Dubbed the ‘King of Chèo,’ Professor Tran Bang is still working for chèo at the age of 87
Prof Tran Bang, a former head of the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism’s Department of Theatrical Arts, remembers crying after his chèo play “Quan Am Thi Kinh” received amazing acclaim from the audience at the 1985 International Music Performance Festival in Berlin, East Germany.
“The audience had to stand as all the seats were sold out. The applause lasted so long that we had to come out on stage 10 times.
“When I was in my early twenties, my dream was to get chèo recognized internationally.
“It was the first time I cried as my dream came true,” said Bang, a former head of the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism’s Department of Theatrical Arts.
Chèo is a form of generally satirical musical theater dating back to the 12th century and often encompassing dance, traditionally performed by Vietnamese peasants in northern Vietnam.
Bang, who was born in 1926 in Hai Phong, is credited with reviving the art form after the August Revolution in 1945 by which time it had almost become extinct.
Dubbed the “King of Chèo,” he created three versions of “Quan Am Thi Kinh” (Benevolent Bodhisattva Thi Kinh) since 1957, with the third in 1985 being the most successful.
He was, in fact, the first to stage the 1,000-year-old Vietnamese folk tale as a complete play instead of just extracts.
He also wrote several other famous plays like “Chi Tram” (Elder Sister Tram) and “The Buffalo.”
Many of the more than 20 he wrote actually became milestones in the development of chèo, both helping continue the revival of the original form and creating a modern form by taking it indoors and making it professional.
Bang was born in a family of writers. His father was the author Tran Tieu and his uncle was the renowned novelist Khai Hung.
When he was in his twenties, the First Indochina War (1946–1954) against the French colonialists was going on, and singing, dancing, and theater were the favored art forms, not literature.
Bang became a scriptwriter and stage director and founded a troupe called Sao Mai (Morning Star) in 1946.
Soon the war started, and he served as deputy leader of the National Drama Troupe in Viet Bac north of Hanoi which served as the Viet Minh's base during the war.
But little did he dream that he would devote his entire life to chèo and take it to international prominence.
He says: “Our chèo is unique. It is different from tuồng (classical drama) which is influenced by Chinese opera.”
In Viet Bac, every morning all kinds of artists would gather and listen to chèo melodies sung by talented performers like Nam Ngu, Ca Tam, and Diu Huong.
Huong inspired Bang to pursue chèo. “Thanks to her fantastic performances, I discovered my passion for chèo.”
Bang and poet The Lu were the group’s leaders, and were tasked with staging a big play in 1953 for an audience that would include President Ho Chi Minh and other leaders.
Bang suggested two performances, one of them a chèo play. He wrote “Chi Tram,” which was chosen by Ho Chi Minh. The president stood up during the show and complimented Bang’s work.
“The next day I was invited for lunch with Uncle Ho, and he encouraged me to develop this traditional art,” Bang recalls.
Life’s work begins
The troupe was split into three and Bang was made head of one of them. During his early days at the helm he was focused on restoring and preserving chèo.
“At that time there were fewer than 20 masters in the north down to Nghe An.
“If we had not done what we did, the art would have died.”
He gathered all manner of artists, especially senior ones, to recreate both traditional and modern plays, and held seminars on chèo.
“Theater is from the west, whereas chèo is a folk art and is transmitted orally; it has no theory.”
The results of his endeavor started to show quickly – chèo began to develop strongly and by the 60s Voice of Vietnam radio was broadcasting chèo lessons one hour every day.
It heralded a bright new dawn for the art form, which has flourished since then.
The Vietnam Cheo Theater was set up in 1964 in Hanoi, and Bang became its first director.
He is optimistic about the future of the art, and says: “As long as you understand the status of chèo in Vietnamese culture as a unique form of theater in both appearance and content, you will see it will not fade away easily.
“I believe it will not only survive, but also reach a much higher standard.
“We have succeeded in developing a curriculum; there is no other form of Vietnamese theater that has such a rich curriculum.
Thanks to his seminal work, Bang was offered higher and higher positions, but he declined most of the time, preferring instead to work at the Vietnam Cheo Theater.
“I had to pay my ‘debt.’ It would have been unforgivetable if I could no longer work for chèo.”
Ha Quoc Minh, director of the Vietnam Cheo Theater, says: “Tran Bang has been close to us for the last 60 years, being one of the very first people to develop chèo.
“He has now retired but his visits to the theater are a great honor to the artists and students.”
Chèo derives from folk traditions and used to be performed outdoors by semi-amateur touring groups in courtyards of public buildings in villages, though it is today increasingly also performed indoors and by professionals.
Unlike courtly theater traditions, the art employs no scenery and few costumes or makeup.
It involves a combination of traditional set pieces and improvisational routines appropriate to amateur theater to satirize the existing social order.
The traditional musical ensemble consisted of fiddles, flutes, and drums, but in modern recreations more instruments are used.
By Minh Ngoc, (The story can be found in the February 22th issue of our print edition, Vietweek)