Cheo Theater


Enjoy Cheo, the Theatre of the Red River Delta!

Tuong and cheo are Vietnamese traditional theatrical art forms. Vietnamese tuong originated in China and was influenced by Chinese opera. Cheo, however, is authentically Vietnamese. If Chinese traditional theatre is exemplified by Beijing opera and Japanese theatre by noh dramas, then traditional Vietnamese theatre is best represented by cheo  

A theatrical event
One autumn morning, Tat Thang, a friend and a former editor-in-chief of San Khau (Theatre) magazine, visited me. He had just returned from the first National Traditional Cheo Festival in Ha Long City, Quang Ninh Province from October 15 to 23, 2001. Over 700 artists from fourteen cheo companies attended, performing between them fifteen plays.

For the uninitiated, tuong and cheo are Vietnamese traditional theatrical art forms. Vietnamese tuong originated in China and was influenced by Chinese opera. Cheo, however, is authentically Vietnamese. If Chinese traditional theatre is exemplified by Beijing opera and Japanese theatre by noh dramas, then traditional Vietnamese theatre is best represented by cheo.

“It made me very happy to see so many classical cheo roles performed by companies from all over the country!” Tat Thang said.

More than one artist played the same role because the players performed the same cheo stories more than once. Five artists played Xuy Van, a character who feigns madness to abandon her poor husband to seek wealth and fame. Three other artists played Thi Phuong, a woman who allows a devil to pluck out her eyes and make a medicine from them to save her mother-in-law’s life. Two artists played Chau Long, a young woman who helps her husband’s poor friend to study for the royal exams to become a mandarin.

According to Tat Thang, audiences packed every session. Actors and actresses came without fail to see their colleagues perform. Theatre critics in Viet Nam have been known to walk out of bad performances and write critical reviews, but the festival’s performances were so good the critics arrived early to ensure they got the best seats. So few seats were available that the enthusiastic audience had no choice but to sit around the jury’s table. Those who had invitations but arrived too late to enter shouted, banging on the closed theatre door and growing even angrier when they heard the audience inside erupt into applause. Tat Thang expressed surprise at the festival’s success. “I have never attended such a stormy festival,” he said jokingly. “Everybody was happy that cheo wasn’t dead.”

Though Ha Long City is not known as the home of cheo, the local audience was extremely enthusiastic. Imagine then how enthusiastic the inhabitants of Nam Dinh, one of the traditional cheo provinces, would be.

Falling out of favour
Cheo hasn’t always been as popular as it was at the First National Traditional Cheo Festival. Even though the quality of life in Viet Nam has improved since Renovation began in 1986, traditional art in general and cheo in particular have met indifference and have failed to compete with more popular entertainments such as Western music and TV. CheÌo performances in the cities have often played to empty houses. Reduced box office revenues forced managers to trim the plays to only excerpts. Even villages where cheo originated were unable to attract audiences. Young people, especially those in the cities, turned their backs on the art form.

The situation was so critical that the Ha Long City festival organisers weren’t expecting to attract much interest. They were in for a big surprise.

So why was the festival so successful? One reason seems to be because the festival returned to the origins of cheo. Artists performed only traditional, authentic cheo. The programme included no modernised plays. The festival also provided an opportunity for those involved to review and assess Viet Nam’s classical cheo plays through edited and adapted versions and then decide which elements to preserve and which to let go. The intent was to perform traditional cheo yet ensure that the performance related as appropriately as possible to contemporary Vietnamese life.

The origins of cheo 
 Since the first millennium BC, the Red River Delta has been the cradle of the Viet people’s wet rice-growing civilisation within a culture reliant on villages. When farmers finished harvesting, they organised festivals to entertain themselves and thank the gods who had supported them. They presented the first cheo dramas in the courtyards of communal houses dedicated to the thanh hoang (village’s patron saint). The bronze drum was part of ancient Vietnamese culture. Since time immemorial, farmers have beaten drums to ask the gods for rain. It is not surprising, therefore, that the central musical instrument of cheo is the drum.

Cheo originated from folk music and dance, especially tro nhai-simple mimetic skits which originated in the 10th century. These skits showed the lives of ordinary people as well as members of the royal family. Over time, writers consolidated cheo’s short stories based on these skits into single, long plays.

Most significant in this development was the Vietnamese capture of a soldier from the Mongolian army in the 14th century. The soldier was an actor, who introduced Chinese opera to Viet Nam. Previously cheo involved speaking and sometimes the rhythmic reciting of folk poems but no singing. As a result of the captured soldier’s influence, cheo turned into kich hat or singing drama.

In the 15th century, King Le Thanh Tong, who was deeply influenced by Confucianism, restricted the performance of cheo in his court. Without royal patronage, cheo returned to its original supporters, the farmers. It drew on nom stories, which were Vietnamese verse narratives written in modified Chinese characters. By the 18th century, this form of cheo had become widely influential. Cheo continued to develop and reached its peak by the end of the 19th century.

The dramatic characteristics of cheo  
Cheo and water puppetry are unique products of the Red River Delta civilisation, but cheo is the more refined art form. Cheo plays are funny and lyrical and end happily.  

Unlike tuong, which extols the epic deeds of members of the aristocracy, cheo describes the life of ordinary country people. It gives voice to farmers’ aspirations for a peaceful life in the midst of an unjust, feudal society. Many of the plays also show the harsh lives of women ready to sacrifice themselves for others.

Cheo embodies a desire for happiness and for a harmonious social world. Good inevitably wins in the struggle between good and evil, with a happy ending. Kind-hearted and gentle students always pass their exams and become mandarins, and the faithful wife is always united with her husband. Cheos moral messages reflect the benevolence of Buddhism and the virtues of Confucianism, including the latter’s emphasis on harmonious social relationships. Step-mothers must love their husbands’ children. Mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law must live in harmony. Friends should treat one another as if they were members of the same family.

An examination of a number of classical cheo plays provides an understanding of cheo’s themes. Quan Am Thi Kinh (Thi Kinh, the Goddess of Mercy), for example, is a story about a good woman, Thi Kinh, the victim of a glaring injustice who then becomes a Bodhisattva (potential Buddha). Luu Binh – Duong Le is about the friendship between two students and about fidelity between husband and wife, through which the characters overcome all difficulties. In Chu Mai Than, the wife, Thiet The, so craves a rich life that she leaves her husband to become the concubine of a mandarin. Instead of finding happiness she is bullied by the jealous wife of the mandarin and dies in ignominy. Xuy Van in the play Kim Nham has a husband who is a long way from home. A merchant seduces her; she feigns madness to leave her husband and finally kills herself after being abandoned.

Audiences tend not to judge Thi Mau and Xuy Van because the characters’ own behaviour condemns them. Instead, audiences sympathise with the characters, who express women’s aspirations for love in a society constrained by Confucian morality.

Stereotypical characters
The characters in cheo are conventional and standardised. Unlike the characters in spoken drama, their personalities and psychology don’t change during the play. They are drunken men, deaf teachers, wealthy men, prime ministers, students, flirtatious women and buffoons. Cheo’s “spare parts” are characters so interchangeable among the plays that most of these parts have no names. However, over time some of these characters-such as Thi Kinh, Thi Mau and Thiet The - escaped from convention and anonymity to become strong personalities.

Buffoons play an important role in cheo plays because satire is a characteristic of the genre, as it is on the traditional stages of other Southeast Asian countries. Buffoons amuse audiences, especially in sad stories. According to Shakespearean tradition, life is a mixture of happiness and sadness. In cheo, buffoons and funny scenes are an opportunity for ordinary people to lash out at the vices of a feudal society, its kings, mandarins, village officials and the rich. Cheo’s buffoons were free to ridicule just as the fools did in the royal palaces of European kings. In Chu M·i ThÇn, for example, there’s a hilarious scene in which the first wife of local official TuÇn Ty gets into a jealous quarrel with the second wife and slanders him.

There are two types of satiric characters in cheo: the main one is the buffoon, including he moi (buffoon dancing without a stick) and he gay (buffoon dancing with a stick), who is often a servant. The other type may appear in various roles, such as fortune-teller, medium, drunkard or village chief. Sometimes these characters provoke laughter that is not directly related to the play, for the buffoon (or the fortune-teller or drunkard, etc.) may comment on characters and incidents in society at large.

Satire in cheo is always linked to romance, another significant feature of cheo. Cheo is romantic because it expresses people’s individual emotions and feelings and reflects the common concerns of all people: their concern for love (as expressed by the characters Thi Mau and Chau Long), for friendship (represented by Luu Binh and Duong Le) and for compassion (as found in Quan Am Thi Kinh. Characters in cheo, especially women, struggle with fate, making cheo similar in some ways to Greek tragedy, except for the former’s humour and happy ending.

Narrative technique in cheo 
Cheo gives voice to the farmers of the Red River Delta and is their narrative stage. Its stories differ from those of the classical European theatrical tradition, which evolved from Aristotle. Unlike European narratives, which choose a dramatic event in the life of a character and follow it to its inevitable conclusion, stories involving cheo characters unfold through numerous scenes and activities throughout the hero’s or heroine’s life. As a result, one doesn’t find Aristotle’s dramatic unity of time, place and action in cheo drama.

Cheo’s narrative method is not realistic but instead is based on conventions and stylisation, which are similar to tuong and Brecht staging. Cheo is also rich in folk stories and narration. These characteristics determine cheo’s language. Since tro nhai, people have created cheo skits which incorporated songs, dances, gestures and speech. From these came scenes in the lives of the characters. When combined, these scenes formed the body of the play. Cheo does not have the fixed structure of five-act plays, as is the case in the Aristotelian theatrical tradition. Rather, cheo artists frequently improvised during their performance: the play was often extended or cut depending on the inspiration of the artists or the requirements of the audience.

Improvisation is important because cheo is an art form that combines speech, singing, dancing and music to tell a story. Speech may be combined with poems and folk songs. Poems often have two parts and four sentences, with characters displaying their own way of reciting lines. When singing, artists must pronounce their lines clearly (cheo differs from tuong in this respect) to express the character’s feelings. Unlike European opera in which a singer must memorise arias and perform them according to the directions of the conductor, cheo artists are free to modify their songs to convey their characters’ emotions. The number of cheo airs hasn’t yet been determined, but according to estimates, there may be more than 200.

The minimum accompaniments for cheo singing are two string instruments, the nguyet and nhi, and the flute. Musicians use percussion, especially drums and cymbals, to add excitement and beat small drums to maintain the rhythm for dancing and singing.

Village participation
Whole villages take part in cheo. Traditionally, the stage is a sedge mat spread in the courtyard of the communal house. A backdrop may provide the scenery. The musicians sit on two sides of the performing mat, and the audience surrounds the stage. Cheo musicians act as a kind of Greek chorus, commenting on and participating in the action. The dialogue between artists and musicians sometimes even includes the audience to create an exciting atmosphere similar to a modern “happening.”

In the past, cheo artists were farmers without much money for staging, musical instruments, costumes or props. Their plays weren’t lavish affairs, yet through convention and stylisation in speech and singing, they created space (mountains, rivers, oceans, etc.), time (day, night, dozens of years, etc.), weather (rain, sun, etc.) and backgrounds (fire, fight, etc.) in the imaginations of the audience sitting around the small mat-stage.

Quan Am Thi Kinh (the Goddess of Mercy) provides an example. To describe the heroine on her way to seek Buddhist conversion, the artists sing “Duong truong” (Long Journey) followed by drums and bells to replicate the sounds of a pagoda. A song about Buddha follows. Other examples of these techniques include singing a song about rowing a boat to convey the idea of crossing a river and then a different song about the landscape to convey the idea of arrival at the other bank.

A cheo performance follows a regular scenario, beginning as follows:
-    A drum rolls 
-    The artists respond by calling “Da!” (Yes!)
-    The music begins 
-    Two buffoons dance with torches to keep the audience back from the mat
-    Two performers, a man and a woman, sing the first two sentences and the other performers harmonise with them
-    The performers move to the prelude, where an actress sings, praising the king, who had brought prosperity and a peaceful life to the people. She summarises and comments on the play about to follow
-    The main performance begins.
In addition to special techniques for breathing, speaking, singing, walking, etc., artists pay attention to twisting their hands, wrists and arms. All these constitute the basic cheo movements.

The future of cheo 

The French dominated Viet Nam from 1884 to 1945, causing the country to become increasingly Westernised. Urbanisation and industrialisation also had an impact. Traditional cheo gradually fell out of favour with city dwellers, especially after the First World War. In order to survive, artists tried to reshape cheo. The cheo of Nguyen Huu Tien, for example, tended toward realism and imitated Western drama. Nguyen Dinh Nghi adapted his work on the basis of traditional cheo; nevertheless, in general cheo was fading.

After the August Revolution of 1945, the Government supported the recovery of Vietnamese traditions, including cheo. In 1957, a group of cheo researchers collected over 100 skits from artists in four traditional cheo centres of northern Viet Nam-east (Thai Binh Province), west (Ha Tay Province), north (Bac Ninh Province) and south (Ha Nam Province). Their research and editing of traditional cheo plays achieved encouraging results. However, the modernisation of cheo did not succeed in bringing the audiences back to the theatres.

After Renovation in 1986, competition from modern entertainments such as TV, radio, movies and jazz created even more difficulties. Artists performed only extracts. “The future is very difficult to predict,” Duong Ngoc Duc, former General Secretary of the Association of Theatrical Artists comments on the reconstruction of the theatre. “No one can ensure we will have regular audiences once the theatre is rebuilt.”

The success of the First National Traditional Cheo Festival in Ha Long challenges Mr. Duc’s fears, showing that cheo is still vital enough to attract audiences. Given the enthusiastic response in Ha Long, we can rest assured that Viet Nam’s audiences still enjoy traditional cheo. The deceased playwright Tao Mat succeeded in modernising cheo plays by reinterpreting the features of traditional cheo. Modern Vietnamese will discover two important elements in cheo: the depth of the Vietnamese soul and the social conduct of the traditional Vietnamese community.

Huu Ngoc

Audio Samples Thi Mau Len Chua

Audio Samples Xam Thap Am