China and Inner Asia
Yale University, United States
Despite increased scholarly attention to the late imperial theatre in recent decades, very few researches focus on the theatrical aside. The aside is a dramatic device that allows the speaker to talk directly to the audience, who should by convention realize that the speech is unheard by other characters on stage. What vocabulary did late imperial dramatists use to refer to an aside? When did it gain its prominence in the late imperial theatre? What are its functions in late imperial plays?
The large corpus of aside demands a distant reading before a close reading—a statistical analysis of its distribution over the entire corpus before a literary interpretation of specific texts. By drawing on databases of late imperial Chinese drama, the first part of this paper examines various forms of asides, as well as when and in whose texts they feature more prominently. The second part concentrates on the functions of the aside in the works of Li Yu (1611-1680), the late imperial dramatist who used this device the most frequently. In sum, this paper argues that the aside is not a straightforward machinery to guide performers, but a complicated apparatus that cultivates a sophisticated, self-conscious spectatorship that constantly negotiates their distance from the stage.