Yueh sent to charm the conqueror King of Wu, leading to his decline and fall) was pregnant, carrying the seed of the King of Wu, returned to Yueh after the war. This was almost a bombshell. Kou Chien the King of Yueh, Fan Li her old flame, her kind old mother, the whole Court who destroyed Wu and revived Yueh, and the innocent people of Hsi Shih's native village of Chu Lo: all of them would confront this bomb, but knew not if they would be caught in the explosion, or how badly they would be injured. This was the dramatic force. After reading the script, Kuo Hsiao-chuang was touched for a long, long time.

She at once booked an air ticket, flew to Shanghai, expressly to meet Lo Huai-chen the playwright. He was resident playwright of the Shanghai Huai Opera Theater. Very quickly she signed an agreement with him on the script, and made her suggestions on revisions. So Lo Huai-chen took up his pen to strengthen and embellish it into "Return to Yueh".

It was planned for "Return to Yueh" to be staged at the National Theater from December 8 to 12, 1993 (82nd Year of the Republic). This grand opera celebrating Ya Yin's 14th anniversary had its special characteristics in the storyline and the performance.

The main storyline was Hsi Shih's pregnancy. This was what Kuo Hsiao-chuang asked to be strengthened. Traditionally, opera performances would try their best to avoid scenes of pregnancy and childbirth. Even if it could not be just referred to in "spoken" lines, the whole process would be handled "off stage". But here it was emphasized, and generated a whole chain of dramatic force. The whole play's element of conflict came from Hsi Shih's being with child. If Hsi Shih was not with child, not pregnant, then there would not be all the incidents arising from this "Return to Yueh". Kou Chien feared that she had brought back a root of disaster. The patriotic courtiers turned from congratulating her for her merits, to angrily and anxiously wanting to eliminate her. Her betrothed, Fan Li, had longed day and night for her return, only to find her returning with the enemy's seed. That inner feeling, how could it be explained simply by the two words "love-hate"? And the blind old Mother who welcomed back her daughter, but turned out to be filled with anxiety and worry. All these incidents were interlocked in a chain and revealing at every layer. It was indeed fascinating.

The core of the performance was also new arrangements because of the pregnancy. Kuo Hsiao-chuang decided to carry a false belly to play the pregnant Hsi Shih. In traditional Chinese opera there had never been acting with a "false belly fitted". First of all, once a false belly was fitted, beauty was lost. Secondly, with a false belly in the way, acting was hampered. But if "Return to Yueh" did not give the audience a solid impression and only used abstract movements to make the audience imagine that Hsi Shih was with child, then the development of the whole play might really make people feel laughable and absurd. In fact, when Kuo Hsiao-chuang was reading the script, she had already thought of fitting a false belly for Hsi Shih. Only with this would the audience believe that Hsi Shih was pregnant, and believe that the various conflicts following from this were possible. More importantly, Kuo Hsiao-chuang felt the "weight of the belly", so she could deeply realize the selfless love of being a mother. Whether it was the child of her lover or her enemy, carrying it for 10 moons in her womb had made it a part of her life. Mother and child were linked by heart. Only with such a "feeling of reality" could she make the most of her acting and selflessly play the inner feelings of Hsi Shih.

With a protruding big belly, Kuo Hsiao-chuang did face a lot of added difficulties in the overall performance. Sadness without diminishing beautiful image, and having to attend to elegance of body movements and keeping agility in movements and demeanor, keeping the big belly from protruding too much as to affect the whole body's aesthetic look in acting and singing, all these caused her to give herself a lot of pressure. She faced more rigorous trial once again. In particular the scene of giving birth on the deserted hill side in a thunderstorm, she acted delicately and elegantly, using the action of sleeve waving to convey the pain of labor, and giving simulations of more realistic situations. There were sorrow, pain, fear, but even more so love. Her singing and acting touched people in their heart.

The character Fan Li had a heavy role. This time it was a new creation of this conventional part with emphasis on dramatic arrangements. He was a war veteran, happy to welcome back his love, shocked to find her pregnant, with jealous feelings rising naturally and turning from love to hate. Besides love relations between the two of them, there were also factors of national enmity, adding to the burden inside this part. Then he got to understand in depth Hsi Shih's experiences: alone in the enemy camp, enjoying the love and favor of the King of Wu, erecting the Kuan Wa Palace just to please her, building the Musical Corridor (giving a xanophone effect when walked upon) just to make her laugh. Even though Hsi Shih was shouldering a spy's mission, she was nonetheless just a girl with weaknesses, a girl of flesh and blood with human feelings. She came back carrying the King of Wu's baby. Was this her fault? Fan Li gradually turned from love to hate to understanding and sympathy to resolving to help her. This drama of inner changes by layers gave Tsao Fu-yung an important break. He acted maturely with poise and won very good reviews.

But eventually tragedy occurred. The baby died, Hsi Shih threw herself into the river, Fan Li followed suit in sacrifice. All these echoed the original early love between the silk washing young girl and the minister of Yueh. The tragic ending and the tragic atmosphere clung on people's minds for a long time. This was the inevitable result that Hsi Shih knew full well in her heart upon her return to Yueh. Kuo Hsiao-chuang kept control of this tragic essence all the time, showing clearly the political intrigues, the deceitfulness of human hearts, the true meaning of human nature, and the motherly love. Under the circumstances of political intrigue at a time of war, the true meaning of love was also blurred.

The performance of "Return to Yueh" was energetic with forceful impact, and strong in tragic nature. The human and non-human plots welled up visibly wave after wave. The overall co-operation showed great achievement, and it was a good harvest for Kuo Hsiao-chuang's Hsi Shih. The spirit of making sacrifice for drama left the public at large with a deep impression.