Sunday, January 24, 2021

The Orphan of China

When I was visiting the Tate Britain a couple years ago, I came across Tilly Kettle's portrait "Mrs. Yates as Mandane in The Orphan of China." The piece captures a nearly forgotten moment of transcultural drama in the 18th century.

Beginning in 1731, zaju drama from China began being translated into European languages, causing a burst of excitement in the West. The first translation of a Chinese drama to be published in Europe was a French version of Ji Junxiang's The Orphan of Zhao.

Though The Orphan of Zhao was written in the 13th century, like most zaju plays, it takes place in the distant past, telling the story of how the Zhao clan was almost wiped out, but one child was saved and hidden away from the family's enemies. After many sacrifices are made to preserve the child, the orphan returns to avenge the Zhao clan and restore their authority.

In 1741, William Hatchett published the first English adaptation of The Orphan of Zhao, but it was seen as an attack on the British Prime Minister, Robert Walpole, so it was never performed. The most famous version of the story was the one the French dramatist Voltaire penned in 1753. Known as L'Orphelin de la Chine, this version reset the play during the Mongol period. The adaptation quickly spread across Europe.

Voltaire's play adheres to unities of time, place, and action, something zaju drama rarely if ever did. In his version, the orphan is already grown, and everything takes place in the same imperial palace. All of this was done to comply with the rules of neoclassicism. The rules were supposed to make drama more realistic, though to us neoclassical plays often feel ridiculously improbable. In any case, it was Voltaire's version of the story that inspired the British dramatist Arthur Murphy to write his own adaptation in 1756.

"Enough of Greece and Rome," Britain's poet laureate William Whitehead wrote in the play's prologue, remarking:

     On eagle wings the poet of to-night
     Soars for fresh virtues to the source of light;
     To China's eastern realms: and boldly bears
     Confucius' morals to Britannia's ears.

Thus, the play's Chinese-ness was one of its main selling points. That's probably apparent, too, in the costume Mary Ann Yates is wearing as Mandane in Kettle's portrait. Is the costume authentically Chinese? Of course not. However, it attempts to evoke an idealized East that is "the source of light" and that upholds morals the decadent West had forgotten. That moralizing can sometimes make the play's dialogue feel stilted, as when Mandane's husband Zamti praises "sacred laws by hoary elders taught."

Zamti has raised the heir to the throne as his own son, while sending his biological son Hamet to Korea. This serves to distract Timurkan, the Emperor of the Tartars, from the real heir. David Garrick played Zamti in the original production of Murphy's play. Echoing the values of the Age of Reason, he declares in Act II: "Priestcraft and sacerdotal perfidy / To me are yet unknown: religion's garb / Here never serves to consecrate a crime..."

In the play's third act, Zamti reveals to his adopted son Etan that the boy is actually Zaphimri, heir to the throne of China. Being naturally good, however, the boy refuses to allow Zamti's biological son Hamet to die in his place. This is a big change from the original zaju drama, where tons of people are sacrificed in order to protect the young orphan. Though Murphy's play is staunchly monarchal, it looks for a justification beyond the mere Divine Right of Kings. As Zamti puts it:

                                   Tho' rufian pow'r
     May for a while suppress all sacred order,
     And trample on the rights of man, the soul
     Which gave our legislation life and vigour
     Shall still subsist, above the tyrant's reach.

All deaths are kept for the play's final fifth act, where they decorously take place offstage, out of the direct view of the audience. This might not be as exciting for us as the original, but it allowed London audiences in the 18th century to feel more comfortable with the play, since it conformed to conventions of the time. 

Perhaps it was necessary for audiences of the period to have some elements of the play rendered familiar so they could better enjoy the elements of the Chinese-inspired play that were unfamiliar and exotic to them.