Tragedy Turned Into Comedy
Tou O's Earthshaking Grievance

Ya Yin's second opera was "Tou O's Earthshaking Grievance" newly written by Professor Meng Yao. It was originally the masterpiece of Kuan Han-ching the great opera writer of the Yuan Dynasty with high artistic merits. In those days, the Mongols were ruling China as an alien race. They abolished the civil service examinations and the agricultural land system, making merchants, scholars and farmers all filled with grievance and hardship. The rulers adopted highly oppressive measures of control, hoping to eliminate any discontent in society, causing a lot of unjust sentences and bloodshed. It was said that Kuan Han-ching had witnessed a helpless woman dying in prison after being wrongly sentenced, was deeply moved and therefore wrote "Tou O's Grievance" as a protest. The opera was divided into 4 acts: Act 1 was Tou O's life history; Act 2 was the mutton tripe murder; Act 3 was the trial and execution; and Act 4 the omen and vindication. It ended as a tragedy.

Later, the Ming Dynasty developed Southern Operas called poetic drama, taking the place of Northern Operas. So somebody (some said it was Yeh Hsien-chu, others said it was Yuan Yu-ling) adapted "Tou O's Grievance" into "The Gold Lock Tale", adding to the contents and changing the tragic ending to a happy ending. The form and structure were more tidy, but on artistic merits, Lu Tien-cheng the drama authority of Ming Dynasty had stated in his "Opera Critique" that "The opera Tou O's Grievance was most tragic", and remarked that "Gold Lock Tale" was "not worth viewing". When Peking opera replaced Kun opera as the vogue, "Snow in the Sixth Moon" (an adaptation of Tou O's story) by the Cheng School became a representative work. Kuan Han-ching's original spirit had been lost after several changes.

In Meng Yao's own words, she was "trying to restore 'Tou O's Grievance' in its original looks and fundamental spirit, hence re-writing it". This was indeed an ambitious project, respecting the original intentions of Kuan Han-ching the opera writer. In Mr Wang Ching-an's "Study of Sung Dynasty Operas", he praised the "Chao's Orphan" and "Tou O's Grievance" as two operas that could proudly be classed as equals of world tragedies. Such authors and works in the history of drama of our nation should be treasured and its original essence revived. Meng Yao the librettist and Kuo Hsiao-chuang of Ya Yin were exactly basing their efforts on such an aim. They discussed and researched incessantly hoping to restore Tou O's original looks. Strictly speaking, they were facing great challenge from the day they started on this project.

The two of them, librettist and Director cum Actress united together, focussed their discussions on how to make use of new techniques to portray Kuan Han-chingˇ¦s Tou O. They rewrote part of the lyrics in the 2 scenes "Execution" and "Omen", the quintessence of the original, and left the rest untouched. For the rest of the scenes, in order to make the whole work progress smoothly, there were slight innovations. To give respect to the original work, "Tou O's Grievance" still ended as tragedy. Meng Yao wrote the whole libretto in 6 scenes: 1. Night Weaving: Tou O lamenting her tragic life history. 2. Forced Marriage: Granny Tsai invited a wolf into the house. 3. Plotting to Seize Estate: Chang Lu poisoned his own father by mistake. 4. Court Trial: Tou O was tortured. 5. Execution: Tou O was executed. 6. Omen: Tou's Father exonerated his daughter's grievance.

Once the script was completed, Kuo Hsiao-chuang immediately started work on production and rehearsal: Nieh Kuang-yen's lighting and set design, Chu Shao-lung's singing style music, and others like costumes, props, and box office promotion. The whole Ya Yin Ensemble was mobilized with division of labor. Every day the rehearsal room was crowded with people, appearing bustlingly excited and lively.

Kuo Hsiao-chuang was however deeply immersed in creative conception. From the beginning of writing the opening scene of the script, she had been meditating from the stage performance angle, including lighting, music and atmosphere, all brooding in her mind. As regards actors' performance, including singing, acting, expressions, and even costumes, accessories and props, she had also thought about how to design all these. Her mind had no rest for a moment. She decided that after curtain rose on the prelude, there should be darkness all round, with just one beam revealing Tou O lowering her head and weaving alone. This was very common in stage plays or movies, nothing new. But in traditional Chinese opera renditions, this was an innovative design. It was a breakthrough in characters' entrance and exit order. At first Meng Yao had doubts about this too. Because it was very important how a Chinese opera actor made her entry. The tradition placed importance on "appearing". The audience on seeing her would at once cheer. So there was the saying "First Encounter Cheering". Especially for popular stars, they used this "First Encounter Cheering" to test their degree of popularity. Kuo Hsiao-chuang gave this up lightly, however, mindful only of the overall performance effects, emphasizing the scene atmosphere after curtain rose. In the setting of dim, lonely and lamenting, it gave the audience a feeling of imposing silence. This was the atmosphere demanded and sought by Kuo Hsiao-chuang.

In order to transcend herself and let this opera transcend the previous one, new images and new movements were specially designed. The highlights of the performance were "Court Trial", "Execution" and "Omen".

Costume design was also an aspect of concern for Kuo Hsiao-chuang. The ghost of Tou O after her decapitation was a headless ghost. So she had a black long dress specially designed, with a black veil covering her head. One would see only black over the whole body. With matching lighting, not only was the image exquisite, it also revealed an air of a specter. Unfortunately, on the opening night she could not wear this specially tailored costume. It was not used at all. Because Tou O's Grievance was "ordered" to be turned from tragedy to comedy. The "Omen" scene had to be "sacrificed". It was not until the rerun of this opera that a complete version was staged. This long black dress, late in appearance, finally was put on Kuo Hsiao-chuang and tragically showed itself to the audience.

In the "Court Trial" scene, she changed from previous stars' wearing embroidered shoes into grey from head to toe, with matching black cloth slippers, so as to fit the status of a prisoner. At rehearsals, Chang Ta-chien made a special visit out of concern. He watched this scene and told Kuo Hsiao-chuang that she should alter the grey into cream colored coarse cloth dresses to be more convincing and build better atmosphere. She listened to this and had the cream colored costume made in a rush overnight. It did turn out that in this heart rending tragic scene, the character's broken-hearted weeping statement, accompanied by the lighting, music and costume colors, presented a pathetic beauty of helpless solitude.

In the "Execution" scene, Tou O told of her 3 vows because of her being so greatly wronged and to be unjustly executed. One of them was to hang up a seven foot white silk strip: "The wronged blood of me, Tou O, will rush up to the heavens." Because of this line, Kuo Hsiao-chuang and Nieh Kuang-yen were planning to hang a piece of long white cloth at center stage. When the executioner decapitated Tou O, a beam of red light would be quickly trained on the white cloth, using a movie trick, to create impact by swift-rhythm. As for snowfall during the sixth moon summer season to show how Tou O's grievance shook the heaven and earth, so much so that the sun lost its radiance, the sky turned dark, and snow fell; for this effect, a team of prop crew went up to the stage top well in advance, under the design of "Veteran" Hsu Fu-poa. They set outside the scaffoldings and once they reached this line, handfuls of diced polystyrene pieces were showered onto the stage to create the atmosphere. All these were unseen before in Chinese opera. Kuo Hsiao-chuang felt that since they were entering a modern theater to perform, they should make full use of modern facilities of the theater and let the audience have richer visual effects.

Everything was being eagerly prepared. Advance booking had started. In the midst of all this everybody passed a busy Chinese New Year and rehearsals of Ya Yin resumed on the 5th Day of the New Year. At this time, the rehearsal room was filled with joy. On the one hand there was the joy of New Year. On the other there was the joy of staging a new show soon. Combined together, everybody greeted one another with "Congratulations!" At this juncture the younger brother in the Kuo family ran in hastily, seeing everybody so concentrated on rehearsing, he stood at one side anxiously, waiting until the rehearsal was over, then informed Kuo Hsiao-chuang that the Taipei City Department of Education had called to say they would cancel the permit of the performance of Tou O's Grievance. This was a thunderclap on a fine day. She went upstairs in silence. She had to know the reason.

She contacted the Department of Education at once. The officer concerned explained that this was just obeying orders. So she went directly to the Ministry of Education to see the Director of Social Education to enquire about the true picture. She explained time and again that the opera had been rehearsed for half a year and advance booking had started for 2 weeks, and it was impossible to cancel it. She argued strongly on just grounds and explained patiently, hoping to win the understanding of the controlling government office. But the Director asked her to postpone the show. She kept asking the reason. Finally he had to tell he, "Staging it now is the wrong political timing." Faced with such an answer, it was inevitable to be indignant. But Kuo Hsiao-chuang quickly calmed down. She decided to keep rehearsing punctually every day, and to fight bravely without backing down. The show time was fixed long ago! The show was rehearsed! The tickets were sold! It was really impossible to postpone the show, not to mention that the real reason was unknown.

She made a special visit to see Chu Wei-shen the Minister of Education. They had an earnest and wide-ranging chat. She consulted him on whether Chinese opera could be reformed. Coming to the main subject of "Tou O's Grievance", she asked why was it that Kuan Han-ching's operas were Ministry-approved teaching material but could not be performed? Minister Chu praised her contributions toward Chinese opera again and again. But on the question of performance, he hoped she would put it off. As for the reason, it was still the simple 3 words: "Wrong political timing!" Faced with the same answer again, she was determined to find out the reason and where the obstacle had come from. At the same time she swore to turn the resistance into motivation.

At this juncture, there were already reporters chasing after her asking about the Tou O's Grievance matter: Would it be banned? What was the reason? She had to give the standard answer, "I donˇ¦t know!".

At this point, the army opera troupes had prohibited their people to support Ya Yin's show. Hence the rehearsal room was empty, with only Master Chu Shao-lung playing the Erhu. It sounded particularly lonely and sad.

At this time, a rumor was spreading outside.

Wrong political timing! It turned out that in late 1979 there was the Kaohsiung Mei Li Island Incident that caught international attention. In early 1980 the court martial was going to give public hearing to this case. At this time there was still an air of uneasiness wafting over the community. The political implications were still strong and sensitive. Ya Yin Ensemble happened to plan to stage "Tou O's Earthshaking Grievance" in March of that year, to strive for the innovation and development of Chinese opera, without sensing the political air in the big environment at all. They were whole-heartedly working at opera for opera's sake, without detecting the impending latent crisis at all. Since the performance of "The White Snake and Hsu Hsien", a group of people with ulterior motives had accused Kuo Hsiao-chuang of copying a Mainland China script. Fortunately people with sense of justice and learning had taken turns to retort and exonerated Kuo Hsiao-chuang from such undeserved calamity. And before "Tou O's Grievance" was staged this time, people who set their mind on it saw an opportunity, so they put two and two together, spread rumors and slander, pointing out that the Mei Li Island grand trial was imminent and Ya Yin had chosen to stage "Tou O's Grievance" at this juncture, obviously to complain about their injustice. In those few years it was the popular trend in Taiwan society to "put labels on people". Kuo Hsiao-chuang was surprised by such rumors out of the blue. She was stunned.

But she knew she could not be beaten by rumors. She could not collapse. She realized the seriousness of the matter, and furthermore knew that this was the critical moment of personal success or failure, and a matter of life or death for Ya Yin. She had to be strong, to face up to challenge bravely, and to fight with all her might. But what was to be done? After thinking it over, she went to call on Uncle Chang Ta-chien, explaining briefly the "Tou O's Grievance" saga, and also her own feelings and thoughts. Having listened to her in silence, Chang Ta-chien asked her to rehearse the show even more earnestly and be ready to perform as scheduled. He kept encouraging her and voiced his indignation, asking her not to lose faith at any cost, but to press ahead bravely and strive for final victory.

Chang Ta-chien's words made Kuo Hsiao-chuang strengthen her original confidence and will to fight. She also realized that Ya Yin had so far not received any formal document of a "ban". So she started rehearsing again. Just she and Master Chu repeatedly rehearsing Tou O's singing numbers. Gradually she was immersed in the character of Tou O again.

Soon afterwards, a story went round that President Chiang Ching-kuo had asked at a breakfast briefing about the matter of Ya Yin Ensemble staging "Tou O's Grievance". The units concerned reported one by one. Finally, Chiang Ching-kuo said indifferently,

"Don't mix politics with art!"

Gradually, the atmosphere outside had quietened down. The military opera troupe personnel once stopped were coming back to join rehearsals. Eventually, two days before opening, Ya Yin received a letter from the Ministry of Educationˇ¦s Chinese Opera Script Censorship Committee, saying: "The part in the opera where Tou O is executed will be deleted, lest it detract from opera teaching the spirit of filial piety, and in order to foster good social customs as its social education function."

This notification was in effect ordering the tragic ending to be changed to comedy. This was at variance with the original concept of respecting Kuan Han-ching's original work and restoring its original tragic ending. Kuo Hsiao-chuang found herself all of a sudden caught in a battle between heaven and man. Her inner heart was in a dilemma. She knew that if she insisted again it would surely be an impasse again. She discussed with Professor Meng Yao again and again. In order to stage the show as scheduled, they had to accept. The script was revised overnight to amend the "Execution" scene and remove the "Omen" scene. The ending became the moment when Tou O was to be executed, a soldier hurried in on a horse and shouted "Hold the execution!" Tou O was allowed to live. "Ordered" to change into a comedy show, Ya Yin might have a lot of grievance, but so long as the show could be staged as scheduled, it would dispel all hearsay as evil rumor and prove Kuo Hsiao-chuang's success in her valiant fight.

On March 14, 10 minutes before the show opened as scheduled, the cast were all dressed up and ready. Kuo Hsiao-chuang was in the green room, sitting quietly to warm up to the right mood. She knew already that there was a full house and a feeling of joy welled up inside. At this very moment, the Director of the Sun Yet-sen Memorial Hall accompanied the Director of Social Education to come in in a haste, asking that an announcement be made before the show to explain the reasons for last minute revision of the script from tragedy to comedy. She used the reason of Chinese opera actors could not talk to the audience before the show to refuse this request firmly. At this point the gong had sounded and curtain up was imminent. Suppressing the anger rising within, she had to come on stage quickly, sitting on the set, turning into the sadly lamenting Tou O. With several changes of mood, she feared it might affect the effect of performance. So she took deep breaths to calm down her rage, and entered into the role of Tou O.

When the show was going on, a strange man was seen standing just in front of the apron stage up till the intermission. Then he introduced himself as staff from the Security Office of Police Headquarters. It was because the Police received information that somebody would make trouble at the show tonight, hence he led a detachment of plain clothes scattered around in the auditorium to provide protection. Having listened to this, Kuo Hsiao-chuang was greatly agitated. She immediately told him sternly, "We have not been harassed, we just ask you not to interfere with us!" Having said this she turned and walked away, holding back tears in her eyes.

Coming on again to play the "Execution" scene, she sang off stage (in tao pan tune) for no reason I am punished for committing an offence against the law. Then the executioner took her on stage, and she sang on: I, Tou O, cry Grievance, shaking the earth and heaven....

As soon as the line had come out from her mouth, all the injustice, fear, worry, and anxiety that Kuo Hsiao-chuang had suffered all these days, poured out and erupted completely through this one cry of "Grievance" from Tou O. Her being wronged, her depression, her grief and helplessness, all were transformed through this cry of "Grievance" from Tou O into tears, flowing down in streams. Kuo Hsiao-chuang on stage at this moment, with the wrongs she met in real life concentrated in her lean and frail body, together with the wrongs suffered by Tou O in the opera, found that this little vessel really could not hold so much sorrow, that her heart was on the brink of collapse. She struggled against wave after wave of emotions, for several times wanting to unclasp Tou O's shackles, to stand up again at center stage and speak out to the audience the whole story of her "being wronged", and formally announce the disbanding of Ya Yin Ensemble, the retirement of Kuo Hsiao-chuang from the Chinese opera stage henceforth and not to perform again. These thoughts kept rising and falling struggling all the while. And at this moment she recalled Uncle Chang Ta-Chien's intimate exhortation, "Courage! Persevere!" She told herself to forbear, and not to act impulsively.

The whole opera was at last finished. There was thundering applause from the auditorium. She acted so brilliantly, so profoundly. Tou O's grievance and Kuo Hsiao-chuang's grievance were merged together, moving people to tears. She had really succeeded in moving her audience. She made curtain calls time and again, then finally she returned to back stage and, before she could undress, she burst into tears. The family and cast in backstage all knew the too much grievance and pressure she had suffered these days. They came forward often to comfort her, but still could not soothe the sorrow in her heart. Suddenly, it occurred to Kuo Hsiao-chuang that going on crying like this would make her voice hoarse. How could she play tomorrow and the day after? If she could not play how could she face the audience long looking forward to the show? So she stopped crying, dried her tears, faced the mirror and removed her make-up. She then discovered to her surprise that, within what was a head of jet black hair, many grains of white hair were mingled since God knows when. Now she had to believe it was possible, as the story went, for Wu Tzu-hsu getting through the Chao Fortress and having his hair all turned white overnight!

The success of "Tou O's Grievance" received high acclaim from public opinion, with positive reviews from drama experts, literati and columnists. The most eye-catching were criticisms of changing the tragedy into comedy, calling bluntly the unit making such "suggestions" to be "short-sighted and shallow". Among the many articles, Huang Mei-hsu, Chu Hsi-ning, Thousand Sons of Heaven, Little Miss, Ma Shu-li and Yao I-wei all made detailed reviews and analyses of the whole opera, and gave great encouragement to Ya Yin. And at this point the parliamentary Legislative Yuan also queried the Ministry of Educationˇ¦s handling of the "Tou O" opera, deciding at the same time to thoroughly revise the censorship system for Chinese opera scripts, setting up fair and objective standards. The grievance suffered by "Tou O's Grievance" was put right at this time, when it was rerun in 1984, it returned from comedy to the original form of tragedy. Kuo Hsiao-chuang's grievance was put right eventually. There was justice in this world after all.