Second play of the famous trilogy formed by Thunderstorm, Sunrise and The Wilderness, considered one of the classic trilogies on modern Chinese theatre. In this occasion, Cao Yu tells us the story of Chen Bailu, an educated country girl who has fallen into a downward spiral of corruption and depravation in the city.
She lives in a luxury hotel in the city kept mainly by a wealthy banker and several other men attracted to her beauty. Working as a prostitute but feeling proud of it, with the conviction that she is earning her money honestly, more than those surrounding her because, as she states, she is not stealing from anyone but making money by sacrificing her own body. Similar (even though with different reasons) to the sacrifice done by Bess in Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves. The latter did it for love, the former for social status and recognition.
Chen Bailu’s live is just a constant decadent party filled with visits at her room from so many different characters from the Chinese Bourgeoisie: bankers, wealthy widows, professors… a series of decayed individuals, egotistical and obsessed with money. The perfect portrait of a particular age, of a society falling down, that shows us the grand move forward Cao Yu did from his previous play, Thunderstorm. While in his first play, he focused the drama on the individual with actions close to those staged by Tennessee Williams, in this second play of the trilogy he focuses in society as a whole. The characters become archetypes, the actions reflections of social behaviours doomed to end in tragedy. But humanity is stubborn, entropy is far more present than we want to accept and, despite being falling into a deep well, humanity keeps carrying on, stuck on its lack of scruples and moral values, and unable to change by itself. We need an outsider’s push to change, and we don’t always accept it. In this case, the instigator of change is Fang Dasheng, Chen Bailu’s former friend/lover from the country who aims to marry her and take her back to the country. Thus, the conflict country/city, moral/society becomes the main point of the play. Chen Bailu is surprised by her past and reconsiders her whole life and begins to judge those surrounding her, those that spend every night drinking and playing Mahjong in her bedroom. The clear example of this change of mind is shown through the apparition of The Shrimp, the little girl who is forced to prostitute herself and whom Chen Bailu hides temporarily in her room. When she tries to save the girl, she is in fact trying to save herself. She wants to feel empathy once again, she wants to worry about other human beings, she wants to be a person again. Far from that world ruled by money, treachery and enmities.
In the second act, the action moves from the corrupted luxury of Chen Bailu’s hotel room to the real and moral putrefaction of a low brothel. Here, we meet the squalor and dirtiness that the layers of make-up and expensive furniture prevented us to see on the first act. Here, we see the reality of the tragedy. Here, they force The Shrimp to prostitute herself and we are not surprised that some of the locals of that place are the sames that we had met in Chen Bailu’s bedroom. And this striking contrast between the two acts it is necessary in order to make us realise about the meaningless of it all. Just as one of the side characters says, nothing makes sense, no one is born as broken and sunken as society makes us. There is a problem and we are the only responsible for it.
And, at the end, the long awaited sun arises after Chen Bailu’s sacrifice (once again, running in parallel with Bess’ sacrifice in Breaking the Waves), the beginning of a new life, of a new way to understand the world much more human and brotherly. All in all, enhanced by the symbolic song sang by the workers under Chen Bailu’s window, the move from the individualist life into the collective one. “The sun rises and the darkness is left behind.”
Cao Yu, Sunrise (Echo of Classics)