16 July 2019
China’s cancellation of an Ibsen play suggests that authorities are getting ever more intolerant of any creative or artistic endeavor that touches upon themes considered politically sensitive. Photo: CNSA
China’s cancellation of an Ibsen play suggests that authorities are getting ever more intolerant of any creative or artistic endeavor that touches upon themes considered politically sensitive. Photo: CNSA

What an Ibsen play cancellation tells us about today’s China

Recently, the staging of the all-time classic play “En folkefiende” (“An Enemy of the People”), written by famous Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen back in 1882, created a firestorm of controversy in China, and touched a raw nerve among mainland officialdom.

As a result, while the play was ordered to be heavily censored and highly sanitized before it could continue to be staged at the National Center for the Performing Arts in Beijing as scheduled, it was simply pulled from theater altogether by the Suzhou theater authorities in Nanjing for subsequent performances on the tour.

The excuse that was given was a malfunction of stage facilities.

And shortly after the cancellation of the scheduled performances had been announced, all the comments and reviews of the play on online forums were removed.

The Schaubühne Berlin company, which produced the play and organized the tour, was completely shocked by the cancellation.

Even the foreign ministry of Germany, through its embassy in Beijing, expressed regret to China’s ministry of culture at authorities’ decision to pull the play from theater.

As Tobias Veit, executive director of the Schaubühne company, said resignedly during a media interview with The New York Times, “I would understand the reaction if we came to China to provoke, but that is not the case.”

“We came here to have a dialogue. That is what theater is about.”

In fact it wasn’t the first time the Schaubühne theater was on tour in China. And the play “An Enemy of the People” has already been staged worldwide — in places such as Melbourne, São Paulo, London, Seoul and even Singapore — since 2012.

Over the years the show has never run into any trouble with local authorities around the world, until now.

“An Enemy of the People” tells the story of the protagonist Dr. Thomas Stockmann, a physician in a small town in Norway, who puts up a one man’s war against the local government and vested corporate interests over the contamination of the town’s spa baths by industrial wastewater.

In order to silence him and cover up the truth, the authorities go to great lengths to turn local public opinion against him. In the end, Stockmann was declared “an enemy of the people” by his fellow townsfolk through voting.

At the premiere of “An Enemy of the People” in Beijing on Sept. 6, members of the electrified audience eagerly shouted criticisms of the communist party and voiced their dismay at the current state of affairs in the mainland towards the end of the play, when there was an interaction segment between actors or actresses and viewers.

Apparently, the eager response of the audience and their “subversive” outcry against the party had deeply alarmed the management of the theater, which immediately called an urgent meeting and demanded that the Schaubühne company remove the interaction segment in which viewers are given a chance to voice their grievances.

Both sides finally made concessions, under which the troupe agreed to reduce the length of the stage interaction segment towards the end of the play. And in return, it was allowed to keep the open ending of the play in the two remaining performances.

Unfortunately, the two scheduled performances in Nanjing were later cancelled.

So why would a foreign classic play written 136 years ago become such a huge sensation among mainland viewers and set Chinese officials on edge so much so it was eventually banned from theater?

To answer this question, we must first look at the current political atmosphere in the mainland.

In my opinion, China has already entered a stage in which intense social conflicts, as well as widespread public grievances against the regime are about to reach a tipping point.

However, rather than allaying and addressing the grievances of its people, the communist party has instead mounted a massive, nationwide and relentless crackdown on dissenting voices both in the real world and in the cyberworld and in public and in private, in the name of maintaining domestic stability.

As a result, while members of the mainland public have been deprived of almost all normal channels to air their grievances, the entire country appears to be peaceful and harmonious on the surface.

But the truth is, a strong and dangerous undercurrent of mounting resentment, discontent and frustration among society is quietly and quickly gaining momentum.

All it takes to instantly open the floodgates to the eruption of deep-seated mass grievances and discontent across the mainland is the presence of a “vent”.

And that probably explains why Beijing viewers were so excited and vocal at the premiere of “An Enemy of the People”, because the show offered them a rare opportunity to speak out against the communist regime.

Meanwhile, the mainland authorities were on full alert, for fear that any single isolated incident of protest or resistance, if left uncontained, could turn out to be a spark that ignites a nationwide fire of political upheavals. Hence, the cancellation of the play!

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Sep 22

Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

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